Every writer has been there: the words are inside you, trying to get out, but life is in the way. Maybe you can’t find any time in your busy schedule. Or you can’t stay focused when you sit down to write. Or you have a great writing session one day, and then your work in progress sits neglected for weeks.
Whether you’re writing a novel, maintaining a blog, or keeping a journal, the answers to these problems are mostly the same. Writing is like exercise: adopt a sensible training regimen, apply it consistently, and you’ll grow stronger. But it’s also like meditation: open your inner doors, let go of distractions, and you’ll become more centered. In both cases, the keys are discipline and focus.
With that in mind, here are ten simple techniques you can use to keep yourself in the writing zone.
1. KNOW THYSELF
Are you a morning person? A night owl? Do you crash at 3:00 every afternoon? Do you tend to use weekends and holidays for activity or recovery? Figure out what times of the day (or week) are your peak times for creative energy and which times are dead zones. Many writers do their best work early in the morning, before the cares of the day have a chance to clutter their minds, but you may do better after everyone else has gone to bed. Experiment.
2. CARVE OUT TIME
If writing is a priority for you, prove it. Put writing time down on your calendar, and keep that time as sacred as you can. If you’re busy, that may mean saying “no” to other commitments. Give your schedule a ruthless review. Your writing is important, so what’s less important? Get rid of it.
Sometimes it’s not a lack of free time so much as lack of motivation. If that sounds like you, try setting a deadline for your writing, and hold yourself accountable by telling people what you’re working on and when you plan to deliver.
3. CLAIM YOUR SPACE
Stake your claim to a writing nook. Maybe it’s a desk in your home, a “quiet space” in your office, or a favorite café. Be sure to pick a comfortable place with a positive atmosphere, someplace you’ll want to visit every day. Build a mental wall around it. Whenever you go there, tell yourself this is writing time and let the rest of the world fade away.
If you can’t claim a physical space, no worries. Get yourself a writing hat or some other symbol that signifies “writing time.” When the hat is on, you’re in your virtual writing space and not to be disturbed. For this to work the hat can only be on when you’re actually writing. Take it off when you’re done.
4. SCOUT THE TERRITORY
Writing is usually easier if you know where you’re going ahead of time. That doesn’t mean you need a detailed outline, but it does mean you should do your homework. Research, brainstorm, and organize your thoughts so you have a direction to follow. If you’re writing a story, visualize the next scene and put yourself in your characters’ shoes. If you’re writing an article, read and take notes on what other experts have said about your topic.
At the end of your writing session, think ahead and jot down a few words about what comes next. When you come back later, you’ll be able to jump right in.
5. CLEAR YOUR MIND
You’ve heard it time and again: eliminate distractions. But what does that really mean? First, unplug from email and social media. If you just can’t stay away from Facebook and Twitter, consider installing software that will temporarily block them. Don’t forget to silence your phone, too. If you like working to music, wear comfortable headphones and try music without vocals like instrumental jazz, chamber music, electronica, or ambient sound.
Getting rid of distractions extends to the tools you use. Switch your favorite writing app to full-screen mode or hide formatting toolbars so it’s just you and your words.
6. GET IN THE GROOVE
Starting from zero can be tough. Try loosening up with a few minutes of free-writing, like stretching before a run. Give yourself a simple prompt (perhaps the sounds around you, or your favorite Muppet) and write about that for five minutes without stopping or thinking about the words. Just go. You don’t have to save what you write, or even look at it afterwards. But it will flex your creative muscles.
Another good technique for longer writing projects is to start by reading over what you wrote the last time. But be careful: don’t fall into the trap of editing if you’re supposed to be writing (see #8 below).
7. WRITE IN BURSTS
Some people are good at focusing on a single task for a long time. Most of us aren’t. If you have a short attention span, make it work for you by concentrating your writing into short, intense bursts. Set a timer for 15 or 25 minutes, then write as fast as you can until the timer tells you to stop. Give yourself a nice break (that means getting up and leaving the computer, not surfing the web), then come back and do it again.
Even little bits of writing can add up fast. If you can average 500 words a day, five days a week, you’re writing 130,000 words per year. That’s a book or two. Or dozens of short stories. Or hundreds of blog posts. Not bad.
8. JUST KEEP GOING
Don’t let fear of imperfection slow you down. If you’re in the rough draft phase, let it be rough. Silence your inner editor (its time will come later) and get the words down on the page. Once you can see the whole draft, then you can fix it.
Set a milestone for each writing session. If word counts are too intimidating, just commit to putting in the minutes. Keep your goals small and the accomplishments will pile up quickly, propelling you forward.
9. REWARD YOURSELF
When you do hit a milestone, celebrate. Tantalize yourself with big rewards for the big goals (an activity or a long-awaited purchase) and little rewards for the daily goals (a piece of candy or an episode of your favorite tv show).
Even a tiny reward can be powerful. Get a wall calendar and mark each day you hit your goal. Add a sticker or stars on the days you really crush it. Once you have a streak going, you’ll want to keep it up.
10. ALWAYS BE READY
Inspiration can strike anywhere and any time. You might overhear something on the street, stumble across a useful article in a magazine, or have a brilliant idea after you’ve gone to bed. Make sure you always have a way to record those flashes of insight, whether that’s Evernote on your phone or a Moleskine notebook in your pocket.
Share your productivity secrets
We’re always interested in hearing fresh ideas on how writers—or anyone—can stay motivated and productive. Leave a comment to let us know how you keep yourself in the writing zone.