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Butt in chair stick-to-it-iveness

This week I’m reposting one of my favorite posts—because I think we all need to be reminded now and then of the importance of keeping our butts in the chair.

I’m writing again for the first time in weeks and finding it difficult to sit still in my chair. Today I thought about what works and what doesn’t for me. What do I have to do to get from distracted-checking-my-e-mail-every-five-seconds Meghan to focused-writing Meghan? Here’s what works for me:

1. Make sure you’re in a quiet place where you won’t have any interruptions.
If you’re somewhere with noise, use earplugs or noise-blocking headphones. If you can’t afford those multi-hundred-dollar Bose things, get a pair of $25 construction headphones at Home Depot (that’s what I have). They’re big and bulky and block out all noise.

2. Make sure you have water, tea, and snacks at your side.
If you don’t, you’ll use that as an excuse to get out of your chair every ten minutes. Now you’re stuck. Ha! (You can also bribe yourself with something you want, like chocolate or a chai latte.)

3. Don’t check your e-mail, not even for ten minutes.
Once you do, your mind will wander to the content of those messages instead of the story you need to write.

4. Open Scrivener.
If you don’t have it, go here and buy it right now. Do the 30-day free trial if you want, but what happened to me was that I didn’t do the tutorial within the 30 days and then didn’t buy it for several more months. My recommendation: skip the trial and just buy it. I know many writers who swear by it and once I finally started using it, I loved, loved, loved it. Once you’ve bought it, do the tutorial. I opened a second Scrivener window at the same time as the tutorial and imported my book while doing the tutorial so I could apply what I was learning to my book as I went along. Buy it. Right now.

5. Open Freedom.
Formerly known as Mac Freedom, Freedom now works for PCs as well as Macs. If you don’t have Freedom , download it right now. It’s worth the $10 a hundred times over. You can also try Self Control, which only works for Macs. While Freedom is the preferred app of writers, Self Control allows you to blacklist certain websites while still allowing yourself to access others—and it’s free. Freedom founder Fred Stutzman has a similar app called Anti-Social, which blocks social networks you list, but it costs $15.

6. Set Freedom for the amount of time you want to work.
I usually do 180 minutes, but if that’s too long for you to go without Internet, try 120. Or 60.

7. Turn on your stopwatch.
If you have an iPhone, there’s a stopwatch in your clock app. If you don’t, but you’re on a Mac, go to Apple and download one for free. If you’re on a PC, I don’t know how widgets work, but you can always go to a sporting goods store and get a real stopwatch. I used one for years. Turn on the stopwatch (and turn it off whenever you get out of your chair of stop writing to check your e-mail, etc.)

8. Just sit.
Now you’re all set and panic sets in. You can’t write. You don’t want to write. You can’t think of what to say. You desperately want to check your e-mail. Or wait, didn’t you leave the stove on? Oh, maybe that’s the mailman. And you should pay the electric bill. Oh damn, you forgot to call Sophie to tell her you can’t make it tomorrow. Go ahead, think through all the reasons you can’t write right now. Jot them down on your to do list. But don’t get out of that chair. Just sit there until your brain calms down. Still don’t want to write? Then don’t. Just open up the document you were working on yesterday (or last week) and read it. Before you know it, you’ll be making edits and more edits and … look, Ma, I’m writing! Thirty minutes later, you remember that you need to add that movie to your Netflix queue, so you open your browser and … damn Freedom! You’re blocked from using the Internet! Sigh. Back to sitting in your chair.

9. Take a short break
Once your 120 minutes are up, stop the stopwatch, get up and use the bathroom (you’re also allowed to do this while writing, just make sure you stop the stopwatch when you do), give yourself a 10-minute time limit to check your e-mail, stretch, refill your coffee, eat lunch, whatever, then sit back down and set MacFreedom for another 120 minutes (or however long you plan to write. Have a goal before you begin.)

10. Voila!
You just wrote for four hours! Congratulations! You’re awesome! Now go outside and get some fresh air.

10 comments to Butt in chair stick-to-it-iveness

  • Great tips, Meghan. I have a question about Scrivener. I got it a year ago and failed to learn to use it. I am a very slow learner of new software! Once I have it, fine, but getting there is hard. I learned in a past job how to use things like Filemaker and Excel, and so I can do it. But it seems to take a human at my side… Maybe I will take the tutorial again. So my question: I seem to recall that Scrivener looked great for being able to chain together or separate chapters as you need—right? It would have really helped me as I have 16 chapters separately AND them chained together in a separate document. It is hard sometimes to keep track of versions.

    • meghancward

      Richard, Scrivener has so many great features. I would just sit down and slowly go through the tutorial – maybe even twice. I know it's daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's really easy. It allows you to take photos of chapters before you revise them, and revert back to those previous drafts at any time. It allows you to write each chapter in a separate document but view them as one continuous document when you want – and rearrange them and print them as one document. I tried doing that in Word and it was a nightmare. It also allows you to store multimedia – videos and websites and photos – in your research folder. It allows you to block out your desktop, so all you see are the words on the screen …

  • Kristan

    Yes, great tips, and LOL at #8 because that's my life, over and over and over. Sigh… 😛

    • meghancward

      I love Raymond Chandler's take: ‘Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.’”

  • James

    You can add this recommendation to # 3 and also add it to what you want to block in #5.


    If you are interested in interacting with other Scrivener users, there is a public community for Scrivener Users on Google+. We have over 160 members. Since this is a public community you can read the community page before you decide whether or not you want to participate or not.

    • meghancward

      Oy! I didn't need to know about the Scrivener community! Good thing I have Freedom! 🙂

  • annerallen

    My blog partner Ruth Harris swears by Scirvener, too. But I've been composing in Word so long, I don't know if my muse would be able to deal with the learning curve.

    One caveat. If you're like me and you go into a kind of trance when you're writing, DO find a way to remind yourself to get up at least once every half hour to stretch. It can do nasty things to your body if you sit too long in one position. My doctor had me set an alarm clock to go off every half hour so I wouldn't hurt myself any further after my marathon writing sessions of the past two years.

    • meghancward

      Anne – I will NEVER have that problem! I wish very much that I needed an alarm to make me get up every 30 minutes and stretch 🙂 But good advice for you focused people.

  • deliberatereader

    Oh my goodness. I needed Freedom when I was in grad school procrastinating about writing my papers. That would have probably gained me hours and hours of sleep by preventing the late nights I endured due to wasting time "researching" when I should have been writing.