Driven to Distraction

How to avoid distraction and stay on task when writing your novel

By Michelle Barker

For the last few years I lived downtown in a beautiful high-rise apartment with windows that overlooked the Plaza of Nations. My desk faced those windows, of course, because I’m a writer and that is what we do: we look out of windows (I’m not the only one who does that, am I?).

No matter what time of day or night it was, whenever I looked out those windows there was something going on: traffic, the train, people walking or cycling, boats—and those were the relatively quiet moments. It was never actually quiet. Sometimes there were events going on: dragon-boat festivals, winter festivals, Oktoberfest. Everything happened down there.

I didn’t realize the effect this was having on my writing until I moved. I now live in a basement suite and my desk faces a window that looks out onto a large lilac bush. In case you’re feeling sorry for me, don’t. Moving was the best decision I’ve made in a long while because one of the things it brought back to me was the ability to focus—and I hadn’t even realized I’d lost it.

Multi-tasking might be a good thing for some professions, but for writers, it’s a death knell. You don’t want to be multi-tasking when you’re writing. You want to be absolutely focused on the one thing you’re doing: bringing to life the picture that’s playing in your head.

Technology has made some things much better for writers. Try writing a novel on a manual typewriter.

But it’s also made other things a whole lot worse. Our telephones beep and buzz with notifications every time we get an email, a text, a like on Facebook—things that are so unimportant but which have been turned into a constant series of mini-emergencies.

Our best intentions to write for an hour or a morning get sidelined by social media as it clamours for us to notice it.

I realized I had developed a terrible habit: whenever I was working on a chapter and the going got tough, the tough . . . checked her email. So instead of learning how to muscle through a difficult writing problem, I repeatedly opted to think about something else, just for a minute or two (and it’s never a minute or two with social media, we all know that’s a big lie).

Cal Newport has written an important book on the value of intense concentration, called Deep Work. It’s a book I think every writer should read. Most people, because of distraction, are losing the ability to do deep work (by which he means sustained, concentrated effort without distraction). Writers cannot afford to let this happen. Deep work is what we’re all about. Without it, we risk skating along the surface of our writing and never creating anything of value. And the scary thing is, when we engage in this behaviour of constantly switching our attention from (for example) writing to Facebook, we are impacting our brains in a negative way. We’re losing that ability to tolerate the difficult moment and work through it.

Writing is all about focus. I didn’t fully realize this until I returned to playing the piano and learned very quickly about what happens when your mind wanders: bad, bad music. Many wrong notes.

Writing is the same, only it’s a lot less noticeable. If you’re fully immersed in a scene, everything around you disappears. You’re there. You can smell it, taste it, you know what your character is going to do next because you are your character. You don’t have her flipping on a light switch in your medieval fantasy. You don’t forget there are three other people in the room with her. How could you? You’re present in every sense of the word.

When you’re not present, however, the writing becomes mechanical. It loses that spark, that bit of life that makes it real.

It is frightening, and telling, that many people who work in Silicon Valley have banned screen time in their homes—because they know firsthand how much effort has gone into making all our gadgets irresistible.

In Deep Work, Newport gives several examples of creative people who shut off ALL distractions when they work. And—surprise—they are not only incredibly productive but also successful.

“But I need Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram) to market my books.” (I heard you say that. I’ve said it myself).

Do you, though? Did J.K. Rowling need it? Did Stephen King? Instead of wasting time on Instagram, they’re busy writing more books.

Which is what I’ve decided to do.

Which is what you should be doing, too.

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