How to focus and get warmed up when sitting down to write

Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting at your computer to work on your writing project… And you’ve started to write… But you’re having trouble concentrating and focusing? You’re really struggling to get into the “writing mode”?

Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. Everyone who wants to become a writer struggles with this!

For most people, it takes a good 15 minutes or so to really get into a “flow” state of focus and productivity when writing or doing other tasks that require concentration.

Here are some tips and techniques for getting warmed up and into a productive writing mode:

1. Start by doing a flow-of-consciousness writing exercise, in which you just start writing down whatever comes to mind. Preferably this would be on your topic, but anything is better than nothing: just writing about how you feel or describing something that you saw or did or experienced recently works too. This will get you generating text and then once you’re into the writing mode, it should be easier to switch into your real writing project.

2. Shut off distractions. If you find yourself frequently surfing the web as an avoidant behavior, unplug your Internet cable or shut off your WiFi connection. You might want to install a software program such as SelfControl, Freedom, or FocalFilter that will block you from accessing the web (or at least certain websites) for a certain period of time.

3. If you need quiet for writing, then make sure your work environment is quiet. Some people thrive on working in noisy coffee shops, but I find myself distracted by overhearing conversations nearby.

Likewise, I’ve found I need to avoid listening to music that has vocals as it can make it hard to focus on words and thoughts when writing. When your brain hears spoken words, and if you concentrate on them, the words will occupy your short-term memory, which is the same place in your mind where you’ll be trying to generate the words you want to write down. On the other hand, classical or other instrumental music can be good for concentration as long as you don’t find it distracting.

4. Make sure your bodily needs have been taken care of; for example, if you’re very hungry, the bodily sensation of hunger can be a distraction (on the other hand, being a little bit hungry can be good for productivity). And it’s normal to feel a little sleepy after a big meal, so if possible, time your working sessions appropriately, or don’t overeat.

Note that the body can manufacture bodily discomfort as a manifestation of your difficulty in concentrating. For example, my body is making me feel very tired and sleepy right now which is making me feel like I should shut off the computer and go to bed. While it’s tempting, the sleepiness only came on once I started actually making progress in doing some writing!

5. When possible, don’t start with a completely blank page or screen. If you are continuing a longer-term project, it can be good to leave a sentence or paragraph incomplete when you end a session, so that you can start your next session by finishing off those thoughts. If you’re starting a new project, article, or chapter, then get started by rushing as quickly as possible to get some initial thoughts down in point-form notes. You can then work on revising these into sentences and paragraphs.

6. Try to have stuff on the go — for example, material for several different chapters or blog posts — in different stages of completion. Then if you sit down and don’t feel like writing from scratch on one topic, then you can switch to a partially-written item and do some revising/editing. Once you get into the flow of that, you may be all warmed up to do some new writing.

7. Don’t get hung up on trying to write perfect prose the first time around. When you’re starting with a blank page, just get your thoughts down in the most basic form as they arise in your head. Point-form notes are more than adequate. Then once you have a mass of rough notes, you can then start working on revising and editing them into coherent prose.

8. Some writers get into the “writing mode” by performing rituals, such as wearing a special hat, reciting some incantation or prayer, etc. Although these often seem kind of silly, humans do put a lot of emphasis on ceremonies and rituals, and if you can find or create something that works for you as a psychological trigger that tells you “hey, it’s time to write!”, then give it a go. Talking to other writers can give you some ideas.

9. The best way, longer-term, is to make your writing a habit. Try to schedule a writing session for the same time every day. It will be a struggle for the first two weeks or so, but once it becomes a routine, your it will come naturally.

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