10 turn-offs for restless writers and pen-shy procrastinators

This post helps writers switch off their procrastination toolkit and switch on to more productive writing sessions.

Writers don’t get it easy. Most of us spend our working lives sat at a computer screen. The very thing that’s supposed to help us write efficiently bombards us with distractions.
But of course, it’s not just technology that keeps us from our hectic writing schedules. We’re surrounded by all manner of things that can’t wait to help us procrastinate.

Below is my list of top turn-offs for writers. Feel free to use the comments section to share your own.

(Mostly techno-) time drains for writers

Okay, so the first part of this list contains some pretty obvious turn-offs. However, they’re worth mentioning, because I’m sure we all fall into their inviting little traps from time to time. Some you may not have thought about before and the final two are, well, a little more personal and much harder to switch off. Onwards…

  1. Email
    Some people receive just a few emails a day, others get dozens. At work, I’m in the latter category and it can be a real distraction. I’ve recently taken to simply closing my email client. It’s been a revelation. Try it. You can always load it up again at lunchtime or after an hour’s worth of uninterrupted graft.
  2. Instant messaging and Twitter
    It’s good to talk. Well, it is unless you’re up against a deadline or you’re struggling to write the final scene of your script. I write in short bursts and save my Twittering for 10 minute breaks or when I’m not busy. Come on, I know it’s addictive, but turn if off!
  3. Mobile phone
    Obviously, if your wife’s eight months and three weeks pregnant, or you’re waiting for an urgent call from your literary agent, don’t turn off your mobile phone. However, if you’re not expecting anything drastic to happen, and you want a little uninterrupted time alone, just you and your keyboard, get it switched off.
  4. Music
    A lot of people write to music and swear by its ability to relax and inspire. Indeed, I will often have my headphones on when I’m doing more run of the mill sort of work. You know, head down, churn-it-out stuff. But if it’s anything that requires a little more brain power, I turn off my iTunes and concentrate. If your music is any way distracting, turn it off.
  5. Television
    Come on, we’ve all done it. You’ve been meaning to write all day and are determined to get that last couple of paragraphs down, but flaming squirrels if it isn’t your favourite programme about to start on the tellybox. Here’s the truth: you can’t write and watch television at the same time. Admit defeat and put your laptop down. Or better still, turn off the TV.
  6. Spell checker
    Who uses a word processing programme that very kindly points out all your typos and misspelt words within nanoseconds of you committing such terrible deeds? I do and it can be a real pain in the doo-dars. If you’re sick of being pushed around by squiggly red and green lines, turn them off. Go on, they don’t fight back. When you’ve finished writing (in peace), turn them back on and let them do their job. On your terms.
  7. Statistics
    This is a blogger-specific entry. Goodness me, it’s tempting to refresh your blog statistics every 20 minutes, isn’t it? And no good ever comes of it, you know. Whether you’ve had an extra 10 or 10,000 page views, it makes very little difference and you could quite easily get the same information an hour later, instead of when you’re supposed be writing. Turn off your stats. Get some work done.
  8. Your computer, as in the whole thing
    These days, many writers work straight to screen. Personally, I like to make a few notes on paper (preferably) and then head for the computer. I find it quicker to type than write by hand. However, if you’re struggling for inspiration or getting distracted (see 1-5), why not reverse the process? Print out whatever you’ve done, find a dark corner and scribble your notes in the margin. Oh, and remember to take a highlighter pen – an essential tool for writers.
  9. Friends and family
    We all have responsibilities and you can’t write every second of every day, but if you need to tell everyone to shove off for a couple of hours, do it. Generally speaking, writing is a fairly solitary process. It’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is. Turn them off. Even if you can’t find the switches.
  10. Your inhibitions
    Many people argue that the only way to beat writer’s block is to just write. Write anything. Hopefully, you’ll scramble your way out of whatever mental hole you’re in and everything will be a-okay. But what about those people who procrastinate because they’re scared that what they’ll write won’t be good enough? I’ve done it. I’ve sat at my computer completely petrified to the point of, frankly, not doing anything. There really is only one thing you can do. Turn off your inhibitions – all those negative thoughts – and write. Write, write, write!

Get involved

We all have our different distractions and things we really should avoid when we’re writing. What are your turn-offs? How do you protect yourself from the ever-present lure of procrastination?


m@twentyset.com 25 January 2009 Reply

I’ve recently subscribed to your blog and I like this post. I’ve been struggling with writing a novel and I agree – the computer comes with a lot of distractions these days!

Above all, I think just turning the internet off has to help with over half the distractions you may encounter. There are a few writing programs that allow you to do just that. WriteRoom is one I’ve heard is great!

rose.carla@gmail.com 25 January 2009 Reply

I like to move away from my desktop and use the laptop at home (no internet) in MS Word when I just need to focus on my writing. Sometimes, I close all the other tabs/windows so I wont be tempted to Facebook, email, Twitter, etc.

dmitri@relenta.com 26 January 2009 Reply

I think that the main source of procrastination lies within us, not without. When you’re really motivated, there aren’t distractions that will stop you.
Great post Iain, and good luck with Write For Your Life. Love the name!

george@tumblemoose.com 26 January 2009 Reply

So true.
Time suckers each in their own way.

I can especially relate to the spellchecker. Can’t stand to see them red wigglies.

Yet another outstanding post.



jude@fleurdelyspublishing.com 26 January 2009 Reply

All very true. When I’m at work downstairs in the office I don’t have Tweetdeck open on the desktop and if I have a task to do which requires concentration, I don’t have gmail notifier switched on either. If I’m doing a task which is just time consuming but doesn’t require concentration, I sometimes watch a catch up programme on the laptop next to the main PC monitor. Social networking such as forums and Twitter are strictly for out of office hours though.
As for when I’m actually writing…I write first thing in the morning with a cup of tea upstairs, in bed, on the laptop. The phones are off, email notification off, if anyone comes to the front door it gets ignored. There are no distractions in bed. When I’ve finished writing for the day, I get up and go downstairs to the office where I start the rest of the day’s work.

This system completely separates writing from everything else. I go into a writing bubble and I stay there until my creative batteries start to fade.

The writing time is also scheduled on my wall planner.

And every book is mapped out on a table before I start writing, with columns headed Chapter Number, Chapter Title, Action (summarised in one line), Number of words written. The table is on the wall next to the calendar wall planner, and after every chapter I write in the number of words and cross the chapter out with a marker.

As I’ve said many times before, if you Tweet all day, you’re a Twitterer. If you blog and visit other blogs all day, you’re a blogger. If you spend all day on forums, you’re a forum addict.

Writers write.

savethemedia@yahoo.com 27 January 2009 Reply

Great tips.
I particularly like the one about scribbling by hand sometimes. I find that I can spot mistakes better in a printout than online. Do I print out every blog post? No. But I do several printouts for larger stories … I let it gel awhile and read it with fresh eyes. Always find ways I could improve the draft.

teafields@gmail.com 27 January 2009 Reply

Those red and green squigglies from hell really are annoying.
That’s a good tip. They have no business being on the screen until you’ve finished.

auntstace@yahoo.com 27 January 2009 Reply

Music can actually help me focus, but it has to be instrumental. If I choose some with the same feeling as what I’m trying for in the writing, it can be marvelous. Everything else has to be off, and I have to be alone. People will SWEAR not to talk to you, but they always will. So it’s down to the basement, door shut and nothing on but the music. I use pen and paper first, so I don’t get the urge to surf.
Isn’t it amazing, all the things we have to do just to focus in on one thing and only one thing? Worries me sometimes!

hello@iammarkcameron.com 27 January 2009 Reply

Cool list of things that distract. I’m not a writer, I’m an illustrator but being distracted by things still applies to me and I managed to tick ‘yes’ to every single one on this list.
I like the feel of this blog. Ping! That’s the sound of me subscribing.

robin@altosoft.com.au 29 January 2009 Reply

I find that the easiest way to get rid of distractions is to remove myself from them. I work part-time and on my designated writing days I pack up my laptop, my notes and my lunch and go to my brother’s place to write.(about a 15 minute drive away from my home) He lives alone and works from home, and it’s a serene,peaceful environment. He works in his office and I set myself up on a table in his living room. I don’t have internet access there from my laptop and I turn my mobile phone off. I’m not distracted by domestic chores which only ever seem tempting when I’m about to sit down and write (and my desire to procrastinate does not extend to doing my brother’s chores for him).
I know it’s not practical or feasible for everyone, but if you can beg, borrow or steal a room from a friend or relative it’s worth it. On days when I don’t feel in the mood for writing I do it anyway because I’ve made the effort to be at my ‘office’ as I call it, and I also find that the change of environment often gets the creative juices flowing.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 29 January 2009 Reply

Thanks for the comments everyone. Sorry for the delay in replying. I’m here now.
@Monica – Yes, the Internet in general is a good one to get rid of. Pesky thing that it is. I will check out WriteRoom pronto!

@Dmitri – You’re right Dmitri, if you’re really into something, you’ll be more productive. It’s when the going gets tough that the tough, erm, need to switch things off.

@Carla – Indeed, another good ploy. I wrote most of my novel on an old laptop that was blissfully unaware of the Internet’s existence. It helped!

@Tumblemoose – Squigglies. Wigglies. To heck with them all.

@Jude – All sounds very organised Jude and I think you’ve hit on a key productivity ingredient: routine!

@Gina – I rarely print out my copywriting work, but always always always print and annotate my fiction. Strange that.

@Bamboo Forest – Wigglie. Squigglies. To heck with… Oh, I’ve done that. Who cares? To heck with them!

@Stacey – Yep, I do listen to music, but it’s mostly instrumental or acoustic-type stuff. I wrote the majority of my novel to Fionn Regan’s beautiful debut album – see http://www.last.fm/user/iainbroome

@Mark – Nice pingage! You nearly had my eye out. Welcome aboard!

@Chocolate Lover – That sounds like a great set-up you’ve got there. I managed to get a couple of months off work during the early stages of my novel. I lived with a friend in Bath. The new environment helped a lot.

Keep the comments coming folks!

rich@crowth.net 5 February 2009 Reply

It looks… rubbish, I know, but it’s my writing aid of late. I call it my noodle doodle grid.

This one isn’t finished, hence the gaps on the left. You see, I’m easily distracted whilst writing and I even if I’m not distracted, I sometimes run out of momentum. Instead of checking Tumblr, RSS feeds, email or blog stats, I shade another wiggly box in on my noodle doodle grid, which I prepared earlier by drawing random wiggly lines (noodles) up and down and across a sheet of A4. Whenever I run out of steam or feel fidgety, I shade in another box or two. It seems to both relax and focus me, and instead of getting tangentially engrossed in some snippet of information that takes me from Tumblr to YouTube to IMDB to Wikipedia to OH CRAP WHERE DID THE LAST THREE HOURS GO!?, my mind is cleared and I carry on writing where I left off, often with a new idea to pursue.

donnawhite01@hotmail.com 11 February 2009 Reply

Very delayed constribution to this line of though I know, but I just read a fantastic quote from a writer named Tobias Wolff. In a 2004 interview for The Paris Review he said,
“All I need is a window not to write.”

I guess very few human beings are robotic writing machines. The very fact that we write comes from the fact that we find joy and intrigue in the things around us- enough to want to be able to make words out of them. The overall message is, so long as you are getting words down, you are succeeding, no matter the pace or regularity.

donnawhite01@hotmail.com 11 February 2009 Reply

Missed a T on thought in my last post, god damn it. Where were the red wigglies when I needed them?

Anonymous 23 February 2009 Reply

[…] 10 Turn Offs for Restless Writers and Pen Shy Procrastinators by Iain Broom at Write for Your Life […]

alex.comments@yahoo.es 23 February 2009 Reply

I’m guilty of all those things. Today I’ll try working with the Internet turned off for as much as I can (ie, except for work that needs the Internet).

lphillips@sundanceresearch.net 11 March 2009 Reply

There are two productivity killers for me that shorten my day and extend my writing projects.
1. Following links from RSS feed posts. Always fascinating, always justifiable, always draining.

2. Saving the most demanding or unfamiliar work for after I’ve done the easy stuff. Its called a “comfort zone” for a reason, and I have to push myself out of it so I can get the hard work done.

gary@willwriteforcake.com 24 August 2009 Reply

Great post and some great advice.I especially like the idea of planning your thoughts out by hand. That’s something I haven’t thought of trying before and it gives me an excuse to buy a lovely new notebook 🙂
But I can’t bring my self to turn off Twitter. It’s just too much fun!

iain@writeforyourlife.net 24 August 2009 Reply

@Mr Uku Thanks for the comment. I’m in the middle of editing my novel and, heeding my own advice, I’ve completely mapped it out on post-it notes using a system of my own invention. It’s been a revelation and may well be coming to an e-book near you soon (or when I’ve got the novel wrapped up and off to my agent at least)!
Go get that notebook!

kath@kathburke.com 26 October 2009 Reply

Yes email can be so distracting. I’ve fixed that problem of the computer making this tantalising sound every time some new mail arrives in your inbox. You know how you kid yourself that some amazingly attractive and interesting email has just dropped in.
Here’s how I switched it off. If you’re in Windows XP for instance, you go under Control Panel, click on Sounds and audio devices, then choose Sounds tab, then in the Programme events window deselect New Mail notification.

Sorry if I’ve bored you with the detail…. but since I’ve done this, I’m less attached to my email program, and I do focus a bit better on the task in hand.

Anonymous 23 January 2013 Reply

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