Pokemon Go. (If you’re a writer, please do not download it.)

Did Charmander eat your book idea?

Carbon monoxide is deadly — mainly because it’s fast. Relatively small amounts are fatal because it bonds with hemoglobin over 200 times faster than normal oxygen molecules — it wins every race, every time. Because of this, you can suffocate from relatively small amounts of carbon monoxide, even in a room full of perfectly good air. That’s why it is the most prevalent cause of poisoning death in the United States.

Thinking about this makes me wonder: Is your book dying pretty much the same way?

The carbon monoxide of the mind

We live in an age of distraction. Not all of it is bad — or maybe it would be better to say that it is only really bad when it is distracting us from something more important. The impulse to check email is all but ever present; our smartphones buzz, beep, or vibrate at the most inopportune of times; video games are now designed to need your attention about every five minutes; news feeds update constantly; and you’d have to live in a cave not to know the dangers of getting distracted by text messages while you are driving (just see the little tag line at the end of Dr. Strange reminding viewers waiting for the final stinger why he crashed).

While I have to admit having my phone remind me that I have a meeting or need to pay attention to an email from a family member or client is often helpful, I also have to admit I am extremely susceptible to what I call the “twitch instinct”: the feeling that just because there is a sudden brief lull in the midst of a conversation — or between thoughts in my head — I need to pick up my phone or check my email to make sure there’s not something I am missing.

Like carbon monoxide, that always seems the quickest thought in my mind, and if I give into it, I slowly choke off the oxygen whatever I am working on at the moment needs to thrive. That seems to happen more with my writing than anything else.

Allowing room for bigger thoughts

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I tend to have to dig for good ideas. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that I have to prepare fertile soil, plant good research, water it carefully with thought, pull up the weeds and cut away false starts, and nurture my insights carefully — or else they never germinate into anything worthy of being shared with the world. That takes extended, uninterrupted periods of time, and it takes concentrated focus. After all, 50,000-word ideas don’t just pop into your mind, they have to be assembled concept by concept, layer by layer.

Let me make a confession here you’ve probably already figured out: I’m writing from personal experience. I am a bit obsessive-compulsive and therefore I like to check my e-mail, LinkedIn feed, Facebook profile, Twitter account, or latest Medium post for new comments — often. Worse yet, I love a good addictive video game (after struggling with this — and justifying it to myself and my family — for years, I finally took all of my favorite games off of my phone). I love coffee and snacks, and I love to click on those obscure, odd boxes on the side of web pages to find out just what exactly that dog is doing or which of my favorite shows are getting canceled next season. I love to check the sports scores, to read about whether or not this is the year the Ducks will finally win a national title (and yes, they most certainly won’t this year!), or to check out the last trailer for the latest upcoming Star Wars movie.

When my writing discipline is at its worst, I find the urge to do one of these things grabs my attention at least 200 times faster than the next word I need to get down on the page. Heck, even cleaning the kitchen looks better than sitting down and writing the next sentence!

Such interruptions kill my writing in the same way carbon monoxide poisons the body. Why? Because, in a race between distraction and digging in to write, distraction wins every race for your concentration, every time.

(Hang on a minute. I need to pet the cat.)

Okay, what was I about to say? It was really good —

Oh yeah. If you are going to write successfully, you need to protect yourself from whatever your carbon monoxide of the mind is.

Habits are just habits, and they can be changed

We all have our weaknesses, and we all have matters that can legitimately be more important than our writing. We have families. We have responsibilities. We’ve made promises. We have clients who have questions for us that we need to answer. But we also have things that suck us in and won’t let us come back up for air until hours later. TV does that to me (I almost always regret I wasn’t reading instead), and social media does that to me (especially checking my Facebook feed in the days following the Presidential election last week). I have things to be doing that are more important — namely writing.

I have so many really good ideas for books I haven’t taken the time to write in the last several years, and I have so many really good excuses for why I didn’t have the mental real estate to get them done. The fact of the matter is, though, all my reasons are just carbon monoxide of the mind. They’re excuses. Some of my best ideas have been gassed comatose by my own bad habits.

All that to say, if you want to write, you need to come out of the fog. You need to find a time and space to write. Pick up the rock of a two or three-hour block of time and chuck it into a free space in your week and don’t let anything move it. Then do it again, as many times as you can.

I remember reading where one author went to bed at the same time as his kids so he could get up at 4 am to write. Some turn off their phones and have programs that won’t allow them access to the Internet until they reboot their computer. Others take an extra hour for lunch and hole up in a coffee shop like J.K. Rowling did when she wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As a high school teacher of mine used to say, “You are only limited by your own lack of imagination.”

I guess what I am trying to say is, if you want to write — especially if you want to write an entire book — you need to recognize your carbon monoxide of the brain — your writer’s kryptonite — and then carve out a time and a safe location that is free of that distraction. You need to create carbon monoxide-free, interruption-free space to let yourself think about what you want to write. To think and think and then write it down, and then think later and fix it. Peel back the layers. Rethink and refine. And then don’t get up until the time you have set is finished.

And then do that again. And again. And again. . . .

That’s what makes you a writer — and that’s what gets your book written.

This article was updated from one originally appearing on RickKillian.com

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