Writing’s hard. It’s even harder to write well. The whole process can be overwhelming. It can be tough to get started, and tougher still to keep focused on the task at hand. Especially in the context of business writing, distractions can add up, thwarting productivity and leaving frustrated, exhausted writers—and missed deadlines—in their wake.
And it really doesn’t matter whether you’re working from home or in the office. Myriad distractions await you either way. Obvious distractions include social media and smartphone usage, streaming entertainment, pets, colleagues, family members, and online shopping.
So, one way or another, you’ve made it to this article, in which we’ll offer some tips and tricks for helping you avoid distractions and improve your writing concentration. For various reasons, those of us who write for business/professional purposes tend to be a lot harder on ourselves than recreational bloggers and fiction writers when it comes to distractions and productivity. It doesn’t have to be that way.
At Slice, we’ve created a powerful platform specifically for business writers to eliminate distractions and write with momentum on their side. First, let’s see what we’re up against.
Understanding the Nature and Impact of Distraction
Distractions are everywhere, both external (like a barking dog or restless child) and internal (like stress, anxiety, and restlessness). So you’re not alone in the fight to stay focused. Research shows that a majority (70%) of us are impacted by distractions.
The effects? We feel like we’re unproductive and underperforming, which leaves us feeling anxious and exhausted. Especially in a work (or work-from-home) setting, this anxiety can quickly become overwhelming.
Think back to the last time you were working on a specific written project or report. When you were distracted by something, were you able to immediately return to your work once the distraction was addressed? Would it surprise you to learn that, according to University of California Irvine research, it takes nearly a half hour to get back into a productive state after being interrupted?
That’s a lot of unproductive time. Not only that, but the quality of your work tends to suffer, as well. An article published by Fast Company (appropriately titled “Small Distractions Are Making You A Terrible Writer, Says Science”) studied the outcomes of writers who were distracted (by design) against those who were able to work on the same task, but uninterrupted. You can read more about the study here, but the main takeaway is that distractions not only make for a tough writing experience from a productivity standpoint, but from a quality standpoint as well.
And giving in to distractions can make them worse. But even though we know they’re bad for us, we can’t help ourselves. So it’s not just you. And there’s science to explain it. Here’s some insight from The Conversation:
“One of the reasons is our addiction to dopamine, a chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter and makes us feel good when it is released. Every time we receive new information we are rewarded with a rush of dopamine to the brain.”
The good news is that we can rewire our dopamine-addicted brains. No, we can’t stop needing dopamine altogether. But rather than getting our fix from popping over to Reddit or Facebook for some memes, we need to train our brains to get their “reward” from a meaningful challenge and a job well done. It’s not impossible; Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. Meaningful challenges motivate and energize most writers.
What Is the Opposite of Distraction? Flow.
There’s a specific term that describes a highly-productive state of focus—it’s called flow. Read how Headspace describes it, and think about what this could mean for you as a writer:
“When you’re giving your fullest attention to an activity or task that you are incredibly passionate about, singularly focused on, and totally immersed in, you may find yourself creating the conditions necessary to experience a flow state of mind. The mind’s usual chatter begins to fade away, placing us in a non-distracted zone. The feelings that would consume you under normal circumstances (inhibition, hunger, fatigue, or aches and pains) melt away, and all that matters is your dedication to your craft.”
Benefits of achieving a flow state include improved concentration and clarity, the ability to recognize and mitigate distractions and obstacles, and the positive feelings that come with a job well done.
So, how do writers stay focused and enter this flow state? It starts with reflecting on your own mindset and writing processes to learn how you can get yourself into the groove of things. What does your own flow state look like? It won’t all happen at once—like anything, it requires intentional practice and a good deal of patience. For an individual writing or working session, it takes at least 10-15 minutes to get into a flow state.
Like any (positive) new habit you might work to develop, there’s always room for practice and improvement—even if you’ve got a good amount of experience under your belt. Over time, you can train yourself to be a more focused writer, to better identify distractions and get work done in spite of them. Luckily, we live in an age in which our incredible human brains are being demystified by scientific discovery. Similar to how the first step of breaking a bad habit is to identify personal triggers (and then develop new strategies to respond to them), identifying and understanding positive triggers can help build positive habits. Start with this list of 10 flow state triggers.
With the right tips, tricks, and tools, you’ll get there.
Keep reading for an overview of how to get into a flow state and transform your writing process from a distraction-riddled battle to a positive and productive experience.
Distraction Free Writing Apps and Devices
What’s the best way to gain control over distractions and get into a state of flow while writing? After a decade or two of technological innovations—products with bells and whistles everywhere promised writers they would be the “magic bullet” for productivity and quality content creation—the pendulum now swings the other way.
There’s practically an entire industry built around distraction-reducing solutions for writers. These largely fall into one of two categories: physical devices designed for distraction free writing, and web applications that promise to improve a writer’s ability to focus.
Is There a Device Just For Writing?
You might be thinking, “Oh, to beat distractions, I should just do my writing on an old school typewriter—no overwhelming number of web tabs open, no temptation to browse the web and fall down some unproductive rabbit hole.”
You’re not alone in thinking that. There is a market for this sort of thing—not so much for a typewriter, but for a portable word processor for writers. Among the most popular devices are the Freewrite Traveler and Alphasmart Neo.
These devices share many of the same features and benefits—as well as functional limitations. It might help to think of them as a WiFi typewriter or smart typewriter. This essentially means the device is mostly like a typewriter, but with WiFi and bluetooth connectivity for saving, sharing, printing, and more.
The fairly popular Freewrite Traveler is billed as the “ultimate portable distraction free writing tool,” with its core feature being the ability to type on a keyboard and see the text on an e-ink screen. Another popular option, the Alphasmart Neo 2, takes an even simpler approach, initially designed as a no-frills device to use when learning to type.
We’ll put it this way: these devices’ selling points are more based on what they DON’T do than what they DO. They’re less about the bells and whistles, and more about stripping away distractions. If you want to check Facebook or play a quick game, they don’t offer much resistance. You’ll just have to use your phone or laptop, meaning these “WiFi typewriter” devices are best for people who already have rock-solid self discipline and concentration.
(If you want a slightly deeper dive into a couple of the major players in the market, you can check out this Freewrite vs Alphasmart overview and comparison.)
What About Apps?
Another approach is to look into web-based applications designed for a distraction free writing experience. There are many different flavors of distraction free writing apps on the market, each promising the ultimate distraction free experience. You may have heard of Scrivener, for example. It gained a lot of traction and popularity as one of the earliest distraction-reducing apps to come out.
Over the years, though, its popularity has waned in favor of the newer upstarts like the Calmly writer app and iA Writer. To get a lay of the land, you can see how these two, in particular, stack up against each other here. Both feature fairly minimalist and intuitive interfaces, and a few formatting and editing capabilities—features that many of these apps promise in one form or another.
Are they writer-focused, though? They try to be…but reading through reviews of many of them, you get the sense they were more designed for efficiency and productivity—more of interest to employers and managers than the writers themselves.
Slice has built a truly writer focused writing app. Instead of merely designing an app that shuts out distractions, Slice solves the practical problems of distracted writers. We do this by offering writer-focused features like the ability to “slice” a large assignment into smaller sections and self-contained panes to allow you to write and research side-by-side. It’s designed to help you get (and stay) in the zone.
We’ll talk more about Slice in a bit. Instead of just listing features here without context, though, let’s look at what a distraction free writing process looks like—then we’ll see how Slice can help.
First Things First: Mindset & Environment
Before you sit down to start writing, try to take inventory of your environment and atmosphere. One advantage of working from home is that you have a decent amount of control over the mindset you get yourself into and the environment you create for writing.
What Distracts You Most?
First, think about the most common distractions you have to fight against, and then figure out how you can prevent those distractions. Consider both internal and external distractions.
For most people, it’s easier to identify external distractions than internal ones. These include things like pets, family members, smartphone notifications, and the attention-consuming internet at large. External distractions tend to have clearer solutions, too: you can give your pets or kids something to entertain themselves, turn off your smartphone notifications, and so on.
Internal distractions include your own thoughts and emotions, making them a little more difficult to identify and mitigate. Stress in general can be a powerful distraction. Whether you’re ruminating over something that recently happened (either life- or work-related), worried about something coming up in the near future (again, life- or work-related), or dealing with ongoing stressors in your relationships, work, or home life, they all threaten to disrupt your flow. That’s assuming you can even get into a flow state, however.
It might help to make a list of the distractions that throw you off the most. For some people, just adding items that cross your mind to a list is enough of an intervention to “release it” from your mind so you can redirect your focus. For each item you list, consider whether it’s an internal or external distraction; then, think about how you can either prevent or mitigate each one. If you struggle with this, you might want to experiment with mindfulness or another type of meditation.
As uncomfortable as it may be to sit still for a few moments (“I have to get this writing done! There’s no time to just sit around!”), it’s the best way to examine your own thoughts, to explore the things that distract you, and develop tactics for bringing yourself back to focus.
How Do You Create a Distraction Free Environment for Writing?
Few writers have identical processes for their work, so if you want to achieve flow state, you need to think objectively about your ideal writing environment. What are your best conditions for success?
Is your office chair or standing desk comfortable? Is your workspace organized? How are the temperature and noise levels? Are you set up to work with apps or equipment you’re comfortable with?
Do you like listening to music while you work? Many writers swear by it, since it can drown out other distractions. That being said, it can also be a distraction in itself. Familiar music works best—and music without lyrics is even better. You can find a wealth of “focus” music through a simple Google search if you don’t already have something that gets you in the zone.
What Keeps You Energized?
Many writers (this one included) rely on caffeine to get (and keep) going. To avoid going from sluggish to frantic, consume strategically. While we’re all different, research suggests that for those of us who reach for caffeine, there are benefits to consuming in moderation. A couple cups of coffee can increase focus, but doubling that can have the opposite effect, turning “focus” into anxiety and restlessness.
Eating is important, too, so it’s worth having some snacks on hand that can give you little bursts of energy throughout the day. Some of the best healthy workday snacks include an apple with peanut butter, trail mix, yogurt or cereal, edamame, veggies with hummus, hard-boiled eggs, and dark chocolate.
You know what’s really underrated and often overlooked in relation to focus? Water. That’s right, drinking plenty of good old fashioned H2O is linked to better concentration and focus. Drinking water helps keep the brain functioning well, while dehydration can leave you feeling foggy and exhausted.
Creating Your Own Distraction Free Writing Process
The easiest way to make sense of a distraction free writing process is by way of metaphor. What’s the best way to eat an elephant?
There’s a famous quote, most often (but not always) attributed to Desmond Tutu, who said “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” That writing project you’re staring at, that’s the elephant. It’s big, and it’s overwhelming. It can flatten you if you let it.
Getting Ready to Eat the Elephant: Breaking Down the Task At Hand
Let’s say you need to write an extensive piece about distraction free writing. That topic in itself can seem huge, and it can be difficult to determine where to take that first bite and get rolling. And so, let’s take a look at how to break that elephant down into chunks we can digest—possibly the most important, transformative distraction free writing technique you’ll learn in this piece.
Make a Plan and Get Your Research Out of the Way
Before you start digging into the writing, make sure you have a good idea of what your topic is, the general points you need to make and support, and how you want to approach it (organization, tone, and so on).
If you need any clarity around what you need to write, it’s better to ask those questions now than after you’ve drafted half the piece. If you’re writing a piece for SEO, you’ll want to do your keyword research early so that it can inform your outline.
Create a Functional Outline
Writers tend to have their own systems for creating an outline. Some writers put a lot of detail into their outlines—which takes longer but can make the writing process itself quicker. Others just need a minimal outline, just the topics they’ll cover, and then prefer to jump right in. Your familiarity with the topic should help you determine the right approach for your outline.
Once you’ve created your outline, decide how much of the elephant you can eat at once.
Time to Eat: Creating a First Draft
First, get in the zone. Then, get ready to take that first big bite of the elephant.
Eliminate Distractions to Get Yourself In the Zone
To get in the zone, you’ll need to minimize all distractions—both internal and external. For external distractions, you can put your phone away, close unneeded web browser tabs, disable notifications, clear your workspace, and quiet your environment.
Internal distractions can be a little more difficult. Go ahead, try not to think about an elephant.
Consider developing a routine for focusing. It doesn’t have to be an overly formal or involved process. Don’t overthink it. You can start simple, by clearing and calming your mind with breathing exercises and making sure your workspace is organized and tidy. What works for one writer may not work for another, but through trial and error—and some self-reflection—you can design a routine that works for you.
Will your “routine” work right away? Probably not. A routine, by definition, is something that is repeated over time, so that it almost becomes second nature. You may not know what it takes to get yourself in the zone—you might even think you’ve never been in the zone.
You can quiet many of your internal distractions through a short mindfulness meditation or reflective journaling practices. The idea is that the more you can learn about what distracts you—and how—the better positioned you are to prevent and mitigate those distractions!
Draft Your First Section
Next, you’re ready to pick a section to start with and begin feasting on that elephant. Many writers start by drafting their introduction or initial section. The great thing about breaking your outline into distinct sections is that you don’t necessarily need to write them in the order they’ll ultimately appear.
Here are a few tips for drafting a section:
- First, try to get yourself into a flow state. Pick what you’re going to work on and what the specific goal for the writing session is, address any distractions around you, take a breath, and dive in.
- Focus on completing the specific task at hand, and make it clear to yourself what completing the task looks like.
- Clearly define (for yourself) what the section’s main goal is. For example, if you’re writing a section about how to eliminate distractions, everything you draft should be relevant. You wouldn’t just want to list distractions, for example; you’d also want to make sure you offer guidance on how to address each distraction.
- Avoid multitasking! If something super important creeps into your mind while drafting, jot it down somewhere so you can follow up later without disrupting your flow or forgetting what crossed your mind. You might use old-school sticky notes, digital sticky notes, a notepad…you get the idea. This way, the item is temporarily “resolved” in your brain, because you know you’ll circle back to it later.
- Focus on completing a draft, not perfection. This helps you get core content from your brain to the page, without interrupting the creative momentum. Ideally, you’ll draft a section in one work session, and save revision and proofreading for later—once all of your sections are drafted. This approach helps to separate the drafting and revision processes, each of which are crucial for successful writing.
- Keep track of what distracts you. If you’re able to catch yourself when you get distracted, jot down the distraction somewhere. At a later time, you can review your list and think about how you might make adjustments to your environment, tools, or processes—to enable more distraction free future writing sessions.
Drafting While Distracted?
What happens when you’re distracted while drafting? Mindfulness tells us to take note of our distractions and then let them go. What if you’re distracted by something that does need your attention, though?
Rather than immediately dropping everything and switching gears to handle whatever has come up, have a notepad or sticky notes nearby, so you can jot down a quick reminder to yourself to circle back to it once you’ve completed the section you’re working on.
When You’ve Finished Drafting a Section
Once you finish a section, you might feel like you have momentum on your side. You might want to keep rolling into the next section. While you certainly can take this approach (especially if you’ve broken your writing process into fairly small sections), doing so forfeits the valuable dopamine fix you can get from checking a task off your list and taking a little time to refresh yourself before continuing.
Rinse and Repeat
Repeat the process above for each section of your outline. You’ll soon have a full draft—nice!
Slice: The Writer-Focused Writing App
Slice is more than a simple word processor. It helps you write the way you think.
Here are a few of the ways Slice empowers writers to write without distraction:
- Its organizing principle is a project, which makes it easy to collect all of your primary content and secondary sources in one place.
- This also means that whenever you open your project, everything you need will be there—no more cat-herding.
- It helps writers slice their content into manageable sections, which can be worked on individually and without distraction. It’s easier to focus on well-defined ideas.
- Slice’s panes allow you to write and research side-by-side.
- Its integrated Chrome extension makes clipping and collecting research easy. See something useful while browsing? Clip it directly into the relevant project.
- It enables teams to assign responsibilities, set due dates, and indicate project status—all on a section-by-section basis.
In other words, Slice not only makes it easier to eat the elephant—it might just make you hungry for more.
See these features in action and learn more about how Slice can improve your productivity by helping to create the distraction free environment writers need to thrive.