How Do You Deal With Distractions?

Let me start by promising that this is not going to be a political post — I’m not getting into any polemics at all.

That said, I’m utterly obsessed with the election right now.  I have about half a dozen election oriented websites that I check and recheck slavishly during the course of the day.  I think (read:  “worry”) about election stuff constantly.  I’m sleeping poorly, eating poorly, and, not surprisingly, working poorly.  Fortunately, I’ve just recently finished a manuscript and will spend this week reading through the book before sending it off to my editor (I hope to send it in Friday).  The deadline is still more than a week away, so there are no worries about that.

But I have other things on  which I want to work — publicity stuff, website updates, not to mention a new project that’s been burning a hole in my chest for months.  And it’s hard to focus on work when my mind and my heart are elsewhere.  Of course I’m not unique in this regard, and the campaign is only one of many distractions that I’ve had to deal with over the years, and a trivial one at that. Right now it’s the election; at other more serious times it’s been family worries, or health issues, or financial concerns.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with all of this.  Anyone who works has to deal with emotions  and worries that pull them in a different direction – for most people these problems are far more important than those with which I have to deal.  I’m not sure that being a writer is any more or less difficult in this regard.  In some ways I think that working at home, having the opportunity to indulge my obsession, makes it more of a problem.  I also think that real-world intrusions of this sort can easily block the creative process.  I’d welcome some professional task that would pull me out of my head and allow me to forget about this stuff for a while.  On the other hand, the freedom of being self-employed means that if things get too bad, I can just leave the house and do something — anything — other than work for a while.

But I also know that if I wasn’t done with this book yet, I’d have to ignore all this other stuff and get the book finished.  At times, writing demands that we compartmentalize, that we take all the crap that threatens to distract us, put it in a mental box, and lock it away for a while.

So how do we do that?  That’s not rhetorical; I’m really asking.  How do we fight off the distractions?  I’m not all that great at it (obviously).  At times I’ve battled through anxiety, grief, or anger and forced myself to work.  More often than not my productivity suffers as does the quality of my writing.  At other times I’ve managed to lose myself in the writing and actually get stuff written that was worth keeping.  But I don’t know what I did differently on those occasions.  I have no tried and true formula for coping with this stuff.

Do you?  When you’re dealing with problems outside of your writing, but have to finish a book to meet a deadline or get copyedit pages back to your publisher, how do you make yourself work?  How do you fight through the distractions?  Or do you?  Does it make more sense to shelve the work for a while, at least until you can concentrate properly again?  I’d be interested in knowing how people deal with these issues.

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  1. 1. Scott Marlowe

    I weighed in on this subject on my own blog (http://scottmarlowe.com/post/Dealing-With-Distraction.aspx).

    My first and best way to deal with distraction has to do with isolation. I shut my study door, or go upstairs where I can’t hear the TV or have my wife come in and try to start up a conversation (not when I’m writing, honey). Also, I keep my browser closed–no checking up on blogs or Facebook or, a big one for me nowadays, Twitter. I keep TweetDeck closed, too.

    Some of it also has to do with setting goals. I want to get ‘x’ amount of work done in a given amount of time, so I set my sights on doing it. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t. But just having the carrot in front of me helps.

    I follow business news a lot, so the recent economic turmoil was a big, big distraction for a while much like politics are to you as mentioned above. My productivity definitely suffered during that one week recently.

    Perhaps time limits might help. Set yourself 30 min or an hour to check on those political sites and that’s it. Then it’s time to get some work done.

    Interested to hear what others have to say.

  2. 2. Kate

    When I was in music school, I faced this problem all the time. The flute is a very difficult instrument to play while crying (went through tough times then, but didn’t we all?), or with any tension in the body. There were times when my teacher let me put the instrument down and freak out. There were also times, before a recital or something, when she made me (or I said I needed to) power through and keep going no matter what.

    This is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned. I apply it to many things. I know when art can be simply cathartic – on September 11th I remember running to a practice room to play because it was the only thing that made sense to me. It wasn’t good playing, but it helped. I also know when I have to play/write/work even though I don’t want to, no matter how obsessed I am with an emotional topic, because something big is coming up for me. And sometimes immersing myself in music/writing/work completely removes me from the real world and lets me forget for a time. That’s the best, because the art benefits, too.

    And of course, there are times when I need to leave my desk and walk around the block because I’ll get nothing done until I take a break. Or when I need to put the project away and say it’s not going to work for me right now. I guess it comes down to how important the deadlines are, how much time I need to take away (like…no work until November 5th? Would be nice, but…) and how good the work will be if I try to keep going.

    Long enough post for you? I don’t think that’s even a conclusive answer. Sorry :) Like you said, I know when it’s time to lock distractions away and get to work, when I can use them to fuel the fire, or when I need to just need to set it aside and obsess.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comments, Scott and Kate. I think that like so many other aspects of creative life, this is one of those things for which there are as many answers as there are people. I’ve been obsessed with the campaign for months, but only really gave into that obsession when the book was finished and I’d set it aside for a few weeks. So maybe I’m better at dealing with distractions than I think. I just don’t have a tried and true formula for it.

  4. 4. Wendy

    I find that leaving a project alone and doing something else that requires a completely different creative focus (in my case dancing) helps me. No giving in to my desire to search the internet for a new sweater or recipe. No reading news or e-mail. Just a different focus.

    I also make sure I’m working in a flawlessly clean environment because clutter is extra distracting to me. (And once I start cleaning, I can’t stop. There goes the day.)

    Obviously these are very personal things, but it’s what seems to work for me.

  5. 5. Alis

    Ha. It’s like I’m *just* *like* *you* (only a little older). Fortunately, I also have just finished a (long overdue) novel. However, that means there is no desperation to stop me when I just have to check Talking Points Memo an hour after I last checked it. What are your favorite sites?

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the input, Wendy. My creative release outside of writing is photography, and I actually went out and took some pictures yesterday. It does help.

    Yeah, Alis, the separated at birth thing is pretty strong, isn’t it? You REALLY want me to share my sites? You sure you want to go down that road? For content I like TPM and http://www.crooksandliars.com. But I used to do political consulting, including polling, and I’m a numbers junkie. So I check http://www.fivethirtyeight.com (my favorite — you’ll see why as soon as you see the front page), http://www.politicshome.com, http://pollster.com, and, because the talking heads all look at it, realclearpolitics.

  7. 7. Alis

    I am not afraid! I’ve recently begun reading 538 also, although I only check crooks and liars occasionally. I admit, however, that politicshome and realclearpolitics are new to me. Must check them out . . .

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    realclearpolitics has lots of polling numbers from other sites and a digest of political articles from all over. It has a decidedly rightwing cast, but it’s a valuable site, and as I say, the talking heads constantly cite the popular vote margin on rcp to point to the state of the race.

  9. 9. Adam Heine

    For internet/game/time-wasting distractions, I have to be self-disciplined. It’s hard. I now allow myself to check blogs, e-mail, etc, in the morning and maybe once at night. The rest of the time I turn the internet (not just the browser, unless other people are online in the house) off.

    For life distractions, I find I just can’t write if I’m messed up emotionally. Sometimes, especially if it’s something I can’t do anything about, I just need to get away. Take a walk, read a book, watch a movie, treat myself to a lunch. Something like that.

    On the other hand, if it’s something I can do something about (say my kids require discipline or I’m having an argument with my wife), then I have to deal with it. It’s the only solution, and I can’t go back to writing until it’s done. Honestly, until the situation is taken care of, I just don’t care about writing.

  10. 10. glenda larke

    Best way I found to do it was to borrow a cabin in the mountains that had no internet connection and very poor cell phone reception. Worked for me. Only to be used when desperate though…

  11. 11. Jana Oliver

    Distraction can be a good thing.

    I’m mega distracted right now. Some of it is the election, most of it is the required “downtime” after a novel’s completion. Unlike some authors who can just jump into a new project without a break, I need to step back, gain perspective and then start up again. Reboot, as it were. Usually that takes at least a month. So right now I have the attention span of a gnat on crack cocaine.

    I’m spending that time feeding the brain, reading all sorts of different stuff from Victorian mysteries to Urban Fantasies and even non-fiction and high quality smut. Hopefully after World Fantasy the brain will settle down and we get to business. If not, well, it’s gonna have to happen anyway. I can’t be distracted forever.

  12. 12. Kelly McCullough

    Same problem, some of the same websites. The thing that works best for me is to appeal to my inner control freak. I remind the hind brain that the inner world of a novel or short story is the one place where I can exert complete control on events. Because of that, I find there’s nothing as soothing to my worries or capable of taking my mind off the distractions that I have little control over as simply writing more fiction.

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Adam, I would do well to turn off the internet during the day. I’ll have to consider that. And yeah, when it’s personal stuff, I need to deal with it before I get back to writing.

    Glenda: I’d love a mountain retreat, but I think that’s easier said that done…. :)

    I agree, Jana, that distraction can be good. I’m in between books now, which is why I have the luxury of obsessing. But even when I’m in downtime mode, I still have work to do, and it ain’t gettin’ done right now as fast as it should.

    And Kelly, I like the control freak thing a lot. Part of what I’m doing now is worldbuilding for my next project. That’s some energy I can harness during these last few days of the campaign. Thanks!

  14. 14. Fiona Avery

    David,

    Well, let’s see … I set an appointment with someone else to get into an art or writing project. My favorite confederate in crime right now is Ben, my husband, and he meets me either 1) in a program where he can literally read and interact with something I am currently writing as it comes out line by line or 2) he sits across from me at the studio table and draws or paints at the same time I am.

    Couple reasons I do this. Let me see if I can put them into a tangible form because I’ve never really explained it before, but it’s made such a strong and unusual brand of focus for me — one that knocks out so many distractions I used to get so frustrated with — that I thought I might share here.

    There’s something about having a confederate in crime for your writing that helps solidify it and make it happen faster than writing alone used to do. I think that’s why people love crit groups honestly. I never had that experience before when I wrote alone and I’m not sure anyone else has ever tried writing in front of people except perhaps Harlan Ellison with his window stories.

    I’m lucky that it’s my husband, because he’s a very relaxed and easy-going kinda fella. In a way I want him biased to like everything I write so that I’m free to make as many typos and stupid rough draft mistakes as I like as if it were for my eyes only. He reads what I write and when I’m done with a section he comments when I ask him for any input. And often we even co-write, and input at the same time.

    I got this notion because he used to come around while I was drawing and give me pointers on what I was doing wrong on a piece of art. I was a total novice and he’s very good at art, so his constant presence and input was not just soothing to me but helped my sense of discipline. It was such a pleasant routine, and it was something Ben helped me become better at in the routine. I thought — why can’t I apply this to writing?

    Of course Ben can’t always be there. He works and he’s busy with his own hobbies. And I don’t always need the prompting once I’m in the white heat of a project. But even if he’s painting, he’ll sit in the open shared window and watch me write as his own leisure. It’s become his TV. The inner world of Fiona Avery taking form for his amusement alone … He digs it. I’m very lucky he does too because it’s highly flattering to be someone’s exclusive entertainment. Though this is also how Mark Twain would tell stories to his kids, for what it’s worth.

    Now, I’m more excited to sit down with him and work on a piece of fiction or a new piece of artwork than I am to surf the net or watch TV. We make time for it. It’s communal. I think writers are more communal than we at first might suspect. It’s probably why we go to places like other websites, or down to the shop, or to that cafe, or … We go where there’s something going on, right?

    So I just created pockets of writing time to be the same kind of exciting place to be. That’s the place where it’s happening around here. And that’s the place I want to be more than anything in the world.

    Consequently, I do this for Ben too – - with art and his graphic design work, I give back to him what he puts in for my writing and budding art. We are a team and we often multi-task. But it doesn’t have to be a spouse. It might be a kid, a neighbor, another writer. I’ve actually had many variations on the confederate in crime throughout my writing life, and it has always been more fun to be with them than to haunt my usual distractions.

    Like J.Peterman … and Williams Sonoma … oh god …

    –Fiona

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    I’m having the exact same problem, with the exact same sites. Unfortunately it’s exacerbated by the problems in the markets; when I’m not being a political junkie I’m being an economic junkie.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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