Writing Through Distractions

Jackhammers everywhere.

Landscapers are jackhammering outside my window this morning. My toddler needs me every couple minutes. I have the same 5 songs playing constantly to distract him from the distressing noises. Nerve pain shoots through my pelvis every few seconds. All in all, it’s a dreadful start to my week. I can barely keep my mind on a given task for more than a minute or two.

I could sit here and daydream about going on a writer’s retreat, where I can have peace and quiet and someone else can worry about meals for once. But that’s not the season of life I live in right now. And deadlines don’t care what else is going on in my life.

The last time I felt this discombobulated on a hard deadline I was writing my dissertation. There were no jackhammers or toddlers then, but I did have a nasty case of the H1N1 flu. During one video meeting with my advisor, I could barely follow what he was saying, thanks to my fever. When he tried to dictate an equation for me to use in my analysis, I had to ask him to write it down and hold the paper up to the camera. I scribbled the symbols into my notebook and hoped for the wherewithal to understand them later.

I wrote most of my dissertation in that sick haze — which, to be clear, I am not recommending as a technique. What got me through it was planning, some of the most detailed planning of my life. I laid out every chapter paragraph-by-paragraph and sometimes sentence-by-sentence in outlines. I’d spend entire days meticulously organizing the logical flow, until even my fever-addled brain was certain that I had every detail I needed. My outlines were so thorough that writing the chapter was sometimes little more than turning bullet points into complete sentences and adding in figures. As I got past the worst of the flu, I revised in preparation for sending it to my committee. And, amazingly, my committee requested relatively little alteration to the text.

The key, in my opinion, was that meticulous planning. Without dedicating time and mental energy to that effort, my dissertation would have been an utter mess. And since I expect I’m not the only one who struggles to write against deadlines and distractions, here are a few of my tips for getting work done, even when life conspires against you:

  • Know your big picture. Every journal article, research talk, and op-ed needs a key message that it’s driving toward. Once you know what that message is, it acts like the North Star, guiding you constantly toward your end goal. In every step that follows, ask yourself whether what you’ve planned or written contributes toward that message. If it doesn’t or if it’s not clear that it does, that’s a place where you need to cut the material or revise it to properly support your message.
  • Notes are your friends. When distractions abound, it’s simply not possible to carry all the plans in your head. Write them down, whether it’s in a Word document or on Post-It notes. Once you have the words and ideas out of your head, you can evaluate them more clearly and see where you need to rearrange concepts to clarify the logical flow. And, when you’re inevitably interrupted, you have something concrete to return to.
  • Break your writing into discrete chunks. My dissertation outlines broke every chapter down from headings to subheadings to paragraphs to individual sentences. Excessive? Maybe. But when I couldn’t think straight for more than a minute, it was a lifesaver to have everything laid out so carefully. I couldn’t hold the chapter — or even a section — in my head at once, but I could look at one paragraph and the sentences in it. Whatever distraction interrupted me — a coughing fit, a trip to the bathroom — I could return and pick up where I left off. Today, when everything is distractions, being able to focus on these discrete segments is how I re-integrate myself into work.
  • Break your tasks down discretely, too. How often can you dedicate an entire day to working on your big writing project? I certainly can’t. So I look for ways that I can break the project into smaller tasks that I can tackle in shorter time periods. If I have five minutes, maybe I just grab a PDF of the next paper I need to read and tuck it into Zotero. With a bigger chunk of time, I’ll read and annotate a paper. If I know I’ll get interrupted often, I use that time to format existing annotations and notes so that they’ll be ready for me when it’s time to sit down and plan my next book chapter. This way I can be productive in the time I have instead of always wishing for more time to work with.
  • Know that revision is inevitable. Nobody writes a perfect first draft, especially when working around distractions. Every time I finish writing a piece, I step away, even if it’s just long enough to use the bathroom and have a snack, before I re-read and edit. Writing mode is not editing mode. The more time and space you can give yourself between those tasks, the more effective your revisions will be. Even if your deadline doesn’t allow for a long break, just a change of scenery between where you write and where you revise can help your brain shift to the more objective state you need to revise. Don’t feel like revisions indicate failure on your part; they’re simply a part of the process for every writer.

A saw has replaced the jackhammer, but the distractions roll on here. Thankfully, even if I can’t tune the noise out, I can still get something done. I hope my tips help you to do the same!

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(Image credit: M. Stern)

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