ELIMINATING DISTRACTIONS TO WRITE MORE EFFICIENTLY

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Submitted Date 12/29/2018
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I was going to write about something completely different for this post. The article was going to be about competently writing protagonists who are the opposite gender. I started that yesterday afternoon and then stopped. Not because of writer’s block – I rarely encounter that phenomenon. No, it was because of distractions.

My son is going through some health issues, and I haven’t had the same amount of time to dedicate to writing, so this afternoon at 3:00 PM Central Time (I mention the time just in case you wanted to think back to what you were doing at that time yesterday. Like, if it was 1:00 Pacific Time, and you were having a seasoned, lamb Gyro in Redding, California with your favorite aunt, you could be like, “Hey, I sure was enjoying that Greek delight while he was about to destroy his keyboard, kick both dogs out until New Year’s, and silence the house for three hours so he could get some work done; that’s pretty neat.”

From 3:00 – 3:27 (I looked) I was interrupted in some form or fashion several times, didn’t get but 150 words out. So then, because I am immature, as I tried to continue to write, each time I was pulled from my work, I tabulated it in a notebook. From 3:30 to 4:31, which is when I gave up in futility, I was interrupted eighteen times, from the dogs (out, in, out, in, feeding time, play time – make up your mind) my son’s questions (I’ve threatened to limit his number of questions to five per day, and for me to only watch him play Fortnite or Mario Smash Brothers when he is on the cusp of a national televised or internet streaming victory that pays him big bucks that allows me to quit my job), to my wife asking me a question every few minutes about an endless assortment of topics ranging from, "Come look at how the dog is sitting on me” to the plot twist of the thirty-first episode of “The Gilmore Girls.” Yeah, she’s about eighteen years late on this one, but she started the series on Netflix about two months ago and got sucked in. She has had a cast on her foot for a while too, so I get to scuttle about the house helping, which I don’t mind, but when I’m trying to write…

I know, I know, all of that sounds so petty and perhaps ungrateful, but I am unquestionably grateful for my family (and even the dogs). So at 4:31, I knew I needed to quit and live to write another day. I have an easy way to detect when I need to pause my writing for a spell. It is when my mind begins to have an inner dialogue, an unholy dialogue, where my thoughts and imaginary words cease to be the things one would say to their loved ones as a civilized human.

So I plucked the headphones out, swiped off Pandora, and sat on the couch to watch Episode 32 of “The Gilmore Girls.” (It’s actually not that bad of a show).

As I now tap away on the keyboard, it is 4:47 in the morning (yes, the AM). My Pops was an early riser; he worked as a Chief Inspector for MNDOT, the Minnesota Department of Transportation. His job was to make sure our roads and bridges in Southeastern, Minnesota were as smooth and stable as they could possibly be, and he was pretty damn good at his work. On a side note, one of his pride and joy jobs was many years ago, a blacktop drive that spanned from Zumbrota to Red Wing. I remember driving County Road 58 just for fun; it was like being the first person out on their motorboat on a placid lake – wonderful.

Like my dad, I’m an early riser too. While the kids and my wife slumber away until they absolutely must get up, I am up at four or five prowling the house like a horny tomcat. I need to be productive, on the move, often times to the irritation of my wife as she wakes to clanging pots and pans as I empty a load of dishes, or clack away on the keyboard muttering to myself a bit too profusely at the climax of a story, or as I trundle away on our treadmill in hopes of staving off a heart attack.

The past two years I started writing seriously, and when writing there is nothing more thrilling, as a god or goddess, him or herself (god with a small “g”), than creating worlds and characters, killing or allowing life, making characters fall in and out of love, generating tragedy and triumph, and illuminating the wonderful and cruel ironies of life.

This might even be a more propitious topic than the one I had planned, given that New Year’s is around the corner, and many people (and writers) will be creating resolutions and goals for the upcoming year. And while none of these are necessarily groundbreaking, here are four reminders and tips from personal experience that may help writers avoid distractions and become productive during extended writing time.

1. Digital Notifications.

If you are going to do this writing thing, and you are serious about it, there is no greater time-sucker and writing inhibitor than the digital distraction. I am going to sound old and curmudgeonly and even self-righteous, but as a teacher, digital distraction is the number one impediment to productivity and creativity in my classroom. Why read a book, analyze text, write an essay, or a pen a bit of creative storytelling when one’s BFF just gobbled a Tide Pod, and on Snapchat he is spluttering blue goo and spittle all over the bathroom stalls? How in the heck can John Steinbeck ever compete with that? To be frank, I’m no better. So I have to remind myself to silence the cell phone, turn off notifications, and dedicate the few and precious hours (and sometimes only minutes) that I have as a part-time writer without digital distractions. My number one digital distraction: FailArmy

There is something vicariously vindicating about the foibles of human suffering. But don’t go there now – not until you are done reading.

2. Place and Space.

For the most part, I write in three places and three spaces, my writing room, which is actually the workbench in our laundry room, the kitchen counter, or at times in my classroom. I have deliberately habitualized and associated the act of writing with these places. My brain and my fingers know that when I sit down at any of these three places, the creative synapsis starts to fire immediately.

Space is differentiated from place. To me, space is the self-tolerated arrangement of distractions and resources in that particular place. For example, when I am at the workbench, the tools need to be set and hung and arranged orderly, otherwise, my brain will think that I need to arrange the tools instead of write. In the kitchen, I do some clean-up ahead of time; I need the counter free of crumbs; I have the kids make sure the sink is empty and the dishes are put away. In my classroom, grades need to be up to date and my desk cleared off. It’s probably the same mania that my mom instilled in me when I was a kid vacuuming the living room and she wanted me to make straight-lined vacuum-cleaner imprints in the carpet because company was coming over. I’ve seen writers punching away at Barnes and Noble, a coffee shop, in the park, in offices during their lunches. I truly believe it helps a writer to find, habitualize, and associate a space and place for writing.

3. Avoid Human Contact, Kind Of.

For we introverts, this is easy. I love all people but hate contact with every damn one of you. To the chagrin and embarrassment of my kids, this means that even at church, I separate the nicely interlocked chairs from each other and space them out accordingly so that when I sit down there isn’t some other Lutheran knee touching mine. So when I write, and you extroverts want to come into my room and gabble away about your weekend, I about lose my mind. I close the door of the laundry room, my classroom, or write at the kitchen when I know that I will hopefully have time to do so.

If you are an extrovert, there is hope for you. (Of course, I write all of this in jest). I texted a writer chum of mine last night in anticipation of writing this post. She is a max extrovert. I asked her how she does it? She has three key pieces of advice. For her, she likes to 1. co-write (grody, right), 2. Set firm, calendar deadlines that hold her accountable to others, and 3. She allows the extrovert part of herself to carve out specific social time that is solely dedicated to aspects of writing. As revolting as these ideas are, she loves them and thrives on them. For her (and I’ve watched her techniques as she writes with others), co-writing is the most exhilarating process as the two or sometimes three of them verbally process, banter, interrupt each other, and turn a flurry of thoughts into words until they get a finished product. And you know what? Regardless of the process, the writing is amazing.

About all this, and I hope I am not belaboring the point, please communicate with others in some form that you are writing and need this time, whether it be a sign on the door, Do Not Disturb on your cell phone (my son taught me that it’s the half-moon thingy on my phone), or even an honest talk, “Hey family. I love every one of you so much that I would die in a fire to make all of you safe. That being said, don’t bother me unless there is a fire in the house.”

4. Take Calculated Breaks.

I just did. It’s 6:00 AM. I let the dogs out and in, stretched, performed a brain break, walked around the house, peeked in at my sleeping kids (even though they are fifteen and thirteen, I never tire of peeking in on them in the morning), and finally poured myself a large, ice-filled glass of Diet Mountain Dew. Three hours of writing doesn’t necessarily mean three hours of writing.

In an in-service about six years ago, I learned about brain breaks. They are a real concept with research and everything, and these little breaks help focus, energize, and get stagnated or tired brains working again. They have been using these for years with every age group from preschool to residents in nursing homes. Most of them incorporate physical movement and many of them foster creative thinking that is independent from whatever task is at hand.

From the in-service, here are three quick things you can do to get a quick break in, and although they seem elementary, they work.

“5,4,3,2,1” (2 minutes)

Choose five physical activities and complete them in rapid succession. For example, hop on one foot five times, do four jumping jacks, spin around three times, walk like a runway model across your kitchen and then back again, and clap loudly once. Believe it or not, something as simple as this, two minutes of your time, takes the focus off your writing momentarily, and you will come back refocused. I just did this a week ago when I hit a point in a story where I did not know where to go next, and it helped me get going again.

“Let’s Dance” (3 – 6 minutes)

Pull up an instructional dance maneuver from the internet. Try to copy the dancer’s moves. My son tried to teach me how to do a couple of Fortnite dances, and my students have tried to teach me how to Shoot. Yes, I look completely ridiculous, but we share some movement and have a laugh. That’s the point, to remove yourself from the task at hand so that you can refocus again.

“Plates” (2 – 4 minutes)

Use any object for this. It is a balancing break. Take a paper plate, a book, a pan, and attempt to balance it on your head while walking for as long as you can. If it’s too easy to walk and balance because you have a head like Herman Munster, try hopping or skipping while attempting to balance the object. This is great because it involves several physical requirements and a person’s internal drive to succeed at something.

I also get many of my brain breaks from the old television show, “Minute to Win it.” These small but efficient exercises will break up the monotony and help a writer get refocused and energized.

As you sit down this week to create your writing resolutions, as you start carving out your days in an attempt to create precious and concentrated writing time, and as you continue to learn and master the craft of writing, I hope that these four tips help you with clarity and focus.

Lastly, and I had to place this at the end of the article, I’d like to plug a TED Talk on procrastination that I show to my students every year, usually about week four or five when laziness begins setting in and the tentacles of the procrastination serpent start snaking their grip around their minds. Blogger Tim Urban discusses this topic in depth in a TED Talk that is titled, “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.” And while this post is not about procrastination, that concept is one of the main contributors to distraction. The video is fourteen minutes long and worth the view. Here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU

Well, looky there. It’s 7:06 and I am all done, and as I finish up here, I am going to take a break and come back and edit the piece later. Now, I am going to try and stack twelve Oreo cookies on my forehead in less than a minute. If you live in New York or something, you’ve probably already finished that brimming bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and have snapped on the morning news, or if you live in Hawaii, you are probably still slumbering away to the languid sounds of the Pacific surf while dreaming of Teriyaki SPAM sandwiches to a Ukulele version of “Mele Kalikimaka." Good luck next year with all your writing, and may you achieve all the goals that you set out to accomplish.

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