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Academic Coaching & Writing

IV. Eliminate Writing Distractions

Sep 26, 2012 by Dr Sally

Daily life is full of interruptions and distractions. To support your daily writing habit, find a quiet place to work and find ways to temper the distractions. Turn off the cellphone, the email, and the Internet. Train others to respect your daily writing time. Learn techniques such as deep breathing or meditation to quiet the internal dialogue that undermines you.

In a survey of participants in a recent ACW Writing Workshop, participants cited both external distractions and internal distractions.

External Writing Distractions

Based on the survey results, the most common external distractions are the following:

  • Cell phone and text messages
  • Email
  • Internet surfing
  • Facebook
  • Online shopping
  • Family /kids

Clearly, you need to say “No” to all of these during your sacred writing hour. Turn off your phone. Shut down your email. Turn off the Internet. Enroll your family in your writing program and train them to respect your writing time. If they’re too young to do so, arrange childcare during your writing time. This advice is so simple and yet so often ignored. Eliminate all external distractions, the only exceptions being circumstances beyond your control, such as a power outage.

Internal Writing Distractions

Internal distractions are actually much more malicious and harder to manage. Once you’ve shut your door and turned off your phone and Internet, there’s nothing to distract you except your own thoughts. Left to your own thoughts, you may second guess your daily plan and decide you need to spend the time doing more reading or revamping your plan.

The participants in our Writing Workshop generated a long list of distracting thoughts. Here are a few of them:

  • Thinking about how hard it is to write;
  • Being overwhelmed (getting started and trying to focus because there is always so much to do);
  • Not knowing exactly what to work on;
  • Insecurity (worrying that there is more literature or data to search for or analyze);
  • Worrying about double checking sources to properly cite;
  • Concentrating on activities that are more immediate, such as planning for classes, working on conference presentations, or responding to work email or committee requests;
  • Thinking about looming deadlines for committee and service obligations;
  • Doing things OTHER than writing (but related to the project) for too long, e.g. reading too many articles, or spending too much time on them, communicating with co-authors instead of writing;
  • Thinking about OTHER potential research projects;
  • Negative thinking (“it doesn’t matter how hard I work because it won’t be good enough”)
  • Feeling anxious about imperfections in the draft;
  • Thinking of things that will “just take a minute” (like cleaning the kitchen);
  • Feeling restless;
  • Getting bored with the process; and
  • FEAR!

The list is endless! All of these responses are typical of how writers sabotage themselves. Such thoughts generally disguise a fear of not being able to meet your writing goals. Rick Carson refers to these thoughts as your “gremlins.” Carson’s book Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way is a wonderful resource for learning how to manage your internal dialogue. Carson suggests that your negative thinking imprisons you. His advice is to “simply notice” your thoughts and to try not to argue with your gremlins. Instead, playfully experiment with ways to disempower your gremlins.

When you notice that you are having a distracting thought, you might try to “let it go” rather than obsessing over it and allowing it to take control. Jot down the thought, and then get back to the task at hand. For example, suppose you have the thought “I need to check this citation.” The next thought follows in rapid succession. “I’m stupid. I probably misinterpreted what the author said.” Then your brain starts racing faster and faster: “My reader will think I’m incompetent, and this will never be published. I’ll probably even lose my job. Then my family will find out, and they’ll leave me”…on and on.

But you can break this cycle. The first time you have the thought, “I need to check this citation,” jot it down as a way to slow down your thought. Take a deep breath and begin again with the writing task you are working on.

In the last several blogs, you have learned ways to manage yourself to become a more productive writer. In the next blog, you will learn how to use a timer to make your writing time more productive.


Carson, R. (2003). Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way. New York, NY: Quill.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What external distractors do you need to say “No” to during your daily writing time?
  2. What gremlin thoughts undermine your confidence in your writing ability?
  3. What techniques have helped you in the past to restore your confidence in your writing ability?

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