How to Write When … You Keep Getting Interrupted
Are you getting interrupted a lot at the moment?
Maybe you’ve got young children who are off school – or hungry teenagers – or a partner who’s furloughed and bored. Perhaps the routines that worked just fine when you had time in the house on your own (or when you were able to escape to a nearby coffee shop or library) just aren’t working now.
Chances are, you’re getting interrupted a lot more than usual. And that can be frustrating, as well as a real problem for your writing.
Why Interruptions Are So Disruptive to Writers
Writing isn’t something you can multitask. When you’re writing, your attention is on the words you’re putting down on the page – and (at least on a good day!) your mind is focused on that.
You’ve probably had the experience of being so wrapped up in what you’re writing that you lose track of time, at least for a little while.
You’ve also probably had the experience of being interrupted right in the middle of a train of thought – only to struggle to remember, once you get back to your desk, what you were about to write.
Unlike distractions, interruptions can break in when we’re highly focused, which makes them particularly disruptive. When you get distracted from your writing, it’s usually not when you’re right in the middle of a sentence – it’s when you’ve finished one thought and you’re trying to work out what to write next.
One study found that interruptions reduce the quality of a piece of writing – not by a huge amount, but they do have a measurable effect.
Interruptions are especially frustrating if you only have a short amount of time to write. They eat up time that you’d otherwise have spent getting words onto the page.
What Can You Do About Interruptions?
There are two ways you can tackle interruptions:
- Reduce the likelihood of being interrupted, as much as possible.
- Figure out ways to keep your writing on track despite them.
For each of those, I’m going to suggest four things to try – and I’m keeping in mind that, like me, you might well be on lockdown with your family right now.
Four Things That Can Help Reduce Interruptions
If you can cut down on interruptions, do! Hopefully, one of these four ideas will be possible for you – at least for some of your writing sessions.
#1: Write in a Different Room from Everyone Else
Where it’s possible, write in a room away from other family members. If that room can be on a different floor of the house, even better!
Family members who’ll interrupt you just to chat aren’t so likely to come and find you in a different part of the house. You’ll also likely find it less distracting if you’re not in the same room as everyone else, especially if they’re talking / watching TV / playing a noisy game.
#2: Write Early in the Morning or Late at Night
I’m writing this post shortly before 6am – and I know quite a lot of other writers who find that the very early hours of the day are a great time to focus without interruptions. You can get a lot of writing done when everyone in your house is asleep.
If you’re not a morning person, evenings can work well – especially if you have young children who go to bed early.
#3: Wear Headphones While You Write
Headphones can be a great visual cue to other people that you’re not free to talk right now. They’re also a great way to block out some distractions, if you can’t easily get away from the general noise of your household.
Some writers love to listen to music while they write; others find that too distracting. There are loads of tracks on YouTube that are instrumental, or that offer white noise or other non-music sound to listen to.
#4: Be Clear About How Long You’ll Write For
It can be helpful to let kids (or other family members) know how long you’re planning to write for. With kids, you can tell them you’re going to head upstairs to write for 30 minutes, and that you’ll come and check on them after that.
This is also one of the reasons why planning your writing sessions ahead of time is so helpful. In our household, for instance, my husband writes on Saturday mornings and I write on Sunday mornings, from waking up till just before 10am. We – and the kids! – know the plan, so the person who’s writing rarely gets interrupted at all.
Four Ways to Keep Writing Despite Interruptions
What if none of the above work for you? Maybe you need to fit in some, or all, of your writing while you’re in the room with your kids, able to hear and respond quickly if there are any problems. If you’re trying to write while watching under-5s, there’s really not a lot you can do to prevent interruptions.
In this situation, though, you can still minimise the effect of the interruptions on your writing. Here are four things to try:
#1: Write a More Detailed Outline Than Usual
If you don’t normally outline, or if you usually have an outline that’s fairly minimal, then try writing a much more detailed one. That way, you’ll have a clear roadmap for what you’re writing – and you won’t spend ages staring at the screen after each interruption.
Your outline also means you can more easily write in small chunks. Maybe you can tackle one of the points on your plan in just 5 minutes, for instance – and there’s at least a chance that you’ll be able to get 5 whole minutes uninterrupted!
#2: Jot Down a “Note to Self” Before Breaking Off
This one isn’t always possible – but where it is, give it a go. When someone interrupts you, ask them to wait for a moment, and jot down a note about what you were about to write next.
That way, when you come back, you’ll be able to more easily pick up where you left off. In conjunction with a detailed outline, this can really help reduce the amount of time you need to spend getting back into your writing whenever you get interrupted.
#3: Don’t Let an Interruption Lead to Distractions
It’s very easy to let an interruption lead to further distractions. Maybe you get up from your desk to find something for someone, or you pause in what you’re doing to answer a phone call. Even once you’re back at your desk, you might find yourself checking emails, or scrolling through Facebook, or doing something that isn’t writing.
As much as you can, try to get straight back into your writing after an interruption. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a terrible cycle of being interrupted, getting distracted, finally writing another sentence, then getting interrupted again.
#4: Write for VERY Short Periods of Time
Set a timer and deliberately write for just 5 or 10 minutes. You might be surprised how many words you can get down! Knowing that you only have a few minutes means you’ll write faster and you’ll concentrate more easily.
By getting into the habit of writing in short bursts, you’ll find it easier to focus on your writing in between interruptions. You might well also be able to time your writing around your children’s activities more easily. (If it helps, an episode of Peppa Pig is pretty much exactly 5 minutes, and Ben & Holly is a fraction over 10 minutes…)
Interruptions are a pain for all writers. They make it hard to get into flow, and hard to enjoy your writing as much as you otherwise would.
If you can cut down on interruptions – fantastic! If you can’t, or if cutting down on them only goes so far, then do what you can to make sure you can still get some writing done despite interruptions.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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