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How to Overcome Family Distractions While Writing

April 26, 2015
Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children's ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children’s ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

“There is no such thing as 110% effort,” a colleague ranted at work last week.

He’d been watching an athlete’s interview online after our local sports team won an important victory.  The athlete had given credit to his team’s efforts, saying that they’d given 110%.  Of all the things going on at work, this was what had set off my colleague.

“I hate it when they say that,” he continued.  “You can’t give 110% effort!”

“At least he didn’t say they ‘literally’ gave 110%,” I said.  Everybody likes to complain about the incorrect usage of “literally” nowadays, but I have a monotone voice, and nobody in the office could tell if I was joking or serious, so they pretended I hadn’t said anything.

110% is a great concept, but it’s limiting.  If you’re going to make a statistically impossible claim, why limit yourself to 10% over the possible?  If I’m going to overstate my effort, I want to overstate it by more than 10%.  I’m going for it all.  I’m giving 1,000,000% effort.  If I think I can get away with it, I’ll go for infinity% effort.

As I thought about how much effort a person can give, I realized that I haven’t been giving 100% to my writing recently.  When you have a family and a full-time job, you can’t give 100% to writing all the time.

For example, I started my most recent writing project in January with a goal to finish by August, just before the new football season begins.  That gave me about seven months.  Four months have passed and I’m less than ½ of the way done, and that’s not including formatting and last-second panic edits.  If I’m going to finish, I’ll have to pick up the pace.  I’m going to have to become obsessed.  I’m going to have to give at least 110% effort, maybe even 150%.

When I put anything more than 75% effort into my writing, though, my personality changes.  I become obsessed and cranky.  My family gets annoyed with me.  If I were making money from my writing, they’d be more likely to put up with it, but I’m not.  At the same time, I’ll never reach my writing potential if I don’t occasionally give myself the chance to put 150%, maybe even 200%, effort into my writing.  As I returned home that night, I decided I was going to change the way I did things.

I gathered my family into the living room to tell them the news.  My two daughters knew it was important when I muted the TV and told them to put their phones away.  When I explained to them that I wanted to have my writing project finished by August, my daughters exchanged a knowing expression.  It’s tough to describe their knowing expression because it’s just eye contact and no visible change in their faces, but I’m their dad, and I can see the change that’s invisible to everybody else.  If I accused them of exchanging a knowing look, however, they’d probably deny it.

I explained that when I announced that I was writing, I was to be left alone.  If the two daughters got into an argument while I was writing, they had to wait until I was done for me to settle things.  If they needed help with anything, they had to wait.  If anybody came to the door, I wasn’t available.  With an imperious tone, I asked if my rules were clear.  They said yes.

Since everything was set straight, I announced that it was time for me to write.  I stepped into the den and closed the door.

Five minutes into my writing session, my youngest daughter stormed into the den.

“I need help with my math,” she said, plopping a bunch of worksheets on top of the keyboard.

“I’m writing now,” I said irritably.  Christ, I couldn’t even get five minutes, I thought.  I probably shouldn’t have thought the word “Christ,” but at least I didn’t say it.  You can’t help what you think.

“You take too long,” my daughter said.  “I don’t want to wait.”

I huffed, but I still followed her into the living room where my oldest was watching TV.

“Why aren’t you helping her with her homework?” I asked.

My oldest daughter shrugged, not even making eye contact with me.  Annoyed, I sat down on the couch, explained a math concept, talked my youngest through a couple practice problems, and told her I’d check her work when I was done.  When I got up to leave, I turned around to make sure she was working, and I spotted it, the knowing look between my two daughters.

This time there were even traces of grinning.  I’d been had.  I’d been made the chump, the fool.  I knew they had been messing with me with this whole homework thing, but I could never prove it.  They’d just deny it.  I don’t want to be like a television dad where the kids get away with everything.  If I was going to finish this writing project by August, I thought, I needed to make an example now.  As my own dad used to say, it’s better to punish the innocent than let the guilty get away.

“The floor’s dirty,” I said.  “You two need to sweep and vacuum.”

Then I looked around.  “Wash the dishes.  Clean the kitchens and the bathrooms.  Fold the laundry.  Clean the litter box and walk the dog.”

Their mouths hung open, eyes flashing with anger, but at least they weren’t giving each other knowing looks.

“And when you finish,” I said, grabbing the television remote and their phones, “read a book.”

I completed the remainder of my writing session uninterrupted.  I can’t say I gave it a complete 1,000,000% effort, but it was productive.  I was proud.  I’d figured out how to keep the kids from distracting me while I wrote.  The next challenge in distraction, I knew, would be more difficult:

My wife.

*****

But enough about me!  What do you have to do to establish a productive writing environment?  How much effort do you have to give to your writing in order to be productive?  Is it 50%?  100%?  200%?  What are your most challenging distractions?  How do you deal with distractions when you write?  Is it better to give 1,000,000% or infinity%?

*****

For a guy in high school, the worst (or best) distraction is a cheerleader with nice legs sitting next to him.  Despite the cheerleader, I had to write a paper in class, and it turned into…

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46 Comments
  1. I don’t have kids but my wife is distracting enough, especially when she’s watching TV on her computer directly across from me, like right now. Of course, at the moment, I’m reading blog posts, but the concept is the same. She keeps trying to tell me things about the shows, so I have to go cloister myself somewhere, preferably outside the house.

  2. I generally have to make all my kids angry to get stuff done. They interrupt repeatedly until I get frustrated and then I yell. Then the hurt looks happen, and like you said, the flashing eyes.Then I hear the not quite under the breath comments: “Geez, it was one question.” “It would have only taken a second.” (which is a dirty lie!). I feel guilty for a few moments, then I get work done. Every once in a while they get the ‘I really need to have this time to write.’ speech and feel guilty enough to let me do so for a short while, maybe a week or two. Then the cycle starts again.

    • The “Make the kids angry before they make you angry” strategy is great, and it’s underused by parents today.

      When we write, somebody is usually going to be angry. Make sure it’s the kids.

  3. I’m lucky to not have kids or a wife (in regards to writing distractions), but my multitude of interests are a distraction in and of themselves. But once i get down to it i find that i can focus well. In regards to effort i feel that the quality of my work in that moment dictates how much effort into the session. Or is it a case of the chicken & egg???

    • That’s true, sometimes we can focus through anything, even family. But I try to stay away from chicken or the egg arguments because I can’t win, no matter which one I choose.

  4. The Internet is my only family, and distraction-wise it is a magnificent bastard. I usually have a few drinks when I want to write. (I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.)

    • If I had a few drinks before I wrote, my writing would be unrecognizable the next morning (and that happens sometimes even without the drinking). Of course, a lot of that depends on what the drink is.

  5. I don’t have kids yet but I remember trying to working around younger siblings, it just doesn’t happen. Now I have a wife but we have a code that tells her to leave me alone at all costs (I tend to be mean if I get interupted and I have yet to feel remorse about it).

    • I probably shouldn’t give advice (which means I’m about to give advice, so stop reading if you don’t want to read advice), but I’d probably at least act like I feel remorse. I get snippy too when I’m interrupted, and I always apologize to my wife. My kids? I give them chores.

  6. I think 200% is the largest number that still sounds plausible, because you’re giving 100% effort and a 100% extra effort.
    Personally, I’m lucky if I’m able to give 20% to writing.

    • If you’re giving only 20% effort to your writing, just think of what you could at 100%. You’d have to change your blog’s name to List of L.

      • To LOL? That’s an interesting idea, but if I give 100% to writing, I can only give 20% to my day job, and that would eventually get noticed.

  7. I have a cheeky toddler, a very dependant 6 month old (understandably), a noisy husband, Netflix, and an unhealthy obsession with flash fictioning- all of which distract me from writing, but at the same time my writing is the only way to remain sane in the surrounding chaos. God knows how I’ll keep up once I return to work! I mostly write once the kids are asleep, and carry my phone around to jot down ideas and to keep up with blogging duties.. Dropbox is a saviour for transferring scribblings from the phone to laptop for later..

  8. Reblogged this on Jin Okubo.

  9. Reblogged this on Peter Kohlert and commented:
    Zeit für eigene Projekte. Ein paar irgendwie bekannte Gedanken.

  10. I just wish one day I could earn just a bit of money from my writing- maybe then I wouldn’t get the eyerolling, the exchanged looks, the sarcasm and occasional open irritation whenever I reach for my laptop.
    If I could say ‘Pig off if you want to eat/ be warm/ be kept in bass guitar strings/ Lego’ surely, I’d earn peace, quiet and respect. Why is it that only money can bring this?

    So far as percentages are concerned… since regularly blogging, my percentage has dropped considerably, probably to around 50 %. I think it’s the almost-instant gratification from a small audience that I get from my blog compared to no gratification at all from no audience when I continue my novel rewrite or have yet another short story rejected.

    • I completely agree with you that it’s tough to write a novel sometimes when you know you won’t get feedback on it for a while.

      At the same time, I consider blogging to be part of writing, so I use that as part of my 110% or 1,000,000% or whatever% effort I claim to be giving at any time. Blogging feedback is important. I probably never would have started writing seriously if blogs hadn’t been around.

  11. I quite lucky in that my boyfriend is very supportive and we don’t have children. I would like to know why something cannot mean as much if you are not earning money from it. My boyfriend plays football, despite knowing he is never going to earn money at it My Brother rides a bmx around for hours on end, and I do not see any money coming in through that. They get to do it because they enjoy it. Sure everyone who writes wants to be able to support themselves and their family through it but it is something that bring us joy. It brings us as much joy and them playing football and riding a bike. So why are our dreams wheather reachable or not worth less?

    as far as percentages go I most likely only write at about 20% my mind is always on other things. But some weekends like this one. I just sit and write. Those are the weekends I most look forward too.

  12. When my kids were little I made an agreement with my wife about the times when I would do my creative work. I got an hour after supper during the week, five hours on Saturday and about two or three on Sunday. She sometimes groused and wanted me to break my routine, but eventually accepted the situation when I was persistent. When the kids were older and wanted my attention in the evening and on weekends I had a lot more trouble. However, most of my jobs (teaching art to adults) were at night, and I was free during the day when they were in school. There were times when I just sneaked in a few minutes here and there, however, when someone was sick, or school was out or my wife was tired and fed up. I learned to take advantage of whatever time was available, and to forget about waiting around to feel inspired. My kids are grown and out of the house now, and I miss them and their chaos. My wife still gets annoyed if I disappear too much to do my work, and I’ve found that if I go and have a chat with her whenever I need a break she’s satisfied that I’m not intentionally withdrawing from her.

  13. ramonawray permalink

    Excellent post 🙂 I guess I’m lucky because A) I only have one child and B) I’ve got an unusually supportive husband 🙂 I write when my son is at school, when the house is quiet. Hubby helps with chores and does the cooking (simply because, unlike me, he CAN cook) when he’s at home. He also travels abroad a lot for work, and when he’s away things get tougher. But I still get a few hours for myself every day. Is that 100%? I have no idea. I give it all I can, when I can, and that’s about it.

  14. I believe you just described my endless writing dilemma.

  15. I think about something to write about throughout the course of my days, then I go to a park and sit underneath a tree. My biggest distractions there are squirrels, but they don’t bother me much.

  16. I have the luxury of staying home alone all day until the bus drops my son off, so I LITERALLY have no excuse as to why it’s not getting done. I agree w/ you on the 110% thing. It’s just pretend. It’s not a thing.

  17. Strangely, I write more when I’m busier, because I’m so desperate to squish writing time in. I’ll write on the train to work, or even for 10 minutes when I first wake up. Sometimes lots of 10-minute and commuter scribbles can be complied later (when I actually have an hour or so) into a substantial piece.

  18. johnberk permalink

    Family distractions are a common phenomenon. The best way to avoid them is to sacrifice your hopes of rich family life and focus instead on the solitude and philosophical meditation. If you really do want to have a family, then the best way how to deal with this problem is to leave your home and head to some of the nearest coffee places, where you can stay and become invisible to the rest of the world. Turn off your phone, email, and other unnecessary things, and enjoy.

    • When I try to read or write in public, I’m always afraid that I’m going to get conked on the head. My family might be distracting, but they’re not going to conk me from behind on the head, even when they’re mad at me.

  19. Tee hee I’m so glad I’m not the only one with these writing challenges! My “problem” is that when I’m really in the mood to write and gung ho to go, there is guaranteed to be a distraction…however trivial, and voila, that mood just vanishes into oblivion! And when I have time, I really couldn’t be bothered to write and don’t get a decent word on the page because my mind is on everything but writing! So…my ambition of “it will take max a year”…well, that was wishful thinking 2 years ago…

  20. I work a full time job work a part time job. I’m now engaged to be married in July. Im busy. But I’ve always written. I haven’t had a free weekend in forever but think that my problems with writing has been with my thinking rather than my schedule. I think the principle that if you try to stay awake you’ll fall asleep applies in this area of writing and finding time and doing a thorough and consistent job of it. if you are a writer then write. Just write. I think the “trying to write” thing is the problem exactly. “Trying to write” means “trying to line up everything in my life in order to write in an idealistic situation”. Not everyone can live like Hemmingway. I hate to quote Nike but in this case “Just Do It”. 😉

  21. If you think about it, almost no one gives 100 percent, 1000 percent, 110 percent to writing or to any creative activity coming from the imagination and trying to be original. There are exceptions, I suppose: MOZART.
    I am well acquainted with this problem. I liked to think I could evaluate whether I was giving 75 or 30 percent. Drinking numbed the numerical calculations. There were a series of games, attitudes and sensations which I found useful to write. I later learned that the games, attitudes and sensations were not the same – work to work, but the need to use them existed and helped me write.
    The games, attitudes and sensations allowed me to survive interruptions, and return to work, 20 minutes later – two days later, without feeling I had lost much.
    It’s a good article.

  22. Sometimes I have to get out of the house in order to avoid distraction – not by others but by myself. I am an expert procrastinator, ‘having’ to check my emails, Facebook, online newspapers, other blogs, if the dog needs to go out (or have a ball thrown for her). At times such as that, the only thing to do is grab my laptop and run away to the nearest cafe. Thankfully my boyfriend understands that it isn’t him I’m running from! Once at the cafe, I can write easily, despite being surrounded by people – though I am sometimes momentarily distracted by a slice of cake…

  23. writing is something I want to get serious about but sometimes life is distracting enough to make me not sit and just write. My families were always a distraction to my focus and whenever I lose distraction the whole idea of writing vanished into thin air. I’ve tried writing at night when everyone’s asleep but the distractions are still there! But after reading your post, I am determined to put in some effort in my writing because that’s what I want to do. 🙂 thanks.

  24. I get inspiration in the times that I have no access to a journal or laptop. Which winds up me writing on napkins or coasters to not forget a thought.

  25. true, it just doesn’t exist

  26. I loved this article! I suffer daily with my husband, son and brother in law who can’t hear for his life’s sake! lol Thank you for the posting!

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  1. How to Overcome Family Distractions While Writing | Dysfunctional Literacy | Peter Kohlert

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