Making Time for Writing? 7 Simple but Powerful Productivity Tips

Making Time for Writing? 7 Simple but Powerful Productivity Tips

Do you ever sit down to write for a couple of hours, only to find yourself with only a paragraph or two to show for it?

It’s really easy to get distracted, especially if your work involves online research. One link leads to another and another and … oh look, a cute cat video!

I’ve been freelancing and writing novels for the best part of eight years now, and I still sometimes find myself scrolling mindlessly down Facebook when I really should be writing.

If that sounds like you as well, here are the seven tips that work best for me to stay on task. They might be just what you need, too.

1. Turn off your internet connection

This might sound way too simple, but turning off your WiFi or unplugging your Ethernet cable can drastically improve your concentration. You might want to put your phone out of reach, too.

Sure, it’s not something you can do all the time, or even for your whole writing session. But if you notice yourself feeling the slightest bit distracted, it’s the quickest fix I know.

Don’t tell yourself you should just be more self-disciplined, either. There’s no point using up precious willpower resisting the lure of the Internet when you could just switch it off — and save that energy for writing.

2. Write down your intention when you begin

Next time you sit down to write, take ten seconds to write down what you intend to do: “Work on chapter 10 of my novel for 30 minutes” or “Edit blog post for client” or “Update About page on my blog.”

Again, this might sound a little silly, but it forces you to be clear about what you actually want to get done.

If you work from a to-do list, circle or star the item you’re going to work on first. You might also want to note the second and third to-dos to help you stay on track if they’re all short tasks.

3. Sit quietly for three minutes at the start of your session

Do you ever begin a writing session feeling distracted, stressed out, or a bit overwhelmed? If you have to get your kids off to school before you can write, you have a day job and write on your lunch hour, or you’ve got a ton of other commitments, it’s tough to sit down and focus on writing.

Sit quietly for just three minutes at the start of your writing session, breathing slowly in and out. Don’t try to think about your writing or to-do list. Just give yourself a chance to be quiet and still.

Three minutes might sound like it wouldn’t make a difference, but it does. Give it a try!


4. Set a timer and write until it goes off

I find this one works incredibly for most writers, but not all. Give it a go, but if you find yourself feeling pressured or blocked, just try one of the other tips instead.

At the start of your writing session, set a timer for, say, 15 minutes. Tell yourself you will write (and nothing else) until the timer goes off.

If 15 minutes is easy, build up the length of work bursts. I like the Pomodoro system of 25 minutes on task, followed by a five-minute break. But feel free to experiment with this one before you commit!

5. Listen to soundtracks or classical music

Some people like to work in silence. If that’s you and you’re staying focused, great!

Personally, I like to have some music on. It helps drown out distracting noise (the kids at home, or other people in the library) and it seems to help me focus.

If you’re the same, try film soundtracks or classical music. If you put on music with lyrics, it’s easy to get distracted listening rather than writing. You might want to consider finding a few favorite instrumental albums to play only when you’re writing. It can be a reliable way to get into a writing mood.

6. Take regular, planned breaks during your writing session

Noone can stay focused for hours on end. For most people, somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes is about right.

Plan in advance. Don’t just take a break once you start to feel a bit distracted. Knowing you only have to write for a certain period before a break can really help you to focus.

Ideally, don’t take a break just after finishing something. After a break, it can be hard to get back into writing. Instead, write the first sentence or two of your next piece or a prompt to kick off your next task.

7. Make sure you’re physically comfortable

Taking regular breaks lets you move your body and balance some of the effects of sitting at a desk for much of the day. While you’re at your desk, though, get as comfortable as possible.

That might mean investing in a new chair (or even sitting on an exercise ball), propping your monitor up on books, getting a more ergonomic keyboard, or simply making sure you have a drink of water and some healthy snacks on hand.

If your back, neck or arms are aching, it’s going to be hard to stay focused — and you may well be storing up health problems for the long-term.

If you’re struggling with focus, pick one thing from this list to try — and tell us what you’ll be doing.

What’s the one key thing that helps you to focus when you’re writing? Share it with us in the comments!

Filed Under: Craft
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  • Angelina says:

    These were some great tips! Thanks so much 🙂
    My tip: Leave your shoes on if you work from home. It makes you feel like you’re on the go with no time to write at all. Helps me start much sooner, because I feel like I don’t have the time to do check emails or social media.
    Happy writing!

  • Todd says:

    This one works best at home.

    I like to light a candle. Somehow I feel as though I have to work when it’s burning and giving light. It becomes a gentle reminder to focus on getting things done.

  • Kris Willis says:

    I definitely agree with taking breaks. I use a time tracking program to keep an eye on the hours I spend on each project. Thanks to that, I have noticed that my mind naturally starts craving a break at almost exactly the hour mark. I make myself walk around for 5-15 minutes each time, and when I get back to work I feel refreshed. I love being in charge of my own schedule, not having to sit at a desk from 9-5!

    Do you have any recommendations for a good task managing program for Mac?

    • Ali Luke says:

      I’m PC-only, I’m afraid, so hopefully other readers can offer their suggestions! I think Nozbe, though (which I use) has a Mac version — and a web interface that should be compatible with any operating system.

  • Wendy says:

    I have to laugh at this “stay off the internet” rule that seems to be at the top of everyone’s productivity advice lists.

    I don’t have internet at home. My time at the keyboard is rather strictly divided into “need-internet” (emails, online research and news, downloads) stuff and “don’t-need-internet” stuff (writing, editing photos, playing Age of Empires, playing spider, watching downloads). Problem is, spider’s always there, and I can spend hours cutting the useful parts out of saved web pages and filing them to reduce disk space. (And AoE is on the “old” computer, while most of my writing is on my “new” computer, which I often don’t want to bother getting out of the backpack when I get home.)

  • Jennifer Wilde says:

    When I feel liking writing a short story or other fiction piece, I often find myself taking out two Christmas gifts I received this past year: “The Storymatic” and “The Writer’s Toolbox.” The Storymatic is a box of cards divided into two sets, “characters and details,” with the idea being to take several of each and see where they lead you. The Writer’s Toolbox has sticks with “First Sentence,” “Non Sequitur” and “Last Straw” phrases as well as wheels giving choices for protagonist, goal, obstacle and action and what are called “sixth sense” cards (e.g., the “the smell of Debbie’s lasagne”) as well as a small egg timer to challenge you to write for a limited time.
    I like to take some of each product and put them together… it’s quite a fun exercise.
    Both items can be found on

    • Wendy says:

      I sometimes use Rory’s Story Cubes. Kind of fun, but may main character ends up getting called “Rory,” and the story ends up being . . . rather short.

      Doesn’t help that my problem is getting from one scene to the next. I often get an overall idea for the novel and a few strong scenes, then struggle to get the scenes connected to each other, or else the story forks into mutually exclusive paths, and I mentally pace around at the fork, not being able to decide which way to take it.

      • Ali Luke says:

        Prompts are fun to play with and can spark off some great new ideas. I’ve got a book full of them called “The Writer’s Book of Matches” — I’ve not used it much recently, but used to dip in and out in the past when in need of inspiration.

  • john berger says:

    Thankyou so much for that, as I am still procrastinating a little, but also I would like to know what sort of program do I need, is it publisher or shall I use note book as I am not at all versed in any of this stuff and is it a good idea to purchase a laptop just for writing my book?

    • Jennifer Wilde says:

      So far the best program I’ve come across for writing is called Scrivener and can be bought for $40 or downloaded as a free trial version at (during NaNoWriMo in November the program was offered for sale for $10 or so and winners of NaNoWriMo- those making their 50K word goal that month-could buy the program for $20).
      This program makes it possible to:
      *save chapters as individual documents,
      *reorder those chapters at the click of the mouse,
      *have digital notecards on a digital corkboard,
      *import documents as well as video and pictures and
      *link to different websites full of quotes and other relevant material…

      This is just for starters. I have never been so productive as when using this program and highly recommend it. The program can be used for practically any kind of writing and has different templates for novels, screenplays and such with the only drawback being its initial complexity (a lot of instructions), but it is well worth the effort and it does get easier to use.

      • Ali Luke says:

        I use Scrivener for my novel and Microsoft Word for blog posts (though I’m also using Evernote for very short pieces of content).

        It’s really up to you what you use. While I think Scrivener is great, if you’re used to something else, you might want to begin with whatever’s familiar.

        I wouldn’t personally suggest that you purchase a laptop JUST for your book, if you have another computer that you can use.

  • Maria Casale says:

    Great ideas! I find that I can do an hour and get 5-6 pages. After that I’m twiddling my thumbs or writing garbage, so short daily bursts work best for me. Which is just as well since that whole retreat thing isn’t likely to happen any time soon with the day job and kid! I also like paper and pencil, and it’s portable, so I can get away from a desk. I do some of my best writing in parks, under a tree or at a picnic table. No opportunity to move the laundry or decide I really have to clean the bathroom. My ancient laptop no longer connects to the internet at home and I haven’t rushed to et it fixed for just the reasons you mention. Now if I could just break my phone and Kindle too!

  • Great Post.
    So easy to get distracted…. last night I just didn’t want to write and read a book instead. I might have to try your idea of timing myself!

    • Ali Luke says:

      We all need a night off sometimes! But if you do want to go for some writing, try a 15 minute timer — short enough that it doesn’t take up very much of your evening, long enough that you’ll have time to get into what you’re writing (and hopefully keep going). Good luck!

  • What useful tips, Ali. Thank you.

    Rewarding myself with a short break after I complete each writing goal for the day helps motivate me to concentrate. This is in addition to periodic walkabouts while in the middle of a project.

    • Ali Luke says:

      I think breaks are crucial — they’re great motivational tools, as you say, and they’re also a good way to recover your focus for the next writing stint.

  • Laura Martone says:

    Wonderful tips, Ali! I especially needed to read them today – as I’ve been having trouble getting into my current project – editing the first two “episodes” of a novel that my husband is currently writing. I’m itching to get back to my own novel – and I didn’t know how to start with his. But even though I already employ the 2nd, 5th, and 6th tips, I needed to hear the others, too. I’m particularly curious to try the three-minute meditation and the (gulp) timer idea. Here’s hoping they do the trick. Thanks!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Hope they help, Laura! I think editing other people’s work when you really want to get back to your own is particularly tough.

      I find timers particularly helpful for editing / proofreading — hope you get on well using them too.

  • Courtney says:

    For those who are distracted by background noise but can’t write to music, (aka, people like me) white noise apps are a godsend. I have 3 different ones on my iPhone, and my favorite by far is Coffitivity. Apparently there’s been research done that proves the noise of a coffee shop is excellent for productivity. (I don’t work for them in any way, shape or form – I just love the app.) Another one is Relax Melodies. There’s dozens of different sounds that you can layer to create the perfect “soundtrack”. And the last one I have is Ambience. This one can get a little overwhelming, because there are SO many sounds available, but it’s great for when you’re trying to immerse yourself in a specific scene. In my historical fiction novel I have a scene where the main couple is getting married in the winter. I was able to create a “soundtrack” with chiming church bells, a little bit of wind, and the crunching noise feet make walking over snow. It really helped me get into the scene.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Great tip, Courtney, thank you! I’ve used a few ambient sound ones in the past too. I’d never thought of tailoring them to specific scenes before — may have to try that!

  • ebooks2go says:

    Awesome post Ali!! Tips given by you will be most useful for the indie and self publishing authors, as well as writers. Thanks for sharing.

  • bzCustomers says:

    Well, your tips are very helpful for people who want to write something for several hours continuously, thanks very much. As for me who love writing very much in my spare time, I’d like to record my showerthoughts when I happened to crush into it. Then, when I have collected enough of that kind of pieces, I would sit down in front of my computer and enjoy the fun of sewing the thoughts together.

  • Tom Southern says:

    Hi Ali,

    Great to see you guest posting again.

    It may be cheating but I’ve found recording for half an hour can be a great way to write. I use Audacity (free) to record and Dragon Naturally Speaking (little pricey), a speech recognition tool, which can transcribe – bless it’s heart! allbeit with a little bit of a mind of it’s own. Artistic licence, I think :). But then I’d have to edit what I’d written, so why not DNS? It saves a lot of time if yours is short.

    I think both Audacity and DNS can be used on phones and tablets too.

    30 minutes recording amounts to about 1,000 words. I use it most for helping me be productive in writing my novel. But record my blog posts often too. It helps to write in a more conversational style.

    For blog posts I think of a question a reader might ask me and then record myself answering that question as if I’m speaking to them.

    I don’t always record. Sometimes I still write using paper and pencil. There’s something about writing in pencil that sparks the imagination. I love mind-mapping in pencil.

    You’re right about taking frequent breaks. Doing something active is best even if it’s just getting up and going to make a cup of tea, or make lunch. Breaks work.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Dictating is a perfectly valid form of writing — I want to give it a whirl myself (I do have Dragon Naturally Speaking, just haven’t put in the time to get comfortable dictating instead of typing yet).

      I like to mindmap on paper too — I’ve tried a few apps but nothing seems quite so good for the flow of ideas as good old paper.

  • Too right, Ali – turning off the internet is the first great step.

    If you’re like most people, the limited horizons of your home and work and the twelve-inch space between you and your computer screen just might not be enough fodder for fueling the muse. To write a book that will open your reader’s eyes, you need to make sure that your own are wide open.

    Secondly, when writers are challenged by demands and deadlines of real-world, sometimes you just need to get away from it to time and place solely dedicated to nurturing creativity and quality writing time.

    For this there’s nothing like attending a conference or writers’ retreat, where writers not only enhance writing ability but add more experiences to nourish the muse. Good living makes for good stories; good stories make for good writing.

    Whether it’s local and a quiet cabin in the woods or sunrise yoga and creative classes on the California coast, or fulfilling a yearning to venture further afield and drink deeply from the wellsprings of Western civilization while gazing pensively at the romantic rolling green hills of Italy or the white-washed villages of Spain or the Greek islands, you’re likely to find the writers’ retreat that’s perfect for you.

    The more quality time writers spend dedicated to nurturing their work, the less it is work and the more it’s pleasure – what writing should be about – for the writer and the reader. And then get on the road to taking stories into the world.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Great suggestion on taking a retreat, Scott (I’m off on a day retreat this Saturday, in fact!) I know it’s easier for some writers than others to get away for a bit, but I’d definitely recommend it too.

      Conferences or festivals are a wonderful way to meet other writers, to get inspired (or reinspired) and to perhaps work on a tricky aspect of writing.

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