Writing Through This World of Distractions

Dogs and kids at the park
Outings help reduce distractions at home. Plus we have fun going on a nature walk.

I will state the obvious and say that it’s really hard to focus right now. As I wrote about in “Why I Bought a Boat: Juggling Gender Roles in the Pandemic,” women have been particularly affected by the lack of childcare and added crisis-school responsibilities. The outcome has been significant. In academia, while male professors have been able to increase their journal article submission, women’s research output has steeply declined, covered in this article in The Guardian. Adding to this pressure, of course, is the stress of the pandemic, racial injustice, the economy. . . . I could go on and on, but I won’t.

My focus here is to help you to move past the distractions to get a little bit done right now. That’s right. A little bit, not 15 manuscripts, but small projects accomplished that can add up. I will frame this around working while having children at home as the primary sources of interruption, but you can also apply my tips to your own situations.

Feed the meter. I love Dr. Harvey Karp’s concept that giving your kids a little attention before moving on to an independent activity can greatly improve behavior. I employed this approach when my girls were little (focused time and then a little independent play while I did something else) and I definitely still use it.
I personally get more done if I focus on my kids first, break away for awhile, and then have planned segments of attention throughout the day. In fact, this has been my strategy throughout the last few months. We eat breakfast together and outline the day, then a balance of independent play/crisis school/chores and check-in moments from me. It doesn’t always work, but I am definitely more successful and my children seem happier if I focus on them first before attempting to work.

Make your kids wait. If you’ve fed the meter and your children are still interrupting you, it’s fine to put their non-emergency needs on hold. Even little kids can wait a minute for you to finish something, as long as they don’t need to use the potty.
We’ve struggled with the barrage of interrupting Mom (me) during the quarantine. I’ve found that it helps to sketch out the day’s plan on a portable whiteboard, laying out the schedule and required tasks to get electronics. Sometimes I give my kids an “distracto” pass, allowing for one interruption. I also have a “snack guide.” It’s low-tech and nerdy, but cuts down on the “I want a snaaaaaaack” whining.

My cheesy summer snack guide. I made it myself.

Ration out TV and electronics. Tablets, games, and Disney+ can be wonderful tools in helping you get some work done. I caution against overusing them to boost your own productivity for a few reasons though. First, it’s (obviously) not healthy for kids to be consuming media all the time. Secondly, too much TV/devices can actually lead to more interruptions. When kids get too used to being entertained, they can have a harder time with free play. I’m not saying NO TV (totally not, no way, not happening), but save the coveted electronics for special times of the day (i.e. when you need to focus).

Value your writing time (and make others value it too). Writing should not be perceived as an afterthought, as the first activity that gets cut out during busy times. If you are a professional writer, you need to write. If you are an academic, you need to write. If you are a person who just likes to write, you need to write. Have an outline of your writing tasks for the session, day, week, and month. Set specific times in which your partner is fully on kid duty and no one is allowed to interrupt you (lock the door if you must). Writing time should not be viewed in the same category as online surfing or social media posting. Yet don’t limit your writing to your sacred sessions. Get the small, low-focus items (see below) done during distracting parts of the day, freeing up your blocks for high-focus tasks. If you don’t make writing a priority for yourself than others won’t either.

Don’t wait for a perfect “day” of writing. I’ve never understood the need to write only in lengthy blocks. Or maybe I’ve just never had this luxury. Carving out short sessions regularly can be more productive than attempting to get one full day of writing. I also recommend using moments throughout the day to handle low-focus tasks (see below). Here’s why: the more you write, the easier it is to write. You spend less time getting back into a project and feel less pressure to create your masterpiece. If you can miraculously get a day to write, savor it, but don’t wait for it.

Divide your tasks by level of focus. As you plan out writing objectives for your current project, identify which components are high-focus and which ones are low-focus. Save the high-focus tasks for parts of your day that you are least likely to get interrupted, when you can shut the door, put on the noise-cancelling headphones, and have your partner handle whatever minor/major crises emerge. Getting up early to write may also help you carve out some high-focus time.
Some aspects of writing don’t take a lot of brain power. Your low-mid focus items can be addressed during potential interruption times. Try to use these moments to format a source, save a journal article, or email an editor. The trick to productivity right now is to finish low-focus items when you can so that your precious minutes of high-focus time can be used to tackle tough writing tasks.

Get your social media distractions out and then stop. News and social media lure us in right now. We feel a need to be part of the world and know what’s going on. Indulge this need for a little bit. Even better, do it at a time in which you wouldn’t be writing, but also doesn’t cut into interacting time with your kids. Use some of your waiting time to do this: waiting for kids to brush teeth, use the bathroom, come downstairs, for a pot to boil or something to heat up in the microwave. If you must start a writing session with a social media looksie, then limit your time online before starting the project.

Acknowledge that there will be “off” days. This is a tough time. Not every day will be a productive one. Sometimes the kids need more engagement. Sometimes the world is just too troubling for anyone to focus. Sometimes the dog rolls in poop and needs an emergency bath. It’s okay if you didn’t make today’s goal. Reevaluate (perhaps with a dish of ice cream) for tomorrow. What could make the day better/smoother/happier? I’ve found that planned outings can boost our overall moods and I actually get more done when we return home.

Feed your own meter. It’s hard to focus if you are not getting enough sleep, food, water, exercise, or mental breaks. It might seem counterproductive to give up some writing time for walk, shower, or early bedtime. Nope. Taking care of yourself will help you think more clearly and be more efficient. Plus you might get inspired during non-writing times. How can we fit it all in? Eat and exercise with the kids, which gives you multiple check marks. Or work out alone for the head-space–whatever works for you. Establishing healthy habits will aid you in the long-run.

Here’s the deal. If you have kids, dogs, a partner, elderly relative, etc. at home, you will get interrupted and face countless distractions. I fully get this and am living it. While I was writing this post, my dog tried to eat a marker and both kids woke up, needing my attention. The key to getting things done is to set low expectations, have a plan, and maximize the teeny bits of time you do have.

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