When I am up against a deadline and I absolutely, definitely have to get on with my work, I use a few tactics to force myself to concentrate:
- Switch off email. I don't start Outlook (or if I do, I disable all the notifications that tell me I have new mail).
- Isolate myself. I use Bose noise-cancelling headphones but don't plug them into anything. The silence really is golden.
- Greed and guilt. I remind myself how much money I'm getting paid for a particular assignment and how ashamed I will be if I miss the deadline. This actually works sometimes.
- Stop with the blog already. When I'm pressed for time, distractions like blogging and hoovering become very compelling. Knowing this makes it easier to resist.
- Get up early. 6am is the most productive time of day for writing. No distractions. It also feels more virtuous than staying up late with work.
- Little treats. I bribe myself: 'Matthew, if you write another 500 words, you can have a cup of tea and a biscuit.'
- Chunking. Setting a timer or alarm clock for 15, 20, 30, 50 minutes and doing nothing but writing until it goes off and then taking a break seems like a good way to make progress.
- Go full screen. Switching Word into full screen mode (from the view menu) eliminates all distractions but the piece I'm working on.
- Shitty first draft. Splitting the work into distinct writing and editing phases breaks the job down nicely and it takes off some of the pressure to 'get it right first time'.
- Change location. Sometimes, if I'm really struggling to get started, taking a laptop or my notebook to a cafe and scribbling out something there - a fresh new location - is a good way to jolt-start an assignment.
[Update 10 March 2010: there's a newer version of this article with lots more tips: 22 ways to stay focused on writing.]