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Sensory Tips for the Distractible Writer

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I am so distractible. Dealing with that aspect of myself is one of my greatest challenges as a writer. Though my doc has assured me that I do not have an adult version of ADD, I’ve wondered a time a two.

Being distractible can be caused by a whole slew of things—like genetics, parenthood, stress, and anxiety—but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it.

Minimize Visual Distractions

You know what distracts you best. Me? I’m easily distracted by notices popping up on my computer screen—telling me I have a new email, or a new comment to approve here at WU, or a new DM on Twitter. Because of course I want to go see, right away, what’s going on, what needs to be done—and I want to then do whatever that is.

This fix is simple enough: Turn all that stuff off. Turn it off, leave it off until you’ve met your goal for the day. If you need help, there are programs that can keep you off certain URLs (like Twitter) for the duration of your work session. Windows users, check out Nanny for Google Chome [2], LeechBlock [3] for Mozilla, FocalFilter [4] for all browsers, or a fee-based service like Rescue Time [5] or Concentrate [6]. Mac users, Vitamin R [7] is for you.

An even more drastic step is to shut down your Internet connection completely—something our own Juliet Marillier has been known to try on occasion. You can do this by manually pulling the Internet cable from your computer, by turning off the Internet via the network connections setting, or by using a service like Freedom [8], which will apparently do it for you.   I have yet to go there; I tend to like being able to do instant research if I need it, or buzz over to thesaurus.com if I’m in need of word bettering. That’s not to say I couldn’t benefit from these programs, because insta-research may just be a more cleverly disguised form of distraction for me. (My issues are never ending, I’m telling you.)

Sometimes the best strategy is to step completely away from your normal computer. Try this:

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Maximize Visual Helpers

Lest you think I’m advocating going through life wearing blinders, I thought I’d better point out the flipside to watching where your eyes land. Taking some time to focus on things aside from your manuscript can be fueling as well. Do you have inspirational quotes taped to your desk? Knick-knacks that remind you of a character or a story goal? How about a word-count chart? Or Debbie Ohi’s Cautionary Comic For Writers [12]? Spending a few mindful minutes with these things may help you keep your focus, remind you why you’re in this game and what you mean to accomplish. My favorite sticky note desk companion says simply “Olé. Show up,” a direct reminder of the most inspiring TED talk EVER on creativity, featuring Elizabeth Gilbert. Go, if you haven’t yet seen this [13]. I’ll wait.

Of course there’s a real world out there, too, away from sticky notes near your desk—away from even (gasp!) your desk. Go out there and play sometimes. Look around. Be inspired by life. Your pages will breathe more easily for this in the end.

Minimize Auditory Distractions

Those pop-up boxes I mentioned in the previous section? They often come with auditory alerts. Silence those as well—on your computer and on your cell phone. (When I’m in the zone, I set my cell to only buzz at me when a call is coming through—in case it’s the school calling about a sick kiddo, something important.)

Avoid trying to work during known bustling hours in your house—when people are milling around, wondering about dinner, when someone’s blaring a football game in the other room, etc… And if you can’t avoid, then try this…

Maximize Auditory Helpers

One of the best investments I’ve ever made was to buy a pair of Audio-Technica “active noise-cancelling headphones.” These babies have the ability to hook into your iPod and play whatever (more on that in a sec), but best of all they come with a switch that almost seals out noises from the outside. I’m telling you, they work. Because of them, I’ve been able to focus on the comfy couch in the middle of family-chaos hour—when guitars and pianos are jamming at our place—and it’s like I’m in a book-writing trance. My children have to jump up in down in front of me to get my attention.  The only noted issue is that I apparently speak VERY LOUDLY when I’m wearing these headphones. But I don’t mind that in the least.

My favorite companion to the headphones is a new-agey app you can find on iTunes called AmbiScience Zen Master Bundle. [Update: This has apparently been re-named to Pure Meditation Premium. Thanks for the tip, Sheri!] Though I can’t work to music—especially music with words—because of my distraction issues, I can listen to monotonous drizzle such as I hear whenever I tune in to “Buddhist Rain,” one of twenty-four sounds. I love it. It has become my anthem for attention. The app also comes in handy when you’re at a hotel with an i-compatible radio. Plug in, and sleep dreamily.

Maximize Olfactory Helpers

I don’t know what to tell you about minimizing olfactory distractions. Don’t sit next to my dog for a long time after she’s eaten her dinner. Don’t buy a home near the sewage treatment plant. This is a dead-end idea. Let’s just talk about the good stuff.

Peppermint. Pine. Citrus. Cinnamon. These are all scents researchers say might make us feel more focused and alert [14]. My sister made a bunch of essential oils for me this past Christmas out of these scents—things to help zap fatigue, boost my focus. I love them. You might try burning (carefully) a candle at your desk. Or picking up an aromatherapy diffuser, like a clay ring you can douse with oils and set overtop a warm light bulb. It’s also worth saying that everyone is different here. Researchers might say peppermint makes people feel more focused, but you might find a floral scent does the trick for you. Experiment.    

Maximize Gustatory Helpers

You know I believe in chocolate. Big time. Black tea is another of my favorite addictions, and has been shown to significantly increase concentration [15] and possibly impact nighttime sleep less than coffee [16]. My heart belongs to Bewley’s Irish Breakfast, but pick your poison.

Researchers believe that chewing gum can help you stay alert during the day [17]. And, hey, you need to be alert to be focused, so chew away. Since peppermint and cinnamon are known olfactory helpers, too, might as well start there.

Some foods have a rep for helping with alertness, like walnuts, sunflower seeds, and watermelon. Eating a high-fiber, high-carb breakfast is supposed to increase alertness as well [18]. But everybody’s different. I can’t eat oatey-ohs for breakfast or a sandwich at lunch if I want to stay alert [read: awake, able to communicate with the outside world]. I can eat as many vegetables as I want, though, so a big spinach salad is a great choice for me at lunch. If you can eat anything, monge away, but know that eating too much will likely make you sluggish.

And there may not be any taste at all in water, but I’d be remiss not to mention how important it is to drink up during the day [19]. Staying hydrated is one of your best bets when it comes to doing right by your body.

Have sensory tips to share with your fellow distractible writers? We’d love to hear them.

Next time, I’ll talk about the body—what you need to know about ergonomics, etc… to help maximize your time in the chair. Unless I get distracted away from my desire to write that article, which is entirely possible. 

Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s chriswsonic357 [20]

About Therese Walsh [21]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [22], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [23] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [24], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [25] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [26] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [27]). Learn more on her website [28].