On Trying to Write While Sitting in the Midst of the Battle of Hogwarts

An author friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook (and gave me kind permission to post):

  • “Almost impossible to work these days. It feels like I’m sitting in the entrance hall of Hogwarts trying to write…while the final battle with Voldemort and the Death Eaters is raging around me.”

She’s not alone. Recently YouTube celebrity (and prolific vlogger) Hank Green tweeted:

  • “This election has been consuming. It’s been a source of constant anxiety and is reinforcing unhealthy behaviors for me.” (He followed up with one that said: “But that’s mostly because, it matters so goddamn much.”)

To which, prolific, bestselling, science fiction author John Scalzi replied:

  • “The damn election is partly why I am behind on this book I’m writing. I hate I’m distracted, but it’s my country.”

Okay, so if you’re finding the election distracting—and my apologies to my non-US readers for another U.S.-centric newsletter, but the principles do apply generally—you’re in good company. And I’m with you, by the way: as I reported in a prior newsletter, I’ve also been distracted.

You see, the first thing I aspire to do, nearly every morning, is grab a coffee and then head immediately over to my book-writing computer (which has no Internet, email, games, or other distractions), and start working on my current book project. (It’s a productivity guide for undergraduates, by the way.)

These days, however, I often find myself making a post-coffee detour to my non-writing computer to check out the latest news and social media.

And when, finally, I do sit down to write my book, my work intervals are shorter. Pre-election season, I usually wrote 60-90 minutes before taking a break. Now, it’s more like 30 to 60 minutes. And, when break time comes, I often again get sucked into the news and social media. (I’ve started timing my breaks, which is a good way to guard against that.)

It’s pretty clear that the combination of contentious politics and ubiquitous social media has created a “distraction bomb” many are struggling to cope with. Here are some suggestions for coping:

  • First, don’t beat yourself up over it. Not just because many prolific, experienced writers (and others) are also distracted, but because harsh self-judgment and punishments are perfectionist, and perfectionism is always a dead end. Try, in fact, to view the situation more positively, as a great opportunity to practice and grow your focus.
  • In fact, at times when you’re disappointing yourself, you need to go the opposite route and double down on your self-kindness and compassion and understanding. See Solution #2 on this page and #3 on this one.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s one “right answer.” I can’t tell you how much time to devote to your work versus your politics. I can’t even tell myself! There’s no one right answer that fits every person and situation; also, no good way of judging your choices except in hindsight. (And, really, don’t bother. Analyze your choices, if you want, and make a plan to choose better in the future, if needed, but don’t bother judging.)
  • Work in timed intervals, as described here (#4). Intervals help keep you accountable, and they also help you avoid perfectionism. As noted above, my intervals are shorter than they usually are, but I’m still making daily progress.
  • Also, as noted above, time your breaks so they don’t get out of control. (By the way, I love Datexx Cube Timers, which are fun and easy to use.)
  • Do your important work first thing in the morning, before the day’s news starts to flood in. If you have a job that interferes with that, see if you can shift your work hours to later.

Finally, realize that there’s a huge upside to this situation. In her celebrated history Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Alexis de Toqueville on the crazy political ferment of the early 19th century U.S.:

  • “Scarcely have you descended on the soil of America,” wrote Alexis de Toqueville in the year Lincoln was serving his first term in the state legislature, “when you find yourself in the midst of a sort of tumult; a confused clamor is raised on all sides; a thousand voices come to your ear at the same time, each of them expressing some social needs. Around you everything moves…”

Sound familiar? And in the midst of all that tumult, the character of one of our country’s foremost statespersons, Abraham Lincoln, was formed, as well as the characters of many other great persons.

So take heart! There’s plenty of evidence that a new generation of great leaders is on the rise, catalyzed by the very same social media and other forces that are making it (temporarily) hard to work. That’s a GREAT upside.

In the meantime, though, let’s you and me both get back to work…

PS – Check out my exclusive interview with Scalzi about his work habits and time management.

PPS – Don’t forget to vote! Not just for the president, but the downticket candidates.

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