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Hi Julie,

I’m working on a novel right now and I’ve been trying to get serious about writing every day. But I find myself getting distracted and wasting what little free time I have available in the mornings when I sit down to write – I just end up scrolling through Facebook or checking my email. I also find it hard to motivate myself to sit down and write in the first place, even though once I get into it, writing is something I truly enjoy. Do you have any tips for staying focused and on-task?

— Janet N.

Hi Janet,

You’ve just described a struggle I know well – not exactly the best habit for a professional writer, I admit. There are a few strategies I use to keep on track when writing that I think might be helpful for you, too.

1. Look At The Big Picture

The first thing I want you to do is look at your novel as a whole. In fact, you can even go bigger than that – are you planning to write a trilogy? A series? Get an idea of your long-term goals before you do anything else.

While it may be intimidating, and it can even feel impossible to reach these lofty goals initially, there’s a reason I’m telling you to do this. Instead of thinking about how much work it will be to reach your goals, I want you to imagine how great it will feel when you finally achieve them – and what it will mean for your life!

I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling distracted or struggling with writer’s block, being reminded of my big goals and dreams can really help me get back on track. Sometimes we just need a reminder of why we committed to a project in the first place, and what about it inspired us to start writing.

2. Set Small, Daily Goals

Writing a novel is actually less work than it seems when you break it up into small, easy-to-achieve goals.  If you can set a goal to write just 500 words a day (about 2 double spaced pages), at the end of the year, you’ll have 182,500 words! For the sake of comparison, here’s a great infographic that shows the length of some well-known books, so you can see how your story stacks up.

When you set these kinds of small goals, it makes it easier to focus each day because you don’t have to be overwhelmed by the big picture. There’s also another benefit: writing consistently each day makes it easy to track your progress and see how far you’ve come.

There are a lot of different ways to track your wordcount goals and remind yourself of your progress. A quick search online will turn up dozens of apps and spreadsheet templates for just this purpose. Here are a few you might want to try.

3. Remove Distractions

Okay, I admit it. This is my major weakness. If I get a text message, see a pop up notification, or just catch a glimpse of something shiny out of the corner of my eye, I have to drop everything and investigate. It’s a problem, and it can make a simple task like writing this column take about twice as long as it should.

So how can you manage distractions and keep them from eating up your precious writing time? Well, for one thing, you need to make sure you’ve actually set aside a block in your schedule to work on your creative writing. Let your friends and family know you won’t be available during that time, and then stick to it. Don’t answer phone calls, IMs, texts, or emails during this time. To remove the temptation completely, turn off notifications, put your phone on silent, and log out of Facebook or AIM.

If that doesn’t help, consider actually disconnecting from the internet. You could just turn off your wifi or unplug your modem, but if you’re a hopeless addict like me, you might have to take more extreme measures. Freedom is an app that you can use to block distracting websites (or all online traffic) for a set period of time on your computer and all devices – and it’s a big enough pain to disable once a session has started that it really forces you to focus. (Note: I’m not being paid to endorse Freedom. I just find it REALLY helpful in my own work.)

4. Create Accountability

I’m a big advocate of harnessing the power of peer pressure for the greater good. Having someone hold you accountable for reaching your goals can be really helpful, especially if they’re excited to see what you’ve produced each week. This is one of the big reasons people find writing workshops so useful.

Set deadlines for yourself, and then give yourself a reason to actually meet them. Try committing to writing a chapter per week, then pass it on to a friend, family member, or beta reader while you work on the next section. Not only will this help you stay on track, you’ll also get valuable feedback to help you improve your writing and craft a better novel.

5. Reward Yourself!

Finally…don’t forget to do something nice for yourself. You’ve worked hard to stick to your goals. You deserve a bar of nice chocolate, an hour playing your favorite video game, dinner at your favorite restaurant, or awesome literary swag. Give yourself a small reward each day when you hit your wordcount goal. Set bigger and better rewards at the end of the week or month. Taking care of yourself is just as important as meeting your goals, and you should remind yourself of that each and every day.

 

As with any advice, not all of these suggestions may work for you, and that’s okay. Try them out, then pick and choose the approaches that are most helpful. Good luck with the novel – I can’t wait to read it when it’s finished!

–Julie