Some writers have complained to me recently: “I want to get more writing done, but it’s so hard to deal with the interruptions all the time.”
It’s true that interruptions are deadly to a regular writing routine. Researchers reported in 2014 that people who were interrupted while writing produced poorer quality essays than those who worked undisturbed. Other research has found that it can take an average of twenty-three minutes to recover lost concentration after an interruption.
Twenty-three minutes. If you’ve set aside 30 minutes to write, that’s pretty much your whole writing time, blown.
Sometimes life just happens, but there are a number of things you can do to reduce the amount of interruptions that interfere with your writing. If all else fails, there are ways you can limit the time it takes to get back into your work.
3 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Interruptions
Let’s start with reducing the odds you’ll be interrupted in the first place.
- Choose a time when people don’t need you: If your writing time is regularly interrupted, think about adjusting it to a different time. Maybe you could write first thing in the morning before anyone else gets up, or last thing at night when everyone else is asleep. Maybe you can grab thirty minutes of your lunch hour, or write after work before you go home. Choose a time when others think you’re doing something else to reduce the risk they’ll try to contact you.
- Isolate yourself: When I worked for a corporation, I wrote in the stairway because no one went through there. Despite all the focus on health these days, most people still take the elevator! Think of somewhere no one will find you.
- Shorten your writing time: If your writing time is constantly interrupted, shorten it. Twenty minutes of focused, uninterrupted work can be worth more than an hour filled with interruptions.
3 Ways to Protect the Time You’ve Chosen
Once you’ve chosen your writing time and duration, you can take steps to protect it from interruptions.
- Have a talk with your family: If you’re writing at home, let your family members know that your writing time is not to be disturbed except in an emergency. (You may also need to explain what a real emergency is!) Make it clear that your time is to be respected.
- Close the door and put up a sign: Families need reminding, so go somewhere you can close the door and put up a “do not disturb” sign. If your family is particularly stubborn, add some other reminders, such as, “Knock at your own risk!” or “Interrupt only in the case of an emergency!” Make sure you turn your phone off or silence it so you won’t be interrupted by messages and alerts.
- Stick to your guns! Many writers—women especially—feel such a maternal instinct that they allow interruptions to their writing time even when they don’t want to. Remember that you are the only one who can protect your time, and that you deserve to have it so you can make progress toward your goal. Stick to your guns. You have all the rest of your day to nurture everyone else.
3 Tips to Help You More Quickly Return to Your Work
Even if you accomplish all of the above, you may suffer an interruption now and then. When that happens, try these tips to shorten the 23 minutes it usually takes to get back into your story.
- Write down what you just went through and put it aside: This helps you dump the issue out of your brain so you can tend to it later. Jot it down on a notepad (Johnny needs a permission slip signed), and get back into your scene.
- Use earphones or noise-cancelling headphones: Some writers find using music while writing can help them more easily slip into their make-believe worlds. If you find music distracting, get yourself a nice pair of noise-canceling headphones to help you focus.
- Read aloud: If you’re struggling to get your mind back on your work, backtrack a few paragraphs and read your prose out loud. It increases focus, shuts out extraneous thoughts, and helps you zoom in on your story.
Bottom line: interruptions kill your writing progress. See them as the dastardly villains they are, and banish them from your writing routine for good.
Your turn! How do you eliminate interruptions from your writing time?
Foroughi, C. K., N. E. Werner, E. T. Nelson, and D. A. Boehm-Davis. “Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work?” Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 56, no. 7 (August 2014), 1262-1271. doi:10.1177/0018720814531786.
Pattison, Kermit. “Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching | Business + Innovation.” Fast Company. Last modified July 28, 2008. https://www. fastcompany.com/944128/worker-interrupted-cost-task-switching.
Colleen M. Story is a novelist, freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker with over 20 years in the creative writing industry. In addition to writing several award-winning novels, Colleen’s series of popular success guides, Your Writing Matters, Writer Get Noticed! and Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, have all been recognized for their distinction.
Colleen offers personalized coaching plans tailored to meet your needs, and frequently serves as a workshop leader and motivational speaker, where she helps attendees remove mental and emotional blocks and tap into their unique creative powers. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Colleen below. Free chapters | Writing and Wellness