Why Getting Distracted is Okay

Photo by Renette Stowe

Photo by Renette Stowe

A lot of writers say that writer’s block is nothing but laziness, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that.  All that’s going to help you finish your novel is the will power to sit down and actually write it.  I think writers need to try to write even when they don’t want to.  How else can you form good habits?  I’m not going to tell you avoid writing on days when you don’t feel like it, but I think a lot of writers, especially newer ones, take this too far.  It’s okay to let your distractions get the best of you once in a while and do something rather than writing.

Pushing yourself when you aren’t being productive will cause burn out.

I think it’s important to try to write as often and as much as you can, especially on a first draft, but it’s just as important to realize that everyone has his or her limits, and those limits can change daily.  Goals help keep writers productive, but they shouldn’t always be static.  Some days, when the planets align, everyone is out of the house, and you finally have that  quiet you’ve been dying for, 5,000 words is easy, but on other days, 300 words really is the best you can do.

You may already be stressed about trying to reach your goals, but is it really productive to keep watching the cursor blink for an hour?  Is it worth it to risk becoming even more burnt out by trying to force it, and finding yourself in a cycle of stress and bad writing?  Nothing can kill creativity or focus quicker than stress.  It’s hard to make something worthwhile when your brain is in 100 different places at once.

Since you aren’t focused on the words, your mind wanders to the dishes and the laundry.  You think about the bills you haven’t paid yet or about appointments, or maybe you’re worried about work.  Before you know it, you’re writing a to-do list rather than a novel.  What if instead, you’re thinking about the television show you missed last night or the book you’ve been dying to read?  With everything on earth going through your head but your writing, you probably aren’t going to get any work done until you take some time away from your draft.

You’ll probably spend more time editing something you wrote when you were burnt out.

Another problem that writers may face from not taking breaks is that the writing suffers.  If you aren’t focused, you aren’t getting the words right, your characters aren’t developing, and your plot stinks.  If you keep pushing, not only will you waste time and energy trying to put the words down, but you’ll waste a lot more time later trying to revise something that clearly isn’t working.

When I’m revising, I always know where I was struggling when I wrote the draft.  Those scenes are slower, and I can tell that I didn’t care what words I put in so long as the word count was going up.  They’re tedious to read, and even more tedious to try to make sense of later.  When I’m excited about writing, however, I feel like I can work forever, and although I still have edits to make, the draft usually doesn’t need to be revised as thoroughly.

After trying many ways to keep my energy and excitement about a project high, I’ve found the most effective is taking more frequent breaks.  Writing in spurts keeps me from wearing out as quickly.  Rather than trying to reach a high word count for an entire day, I’ll set myself micro-goals and reward myself with a break.  If my target word count is 5,000 words for the day, maybe I’ll set my first goal at 1,500 words.  Even if I want to keep writing, I’ll finish my sentence and take a five to ten minute break.  It keeps my mind fresh and the words flowing, and each little break gives me the opportunity to think through what is working in a draft and what isn’t.  When I come back, I pick up where I left off, often in the middle of my paragraph, and I have a better idea of where I’m going with that scene.

Your brain might be telling you that something isn’t working.

If you keep getting bogged down in a scene, it’s often because something isn’t working.  When you’re trying to get everything down in your first draft, it can be difficult to step back and look objectively at the work.  This means you ignore many problems in your draft.

Be honest.  Have you ever tried to deny that what you’re writing isn’t working?  Have you just kept trying to write your story, scene, or novel, hoping that it will all work out in the end, but you already knew that it wasn’t going anywhere?  I have.  I recently started over on the my novel, but it took me a while to admit that it wasn’t working.  And by a while, I mean 35,000 words and hours of work.

Oh, I knew before I started that I had no idea how I was going to make this mess of a story work for my characters.  By 10,000 words I knew my novel was an unsalvageable mess, and what did I do?  I kept writing.  I didn’t take breaks.  I kept pushing myself, because I was afraid if I stopped I would have to address the fact that the whole novel was a wreck.

I would agonize to get to a few hundred words written, and rather than taking a break, kept pushing, hoping that something would click.  That never happened.  I ended up being forced to take time away from my draft for a week, and in retrospect, I’m glad.  When I came back I knew what I had to do.  Sure, I moped around for a day or so asking if I really had to do it, but I knew the answer.  I sat down and tried to fix the plot, and when that didn’t work, I tried to figure out what was working in the draft and build on it.  When I finished, I had a brand new plot and knew I had to start over.

Did I throw away 35,000 words.  Yes.  Did I keep anything from the first draft?  Pretty much only the names of the characters.  Was it worth it?  Absolutely.  I learned a valuable lesson, and my novel is all the better for it.  When you’re staring at the screen, and the cursor isn’t moving day after day, it probably means there’s something fundamental not working in your scene or story, and if you give in to yourself permission to get some distance, you might figure out what the problem is and fix it before you’ve wasted too much time.

This time around, I’ve worked on taking regular breaks, and whenever I start feeling restless, I try to do something else for a few minutes, and I can already tell how much better my novel is.  I’ve written this draft faster than the first, and the plot is working.  When you pre-plan breaks, or at least listen to your body when you get tired it forces you to stop and think mid-flow, which can help make a better draft.

Letting your brain recharge can revitalize your story.

All I’m saying is that sometimes it’s okay to give in to distractions.  I’m not saying to check your Twitter account every ten minutes like you want to do, and you probably don’t need to watch every episode of How I Met Your Mother in one sitting (Yes, I know it’s addicting!), but if you keep pushing, and you aren’t getting anything out of it, take a break.  One or two episodes of your favorite show won’t hurt.  Get up and move around.  Think about something different.  Call a friend.  Catch up on your favorite writing blogs.  Do whatever it takes to reenergize before you come back to your novel or story.

Maybe fifteen minutes is all you need, and you can get right back to it, but sometimes a worse block needs more time.  I think getting some space from your work for an hour or two, or even a week if you need it, helps get creative energy flowing.  Ever since I trashed my draft, I’ve tried listening to what my brain is telling me.  Often it’s when you start to feel restless that something is wrong with the draft.  Usually after a break I have a better idea about where I want to go with the story, and I actually start to get excited about writing.  Try to get space for a little while and think about something else, and you’ll come back to the draft with more energy and better ideas.  Plus, who knows?  Maybe that show will inspire you.

Don’t forget to go back to your story.

I’m not trying to say that you won’t have to push through parts of your first draft, but I think it’s important to listen your own mind and body when you’ve hit your limit, and letting yourself have time for distractions can improve your writing and your productivity.  Keep in mind that it’s easy to get carried away when you give yourself a free pass to get distracted, so just make sure you do everything in moderation.  Set a timer to remind yourself to get back to work if you have to, so you can recharge without going overboard.  If you think you  need a longer break, stop working on the project you’re struggling with, but try to work on some other project in the meantime.

And most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.

Have you experienced writing burn out?  Do you have more tips on how to avoid it?  Leave a comment.


5 thoughts on “Why Getting Distracted is Okay

  1. These are really good reminders. I think we always hear advice that you have to “keep writing” and then, when we can’t, it just makes us feel pretty useless. I agree that sometimes forcing yourself to do it can lead to a worse situation.

    One of my favorite things to do do cure writer’s block is working on supporting documents and stories. I created some intricate family trees, and some family histories, and it keeps me still thinking about my characters. Of course, sometimes I think I do this do distract and avoid writing as well 🙂


    • I think working on supporting documents is a great way to cure writer’s block and to step back and think about the story. I have a whole binder of documents proving that I also tend to get distracted! Thanks for reading!


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