Concentration: 22 ways to stay focused on writing


To be a great writer, you have to be able to concentrate. Not only that but you have to be able to maintain focus for sustained periods. It’s not the only thing you’ll need but it’s a good start.

Psychologists describe a powerful form of concentration called ‘flow’. It happens when someone concentrates  fully engaged on what they are doing. (See the Wikipedia definition.) When you are writing in like this, you can hold all the pieces of a story in your head and write fluently.

We all recognise this state. “Time flies when you’re having fun” is one version. Meditation is, perhaps, another version. If you play sports or video games and you find yourself ‘at one’ with what you’re doing, that’s another. All these mental states require concentration.

Conversely, failure to concentrate can be very unproductive. In fact, multitasking makes us stupid. People who think they are good at multitasking aren’t, according to researchers at Stanford University (see also: original paper). That’s you and me, dear reader.

I’m writing this post to share some of the habits and techniques that have (sometimes) helped me to improve my own concentration. And yes, I know that some of them are contradictory. That’s the ‘sometimes’. Anyway, I hope you find them useful. If you have any tips you would like to share, please leave a comment.

  • Accept your distractions. You will get distracted. Your mind will wander. You won’t want to get started. Accept it. The trick is to stand back and notice your brain doing these things. When it happens, stand back from yourself. Notice the distraction. Name the monster. Gently remind yourself that you’re trying to concentrate and it will be easier to return your focus to your work.
  • Use a concentration timer. I like using meditation timers when I write. A little bell every five minutes helps remind to put my focus back onto my writing if my mind has wandered. There is a free, online timer on my company website. You can use it time and pace a writing session.
  • Go somewhere else. Do you write a bit more neatly when you get a new pen? Change can be beneficial, even if the effect is temporary. Sometimes a change of location (go to the park, Starbucks, the Kitchen – anywhere but here) or a change of method (use a quill, a pencil, a typewriter, a different word processor, Linux) can help.
  • Stay where you are. I’m always getting up and going somewhere to get something or do something. To counter this tendency, I keep scrap paper (recycled A4 printer paper cut in half) by my desk and scribble reminders. Then back to the writing.
  • Write at a different time. I write best if I get up early. (See How I trained myself to get up earlier in the morning.) Just changing your routine can be helpful.
  • Write to a schedule. When I have a busy week with many deadlines, I block out time for my work in Microsoft Outlook. This helps me allocate time and measure progress on longer-term projects and ensure that I have enough time to do all the work I planned. Other people find it helpful to start writing at the same time every day.
  • Morning pages. I have to admit that I haven’t tried Julia Cameron’s technique for unblocking your creativity but other people, including my wife, swear by it. It involves writing in a stream of consciousness first thing every day.
  • Switch off distractions. Turn off your radio, TV, shut the door, close your email program, put your phone on mute, shut down your blog reader software, use a distraction-free word  processor. Anything you can do to stop distractions before they happen, the better.
  • Tame your muse. Your muse works for you, not the other way round. Think of it as a recalcitrant employee. Give it deadlines, tell it to show up for work at a fixed time every day, give it feedback and praise, define what you expect from it.
  • Seek inspiration. Lots of people praise walking or running as a source of inspiration. The best advice I ever had was from my history tutor at Oxford – keep a notebook with you at all times because you never know when you will have a good idea.
  • Quantify. Use word count to set goals – 500 words and then a break, for example. Track writing output over time in a spreadsheet. Use Joe’s Goals to keep track of habits in the long term. Some people, like me, are highly motivated by a sense of progress.
  • Silence. External noise can break your concentration. Try noise cancelling headphones (I use Bose), music (see Music for working), silent PC (See: Tools for writing: Silent PCs) or ear plugs (See In praise of earplugs).
  • Meditate to develop concentration and calmness. I find it helpful to meditate a little before I start work. It’s not easy for me but when I do it, I find it really helps. I sit in a quiet room, legs crossed and count my breaths. This guide may be a helpful place to start.
  • Treats. I like tea (See Tools for writing: A nice cup of tea). Other people prefer cigarettes, Jaffa cakes or whatever. I would just be wary of too many sugary treats because they can cause a sugar crash later. You end up borrowing energy from yourself.
  • Punishment. Try Write or Die. If you don’t keep writing, it starts deleting what you have already written!
  • Shame. Instead of running a 26 mile marathon, aim to write 26,000 words and get your friends to sponsor you for charity. If you fail to do it, you won’t raise any money and you’ll feel bad. Nothing like social pressure to keep you at the keyboard.
  • Buddy writing. Working with a friend, even over an open Skype line, can encourage concentration, providing you both have the same work habits. Somehow the peer pressure keeps you both working hard. It’s also an antidote to the potential loneliness of the long-distance writer.
  • Chunking. Write for 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break. Repeat.
  • Don’t worry. Editing is not writing. Don’t let your mental self-editor get in the way of your super-productive copywriter. Accept that your first draft might not be perfect. Leave notes to yourself in your text – fact-check, tidy up, rewrite, condense. The important thing is to keep writing.
  • Use TK. This is a special case of ‘Don’t worry.’ If there’s something you don’t know, don’t stop to look it up. Just put TK in the text. It means ‘to come [later]’. For example, ‘When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in TK DATE, he didn’t expect to meet little green men.’ Fill in the blanks later. TK is easy to search for because it doesn’t occur often in everyday writing. (There are a few exceptions, such as the band Outkast.)
  • Rock and river. Water is soft and rocks are hard but a river can defeat a rock with patience and constant effort over time. I think it’s the same with writing. A little every day beats a lot once a year. If you keep this in mind, concentrating for a short period every day becomes easier.
  • Leave a hook to get you started. When you finish writing each day, try to leave a few notes in your text to help you get started the next day. This will make it easier to overcome inertia and re-engage with the work.

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58 Responses to Concentration: 22 ways to stay focused on writing

  1. Very helpful tips thank you! I’m definitely going to look into Julia Cameron’s tips:)

    • Cameron’s book is called The Artist’s Way. My wife swears by it. She’s a theatre director so it works across the arts and not just for writing. Personally, I found the style a bit cloying and sentimental but her ideas are very effective: morning pages, artist dates and so on. Well worth reading.

  2. These are really good tips–thanks!

  3. I LOVE the TK tip. Thanks!

  4. Great list and some very useful tips here. I’m a great believer in just getting the words down first and beautifying it later: but I often find that what I write initially is not nearly as bad as my inner perfectionist is telling me: the inner perfectionist in us all is responsible for a lot of things that don’t get done because we think our ideas are ‘not good enough.’

    • I think every writer has an inner perfectionist. It’s really annoying when it stops you writing anything, isn’t it? Sometimes you just need to sit in front of the screen and write stuff. Editing is a time for your perfectionist to shine but that’s later. Perhaps morning pages might be a good way to overcome this particular obstacle?

      • Dave says:

        I sometimes get on an editing binge and don’t get anything done. I read a tip last week that may be useful. It said to just turn off your monitor when writing your first draft.

        • Ah! That’s an idea. I’m also experimenting with going offline on my email periodically and I bought an ancient Mac Plus and I was thinking that if I could figure out how to copy files from it, I would use that as a writing-only computer. No internet. Lovely keyboard. Just like the old days.

  5. Alex Wilks says:

    Thanks. But the list is much too long. and doesn’t appear to be ordered or prioritised.

    Maybe some tips for editing should appear next. And a short mnemnonic.

    PS my main tip is not to look at your e-mails for the first two hours of any writing session. Then have a quick peak at mails as a reward if you’ve written what you need to.

    • A menmonic might be useful. I like long lists though – more chance that you’ll find something you didn’t already know! 🙂

      Thanks for the suggestion about not looking at emails. It’s very true, isn’t!

  6. Nice list and ideas! I find that some background music (non vocal preferably) helps me to drown out the other stuff and concentrate too.

  7. copywriter says:

    Hi all,

    This is really great post. I am hoping to follow all the thangs mentioned above.

    Thanks mate…

  8. Matthew, Thanks very much for taking the time to share these tips. Very generous of you!

    Kind Regards, David

    • Yep buddy David you are absolutely right that Matthew really make it simple and pointed real 22 points for writing. Writing really needs a focus and very very good care in the subject. Some writers do regular meditation to increase their inner strength.

  9. wolfwriter23 says:

    I am the most cynical person in the world when it comes to productivity articles and I’ve gotta say, this blew me out of the water — thank you SO much for this insight. I can safely say it succeeded since I have about eight new tabs open with all of the links you provided in this. thanks.

  10. Eric Swett says:

    Wow. I wish I had found this article last week. I’m definitely going to try and implement many of your suggestions.

  11. Thanks, this is a great article

  12. Superb advice. My problem is email and other online distractions; when I turn them off I can write. The other great motivator for me is deadlines, when you HAVE to write something it all comes together. But imposing deadlines on yourself doesn’t work (for me)

    • Self-imposed deadlines are the worst. It’s easy to let yourself off and do something else. Sometimes I feel like a doctor who smokes about this. I work like crazy to meet client deadlines but my own personal stuff drags. Incentives, scheduling and thinking about the consequences of NOT doing something can help. Cookies and tea too. But if you find the answer to this problem, let me know!

  13. Harold Smith says:

    One way to stay focus is to avoid distractions. Have you hear about “airplane mode” this mode needs you to turn off all gadgets like mobile that can help you lose your focus. Another good way to stay focus is to creat a to-do list and track time spend on ech task. This way you will effectively know what are the tasks you need to do, limit wasted time and helps you improve work flow. It can also help you maximize the use of time and get more things done.

  14. Rose says:

    Fantastic tips! Somehow I can focus well for clients but not on my own personal blog, so this could well be the answer to my prayers.

    I’m looking forward to using several of the tips you recommended (and I am going to try Write or Die cautiously…. how terrifying yet exciting!)

  15. mike onyeit says:

    mathew stibe, may god bless the work of your hands . i have never met with such generosity

  16. mike onyeit says:


  17. Anthony says:

    While I write I keep my eye on the time. I am a professional writer I write articles for my regular customers who posted those in their blogs regularly. Some times I have to write more than 4-5 articles for them they track my time using this remote monitoring software named vuept, I lost my concentration some times. I hope yours 22 tips is gonna save my life.

  18. colette says:

    Suburb advice. Thank you very much!

  19. cathy van montigne says:

    How about using a productivity app called Beesy? It’s an all-in-one app to consolidate your information (calendar, notes, to-do, people, projects) and to handle priority management by assigning notes to goals and projects in a dynamic way. If you wish for more info:

  20. Dave says:

    A lot of outstanding tips. Thanks. A few things came to mind while reading.

    Notebook. I use a small notebook that fits perfectly in my back pocket that was originally made for the military, but you can order them online. Just Google this number: 7530-00-222-0076. Not as nice as some of the more expensive ones, but it gets the job done.

    Treats. When I absolutely have to finish writing something I eat a Hersey Almond bar. The normal size one that’s about 75 cents at Walmart–perfect “brain food.” Second runner up is Werther’s® Original® Butter and Cream Hard Candy.

    Micronutrients. Additional good brain boosters are cod liver oil, primrose oil, and fish oil. I also take a good vitamin supplement now and again to make sure my brain has enough energy and nutrients to run on.

    • Yes, little notebooks are cool. I use OneNote on my iPhone but also often carry a little, thin, paperback Moleskine notebook as well.

      Treats are good. I’m just going to get a slice of cake now, in fact! 🙂

      Completely agree about micronutrients too. Since writing this piece a while ago, I’ve started taking Vitamin D and Omega 3 fish oil. It helps my concentration, I think, but I can’t prove it scientifically.

  21. MichaelOrlando says:

    The article is definitely worth reading! Thank you for sharing your ideas. I think they will be pretty good to try. I had faced similar posts several times but the most significant was posted at

  22. Anjali says:

    I have a work load but instead of writing i keep on thinking and cannot write more. Lastly whole day ends with zero productivity. Please help

  23. Cynthia says:

    For example I am very hard to concentrate on the written work, when nearby are people talking and watching what I do. It’s very distracting. Even the most popular tips that are written here cannot help me. Only when I am alone, nothing distracts me, I can work calmly.
    So now, when I’m busy of writing Thesis, I go to my room and I ask that no one bothered me. Only this way I can fully concentrate on the job and quickly write Thesis. I am one of those people who help themselves. So I found all the necessary information about thesis writing , find useful articles on the Internet, such as this one I rarely go to my lecturer for advice, because all the information I already know. My lecturer said, “If you can – do it yourself, help is needed for others, those who can not help themselves.


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