Strategy Number Three: Environment.
How did you go with just starting?
In part four of our series on defeating resistance, this week I’m looking at the environment where you write.
Sometimes, you have no control over the physical environment in which you write. The local coffee shop is going to be noisy, although there is scientific research that says a coffee shop is one of the most conducive creative environments for writers, so the noise may not be the issue you think it is.
If you are like I once was, and are forced to write on buses and trains, your desk at work, or the lunch room, or other public locations you can’t fully control, there are still tactics you can use to dampen the intrusive elements of those environments.
It’s worth taking some effort to minimize or eliminate disruptions in your surroundings which take you away from your manuscript. For every interruption, you lose precious moments getting back to your story. There has been research [here and here and much more here] showing that the average office worker can take up to fifteen minutes to get back into the work at hand after being interrupted by colleagues.
Even if colleagues are not your issue, something as simple as a PA message dragging your attention out of your story can have the same effect.
Enough of these interruptions across an hour seriously diminishes your total word count. Plus, it’s frustrating! Especially when you want to increase your word count. And if you’re on deadline, the interruptions arrive at a pace that matches your desperation to hit that deadline. It’s Murphy’s Law for writers.
Here are three major aspects of environment for you to consider and experiment with.
If the room where you are trying to write is a slob-like armpit and it bothers you, even in the back of your brain, then it will impinge upon your writing. You will slow down, and constantly think about where you’re sitting.
If the public location where you are writing has uncomfortable chairs, is too cold, or too loud, this will similarly impact your word count.
If you’re only using the location once, then you may have to suck it up for this writing session. Or consider an alternative location, if there is one close enough, so you don’t chew up twenty minutes relocating.
However, if the location is one you use all the time, public or not, then you should take ten minutes the next time you write there to consider what physical aspects of the environment don’t work for you.
If it is a private location, then everything is within your control. If simply cleaning up the desktop will help, do that. You can warm up the room, cool it down, hang curtains to cut out harsh light, paint the walls, whatever you like.
A common one for writers is being vaguely uncomfortable having your back to the door, and your screen visible to anyone who comes to the door. Experiment with turning the desk around so you are facing the door and your monitor is not immediately visible. You will be surprised at how much difference this makes.
If it is a public location, you can add a cushion to your chair, wear an extra sweater, or use earbuds or headphones to cut out extraneous noise.
If the table is too high, shift to another table, or lift yourself up on the chair with a cushion. If it is too low, find a flat box or a short stand to put your laptop on (personally, I find that some big coffee table hardcover books are the perfect size).
For any niggling condition, there is usually something you can do to resolve it, even in public places. It just takes a bit of creative thought, which apparently, writers are good at.
I found the use of simple noise-cancelling earbuds made a huge difference to my word count when I was writing on my knees on the bus, to and from work every day. It helped, too, that I was not connected to the Internet. A hot cup of coffee in a travel mug, music blasting, and my head down…I got enormous amounts written during my commute.
Figure out how to be as physically comfortable as you can be, so you are not distracted. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re thirsty, drink.
Be wary you are not using the search for the perfect environment as a fancy form of procrastination. It is possible to write under adverse conditions, and many writers have. However, if you want to maximize your word output, then analysing your degree of physical comfort, and improving it with simple changes will add more words to the spreadsheet.
Increasing your physical comfort will also reduce or eliminate your resistance to sitting down to write in the first place.
As I mentioned above, distractions can seriously derail your writing efforts. There are three types of distraction.
Turning off your Internet connection while you are writing is a pretty standard piece of advice these days.
There is a shit-ton of distraction-free applications, both free and paid for [try here, to begin], that you can download and install. Many writers swear by these applications.
I personally don’t use them, because I occasionally need to access a program which would normally be on the banned list. Having to negotiate with the software to get to the program or site to do what I want to do has more serious distraction power than just using the program or site and going back to writing.
Your mileage may vary. I would suggest grabbing one of the free applications, and trying them. See if it works well for you.
You would be better off training yourself to not click away from your manuscript, instead of relying on external programming. It is a mindset. When you’re first learning to stay with the story, distraction free software may act as a good reminder whenever you try to alt+tab away from the manuscript, but you should eventually aims to write without it monitoring you. You can’t always write with distraction free software in place.
I touched on physical comfort, above. This time, consider how many distractions come that you while you’re in that space.
Either private or public, there are still things you can do to eliminate the distractions.
As I mentioned above, a good set of sound-cancelling earbuds or headphones will do much to get rid of noise and other aural interruptions.
If you’re in a public place, pick a table that is away from the cash register and the flow of traffic to and from the door. The furthest corner is usually good.
If the space where you write is a private location, you can lock the door, insulate the walls, and close the windows and drapes. You can also negotiate with family members for some consideration and a decrease in noise level, if this is really an issue.
Stick a sign on your door, asking people not to knock, or enter.
Analyse the types of distractions that derail you, then devise ways to reduce them, or get rid of them altogether.
Just as many distractions are a product of your own mind and the habits you have developed. Constantly self-assessing, and spotting what triggers you to move away from your manuscript will help you train yourself to ignore the distractions.
This mental shift can mostly be summed up by the simple philosophy of “don’t click away!” I’ve spoken about this before, and mentioned using your own personal, tailored markup system for your manuscript, so that you never actually have to move away from the screen when your story is.
Another strategy that works well to teach you to stay with your story no matter what is to use word sprints. Word sprints also help you overcome early resistance. Word sprints gamify the process of training yourself to resist distractions. They also help you get down some serious wordage.
Immerse Yourself In the Story
This is something that I have learned for myself, but I know it works for other writers. I’ve tested it with my husband and he notices a positive difference too.
The idea is to immerse yourself in the story, so that any externalities fade away. It is the equivalent of getting into flow in your story, but with some outside help (which enhances your flow when you do get there).
The principal tool is music. Specifically, music delivered via headphones or sound cancelling earbuds. You don’t want external noise trickling in. The sound cancelling earbuds and headphones will cut back or completely eliminate any external noises. That means that people must tap you on the shoulder to get your attention.
This may or may not be a good thing in public places. You will have to decide that for yourself.
Once you can no longer hear the keyboard clicking when you type, all there is left to focus upon is the words appearing on the screen. It’s immersive, as I said.
In a private location and if your back is not to the door, being fully immersed in music (white noise, nature soundtracks and coffee shop soundtracks work just as well) muffles the world and lets you float in your story instead.
Another tool for this immersive process is the use of a storyboard. This can be a physical trifold board that you can erect around your laptop, to create a carel for yourself, no matter where you are.
My personal version of this, in my home office, is the use of two big monitors. The second monitor displays the storyboard for the current story, while I’m writing. If I had a third monitor, I would put it on the left-hand side of my central screen and turn it in slightly, so my desk had an electronic trifold board.
The final tool to immerse yourself in your story, is to make sure that your desktop is clear of anything that will pull your attention away from your story. Put the bills away.
Put the toys and gadgets and fidget spinners away, too.
Anything with text on it that has nothing to do with the story should also be put away.
Clear your desktop is much as possible. Then, when your eyes wander from the screen, they won’t be drawn to something which makes you think outside your story world.
Your Mileage May Vary
Like most productivity tips and tricks and hacks, the effectiveness of these resistence-reducers will vary from writer to writer. You should experiment with one element at a time (so you know what is working), while keeping track of your hourly writing pace, and see if anything you try nudges the needle upward.
When you find an arrangement that lets you sink easily into the story and not get kicked out of it again, then double or triple the effectiveness of that element if you can. At the very least, don’t stop doing it!
Next week we will look at ways you can motivate yourself, to lower your resistance to sitting down and writing.