Sitting down to write a book is one of the most concentration-demanding things a person can do. It makes perfect sense, then, that authors would be experts in advice on how to avoid distractions when you’re trying to get something done.
Here, book writers share their best tips and tricks for staying focused — whether you’re trying to write a book or you just need to (finally!) get some work done.
1. Find an accountability partner.
Lynne Constantine, one half of the writing duo known as Liv Contstantine (you might recognize them from books like The Last Mrs. Parrish, The Wife Stalker, and the forthcoming “The Stranger in The Mirror”), credits having a writing partner with her ability to focus. “In order to meet our deadlines, my writing partner Valerie and I are meticulous in our planning when we begin a new book project. To stay on track, the first thing we do is work out a schedule with key dates such as: first draft finished, first round editing, second draft finished, second round editing, then final edits. Once we’ve established this, we work out what the daily word count needs to be and what time each day we’re going to FaceTime to discuss what we’ve each written. Prior to the FaceTime call, we email each other the day’s work and then we discuss it and determine what we will work on the next day. This goes on until the book is finished.”
Of course, if you’re working on something other than a book, the process looks different but having a partner to check in with may be the extra push you need to finish tasks you’ve been meaning to get done.
2. Get specific about what you want to accomplish.
Turns out, setting your intention to “work” or “finish that project” isn’t as effective as you might think. “A long time ago, when I made my daily to-do lists, I would simply jot down ‘write’ as one of these tasks,” explains Willa Richards, author of the recently released book The Comfort of Monsters. “I got away with it when I was younger. But when my first serious bout of writer’s block hit, I stopped doing this. Instead, I’d try to think of extremely specific, actionable tasks I could accomplish that fell under this overwhelming umbrella.” Sometimes the tasks had to do with coming up with ideas, research, editing, or storyboarding; either way, Richards got as specific as possible. Turns out, smaller, bite-sized tasks can be a lot more effective.
3. Know yourself.
"I am what happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin calls an ‘Obliger,’” says Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge and author of How to Not Die Alone. “I uphold expectations to others, but struggle to uphold expectations to myself.” With this in mind, Ury was able to write her book by setting up systems to help herself keep to a strict writing schedule. “For example, every three weeks I asked a different friend to host an accountability dinner for me. They’d invite eight friends to a dinner where we'd discuss two chapters of my book. I committed to sending the chapters at least 48 hours before the dinner. Because I don’t like to let others down — especially ones who volunteered to help with my book — this system forced me to write consistently throughout the year, and I never missed a deadline."
4. Get a taste for success, then build from there.
Another strategy to help yourself get started when focus isn’t coming easily is to reduce your workload down to the smallest imaginable task. Applied to writing, you could tell yourself you only have to write one sentence, suggests Alina Adams, author of The Nesting Dolls. “The sentence can be the beginning of a scene like: Joe came into the room and sat down. Or it can be the point of the scene like: Amber realizes she hates Joe. Then write only one more line, explaining the first one like: Joe came into the room and sat down. It was his first chance to sit down all day. Or: Amber realizes she hates Joe. This will make getting married tomorrow a problem. Then write one more line explaining the previous line. Before you know it, you've got a scene.”
5. Run, bike, swim, or fit in your favorite form of movement.
“A habitual running practice, in particular, really helps with my concentration,” Richards says. “I started running in college, and it improved my life. I experienced fewer and less intense mood swings, I slept better, and I was more focused when I sat down to write. The act of moving itself often opened up blocked creative channels, too. I found myself able to work through sticky plot problems or hash out character details while running. And when I sat down to do the work, I felt more grounded and experienced less mind-racing anxiety.”
So, if you find yourself stuck, consider going for a run or walk or even doing a quick yoga flow. Chances are, you’ll feel more settled when you come back to your desk.
6. Be un-precious.
It can be tempting to be “precious” about what we need to get work done, points out Rebecca Pacheco, author of Do Your Om Thing, “Writers can detail the requisite brand of tea, pens, and notebooks we require. We need this chair and a sunbeam streaming through that window,” Pacheco says. “The problem is that life is not like that for most of us. I became a mother between my first and second books, so everything changed and I had to recalibrate. What inspired me most and kept me focused was hearing from other writers, who instead of detailing elaborate or enviable writing spaces and schedules, simply said: I write however I can. I went to a book event with Celeste Ng and Meg Wolitzer, two literary heroes, and I was so relieved to hear them say explicitly that they try not to be precious about things. It helped me accept how messy a writing life can look. You just have to keep going.”
7. Keep inspiration handy.
Collect articles, TED talks, or ideas related to your subject or work, suggests Allen Klein, author of You Can’t Ruin My Day and The Awe Factor. When you need a prompt to help you fill a blank page (or do whatever it is you need to get done), go back to some of those things for inspiration.
8. Find a focus motto.
“In order to establish concentration, I’ve relied upon some great quotes from writers and artists,” says Scott Haas, author of Why Be Happy? “Here is a favorite: When the world famous cellist Pablo Casals was 95, he was asked, ‘Why do you still practice six hours a day?’ Casals said, ‘Because I think I’m making progress.’”
9. Create an in-the-zone playlist.
Or find a pre-made one. “As soon as I start listening to music, I can focus,” says Pamela Ayuso, author of Heptagram. “Because I always listen to music as I write, it has become a trigger that helps me begin. I usually listen to the same record repeatedly or to the Peaceful Piano playlist on Spotify. Not only is it much easier for me to start to write, but the process is much more enjoyable.”