Dealing with Distractions

By Kristi Holl

During the early stages of a writing project, when you're gathering ideas and deciding on your approach, it's useful to daydream and be unfocused in your thinking. However, there comes a time to focus, to fully concentrate on the work, as if you were putting a beam of sunlight through a magnifying glass to concentrate its power until the paper it touches bursts into flame.

Why Focus?

When you focus, you'll accomplish writing projects in half the time, and your concentrated efforts will produce better work. Focusing also builds momentum and enthusiasm, urging us to move steadily toward finished stories, articles, and books.

Being able to focus is critical. As Stephen Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) says, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

Getting Sidetracked

What keeps us from focusing? Distractions. They have always been with us. Agatha Christie once said, "I enjoy writing in the desert. There are no distractions such as telephones, theaters, opera houses and gardens." While our modern-day distractions may have changed a bit (e-mails to answer, faxes coming in, the World Series on TV), the result of being sidetracked by them remains the same. We don't finish our writing. We don't study guidelines and mail that manuscript. We don't follow up on marketing tips. If we stall long enough, we may quit altogether.

So how do we deal with things that take us away from our writing? Try adapting the Serenity Prayer for this purpose: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the distractions I cannot change, courage to change the distractions I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

Wisdom to Know

What are some distractions you cannot change or ignore? Sometimes it's a sick child or spouse or a crisis with a friend. Sometimes your boss gives you an overtime assignment with a "now" deadline. There may be a project that needs to be attended to without delay, like your teenager's last-minute college entrance application. This type of interruption or distraction you have little control over. You grin and bear it.

However, we need wisdom to know the difference between the distractions that are unavoidable and those we allow. Chances are, you're your own worst enemy when it comes to distractions that keep you from writing. So take courage! Change what you can in order to focus on your writing.

1. Use an answering machine to screen calls. Better yet, turn the ringer off altogether so you're not tempted to pick up when you hear your best friend's voice. Then return calls at lunch time or when you've finished your daily writing stint.

2. Isolate yourself as much as possible from the traffic flow. I now have my own office, but I've written in family rooms and bedrooms and dens. The family room was the most difficult with constant interruptions of TV, kids, and doorbells. The more you can shut the door on distractions, the easier you'll find it to focus.

3. Take note of your own personal distractions. The blinds in my office are pulled because I look outside every time a car/garbage truck/motorcycle/UPS truck/bus/delivery truck goes by. I also remove all chocolate from my work space. Even hidden in the back of a drawer, it calls to me while I work and distracts me, whether I stop to eat it or not. Nice weather tempts me to go out for a while, so I don't put on makeup until late in the day. I know I won't show my face in public without it--so I'll stay home and write instead. (For men, not shaving could serve the same purpose.)

4. Leave the mail alone. Reading letters and e-mail can be a major distraction. It interrupts your flow to stop and sort the mail. And if your mail contains rejection letters, bills, and bank statements, it can create an instant slump. So get the snail-mail if you must, but stash it in a basket until the end of the day when you're done writing. The same is true for e-mail. Leave it unopened and unread till late afternoon (unless it's a response from an editor!).

5. For non-emergencies, make your family wait. Barter with your family for writing time. When you're finished, you'll make popcorn. When you're finished, you'll play catch. When you're finished, you'll go rent a movie. (Just be sure you actually follow through on your promises!)

6. Leave home. If home is too chaotic sometimes, take your work to the library or a park or a cafe, somewhere quiet with no phone and a minimum of distractions.

7. Organize your work space first. Arrange your work space before you begin writing, to ensure that you have everything you need. Don't run out of paper halfway through typing your chapter. Keep things within reach. Even finding a new ink cartridge or box of paper clips in your supply closet can distract you. Before you know it, you've spent half an hour rearranging the closet shelves.

8. Silence can be golden. Are you as distracted by noise as I am? I run a fan on high speed for white noise, and during school vacations I also use ear plugs. If traffic bothers you--or if you're in a quiet neighborhood where twittering birds distract you--close the windows during your writing time.

9. Change your schedule. Get up earlier and write when the world is still asleep. Phones don't ring. Kids don't interrupt. Your spouse is still snoring. (This works equally well if you're a night owl and can write after the world shuts down for the night.)

10. Eat healthy meals at regular intervals. Avoid the distraction of a growling stomach or a hunger headache. If you're always thirsty, keep cold drinks within reach. A mini-refrigerator in your office, filled with bottled water and fresh fruit, an keep you from constantly running to the kitchen.


Take time to study yourself, discovering your own favorite distractions. Once in a while we have absolutely no control over interruptions. However, most of the time, we (consciously or not) use distractions to keep us from having to face the work and anxiety of putting words on paper.

The next time you sit down at your keyboard, close your eyes and imagine yourself as that concentrated beam of light focused by the magnifying glass. Then open your eyes, hit the keys, and set the world on fire!

Kristi Holl is the author of 24 middle-grade novels, two nonfiction middle-grade books, and a book for writers, Writer's First Aid. You can read more about Kristi and her work at

Excerpted from Writer's First Aid All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.