It is almost universally acknowledged that anyone who can procrastinate on a project, will find a way to procrastinate. Most of us are familiar with the experience – you start watching Netflix, scroll through Twitter, or make an unnecessarily time-consuming sandwich – all while your deadline grows closer and closer. You know what needs to be done, but you just can’t seem to bring yourself to do it.
This can be especially true for any writer working to their own self-imposed deadlines. But as all prolific writers will know, the secret to working up the motivation and concentration isn’t some enigmatic, inaccessible well of inner strength. Instead, success lies in consistency and consistency requires knowing what comprises a productive routine. Having a routine makes going through the motions easier — even when writing seems impossible. To that end, here are seven tips for how to stay focused while writing — from the moment you sit down at your laptop, to the glorious reward of crossing the finish line at last.
1. Start with a head-clearing ritual
One of the easiest, most effective things you can do for your focus, at least in my experience, is to establish some regular activity before writing that makes you feel settled-yet-sharp. For me (and I imagine many other writers out there), this means having my daily cup of coffee.
This time before I’m about to start writing becomes sacred: I’ll take my coffee and drink it slowly and deliberately, without doing anything else at the same time. That means no social media, people-watching, or even mentally outlining the forthcoming piece. These few minutes facilitate a much smoother transition into the task ahead than tossing back an espresso shot and sitting down in a frenzy.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be coffee. Your head-clearing ritual might be stretching, meditating, splashing your face with cold water, or even just taking a few deep breaths. Whatever helps you get into the right headspace, figure it out and start doing it before every single writing session.
2. Define your own pomodoros
There’s been much praise for the Pomodoro Technique over the past few years, especially in the lifehacking and productivity communities. For those who don’t know, the Pomodoro Technique involves committing to a certain chore for a period of 25 minutes, followed by a five-minute break before diving back in for another 25 minutes. It’s named for the classic tomato-shaped timer used to perform this technique, and each period of work is referred to as one pomodoro (Italian for “tomato”).
While I love the Pomodoro Technique, and have seen pretty good results with the standard 25-minute pomodoros, I feel there’s even more to be gained by experimenting with the timing. For example, I tend to get very immersed in writing, and personally feel my most efficient and productive when I write for 45 minutes to an hour without stopping.
On the other hand, someone who’s just beginning to apply this rigorous approach to writing might struggle with the 25-minute pomodoros. That person would probably feel more efficient with 15-minute writing sessions at first — though ideally, they’d be working toward a goal of longer pomodoros.
My point is that you shouldn’t force yourself to use productivity measures that don’t actually help you focus. That said, you can use a general productivity framework to create measures that do work for you! It may take time to find the right balance, but it will be worth it.
3. Alternate between fun stuff and grunt work
Speaking of balance, it’s not just important in terms of working and breaks, but also in terms of the kind of writing you do each session. Most writers look forward to writing their most dramatic scenes, but for every exciting paragraph, there’s at least a few “filler” paragraphs. Not that these passages are unimportant — they ensure that your pacing works and your exciting bits stand out from the rest. However, from a writer’s perspective, they can be a real drag.
That’s why you need to plan each writing session such that you don’t get too sick of them. The best way to do this? Outline in advance, and write your scenes/sections slightly out of order. This way you can skip to more interesting material when your attention falters, and to less interesting material when you have several exciting bits in a row. Just don’t give yourself too many free passes on the drier scenes — you don’t want to end up leaving them all for the end.
I’m a chronological writer by nature, and it was extremely hard for me to break out of that pattern. But once I did, I found myself much more focused and productive, as I was no longer agonizing over scenes that I didn’t want to write; I would simply skip them and come back to them later. And the extra-great thing about this tactic is that writing a strong scene really primes you to write more — so when you do return to that “boring” scene, your prose alone should be able to pep it up.
4. Double down on productivity apps
Remember how I said that you can’t depend on inner strength alone when it comes to writing? Well, that’s where this tip comes in. When your willpower inevitably wavers, you need backups to keep you from getting sucked into the whirlpool of the Internet — and you should try to have more than one preventive measure in place.
One of my favorite writing apps is FocusWriter, simply because it’s so… well, simple. The app emulates the experience of writing longhand, and the interface looks just like a piece of paper on a desk. You can navigate formatting and other features by hovering over the top, but a full screen of FocusWriter is pretty much devoid of distractions. (Bonus fun fact: FocusWriter was actually created by the spouse of one of our Reedsy writers, originally for her use!)
However, just because your laptop screen looks like a wooden desk, doesn’t mean you’re going to forget about all the other wonderful features behind it. This is why you want to double down on apps with both designated writing software AND website-blocking software, like Freedom. These softwares combine perfectly to facilitate true, deep focus as you write, so that you may even find yourself surpassing those pomodoros you set earlier.
5. Save research for another time
So far I’ve mostly been giving you things to add to your writing routine, which should all aid you in your quest for focus. But here’s one thing you should definitely eliminate: research.
Obviously I’m not telling you not to research at all, just to conduct it before or after your actual writing session. It’s way too easy for one little Google search to turn into hours of Internet time — especially when you’ve been restricting yourself and craving it, like a true social-mediaholic. Yes, Freedom should already be blocking your “danger” sites, but you can still end up in a Wikipedia black hole during research.
This is another habit that I’ve found difficult to break, as I like to Google things whenever they crop up. However, I’ve gradually learned to take notes on what I should double-check later, and to mark up my text where I still need exact figures. Another godsend for me is the built-in Dictionary app for Mac, where I can find synonyms without having to search the web. If you don’t already have an app like this on your computer, I’d highly recommend downloading one.
6. Schedule something for the end of the day
For all the mind-sharpening tricks and productivity hacks out there, I still find that the most potent motivator is knowing that I need to finish writing by a certain time. And while you can set as many writing deadlines as you want, they only really work when they mean something — i.e. meeting the deadline results in a reward, or failing to meet it has clear-cut consequences.
Because positive reinforcement is so much more effective than negative reinforcement, I prefer the first route. So whenever I plan a long writing session, I also try to schedule something nice to do at the end of the day: a meal out with friends or a trip to the movies, for example. This gives me a tangible incentive to focus — mostly the promise of a pleasant reward, but also a little bit of social pressure, since other people will be counting on me. (Again, as with all things in writing, balance is key.)
The “schedule something” strategy works especially well if you already have regular plans that you don’t like to miss. So if you’re a social butterfly on the weekends, try to fit in some writing every Friday or Saturday; that way, when you go out, you’ll feel like you truly deserve it.
7. Leave off in the middle of an idea
Fittingly, this last tip advises how to wrap up your own writing session. While it’s not so much about focusing in the moment, it will absolutely help you refocus as quickly as possible when it’s time for your next session. I should also be honest and tell you that this tip isn’t really mine — it’s Ernest Hemingway’s. Here’s the exact quote:
“The best way [to end a session] is to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck … your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”
In other words, don’t stop when you feel you’ve just finished up a thought or a scene — stop when you’re still in the thick of it and you’re really enjoying the process! It might be difficult, but not nearly as difficult as starting again when you’ve wrapped up the previous section so neatly.
This technique — and all these techniques — are calibrated for maximum focus, based on my own personal writing experiences. For you, some of them may work better than others, and some may not work at all; every writer needs to determine their own best practices. But it also never hurts to try, especially if your lack of focus has been weighing you down. Trust me that once you find the right tactics, you’ll wonder how you ever wrote without them.
This week’s guest post was brought to you by Emmanuel Nataf, a co-founder of Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. Emmanuel dedicates most of his time to building Reedsy’s product and is interested in how technology can transform cultural industries. In his spare time, he tries to get a little writing done.