Productivity, Writing

How to drill through the distractions and enter The Zone

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One of my favorite scenes in The Shining is when Jack is writing and Wendy enters the room (watch the scene here). This is his reaction:

I think all of us writers can relate to this. When we’re in our element and something interrupts our flow, it takes time to regain that momentum. Plus, there’s the possibility of losing that idea or at least the state of mind that incubated the idea.

But when you’re stuck, it’s the opposite, isn’t it? You welcome ANY distraction: A knock on the door, a notification popping up on your phone, your spouse offering you lunch.

You crave relief from that uncomfortable state of not knowing what to write next.

When distractions don’t come our way, we’ll conveniently supply our own. We’ll get a snack, check our bank account, pay the power bill.

Right now, I’m sure you’re nodding your head in agreement. We’ve all been there. And we all know procrastination is the killer of dreams.

So why do we keep doing it?

We have to understand where the procrastination is coming from.

Yes, there’s an element of laziness involved for sure. Writing takes a lot of mental energy. As Stephen King put its so eloquently in On Writing (a must-read for any writer), “It’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner.”

But beyond that is the layer of uncertainty. The voices in your head telling you this is stupid, terrible, unoriginal, nobody will care, you have nothing useful to say, etc. etc.

Procrastination may shut off the voices temporarily, but it never actually makes them go away.

 

photo by Caleb George

That’s why you carry around this vague sense of discomfort and guilt for not tackling your goals.

In fact, procrastination actually feeds these doubt-monsters in our heads. Each time we cave into the distractions, we give the voices a chance to reassert themselves: “See. You’re not a real writer. I told you so.”

That’s why a good skydiving instructor just pushes you out of the plane (after fastening you to a parachute, of course). They know if they give you time to think about it, the fear will kick in. You either won’t do it or you’ll undergo a crippling bout of anxiety.

So when it comes to writing, the easiest way to overcome those voices is to just dive in.

I discovered this by accident.

One day, I had only carved out an hour in my schedule as designated writing time. But fueled by a good playlist, I fell into The Zone (mecca for writers). Suddenly the words were pouring out of me faster than I could type them. The hours flew by. I was hungry and thirsty and needed to pee, but I didn’t want to leave The Zone for even one second.

Yes, the negative voices still asserted themselves, but as I wrote through them, they began to fade away.

So the next time you’re struggling, remember this: You CAN write through the uncertainty. When you do, it’s such an amazing rush that you don’t want to go back to the old way of doing things: caving into distractions and settling for mediocrity.

The more you write, the less persuasive your self-criticism will be.


What makes self-doubt sting is that it usually contains some truth. Even if you’re a seasoned writer, the writing you produce early in your session will probably suck.

But as you enter The Zone, you’ll drill deeper and go past those surface-level observations that distinguish exceptional writing from amateurish writing.

The ability to achieve depth in your writing isn’t something that comes from more education or super-smart writer genes.

It comes from inside us–hence the term “depth”–and it’s cultivated through uninterrupted moments of intense focus. Not only do you feel good about the finished product, but the process itself is exciting because you’re making new discoveries along the way.

The Zone is not some mystical place.

It’s something WE generate. Everyone’s different, but here’s my formula:

  • YouTube autoplay. I find Brainwave Entrainment most conducive to focus but sometimes a funky house/disco beat with minimal lyrics can get me in the right mindset.
  • Using Freedom to block distracting websites and prevent me from performing random Google searches. Which leads me to my next point:
  • Make your research and writing session separate. Yes, research can be necessary for your writing, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll eventually find yourself looking at Top 10 Energy Bars and wondering how you ever got there. Plus, even if you’re disciplined about it, interrupting your writing to conduct research will pull you out of The Zone.
  • Only periodically checking my email (and never during writing sessions). Checking email is my #1 writing enemy.  Even when I have legit reasons for checking it, it quickly gets out-of-hand. Luckily, using Inbox When Ready has allowed me to limit my glimpses to 5 times day. If I go over 5, I’m forced to wait 15 seconds before I can see my emails. At first this was annoying, but I realized it’s precisely what a compulsive email-checker like me needs!
  • Having minimal prep foods like Think Thin bars close by when moments of hunger arise. My favorite flavors are lemon and cookies-in-cream 🙂

As I said, this is my formula. What works for me might not work for you. So develop your own Zone Recipe and display it in a clear spot!


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Finally, you need to establish clear boundaries with others.

Luckily, my boyfriend is also a writer so he understands the importance of letting me have my space (and vice versa). But if your loved ones are non-writers (like Wendy), you should let them know–in a loving but firm way–the protocols to follow during Zone Time.

Photo by Bill Jelen on Unsplash

Applying these principles to bigger tasks

So far I’ve mostly focused on the micro (honoring your writing sessions), but these concepts apply to the macro as well.

If you have a big project—writing a novel or screenplay, starting a blog, writing an e-book for your business—hesitation and procrastination are even more destructive.

That’s because the heavier the object, the more momentum that’s required to lift it off the ground and keep it in motion. Every step of the way, internal and external forces will interfere.

Internal forces would be the aforementioned uncertainty (“is this idea worth pursuing?”). External would be changes at work, family crises, and anything that interrupts your usual routine.

While you do want to have some sort of plan in place, if you spend years reading how-to books and taking courses, you’ll never get started.

Why?

As you’ve probably already noticed, the more information you seek out, the more you notice contradictions. Expert A says establish a strong Facebook presence, Expert B says Facebook is useless. Then you’re back to square one, more confused than ever.

So pick a path that resonates with you and stick with it.

Yes, things will change. You’ll change.

Maybe two years ago you were jazzed about writing a novel and now that you’ve done it, you found the whole process miserable.

But that’s okay. You’ll have the satisfaction of finishing what you started.

This will give you more confidence going into your next big project, knowing that you can count on yourself to follow through.

Plus, that novel (or screenplay) will be a stepping stone to other opportunities.

Whether employment or securing clients is your goal, this project will give you leverage. It’ll show that you’re capable of making long-term commitments.

Plus, you’ll learn new skills along the way.

So you have nothing to lose. Go dive into your writing right now. Give yourself the time and space to let the ideas flow.

You’ll be glad you did.

What do you do when you get stuck? What’s your Zone Formula?

 

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14 thoughts on “How to drill through the distractions and enter The Zone”

  1. So true! In the ‘zone ‘ distractions are a nuisance, in the not-zone we invent them! Procrastination is one of my lifelong struggles. I really need to develop better habits for my study, but so far I’m frequently zoned in with my writing. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks, Sunday! Yes, I generally enjoy writing my blog posts and get into the zone quite easily because I have various blogger Facebook groups with posting days that act as mini deadlines to motivate me. With fiction it’s harder to stay motivated because the day when people will see my work seems so far in the future. And grading my student’s papers is harder yet (although not too bad once I get started).

  2. For me to break out of all this procrastination, was actually to stop to create those long To-Do lists and weekly planner! I am currently focusing one day at a time and I made a daily list of just the essentials for the day and my business! And currently, I am just focusing on getting those done! Actually, I always thought that by organizing and coming up with the perfect plan and structure would help me get those dreams turned into reality! However, by taking one day at a time and focusing on the systems and the identity I wanted to be I started to take actions now!! To be honest, this was the best thing I ever did! My business and personal life improved. I am still dealing with procrastination, but at least I am taking action and moving forward. I would have never come this far if I’d not tried every system out and see what works for me! What I always say to my clients is that whatever works for you is the name of the game!
    Thanks for this great post! I got a lot of inside from it!! I am excited to read more about your work!! ???

    1. Thanks, Ivan! Yeah, I’ve experimented with lots of different styles of to-do lists and I agree that it’s best not to overcomplicate things. I’ve things that have been seriously floating around on these lists for weeks. If you have a clear picture of your ideal identity and use that to drive your daily actions, that should be all you need 🙂

  3. Wonderful article and defiantly an eye opener. The way you connected the dots proving procrastination is only symptom of telling our self something negative!
    I love it when I get in my Zone. But, it has been a while since I sat down, focused and got the job done.
    You defiantly nailed it…!

    1. Thanks, Bubbie! I find that I get into the Zone with my blog posts. Having these Facebook groups with regular posting days helps to motivate me and push through all the blogging related tasks like editing, SEO, images, etc.

  4. This is a brilliant post. I allow the smallest of things to stop me from writing, even though it’s something I love to do.

    When I do get in the zone though it’s a beautiful place to be…

    1. Thanks, Phill! It’s weird how that works, isn’t it? Like I’ll be doing something really mundane like organizing the stacks of paper on my desk, while depriving myself of the thing that truly fuels my soul. I remind myself that writing is kind of like jogging; sometimes the first 30 minutes suck, but then you feel awesome once you get into your groove (and afterward).

  5. You are so right Kate! I have my “To Do” list that usually gets hijacked by something that “comes up” at the last minute. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’ve managed to dodge a task that I’m really not crazy about doing. Insert eye roll here! You’ve given me food for thought on how to be more efficient and productive, thank you!

  6. Great post. I definitely find that breaking my projects into sections is very helpful (like you suggested keeping research and writing separate). I need to take time to flesh out my ideas and research before I start writing. Sometimes this takes longer than I would like, but I know if I try to force myself to start writing before an idea is fully formed, it will be extremely difficult to get in the zone.

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