Small distractions that pull you away from writing for short periods of time may improve your productivity.
I know. It’s counter intuitive. But it’s also true. Let’s see why.
That Amazing Brain of Yours
You’ve been there before. You’ve banged your head against a problem for hours and you’re just not getting anywhere. Worse…you’re getting further away from a solution. You have an idea!
I just need to concentrate more, and the solution will jump right out at me!
Unfortunately, you couldn’t be further from the truth. By the time you’ve reached this point (frustration, head feels like it’s in a vice, nothing works, everything you do makes it worse) concentration is the last thing that’s going to help.
Your mind has two halves, for lack of better words. You need both of them to be a successful writer, but one of those halves requires that you get out of its way and relinquish control. That half is your subconscious.
Stephen King has been known to refer to his subconscious mind as “the boys in the basement”. The “boys in the basement” only work when you’re not paying attention. Think of them like short order cooks at a diner. If you know you need steak and eggs, you don’t tell the waitress then go back in the kitchen and direct the cooks. You place your order then relinquish control. Eventually you get something resembling steak and eggs.
Your subconscious mind works like those cooks. It will rebel against you if you try to control it. You have to relinquish control and let it do what it’s best at…solving problems without your help.
Enter Micro Distractions
I don’t know if there is such a thing called a “micro distraction”, but the choice of words worked for me. I want to be clear here: I’m not advocating being a distracted writer. Distractions are mostly bad, and you should usually avoid them if you want to accomplish anything significant. I’m not talking about getting lured by the siren call of the internet, losing yourself in a rabbit hole of research, solitaire, or your Xbox.
Those of you who read my blog know that my day job is software engineering. There is one tried and true technique that works for me every time I have a seemingly insurmountable problem: I walk away from it. Sometimes I do this literally. I step up from my desk, walk out of my office, play some disc golf or take a walk around the block. By turning my mind to something else…anything else…the solution usually jumps right out at me as soon as I sit back down at my desk.
I’ve taken this into my writing life as well, and it works wonders.
When I was writing Necromancer Awakening
, I often ran into a situation where I was staring at the blinking cursor for a couple of minutes. The problem was the longer I stared the more of a problem it became, which made me stare longer, which made it a bigger problem, which made me stare longer…ad nauseam.
Something has to break the cycle or it spirals out of control.
So I would turn briefly to Facebook, Twitter, my blog, etc, and spend no more than a couple of minutes tops—just long enough to turn my mind away from the problem I had at the blinking cursor. When I would come back to the cursor the words would start to flow again.
As with everything, there are exceptions, and I want to leave you with two warnings:
- If you are easily distracted, this will not work for you. You’ll find yourself sucked into social media (or whatever poison you chose) and you’ll get nothing done. If you fit this category, point at me, laugh, call me crazy, and do not take this advice! It will do you more harm than good.
- You must be the one who decides when to switch contexts. If you find yourself switching tasks based on nothing more than a Facebook alert sound, then you’re flirting with becoming the type of person I mention in warning #1 above. This is your tool. Be the carpenter…not the hammer.
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
The right brain and the left brain are life squabbling siblings if you will: one is a control freak and the other a free spirit. They love each other but typically have a way of getting in each other’s way. I find that a non-internet related distraction works best for me. Like some time doing a menial chore, going for a walk or even a small amount of meditation. Sleeping on the problem can also sometimes help but for me this largely depends on how tired I am. Great post!
Thanks, Alison! I too am a fan of menial chores. Many times I’ll jump up, put my headphones on, and load up the dishwasher. Your analogy to squabbling siblings is spot on!
I now call myself a binge writer because I like to let things roll around in my brain (sort of like a pinball machine) and gather lots of ideas and impressions before I go to work. Distractions tend to be helpful because they give my subconscious time to work while I’m tending to the cat or the garden or fixing another wonderful 15-minute meal. However, when I start writing, distractions drive me nuts. I’m going to try NaNo again this year and I’m not sure how to tell Katie Cat I need to type with both hands to make my daily word count. Social media was difficult at first, but I’m now able to use Facebook and Twitter for small amounts of time per day without going overboard.
I’m definitely the same way. When I’m in “the zone”, I really don’t like to be bothered, because it can be difficult to get back there.
Writing for emotion can be an emotional roller coaster. As I’m reading what I’ve already written, I’m building a sort of emotional inertia that culminates in the last written line. That allows me to recreate what (I hope) the reader is feeling at that specific moment. If I get distracted at that precise moment, I basically need to back up and start again.
But during a 1st draft, when I’m just getting stuff down as quickly as possible, I’ll often run into micro “walls” that I need to find a way around or through. A small distract usually helps me solve those minor problems.
The company I work for has various minor distractions out and around the workplace. For example, a jigsaw puzzle in progress. When I’m stuck, I get up, look for a few pieces, and get back to the computer. Almost always helps. (So do the snacks in the break room next to the jigsaw puzzle…)
It’s amazing how much it helps! (on both counts 😉 )
When I get stuck, I take the dogs out. We spend 10 or 15 minutes outside (less if it’s raining) and by the time we’ve come back in and I’ve given them a little treat for being mostly good while we were out, my subconscious has my problem all figured out or has given me the research phrase I need to plug in to get the info I need to figure it out. It’s a win for me and for my dogs!
That’s a great approach! I sometimes do the same thing with Toby (my Beagle). That or getting up to do the dishes…or any other activity that gets me out of my head for a few minutes.
I find cleaning helps me, especially vacuuming, or taking a shower. I think all my best thoughts have come to me in the shower…I just need a waterproof pen and paper to write them all down!
Haha, you sound just like me. I think it’s because it’s a guaranteed time to just be alone with your thoughts. I’ve lost count of how many problems I’ve solved in the shower, both technical and writing related. 🙂
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I have actually found that playing games on my PS3 helps me, particularly Skyrim gives me ideas on armor, clothing, dungeon design. Even things like how to write a battle. 🙂
Likewise (Xbox or PC here). I’ve found gaming to be incredibly inspirational.