top 8 time wasters for writers and what to do about them

Does this scene sound familiar?

It’s X o’clock in the whatever. You’ve blocked out two hours to write that scene. You close the study door, turn on your favorite music, and sit down at the keyboard.

Two hours later, you’ve written half a page.

Just half a darn page.

How did that happen? Where did the time go? Should you just give up?

The answer to that last question is a big, loud NO!

As for the first two, it’s likely you fell victim to one of these 8 all-too-common time stealers that turn your writing time into wish-you-had-written-more time.

8 Distractions to Avoid

Let’s look at them in detail: What they are. Why they happen. And most importantly, what you can do about them!


Let’s go.

1.  The Sinister Slow Start

AKA: Blank Page Blues; Stare at the Screen Until Your Forehead Bleeds; What Was I Writing Again?

The Problem: You sit down and stare at the empty page or next line and can’t for the life of you get started.

This issue usually comes from perfectionism. You don’t want to clutter up the new page (or new day) with bad words so you wait for something awesome before committing to typing. Other times it’s an energy thing. There’s inertia to any task, and sometimes it’s hard to get this particular ball rolling.

The Solution: Just start typing. If you’re working on something particular, say in plain English what you want it to say. Come back later and rewrite as needed, but get something down immediately. If you’re not working on a particular thing, do some kind of warmup. Even typing a grocery list can do it.

Looking for a way to break through that wall? Try freewriting.

The Upgrade: Finish each writing session in the middle of a sentence, resisting the temptation to finish. That way, when you get back to work, you’re compelled to start typing right away.

2. The Call of Phonethulhu

AKA: Distraction Calling, Please Hold; Quadrant Two Mania; “Hi, Mom”

The Problem: Phone calls are a weird thing. How many times have you interrupted something you like doing, or something more important, because you answered the siren call of the phone? The answer is too darn many.

We’re conditioned to think of phone calls as both urgent and important, so we answer them without thinking. Even when it’s a little rude to do so. Even when we’re in the middle of a great writing session. Ten minutes later, you’ve lost writing time and momentum. You’re out of the groove.

The Solution: Your cell phone has caller ID. Use it. Only pick up if it might be a legitimate emergency, like a call from your kid’s school. For people like your boss or spouse, encourage them to text you a minute or two before calling to signal that it’s a true emergency.

Many smartphones now have smart silent settings, often called “do not disturb” rules. You can lock down your phone for a certain period of time—say, an hour, or until your next alarm—but allow calls from specific contacts to come through (like the boss, or your spouse). Learn to love this tool.

The Upgrade: Assign custom ringtones to people who might have legitimate cause to interrupt your writing, so you don’t even have to look at the phone to ignore everybody else.

3. The Swamp of Social Media

AKA: Just One More Post; Hey! That Guy’s Wrong on The Internet!; Ooh! Kitties!

The Problem: You opened Facebook because you wanted to find that one great quote you wanted to write something about. An hour later, you’ve written plenty of comments and posts—but not a single word on your writing project for the day.

Social media addiction is a thing, not yet part of the DSM but acknowledged among professionals. It sneaks up on you and sucks your time away in increments of minutes and seconds.

The Solution: Just say no. Close that browser while you’re doing your writing time. If necessary, install a program that locks you out of distracting websites for a set period of time like Freedom or Anti-Social.

The Upgrade: Set specific goals for your social media presence that helps build your writing platform. Assign a different time to work on those, and make that the only time you spend on social media during the day. Put social media on your calendar and stick to that schedule.

4. The Search for the Perfect Word

AKA: “Honey, Where’s the Thesaurus?”; The Inner Poet; That’s Not What I Mean

The Problem: You’ve spent 30 minutes on the same sentence because it’s not quite right. I mean, you have the idea pretty much down, but that character wouldn’t talk like that, or you just know there’s another way to say it that’s even better.

Making every sentence just right can be an immense rabbit hole for your time and energy. Worse, it can be so frustrating that writing is no longer fun. This is especially brutal because the part of your brain you use to edit (i.e., choosing the perfect word) is different from the part you use to write. Which means you’re accidentally multitasking.

The Solution: Write the “excited 9-year-old draft” first. This is the one where you tell your story like a 9-year-old who just saw Star Wars for the first time. If you write great sentences, that’s wonderful. But if not, just type “This happens. Then this happens,” or a general note like “Great big fight!”

The Upgrade: Use a special symbol (mine’s @@) that means “I’ll get back to this.” It helps you give yourself permission to move on, knowing you can find the spot and tweak it later.

5. Never-Ending Netflix

AKA: Arrested Development; “Just One More Episode”; Comfort Food for the Brain

The Problem: Netflix is a wonderful thing, but it can be the bane of connected at-home workers everywhere. Don’t shake your head like that. You know you’ve lost hours to rewatching sitcoms you didn’t even particularly like the first time.

Like social media, part of the problem here is physiological. Watching Netflix, from a neurochemistry standpoint, is not unlike being on some drugs. And your brain craves that hit when you try to log off. Other times, it’s just a matter of energy and inertia. Watching Netflix is easy and comforting. Writing is neither.

The Solution: This is another situation where the answer is “Just say no.” You can use the programs that keep you off particular websites to accomplish this. Another trick is to write on a computer without speakers, or with the sound card disabled.

The Upgrade: Write on your tablet, or a computer without a modem or network connection. Heck, try writing by hand if you really need to, with all your devices (tablet, TV, laptop, smartphone) powered down. If you really have Netflix addiction issues, this can be the only way to keep you off the shows and on task.

6. Ridiculous Reams of Research

AKA: “I’m Reading the Most Fascinating Book”; The Wikipedia Wormhole; How Did I End Up Reading About Smurf-Themed Vacations?

The Problem: You’re going to write that book, but first you need to make sure you know all you should about 16th-century agrarian economics, the current leading theories on time travel, and for some reason, wallpaper patterns of antebellum Kentucky.

There’s a fine line between research and procrastination. If you’re doing research during your writing time, you’ve crossed it. As with other things on this list, research takes less energy and involves less risk than actual writing, which is why it can be so tempting to keep doing it even after you’ve gathered the information you truly require.

The Solution: Begin your research with a checklist. Find out information item by item, crossing the points off as you find out what you need. Stop researching when you’ve finished the checklist. If possible, do this during a different time than what you’ve set aside to write.

The Upgrade: Use the @@ trick I mentioned above and write before you do your research. Type @@ and a question any time you encounter a situation you need to research. Do your research between first and second drafts, when you’ll be more focused and less intimidated.

7. Fracas of Friends and Family

AKA: You Don’t Have a Real Job, Helping Your Buddy Move, Summertime Blues

The Problem: Your friends and loved ones know your writing is important, but come on. It’s not a real job. You’re just at home typing. Of course you have time to come move a couch, or grab lunch together, or clean out the fridge. Of course Mommy has time to play another round of Forbidden Desert. Of course you can talk for “just a minute” about that annoying thing.

It’s hard to balance wanting to be there for your people and staying committed to your writing. On one hand, you want to say “yes.” On the other hand, you need to write. On the third hand, sticking to your writing guns can leave you feeling like a bit of a jerk.

The Solution: This one’s not complicated, but it’s not easy, either. The best way to solve for this is to learn to say “no.” Just remember that a “no” to a meaningless social commitment is a “yes” to your writing career.

The Upgrade: Set up “writing hours” with your family and friends. Let everybody know to treat those like you’re at an actual job. Nobody is to disturb you during that time unless something’s on fire. And even then, they’d better have tried the extinguisher first.

8. Monstrously Messy Desk

AKA: “Now, Where’s that File?”; But I Have a System; Clutter’s Last Stand

The Problem: Clutter stops writing in its tracks. It could be physical stuff on your desk you need to move before you work, or that you have to hunt through for your mouse. It might be poorly organized files on your computer that force you to search for any given thing you want to work on.

I know, I know. It’s not that bad. Creative people are messy. You have a system.

Guess what? None of that matters. It steals time from your writing every day.

The Solution: Set aside the last 10 minutes of your writing time for cleaning up your virtual and physical writing space. It’s a nice way to signal a transition to your next thing, and it sets you up for success when you sit down the next day.

The Upgrade: Give yourself a “cleaning weekend” once or twice a year. Block out time for two days and spend that time organizing, clearing, cleaning, and maintaining your workspace.

How to Stay Focused

Now, I’m not saying these are the only things that steal a writer’s time. I’m also not saying these are the only possible solutions for these and other problems.

But if you go into your writing career fully warned about these enemies to your productivity (and fully informed about how to defeat them) you’ll have more time and energy to handle the unanticipated.

Remember: writing on your schedule is a matter of making a promise to yourself, then keeping that promise. You keep the promises you make to other people you love. Don’t let these time stealers make you break your word to yourself.

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