10 Tips on Handling
Writer's Block & Distractions
Below are some of the ways that help me stay motivated to write and create, even in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and constant distractions.
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I’m certainly not the best person to teach ways to combat writer’s block and distractions. Every morning, I wake up around five a.m. and stare at an open Word document. If I don’t immediately know what to write, I start to wonder, “What’s Facebook up to these days?” and open a browser to scroll mindlessly through reels and memes I truly care nothing about. Eventually, I find my way back to Word, but not before I’ve exhausted all social media feeds. By the time I realize it, sometimes I’ve wasted an hour and have nothing to show for it.
Nine months ago, I became a father. As wonderful an experience as that is, it created a whole new assortment of distractions. Writing and maintaining a routine feels impossible. When I finally think I’m getting into a rhythm, it gets shaken up by a sleep regression, an illness, a new milestone, and everything in between. I’ve had to learn to adapt and keep moving so that I don’t get sucked into an abyss of despondency.
Below are some of the ways I’ve been able to handle writer’s block and deal with ever-changing distractions. This is the only way I’ve been able to maintain writing, even when it’s felt unmanageable or hopeless. By the way, this isn’t gospel; don’t follow my recommendations to a T. Make your own adjustments as you see fit. It’s about finding what works best for you and taking it and running. I wish you the best of luck!
1. Ugly Beautiful
A lot of writers are inhibited by the pursuit of perfection. The problem is that most of what a person creates cannot be perfect, and when we’re conscious of it, that can prevent us from creating altogether. When I want a character to enter a room, I’ll sit in front of my computer like a statue, refusing to simply write, He walked into the room, because I want to word it differently, I’m just not sure how. I’m completely neglecting all the events that will transpire in that room, because I won’t let my character enter!
I’ve been better recently. Even though writing certain sentences makes me cringe, I know I can always go back later, or in a month, or in a year—whenever—and fix it. Or I can read it during a writers group. Or I can have beta readers give me feedback. Or I can hire an editor. If we were engraving our stories onto a granite slab, maybe you could argue this point. But as it stands, we’re either writing on paper or typing on a computer; we have white out, erasers, and the undo button. We’ve got resources and skill, even if we can’t channel the latter at the moment.
Create something ugly, because it’ll help you create something beautiful.
2. Diversify Your Plate
You ever try to eat one of the same food—pizza, burgers, pasta—and fill up really quickly? But then when you cover your Thanksgiving plate in turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, corn, and dinner rolls, you somehow can still go back for seconds and then have pumpkin pie, apple cobbler, and ice cream for dessert. Apparently, that’s a psychological thing. The different textures, flavors, aromas keep you chowing down, even when you’re past the point of being full. The same goes for your work and hobbies.
I once had a job where I was writing the same type of content over and over and over again. I was supported by wonderful bosses and helpful coworkers, but the workload and form never changed. By the time I got home every day, I didn’t want to do anything other than eat or maybe exercise. When the pandemic hit and that specific work ceased for a few months, I realized how burned out it made me. These days, especially with a kid, I have more work than ever, but it’s all different: a lot of writing, some photography, some graphic design, conducting interviews, attending events, reviewing contracts and reports, responding to specific inquiries, collecting data, maintaining websites and social media platforms—all partnered with changing diapers, cooking, pureeing food, playing, reading, and doing work around the house. (I have to give significant credit to my wife, who does an incredible amount of work without breaking a sweat.)
It’s easier for me to combat overwhelming responsibilities and balance that with my passions and hobbies when I can diversify what I’m doing. I have to make some sacrifices (bye-bye, a good night’s sleep), but it’s worth it for me. If I just focus on one or two things, I’ll burn out again.
3. F**k the Routine
You guessed it: Fork your routine. Cut it up. Toss it in the trash. Your new routine is not having a routine—specifically if you’re a parent.
If you don’t have a child (or a pet) and you live alone, or at least get a lot of solitude, this step doesn’t really apply to you. It could, but I’m more speaking to the people whose lives get disrupted on the regular. We’ve worked hard—for weeks sometimes—to get on a routine that works for everyone, and everything goes smoothly for maybe a day. Then Billy’s got the stomach flu, and everything goes to hell for a month.
When I get into a rhythm that works for me, I can easily get derailed if something goes awry. Some mornings, my son wakes up too early, cutting into my writing time. I’ll lose it, especially if I’ve gotten virtually nothing done. It’s not always possible to fit in writing—or other hobbies—throughout the day when following a strict routine. It’s important to follow a more fluid system, which allows yourself to handle hiccups and changes as they arise.
I’m not condemning habitual activities, because routines can get you into a positive groove and they do provide comfort. However, if you have kids, their routines are more important than yours, so you have to get used to yours getting disrupted now and again. “Just hold on loosely,” as 38 Special would say. “If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.” (I promise, no more classic-rock references from here on out.)
4. Date Night
I can’t afford it. You can’t afford it. Ninety-eight percent of us can’t afford it. But one day a month—or one day every two months—hire a babysitter, go to dinner, sneak into a movie, grab dessert, and slink in through your backdoor after the kids are asleep (or in a sugar coma).
Go out with your partner, a friend, or by yourself. Just get out and do something that isn’t viewed as a responsibility. Get a hotel room and sleep. Lie on the beach. Have a picnic in a parking lot. Crash a birthday party. I don’t care what you do. But whatever you do, do not work (or break the law or someone’s heart, please).
5. Do 1% of What You Want to Do
If you’re experiencing burn out, it’s difficult to do anything, even when you have the time. While sometimes having a list of ideas to pursue can be motivating, it instead can be debilitating if you’re not in the right mindset. I love making lists, because I can lay everything out and then break it down piece by piece, but even that can be a challenge.
In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, he details ways to build good habits. He also touches upon burnout. Part of his submission is to take steps to make your life one percent better each day. Don’t force yourself to write one thousand words; don’t clean your entire home; don’t change your diet and your exercise routine and your hairstyle all at once. Instead, make marginal adjustments that you want to do and that you believe may benefit you. Your life likely will improve at a manageable, comfortable pace.
Now, this method may not be sustainable in the long run. Maybe it’s the keto version of habit changes: noticeable difference at first, but soon enough you’ll feel the overwhelming temptation of carbs weighing you down. That’s okay—there’s nothing wrong with that. This one-percent-better notion can still help you deal with burnout or assist you in getting out of a rut. It provides an opportunity for you to rebuild yourself from your foundation. However you decide to work from there is up to you, even if you eventually ditch the one-percent plan.
Journaling is personal. It’s only for you. It’s often therapeutic and a great release of tension and stress. Because it’s for no one else but your own eyes, there’s no concern about how it’ll sound to other readers. You can easily write about your day, a specific event, other people, how you’re feeling, any ideas you have, and truly anything you want. There’s always content, because there’s no assignment, no goal other than to just write.
It’s important to make time to write, even if it’s not for publication. Journaling has a number of benefits, including helping you to stay practiced. If you don’t know what to write or keep getting distracted while you’re trying to write, take some time to journal; you can easily pick back up where you left off when your attention gets pulled elsewhere.
7. Do Something Different
Before I say this next part, I just want to acknowledge that you’re likely going to think of Jim Carrey’s Yes Man. That is not what I mean (mostly because it’s probably actually dangerous to say yes to everything).
Do something you normally wouldn’t do. Don’t become a daredevil, and don’t do anything unkind or illegal, but it’s okay to step outside your comfort zone a little. This can provide a number of benefits. For one, it encourages personal growth. The hope is that you’ll have fun, but even if you don’t, you’ll be proud of yourself for trying something new. On the other hand, it can help to give you more ideas—in a writer’s case: more stories—ultimately boosting your creativity. You may even learn something about yourself, personally.
“Doing something different” is a spectrum. It can be as simple as going outside and shooting hoops after work or taking a long walk around the neighborhood or engaging with someone at a bookstore. Or “doing something different” could be participating in an open mic, going on some type of excursion, or taking new classes. Ultimately, it’s up to you, and you know what you can handle.
8. Focus on Both Mind AND Body
This is whatever you want it to mean, really. If it means you exercise a bit more but still eat a hot fudge sundae every night, I won’t judge you. In fact, I’ll join you. Or, if this means a minute of meditation and one pushup a day, more power to you.
The importance of this tip is remembering to nourish both your mind and your body. They do go hand in hand, for the most part. For example, physical stimulation, like exercise and activities, help to boost your mental state; it can reduce anxiety and depression and improve cognitive function. And exercise doesn’t mean high-intensity interval training two hours a day, seven days a week. It doesn’t mean daily trips to the gym or four-mile runs every morning, either. People who do that regularly have worked their way up to long runs and heavy weights after years of training.
Physical activity could mean regular walks, stretching, or basic moves like pushups and jumping jacks. Don’t go crazy, and don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself, because that’ll be counterproductive for the second part: mental health. Get some rest when you can fit it in, speak with a professional, take a long bath, go for a hike, and drink lots of water (and order that extra-large hot fudge sundae, duh).
9. Don’t Force Yourself to Read Something You’re Not Enjoying
I used to try to finish every book I started, even if I really didn’t like it. I allowed myself to read a couple books at a time, but the problem was I’d keep returning to the one I wasn’t enjoying. I noticed that when I did this, I had no motivation to write, let alone read. I’ve since ditched that personal rule and have been much happier and more creative (at least, I think so).
Everybody’s tastes are different, so I’m not going to say that there are bad books out there. However, there is literature that just isn’t for you as a reader. If reading becomes tedious, I feel it does more harm than good to continue. Sure, maybe you’ll be able to get something out of it by the end, but it’s a long journey, and for me it’s not worth fighting through just so I can say I finished a book. If you feel like you’re in the same boat as I once was, drop the boring book and pick up something that recently caught your eye.
And stick with authors that encourage you to write. Whenever I read certain authors—David Sedaris, Paul Tremblay, Anna Quindlen—I have a strong urge to write. I view that as a huge plus; not only do I enjoy their stories, but they inadvertently help me to create. That’s invaluable.
This tip is easy enough: listen to music. Listening to and/or playing music on an instrument has so many benefits that it’d be too much to list here without making this article all about it. Notably, music improves your mood, strengthens your memory, and reduces blood pressure, stress, and anxiety. Apparently it can also ease pain.
Basically, music is magic, and nowadays it’s right at our fingertips. We have the ability to play exactly what we want to hear or have a computer/app choose for us. On top of everything, listening to music can even help with concentration. So pop in an earbud or blast some music on your stereo. Either way, it’s a healthy practice and can ultimately assist in boosting your creativity.
Bonus Tip: Family is Number 1
It’s a no-brainer that family comes first. They are (or at least should be) the most important people in the world. But oftentimes we get caught up in our work, our hobbies, our art, our passions that we neglect self-care as well as the people in our own households. No matter where we are in life, we shouldn’t forget that they’re still number one. We can only be happy if they are, and vice versa. So don’t forget to make time for them every day, even if that means cutting into your writing time. They deserve our love and attention. And we’d also be doing our own selves a disservice if we allowed our writing to take precedence. Sure, it’s therapeutic and good for our mental health (and sometimes our bank account as well), but it’s never more important than the people you love who love you back.
If you made it this far, just know that I really appreciate you and your interest in my work! Thanks so much for listening to me ramble on Living the Next Chapter and for (soon) taking the time to read my book. A second humor book is on the horizon. So stay tuned, but in the meantime, enjoy Junk Sale! And when you're done, please take the time to rate my book on Amazon, Goodreads, Google Books, and Barnes & Noble.
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