How to Guarantee Your Next Writing Session Is a Success
Four must-follow steps for ultra productive writing
Over the past 15+ years, I’ve experimented with many different strategies for creating the conditions that give rise to an effective writing session.
Four methods in particular have proven to be especially useful to me.
Each of the practices discussed below will help you feel your best and think as clearly as possible so you can write to the best of your ability.
1. Actively Block Out All Distractions
Here are three key facts about writing:
- Writing is intellectually demanding (yet highly rewarding).
- Great writing is the product of focused attention and hard thinking.
- It’s extremely easy to become distracted whilst writing.
Writing is the externalization of thinking, with the result being that exceptional writing is fundamentally grounded in exceptional thinking.
It’s impossible to think clearly — and therefore to write coherently, intelligibly, and persuasively — in the presence of ongoing distractions.
Blocking out potential interruptions is essential to my workflow as a writer, and I suspect it is to others’ too (even if they don’t recognize or admit it).
Writing and multitasking don’t mix well together—period.
This is true whether you’re intending to multitask (e.g., writing a blog post and watching an episode of “Succession” at the same time) or the multitasking is being ‘forced’ upon you (e.g., trying to write an essay whilst the people next to you engage in loud conversation).
Here’s how to block out potential distractions and stay in the zone whilst writing:
- Write by yourself in a quiet area — not with others in a busy café or with a friend in front of the television or with a ‘study group’ in the chatting-permitted-on-this-floor area of the library.
- Turn off your phone or put it on airplane mode. If necessary, put your phone somewhere that’s completely out of reach (e.g., in another room).
- Listen to music or concentration-promoting soundscapes. For the past two years, I’ve been listening to this, this, or this whenever I work. I find this kind of music very calming and focus-inducing (as opposed to music with lyrics, which I find very distracting). If I need something a bit more aggressive sounding that can block out nearby noise, I listen to an hour-long loop I created of a specific section of this song.
- Keep only the bare minimum number of tabs open in your web browser. Everything except what you absolutely need to write should be closed (no Twitter, Reddit, CNN, etc.). The only tabs I have open on my browser whilst writing are Thesaurus.com, Title Capitalization Tool, Oxford English Dictionary, and my Medium page (so that I can pull up links to my published articles).
- Use a focus app like SelfControl, Freedom, Cold Turkey, AppBlock, or FocusWriter. In one way or another, each of these tools prevents you from engaging in tasks (such as browsing the internet) that pull you away from your writing.
2. Write in a Comfortable Environment
Given that writing is such an intellectually intense undertaking, you should be very strict about the kinds of environments in which you’re willing to work.
You should do everything you can to enhance your physical comfort so that the only thing that you have to focus on is your writing.
Here are some practical tips for creating a calm, inviting, and supportive work environment:
- Use a comfortable, high-quality chair. Virtually every one of us now spends too many hours seated each day. In order to minimize the health problems associated with extended periods of sitting, purchase and use a high-quality, ergonomic chair — it really is worth the money. Also, be sure to walk around for a couple of minutes at least once every hour.
- Keep the temperature of your room relatively cool. My experience suggests that somewhere around 20 degrees Celsius is best for promoting hard work and concentration. Defaulting to slightly too cool rather than slightly too warm is the way to go because cool temperatures will help you stay awake whilst warm temperatures will make the lure of a nap too attractive to ignore.
- Light a scented candle. Smell is a powerful driver of human activity, and some smells can be especially helpful for encouraging productivity and focus. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on vanilla-scented candles over the past seven years because I find they make my writing experiences more enjoyable. Plus, the lighting of a candle becomes something of a ritual over time; i.e., it signifies to my mind that it’s now time to get to work.
- Invest in an oversized desk, if you can. Working in a cluttered space, especially when under the pressure of deadlines, demanding clients, and the responsibilities of everyday life, is quite annoying, if not infuriating. I suggest investing in an oversized desk (or, if necessary, building a huge desk from scratch, which is what I did about 10 years ago). Having lots of room to move about and store things on my desk makes me feel less claustrophobic and like I’m able to breathe more easily, making my writing less challenging.
3. Schedule Time to Write — Don’t ‘Wing’ It
I never decide on a whim to start writing; my writing sessions are always planned.
I find that planning my next writing session produces better results than if I randomly choose to start writing at some point throughout the day.
That’s not to say writing at random times can’t or doesn’t ever work.
Indeed, if inspiration strikes you at an unexpected time, you should get to clacking away on the keyboard.
In general, though, you will likely be noticeably more motivated, organized, and productive when you put thought into when, exactly, you plan to write and into what, in particular, you intend to get done than when you simply ‘wing’ your writing.
Proactively design each of your writing sessions, deciding when, where, and about what you’re going to write.
For best results, make this into a regular practice.
Such a practice is crucial to developing and sticking to a consistent writing routine that works.
4. If You Use Caffeine, Do So Strategically
Caffeine is a staple of many writers’ diets and creative toolkits, including my own.
Caffeine, which is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks, soda (pop), and other foods and liquids, typically causes:
- A spike in energy
- Increased motivation, determination, and creativity
- Feelings of euphoria and wellness
The ‘caffeine crash,’ which typically follows the welcomed experience of increased energy and focus, produces the exact opposite effects:
- Lethargy, exhaustion, and tiredness
- Decreased motivation and increased apathy
- An inability to ‘think straight’
- Elevated anxiety and ‘jitters’ (1, 2, 3, 4)
Caffeine can be helpful or destructive to your thinking and writing — it all depends on how you use it.
Most days, I consume no more than two caffeinated drinks in a 24-hour period.
I have a strong cup of coffee with my breakfast (around 6:00 a.m.) and then I might have a second, less strong coffee or tea in the late morning or early afternoon (no later than 1:00 p.m.).
(In place of coffee or tea, I’ll sometimes take 50mg of caffeine in pill form.)
The more caffeine you consume in a given day, the less you experience its benefits and the more you have to deal with its unwanted effects.
Here’s how I suggest using caffeine to help you write more effectively:
- Use caffeine strategically. If you’re exhausted and unable to take a 20 to 40-minute nap (which is always the best solution to fatigue), have a cup of coffee or something else with caffeine in it to help you ‘power through’ the next hour or two of your work. However, if you feel well enough to write without relying on an artificial boost, skip the coffee for now and opt for (lots of) water instead.
- Avoid consuming more than 400mg of caffeine on any given day. Studies suggest 400mg, equating to approximately three to four full-sized cups of coffee, is the upper limit for safe caffeine use, with amounts beyond this level posing risks to human health (1, 2, 3, 4).
- Try combining caffeine with L-theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid that boasts a number of health benefits, including its ability to ameliorate some of the negative sensations associated with a ‘caffeine crash.’ Combining caffeine with L-theanine can help you enjoy the increased concentration and motivation produced by caffeine but without experiencing the nasty after-effects once the ‘caffeine high’ wears off. The recommended dosage, which is what I follow, is 100mg of caffeine to 200–250mg of L-theanine. I advise against taking L-theanine on its own if you’re looking to use it to help you work because it induces drowsiness, which will disincline you from writing (learn more here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
- Don’t consume caffeine four hours or less prior to your intended bedtime. Caffeine not only makes it difficult to fall asleep, but it also impacts the quality of your sleep by robbing you of the deep rest you need for the following day. Consuming caffeine too late in the evening tonight will negatively impact tomorrow’s productivity (1, 2, 3, 4).
Maximizing the productivity and enjoyment of your next writing session requires proactive and strategic decision-making on your part.
Exceptions aside, the best writers don’t randomly choose when or about what they’re going to write.
Rather, they plan their writing sessions, intentionally creating a specific set of conditions within which they can concentrate and work hard.
My experience suggests the following four dynamics are essential to crafting an inspiring and productive writing session:
- Actively block out all distractions.
- Write in a comfortable environment.
- Schedule time to write — don’t ‘wing’ it.
- If you use caffeine, use it strategically.
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