The Key to Distraction-Free Writing

From Jeff: This is a guest post from Ethan Waldman. Ethan helps people live and work in harmony with technology at the Cloud Coach blog. Right now, many people are using his free course, The Automated Email Blueprint, to liberate themselves from email hell.

Sometimes, you stare at that blank screen and simply can’t get focused. There’s so much to do — so many opportunities and obligations. It’s easy to get lost. It’s easy to get distracted.

But if your words are going to make a difference, you are going to have to focus.

Writing is integral to everything you do online:

  • You write tweets and Facebook updates.
  • You write captions for your photos.
  • You write blog posts and newsletters.

To draw an analogy, your website is like your body, and your writing is like your voice. It’s the most important tool to getting your message heard.

So why is writing so hard — especially online?

Distracted Baby Photo
Photo credit: Kevin Rawlings (Creative Commons)

Writing requires concentration

And not just short blips of concentration.

If you actually want to get something decent written, you’re going to need to stay focused.

You’ll have to ignore your email and social networks, your cell phone, and the television.

And just write.

Writing requires discipline

You have to go back and read your work. You have to edit. You have to reread it again.

You have to keep slicing and dicing until you’ve created a masterpiece.

Then, you have to do the hard work of shipping — of releasing your work into the world. And tomorrow (or later today), you have to do it all over again.

Sometimes, you realize what you’ve written is awful and unsalvageable, and you need to start over.

This is all part of the grisly process.

Writing requires time

Good writing cannot be rushed.

When we’re used to most tasks taking five minutes or less, writing can feel like an eternity.

But this is part of the beauty of it: writing takes time. This is one thing that cannot be thrown into the microwave and zapped to completion.

Writing is difficult, but good.

If you’re missing any of the three key ingredients (concentration, discipline, or time), you’ll find yourself fighting a losing battle when you try to get something written.

So how do you actually create space for this to happen?

A simple solution

When it comes to writing, my productivity philosophy is simple: Keep it distraction-free.

First, forget what you think distraction-free writing means. This isn’t about forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. It’s about using your energy in short bursts to create your best work.

I use the Pomodoro technique. The idea is to pick a task and set a timer for 25 minutes. Focus only on this one task. When the timer rings, take a five minute break, and then do another 25-minute block.

If you don’t want to commit to the Pomodoro technique, try the basic idea: focus on only one thing while writing, and that is writing. Shut off any other distractions and just do the work.

What about distraction-free writing tools?

I combine the Pomodoro technique with distraction-free writing software. The options vary widely, but the marks of a good distraction-free writing tool are:

  1. It has a full-screen mode.
  2. You like using it.

Even WordPress has gotten in on the distraction-free writing fad: They added a full-screen mode for the post editor a few months ago. If I’m just writing a quick blog post, it’s my go-to solution. Otherwise, here’s what I use elsewhere:

On my Mac and iPad, I use a great app called IAWriter (for Mac or iOs). I like it because it has very clean typography, absolutely no text formatting tools, and a “focus mode” where only the sentence you’re currently working on is in black (the rest are in grey)

On my Windows machine, I like OmmWriter. OmmWriter is cool, because it provides an audio experience as well, with sounds that remind me of wind gently blowing through chimes. It’s very zen and can really help get me in the writing mood.

Rules for distraction-free writing

Are you ready to begin? To finally write something without the constant dings and buzzes of our world? Here are some rules to guide you:

  1. Don’t edit while you write. Worry about cleaning things up later — just get everything out that you can, while you can.
  2. Don’t format text. Leave the bolding, italicizing and subheads for later. Just write.
  3. Don’t stop until you get to the end. If I’m writing a blog post, I try to write a full draft before my session is done. If you’re writing a book, maybe that means writing to the end of a chapter or sub-section. You get the point.

When I adopted a distraction-free writing practice, I saw my writing improve in quality and speed. The same can happen for you too, if you concentrate, make the time, and show a little discipline.

The only thing stopping you from writing is you. So give this technique a try for a week. And see what happens.

Distract yourself from the distractions and just write.

What do you think? How do you avoid distraction and just write? Share your thoughts and techniques in the comments.

If you need help breaking through the online distractions and getting focused with your writing, check out Ethan’s Automated Email Blueprint.

*Photo credit: Kevin Rawlings (Creative Commons)

81 thoughts on “The Key to Distraction-Free Writing

  1. Focus on ONE thing? 

    We trick ourselves into thinking that we are masters of multitasking. We’re masters of delusion. 

    Thanks for the reminder. Words are important and hold power. Take the time to choose them wisely.

      1. I’ve heard multitasking is a myth too. I obviously do it all of the time..but the more I think about it, I’m not really using my focus/abilities at 100% when I do. Its more like each tab gets a percentage of my brain. I hate to do the math on it when I used to have 30-40 tabs open at once. (Thankfully I don’t do that anymore- there are awesome plugins that limit your tab browsing.) 

    1.  If I may be so theological;  The TRINITY is EASY. MULTI-TASKING is a MYTH!  Half of Everything. All of NOTHING.  Focus on the ONE thing. Get ‘er done. Move onto the next! 

  2. Woah. I swear, every time I come to Goinswriter, it’s like somebody got inside my brain and wrote exactly what I needed for the day. Conviction. I am going to go open Word and disable my WIFI now…. 

  3. Nice post Ethan!  I have incorporated these “rules” recently and I can attest to the power they have over getting more writing done!  This is a testimonial to the rules working if you commit to them.  What do you have to lose?!

  4. I like to use physical paper notebooks. I’ve heard you use a different part of your brain when you write with your hand versus typing on a keyboard. 
    I think its refreshing to step away from the laptop too. Heaven forbid writing become about writing and not about Twitter, Facebook and blog comments. 

    1. Jim, that’s a great point. I usually find that when I write on paper I come up with more creative ideas, and my writing is cleaner too. I love being able to draw a picture to help guide whatever it is I’m writing about, too. 

  5. Wow! This was wonderful and inspirational! I’m gonna write down some of these tips, and look at them when I need a reminder or two. Thank you Ethan Waldman – and Jeff for letting Ethan visit your blog 🙂

  6. Yeah, I have that problem too–editing while writing. Or worse yet, I will have a chapter or so written, and then go back to them to edit/re-write, and all before getting the whole novel complete. That really can hold you up. I’m glad I’m not the only one who does this!

      1. Why does everyone talk about it? Probably because there’s that need in each of us to try to make things perfect the first time around. We want the first draft of our work to be the finished product, and that’s just not the case. So if you want to stay ahead of the game (from what I hear, at least), just get the first draft written, and go back and revise at the end!

  7. ‘Pete, this is neither the time nor the place’ – from TV show Home Improvement. 

    In assessing the distractions I also think the time and place also need to be considered. 
    Home can contain many distractions and I also find early morning containing less distractions. 
    Pomodaro is a great. is also a great online tool.


  8. I like to stick a manila file folder over the screen of my computer when I typed. I learned if I could see the words, I would correct spelling and sentences. This allowed me to just think and write without seeing. Then I eventually pull the folder off and fix things up while the ideas and sentences were still on my mind. I found that helps me to not worry about the words on the screen, but instead the words in my mind. I also put the computer I type on in a room of the house without a TV, phone, video games, whatever. Just books in case I need to look something up, and the computer to write. It works for me.

    1. I was a very serious violinist for about 15 years. My teacher used to have me practice blindfolded! I’ve never thought to do that with writing though. Great suggestion!

  9. Good post, Ethan.
    It’s great to eliminate distractions like noise or other elements on your screen. But for me, the biggest distraction is the mental rabbit trails that I can go down. It’s easy to lose focus and start thinking about something entirely different from what I’m writing. So I’ve found that concentration and discipline are more of an internal battle for my attention than technology or beeping things trying to distract me.

    1. Interesting point. I’m the same way, but I guess that the technology distractions will CAUSE me to go down the rabbit hole that much more often. And since I do most of my writing on the computer, it’s important that I minimize the digital distractions. 

  10. Distract yourself from the distractions… I like it

    Some great tips here. The internet is great, but it’s made us all ADD crazzies who can’t settle on a single task for more than 2 minutes. I know i’m guilty of this

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  11. Great post with some very practical tips. We write so much better when we do it distraction free, it helps you really focus on your ideas. If you have a family you might have to sacrifice and get up earlier then them to have that distraction free time.

  12. Sometimes life feels like a distraction to all the things I want to accomplish in life.  Less distraction = more focus.  More focus = to-do list completed.  Pretty simple stuff…but hard to swallow.

    1.  I agree, Charles. Easy to say, hard to do. What I’m finding in my own life is that I’m too busy – I’m over-scheduled and as a result of that, I always feel behind.

  13. Great post Ethan. I’m the worst when it comes to editing & formatting while I write. For me it seems to make things clearer & help me organize my thoughts, but it could definitely be slowing me down at the same time. I’ll have to try your tips & see if they help me get my post written quicker.

    As far as what I do to focus, I plan my posts out ahead of time. I write down my ideas for each post on my calender on the date I want the post to go live. Then when it’s time to sit down & write {when my kids are napping… speaking of distractions} I read over my ideas & then start writing. That works well most of the time, but of course there are always those times where something just hits you & you have to write about it. That’s when I usually just write everything I’m thinking & I save it for editing later. Thinking about that, that’s probably when I get my best posts. Humm, maybe I need to quit planning. Do you think planning ahead can hinder your writing?

    1. I think you’ve gotta do a bit of both– and then be really flexible.  If you’re always waiting around for inspiration to strike, you could end up not posting on your blog as regularly as you want 🙂  So keep the schedule, but be willing to veer off if you feel inspired to write something completely different.

  14. I use the Pomodoro timer on my iPhone, especially when I’m working on school tasks. (I’m coming into the home stretch of my bachelors degree program!) I also like to write mainly on my MacBook in Ommwriter, as well. I love that app! I don’t even need the background music, just opening that app puts me in a whole other frame of (writing) mind.

  15. I use the Pomodoro timer on my iPhone, especially when I’m working on school tasks. (I’m coming into the home stretch of my bachelors degree program!) I also like to write mainly on my MacBook in Ommwriter, as well. I love that app! I don’t even need the background music, just opening that app puts me in a whole other frame of (writing) mind.

    1. I think you have a great point about repetition. When you get used to being really productive in a certain environment, just entering that environment puts you into “work” mode.  

  16. This is good stuff. Just what I need. Can’t wait to check out Ommwriter.

    I was going to say something else, but I got distracted by email and now can’t remember.

  17. I definitely don’t do this well. But as I progress with projects, I’m finding that distraction-free times are absolutely necessary. I usually just shut down all social media sites and turn my phone alerts and begin writing. My biggest stumbling block is editing while writing, rereading every sentence I’ve just written, listening for the poetry in the words. This needs to stop. There’s no room for poetics in rough drafts.

    1. Same for me – editing while writing. I seem to be in love with the virtual sound of my own voice. 🙂 Embarrassing. I love what you said and pasted it to Evernote – “There’s no room for poetics in rough drafts.” You could really take that statement and run with it, girl!

  18. Officially, Jeff, this site is now my favorite [hand over little gold statue].  Not only are your words inspirational and practical, but your guest bloggers also offer their best.  I love/loathe the internet.  It’s as if the hundred little window tabs are shaking their flirty bits at me, beckoning me to read “just one more” post/comment/status update.  Great stuff, Ethan.

    1.  Thanks, Maureen. I’m honored. Ethan has great stuff about productivity and technology. Be sure you check out his blog.

      Btw, I totally resonated with your flirtation analogy. I have the same feelings towards the web.

      1. Thanks for turning me in the direction of his blog.  What a treasure trove.  

        Lol  on the flirtation bit.  I have no other way to describe it which pegs my relation with the web so well.

    2.  BOY, is that true, and a half!  Funny, I bought my first computer for the express purpose of getting writing some, without having to deal with white out, etc. So Fine, I don’t need the white out, but I’m also frittering away time I regret later. And speaking of which, maybe I should be writing, instead of TALKING about what I should be doing!  Ta!

  19. I seem to be in great company 🙂 I, too, struggle with NOT editing while I write. I know this slows me down tremendously. I started using the Pomodoro technique recently and have found that it works really well for me with staying focused. I have never heard of  Cold Turkey or OmmWrite but will check them out. Thanks for all the great advice and helpful tips, Ethan. (And thanks, Jeff, your blog is my morning class each day).

  20. I agree – you should NEVER edit while you write. Here are 7 ways to stop yourself from doing this (I like the pomodoro, too!)

  21. This is a very helpful post. I *love* the full-screen mode in Pages. We also actually went truly “cold turkey” and got rid of the Internet at home altogether. Well, we both have smart-phones. But we found there’s nothing like being on your laptop without Internet access to help you get writing or programming done. (My husband’s actually launching software that does this, similar to Self Control but more customizeable…but I’ll refrain from linking to it in a cheesy way.)

    Thanks for your clear words of advice.

    1.  Hi Sarah, when your husband gets this software launched, please tell us. I TOTALLY need this!  And thank your hubby!  I have been sooooo tempted to just go Cold Turkey on the net issue but then I wonder if I can. I need an INTERVENTION!

  22. Awesome post! I’m starting to get into OmmWriter, and when I’m working on a book, I use Scrivener (also in Full-Screen mode). 

    Haven’t had much success with Pomodoro yet, but I truthfully haven’t been using it as much as I should have been. 

    Thanks for the tips, Ethan (and the great site, Jeff)!

    1. I do love Scrivener. I don’t think of it as “distraction free” because of all the organization and story tools, but it’s definitely a fantastic piece of software!

      1. True, true! Took the words right out of my mouth–to be clear, I just meant using Scrivener as opposed to the “Big W” for writing long documents is WAY better!And, I tended to use Evernote for the research/org. part and Scrivener for the multi-chapter layout, while writing within its full-screen mode. Good point, though.
        – posted via Engagio

  23. Thanks for this! Really helpful! 🙂 But, indeed, ways of eliminating distractions differ from one writer to another. Listening to classical music, nature sounds, or nothing at all doesn’t work for me. I can write best when my earplugs are both on and my Asian pop playlist is in full blast. Haha! In that way, I don’t get distracted. That’s me! 🙂

  24. Another great post!  I especially like the OmmmWriter.  Forget writing.  I could just chill out in front of it to relax.  🙂

     Seriously, though, here’s another great program for getting rid of distractions.  It’s called DarkRoom (or WriteRoom for Mac).  Here’s the Dark side:  (I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to make it a link.)  It gives you a black green with bright green font.  There are a few simple editing tools, but they’re not posted on the screen.  You have to remember the CTRL + commands.  I’ve found that staring at the dark screen, without being able to see the desktop behind me, really helps me focus.  My words usually come tumbling out as I feel compelled to fill the void…

  25. Hey Jeff,
    Great stuff. I find that the hardest part for me is starting to write those guest posts that require a lot of work. But sometimes I just gotta start with something, anything, no matter how small… then momentum builds up.


  26. I absolutely swear by the Pomodoro Technique. It changed my productivity level like nothing I have ever experienced. When you do the whole process – with the various activity inventories, to do today lists etc, it makes you realise that you can’t get much done in a single day but if you apply yourself to the time you can get some real quality stuff achieved. It is so good for keeping distraction free.

    Did you read the Noteberg book on it? Fantastic. 🙂

  27. Unbeatable advice, and I went over and got on the list for automating my inbox, too! Thank you for this and for that!!! 

    Also, my mom raised us using a variation of the Pomodoro technique – 15 minutes for every task we did, but the concept was generally the same. It’s been one thing that has always stuck with me for housework and other mundane tasks; ironically, I have never thought of it in regards to writing. So thank you, thank you, thank you! Life changer!

  28. Really appreciated your post, Ethan – thanks! I think I’ll give all your tips a go (certainly the Pomodoro technique appeals – although, who named it after a pasta sauce?) and look forward to seeing the difference they’ll make. 

  29. Thanks for the really useful article Jeff. Although of course one should just focus on writing and getting stuff down on paper/screen, it looks like a lot of us debate the best way to do it. OmmWriter looks really wonderful and soothing and I should check it out. At the moment I fullscreen nvALT with a nice custom font setup, as then I can easily access different notes, and know that saving happens automatically. It looks like OmmWriter is better if you just want to open one file at a time and make sure you stay in a single article till you are done. It may be a bit fiddly to get into it, but once there one looks to be soothed into productivity.

  30. Yay! I’ve been doing something right from the beginning! You’re rules have been how I write since I can remember.. now if I could get the “distraction free” part down… life would be good. 

    1. Learning the difference between “you’re” and “your” would probably improve your writing even more than this post, though.

  31.  AMEN and AMEN!!! TO infinity!  Thing is, when I had my typewriter, there were no distractions. I just wrote. Hmmmm but I’m writing now, and there are no distractions. So what IS it writers want and Don’t want to do at the same time?

       Heard one author say, “Spill your Guts, THEN clean it up.”    So very true. Thanks for the reminders!

  32. Thanks for this post, Jeff. Distraction is my worst enemy, really. This ADD mama/foster mama with 5 kiddos in the house is having a very, very, very hard time making writing a discipline rather than merely something I do when I’m about to explode with pent-up words/emotions. Add to that a book contract which translates, to me, into sheer panic and I’ve not exactly been productive lately. I need to make some changes around here, remember that I’m a writer and I’d better start acting like one (and plan for success rather than sitting around waiting for the conditions to be perfect) and get to work! 

  33. Today,
    While I Was At Work, My Sister
    Stole My Apple
    And Tested To See If It Can Survive A 40
    Foot Drop, Just So She Can Be A Youtube Sensation.

    Judi Bola Teraman IndonesiaMy IPad
    Is Now Broken
    And She Has 83 Views. I Know This Is Completely
    Off Topic But I Had

Comments are closed.