How to Stay Focused Writing

How to Stay Focused WritingIn case you haven’t noticed, I write about all the stuff I suck at.

And here’s my worst struggle yet: staying focused.

But this discipline is a non-negotiable for a writer. It’s essential for anyone who is serious about doing great work.

I don’t care if you have to trick yourself into it. If you’re going to do stuff that matters, you will need to find a way to stop chasing shiny objects, sit down, and get something done.

That’s all there is to it.

Half-finished paintings don’t make it into museums.
Half-drawn blueprints don’t make for well-constructed buildings (or any building at all).
And half-finished manuscripts don’t make for much of a story.

Truth is: you can’t create compelling art if you don’t stay on track.

Getting your work done is essential to making an impact. You have to finish. Staying focused is how you do it.

In any type of creative work (especially writing) you’re going to need discipline to get you to the finish line. Here are a few tricks that work for me:

  • Block out time to be creative. Most professionals agree that writing in spurts longer than four to six hours is unhealthy and unproductive. Instead, write less, but more frequently.
  • Reward yourself with breaks. I recommend writing for an hour or two. Then give yourself a 15-minute break away from computer, notebook, whatever, and just have fun. Go watch TV, eat lunch, or take the dog for a walk. Just do something to switch your brain off. Make sure you make it it as restful an activity as you can. (Sorry, checking email and reading Twitter doesn’t constitute as a “break.”)
  • Turn off all “noise” while you write (including social media and other techno gadgets). Write without distractions — as much as you can.
  • Don’t edit as you go. (Don’t edit on your breaks, either.) Schedule blocks of time to edit at later. You need to just get some words down on paper (or screen).
  • Be spontaneous. Don’t write what you think you should write. Write what inspires you, what you feel. This may fly in the face of what you think it means to “stay focused,” but give yourself some room to be creative. Brainstorm, free-write, fail. It’s okay to have fun.
  • Set a goal and meet it. John Grisham used to get up every morning and write one page per day. That was his goal. Some days, he exceeded it. Other days, he just scraped by. But the point was he set a realistic, attainable goal. If done every day, he knew he would eventually have a book. And he did. Setting and meeting small goals will build your confidence and do more for your writing career than you realize.

These are just a few ways to stay focused. I’m sure there are more. If you’re like me, you may have to bribe and cajole yourself into doing it, which is fine. Do whatever it takes. Just get your butt in the chair and do something.

Once you start, you’re far more likely to finish. So get started now. It’s time to focus.

How do you stay focused writing?

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80 thoughts on “How to Stay Focused Writing

  1. Good, sound advice, Jeff! Right now my goal–because I’m obliged to, you know, work for my employer–is do one post a day, five days a week. Simple, attainable goal that does indeed build confidence.

  2. Checking email & twitter doesn’t count as a break? you just broke my heart….

    I’m more of a songwriter, so the long 2hr sessions work differently for me. But, even in the short sessions, I use “freedom” to shut down my internet connection. And I use the pomodoro trick via Focus Booster when I’m just not feeling it. That breaks the time up into 25 minute sessions. Much better for the songwriting.

    And, believe it or not, I try to cooperate with my inner editor after I get all the oozing ideas out. But only after all the oozing… I let that mean stodgy critic in me lead and guide me to better ideas. It’s scary, but I’m often pleased with the outcome.

  3. Right on the money, Jeff. I’m putting all these in practice now as I’m writing my 3rd novel and I can affirm: they really work! Only thing I’d add is to turn off your cell phone during writing hours as well, and alert your friends and family when you’ll be “unplugged” and writing. Helps keep you focused and makes for fewer distractions.

    Thanks for the entry.

  4. Before I can even start I usually listen to music for 15 minutes. I like stuff that the words are more cryptic. For example, Jon Foreman’s solo stuff.

    From there everything get’s shut down. I turn my phone off and close out all browsers except for the one I’m writing in.

    1. Great idea, Michael. I need to fill up with inspiration, too. Reading or exercise often does this for me. What Foreman EP do you like the best?

  5. Great simple tips that are basic enough to implement but yet we over look them at times. I’m working on developing a blog and writing a short book both of which are new to me and I feel pretty overwhelmed at times. It was great to learn that my favorite author, John Grisham sets a very basic goals, obviously it has worked for him!

    1. Yeah, I was really impressed by that, too. I think that I need to hear more stories of super-authors acting human in order for me to feel like writing isn’t a waste of time for me.

    1. I think we all do. It’s the curse of being a creative. Thanks for the comment, Jenily, and it was great to connect with you on Twitter, too!

  6. Another great writing post. Ironically, I read it because I decided to “just” check Twitter for a moment while trying to do some reading and research. Now turning AirPort off. Thanks.

  7. I love your blog because you are so stinking honest. I’m glad, though, that you are writing about a lot of things you “suck at.” I need your help!


    1. Thanks, Doug. I’m learning that people appreciate authenticity, even when it means being open about your weaknesses. I’m no expert here; I’m learning along with the rest of you. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

  8. I use OmmWriter whenI am writing– soothing and peaceful 🙂

    I’m a little taken aback that checking Twitter and Facebook should not count as a break though..oops!

  9. I really have to follow the first point, blocking out time. I use a separate calendar on my Mac, that I can lay over my normal schedule. That way I can see where a block of time best fits into my day. If it’s not my best writing time, then I reschedule my day to take advantage of writing during my peak time.

    I just need to be more consistent at doing this daily.

    Thanks for the great insights!

  10. I have learned that I cannot work with Twitter open, even if that work is only catching up on blogreading. I open all of the links I want and then close Twitter before I get distracted by it again. The same is not the case with facebook or email, usually those are shorter, fewer distractions.

    My other big challenge is getting back to work following a break. Someone starts a conversation with me, I see some dishes that need to be done, and that book looks inviting. Longer segments work better for me but six hours is a little ridiculous.

    Thanks for these tips!

  11. I have discovered that the internet + trying to write = distraction and failure. I disconnect from the internet so that I cannot be tempted to ‘just check my emails’ or ‘just quickly research that a bit’ and end up getting carried away. 

    I also have several projects on the go at any one time. It sounds unfocussed, but it means that if something isn’t working out, I’m stuck, or I’m just not feeling passionate about one project, I can still work on something else and DO something. Often, managing to do something then brings back the ability to work on the first thing.

  12. Jeff,

    Loved the article. Very good points there. I use an app called Focus Booster to try and help. It has a timer that runs for 25 minutes, then has a 5 minute break, another 25 minute work time, followed my a longer break. 

    Also, I like what you said about blocking out time. It took me awhile to get into this routine, but now I wake very early almost every morning. I spend time praying, reading the bible, then I write. I try not to check emails, twitter, etc. I just write. It’s, by far, my most productive time.

  13. For me, it’s all about the environment I create. It’s not just about the absence of distraction, it’s about intentionally creating a focus-driven environment. I think I’m ALWAYS going to have some distractions around – even if it’s just my own short attention span. So it’s not just about getting rid of them but filling in the gap with things, such as the right music, that help me focus.

    1. good call, Loren. would love to hear more about what that environment looks like. i like what you’re saying about it being more than just avoiding the bad.

  14. “In case you haven’t noticed, I write about all the stuff I suck at.”

    This made me lol 🙂

    I like to set word goals to meet. Right now it’s relatively short, and I usually exceed it. I might actually up the count a little bit for a little more challenge and productivity.

    Great tips!!

      1. Me, too..but shhhh, don’t tell anybody. 😉

        That’s part of the reason I laughed. Because I do the same thing. And my  husband, who is a youth pastor, does it, too. He always tells our students that he sits up there and gives himself a little “counseling session” and if they get anything out of it, it’s bonus. 😉

        We are all very similar in our struggles, so yes, someone will always benefit from what we’re trying to learn. Might as well not keep it to ourselves!

  15. I’ve been using it’s pretty good!  It used to take me a while to get to 750 words, but now I’m down to 12 minutes! There’s no restriction as to how many words you write in 750Words, 750 is just the minimum to stay on track with the program.  So far I find myself just writing thoughts and devotion.

  16. I was much better at staying focused before my husband retired in Aug.  I truly need alone time and we live in a rather small apartment.  We’re still working on the problems we’re both facing with all this ‘togetherness’.  If I’m lucky maybe there’s a book in it. 😉

  17. Thanks for the tips Jeff.  It is so hard for me to stay focused on finishing writing projects that have no deadline.  I appreciate all of the advice I can get.

  18. Jeff. Excellent! I too struggle with this BIG time. And what’s funny is that it seems to be even more obvious to others than myself! I have a couple of accountability guys and they always ask, “You stayin focused?” and “Are you on task?” 

    I so need that.

    Also, I started using FocusBooster (listed in your link to The 99 Percent) to set time for uninterrupted focus (love the ability to have the clock softly tick, reminding me to stay on task while it’s running) and to motivate me to take care of the tasks I want to do each day (i.e., writing, design, riding my bike!) I started using The Seinfeld Productivity Secret (don’t break the chain! which helps for me to not slack and just blow it off.

    Ultimately, though, it comes down to what you said, “Just get your butt in the chair and do something.”

  19. This may sound weird and counter-productive (and at times, it is) but I stay focused by having more than one project opened at once.  When one gets to a point where I can’t seem to work on it anymore or get anything done, I switch and putz with the other one for awhile.  Switching back and forth keeps creative energy flowing without burning out a single project.


  20. I need to write much more while focused.  I don’t have a problem with any kind of social media, mine is more of a picking cheerios out of my hair while writing down a quick thought that my toddler inspired problem.  Since he started to really get into pretend play I have taken diction for him when he asks.  As much as he enjoys books, the stories he remembers telling me word for word are so much more special to us both.  Maybe he should be the writer…

  21. Jeff:   Great points, reminders.   I have two ways to focus.   RSS to your blog–and I do read them ~ and on a lighter note, I found some heavy duty BUM glue to keep me stuck to the chair for a time.
    And I do what Katie Axelson does–I somewhat pretend I am writing…I am not really doing ‘this’ write [pun intended] now, right?

  22. Wow! I really need these tips! Although I think I have become more focused than before, I still need to be reminded that concentration and consistency are very important. 

  23. I do pretty much as you write here. I find that no distractions work best, even if it means getting up an hour or two in the morning before everybody else does, or getting to bed later than everyone does.

  24. I hope the things that play music are not techno-gadgets. The right music—and ‘right’ varies from day to day, for me—really carries and inspires my writing. There are days when I don’t think about music at all, so things are pretty quiet. But when I do…’s gotta be there.

  25. Those first two sentences describe me far too well.  As far as staying focused goes, I usually have to get out of my apartment.  When I go somewhere else, I tell myself I can’t leave until I get something done.  It can be torturous at times, but it usually works.

    What’s really bad are the days I can’t manage to get myself out of the apartment….

  26. I’ve been reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott (and highlighting, tweeting, quoting it like crazy!) I’m pretty sure you’ve mentioned reading it before, but it’s been so inspiring and motivating to read her advice on writing. Reading this post today is taking it one step further for me with specific goals. Thanks for being an encourager in your work, Jeff. I can honestly say that I value your words just as much as Lamott’s. 

  27. Jeff, i must say you’ve helped me handle the psychological obstacles which tear at every writer. You’ve made me realize the truth: I’m not the only one who struggles on his way up  the mountain and I’m not the only one who makes mistakes. You made me realize  its alright to be human because that is all we can be because that is what we are. The lessons you teach are invaluable. I just turned 29 and was, still am to a minute degree, saddened that I’ve only published once, mainly my own fault because fear, slavery to convention-not letting my imagination be free in both expression and content, and being lazy (a veil for my fear, inventing a thousand sham pleasures to invent a reason to convince myself why I shouldn’t write today), haven’t published (traditional, self, indie etc.) one book. I was ashamed and jealous of other writers in their twenties who have already released their third book and received many accolades.  I always pictured myself as one of those people. Your posts on writing simply for the joy should be your main priority, taking your time (not too much), and many others have really soothed a writhing, angry soul into one who is calm, reflective and now comfortable to take it one step at a time. I see time as a friend rather than a foe, something to dread. I can now calmly accept the fact that maybe my destiny is to begin a writing career (side job if need be) later in life. Many authors have walked that road without shame. Thank you. I’m glad I accidentally stumbled across you and decided to become a follower. I know you will be helpful in the future for this young writer (me). Have a great day.


    1. Chaz, I couldn’t agree with you more. Like you I often beat myself up for not having a career in my early twenties. Truth be told, there was so much that needed to be ironed out in my life that focusing on a serious writing career was unrealistic. Yes there are those over acheivers out there that could have handled my kind of problems as well as a successful career.  I wish I could be like all of them. However, we all deal with life at our own pace and I’m just now trying harder to find ways on how to make this happen for me. I know its what I was meant to do-whether full time or on the side. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and have the qualities a writer has-paying attention to minor details, becoming obessed with pretty names for characters, etc. no one I know cares about this stuff. So, good luck to you & I hope that you can reach your goal of becoming a published writer. MJ

      1. 5 years later…
        my insecurities of being a writer isn’t so much about staying focused or not having anything to share..but the fact that I haven’t the proper ‘grammar’ and large ‘colorful’ vocabulary… I spend most of my time trying to be more ‘colorfully’ expressed, trying to use words that would lead the reader into a world of laughter and community with the writer’s characters. (if this makes any sense to anyone I have somehow managed to leap over one of my hurtles) and that is making a completely direct statement. I long to share and be creative in my writing..and I’m 49 years far all I know how to do is how to keep my nose above water.

  28. I am a moth in a candle factory sometimes, I could get distracted by a bare wall. I write on my laptop and get distracted too easily with the internet, as useful a tool as it is I think I must be addicted to it because I can’t stay away from checking my email and Facebook (curse you Facebook). I saw an app for macs that essentially blocked the internet for an allotted period of time (say an hour) and nothing you did would stop the programme until the time period was up. Unfortunately I don’t have a mac and I can’t seem to find an app like this for a windows based computer. Maybe someone out there knows of something? I’ve tried one of those kiddy protection programmes but found it slightly obnoxious rather than helpful. 

  29. I have a dog 2 ferrets three sisters and I share a room. Is there a way to stay focused through all of that other then waiting until everyone is asleep. Writing at one am is just by going to cut it. Can you help?

  30. Shoukria Jeff! Xiexie and Gamsehamnida,
    Just heard you on the Firepole webinar today with Guy Kawasaki and Danny Iny… was curious who you are, so found your blog.

    I’m starting my first book on the common cold (after 30 years of God’s guidance) and I’m finding what makes me a good writer–inclusive personality-type , also makes it hardest to actually produce the writing,– TOO inclusive of a personality-type. Staying focused is mainly my problem of eliminating all the other less-important things until the writing becomes my top priority, and constantly saying no to new important things that pop up, except the VERY few things that really are higher priority…
    I’m looking forward to getting your newsletter to keep me focused until I finish the actual book! —

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