How to Focus When You’re On a Deadline

Recently, I’ve been in the middle of what I’m mentally calling a productivity marathon. I had a deadline I needed to meet and very little time to meet said deadline, so I hunkered down and got to work. As I’ve gotten closer to the finish line of this project, I’ve realized how many of my writer friends I’ve seen in similar situations — and how important it is to find a way to focus when, frankly, you have no other choice.

Because a writing career? It’s all about meeting deadlines. Maybe you’re in a contest like Pitch Wars and need to get down to business on your edits before the agent round. Maybe you’re aiming to query by the end of September or October, or go on sub, or turn in your revisions to your editor…no matter what stage you’re at, I can guarantee that there will be a time crunch. Even if it’s one you’ve set for yourself.

So, without further ado, here are my personal tips for how to focus when you’re on a deadline.

1. Environment

Some writers can write literally anywhere. And while that’s a great skill to develop, I also think it’s good not just to train yourself to be productive in any environment…but to know which environment you’re MOST productive in, so that you can recreate those conditions when you really need to get things done.

I personally am the kind of writer who flourishes in a specific space that’s been tailored to my writing needs. In order to get my brain into productivity mode, I just have to step into my writing nook — a corner of my bedroom filled with plants, candles, a painted-over brick wall, and my trusty IKEA desk. I match candles to WIPs, so the moment I light my Citron Cedarwood candle (I could write an entire post about candles, honestly), my mind knows it’s time to work on my creepy forest book.

Maybe you don’t have a writing nook, but there is surely a place where you feel most comfortable getting to work — a kitchen table, an armchair, maybe even your bed. When you desperately need to focus, creating an environment designed to make you as productive as possible can have a big impact.

2. “Forcing” Inspiration

Sometimes I’ll sit down with the perfect candle burning and my ivy plant coiling down the wall in front of me and rain softly falling outside the window….and the words won’t come out.

Guess what? You are not broken if this happens to you, too. This is normal. In fact, this happens to me probably about 75% of the time I sit down to work — for the first five to thirty minutes, my brain does not want to do anything. I feel sluggish and weird and uninspired, and wonder melodramatically if I will ever get anything done.

I’ve learned, over time, that breaking through this mental wall and forcing myself to get inspired is just part of my writing process. And figuring out how to slog through this until I pick up steam is how I’m able to set and meet concrete goals at all.

I ease myself into writing in a few different ways — the aforementioned candles. My character playlists. My Pinterest board. Sometimes, I’ll grab a notebook and handwrite the beginning of the scene first, a trick that often jogs my mind. If I’m feeling super stuck, I’ll often call or text a writing friend with what’s bothering me, and brainstorm with them until I find the spark I’m looking for.

The trick is to look at this state as temporary, not permanent. When writing a book, you can’t stop every time you hit a mental wall. The entire process of writing is literally just walls! It’s basically a maze that you build yourself and try to wander through! But every maze has an exit, and if you don’t let yourself give up at the first (or second, or tenth) sign of resistance, you will break through.

3. Block. Your. Internet.

No, seriously. This is one of the biggest ways I waste time — I’ll insist I’m just going to spend two minutes on Twitter, then get sucked into a rabbit hole of cute cat videos on YouTube and online makeup shopping. Next thing I know, another hour will have gone by with no more writing!

If you want to make real progress, you have to block your internet. We’ve all got that site we waste time on — make it impossible to access Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever it is that pulls you in. I personally use Self Control for my laptop, which I enjoy because it blocks specific sites, in case I need to Google something, and hide my phone in the opposite corner of my room. But there are many options for blockers you can use — including ones that will block phone apps, too!
4. Scheduling

Most writers have day jobs. Or kids. Or a super demanding dog/cat/spouse/family. Or something that will take up their attention if they don’t learn how to plan around it.

So learn how to plan your writing time in advance. And guard it like a dragon guarding a hoard full of treasure, ‘cause believe me, it is just as precious.

I work full time, so in order to meet my deadline, I’ve blocked out 7:30-10:30PM every weeknight. Last weekend I cancelled all my plans and worked twelve-hour days in my apartment. Not everyone is in a position to go full hermit, but do you have a spare 30 minutes in the morning? Can you write on your lunch break? Is it absolutely necessary that you go to that Thing this weekend, or can you possibly reschedule?

I recommend sitting down with a planner or a calendar app at the beginning of every week and physically blocking out your writing time for the next seven days. Seeing it there, all official, makes me way more likely to actually do it. And when distractions come up during your scheduled Deadline Time, which they will, remember that if your goal is publication, writing is a job, even if no one’s ever paid you for it.

This is your work time. This is a career. Make those hours count.

5. Turn Scary Goals into Bite-Sized Ones

Often, the enormity of an overall writing goal can be paralyzing. Drafting or revising a novel is a massive undertaking, and if you sit down to write every time with the mentality of “oh no I have 90,000 words to get through,” it’ll be very hard to focus.

Instead, break your writing up into manageable chunks. I personally like to set myself a goal of 3,000 words a day when drafting a novel on weekends/1,500 a night on weekdays. Based on the amount of time you have to meet your deadline and the pace you tend to naturally work at, divide your big goal into smaller goals that are much more easily achievable. Big projects get done step by step, not overnight, and thinking about how much farther you have to go is much more counter-productive than just taking it one small chunk at a time.

6. Don’t Punish Yourself for Failing — Reward Yourself for Succeeding

I’ve left this one for last because I think it’s the most important

Because sometimes, all these tricks I’ve listed above will fail.

Sometimes your real life will get in the way. Sometimes Pinterest and playlists and candles won’t cut it. Sometimes, those social obligations you tried to cancel wound up being too important to miss. Sometimes the words come out crappy and wrong. Or sometimes, you overestimated how much work you could do in a block of time, and you’re just moving too slowly.

And you won’t write. And you’ll fall behind. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel ridiculously guilty about it.

Real talk: I beat myself up really badly when I’m not working as hard as I think I should be. I cry. I tell myself I don’t have what it takes to do this. I sulk and pout and envy all those “other writers,” the ones who never have a bad day, the ones who are effortlessly productive and talented and probably find time to meet all their deadlines while showering regularly and working out. The ones who definitely didn’t just stress-eat a giant bag of Smartfood white cheddar popcorn while trying to fix a scene.

But honestly? In my experience, those mysterious other writers are just as fictional as the characters in my books.

And punishing yourself for having a bad day, or week, or month — aka, being human — will not make you work better, or harder, or faster.

So instead of being angry with myself when I don’t meet my expectations, I’ve started trying to implement the opposite tactic — I reward myself when I DO meet my goals. Maybe I’ll watch an episode of a show I’ve been dying to finish on Netflix. Or buy a fun new lipstick. Or spend a half-hour enjoying myself on Twitter, or make a novel aesthetic, or grab coffee with a friend.

By being kind to yourself when you succeed instead of cruel when you fail, you’ll keep your mind — you know, that thing you need to write — a whole lot healthier.


Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for today. I really hope you guys found this helpful — feel free to share your personal shortcuts and tips to focusing when you’re pressed for time in the comments below! I’d love to see what you guys do 🙂

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