Writing Well When Your Attention is Divided


Writing Well When Your Attention is Divided

Your heart is in the right place. You intend to focus on the important writing tasks on your to-do list: that detailed response to an angry customer’s email, that project proposal you promised to send your boss last Friday, and that letter of commendation for the star employee.

But people.



Interrupting you.

Between Zoom, Slack, Outlook, SMS, and the good old phone, how will you ever get these writing tasks done?

In an ideal world, your workday would allow you to focus on your writing. You’d have the time, peace, and quiet to focus on your document’s message, organization, and sentence structure.

You’d even have a few minutes to gaze out the window, searching for a synonym while tapping your sharpened No. 2 pencil against the table.

In the real world, however, time-starved writers must make do with only five or 10 minutes of writing time between interruptions.

Even if you are interrupted all the time, you can still write useful, meaningful emails and documents if you make the most of every small block of writing time your calendar allows.

Here are tips and tools for making the most of the little bits of writing time you have.

1. Use your readers’ questions about your topic to create a quickie outline.

Let’s say you’re writing your manager an email in which you request additional funds to hire three interns next summer instead of the two your department has traditionally hired.

In three minutes of writing time, you can list your manager’s questions about this topic:

  • Why do we need an additional intern?
  • How much money are you asking for?
  • Who will supervise this additional intern?
  • What will the third intern do?
  • Is the third intern really worth the expense and time?

This list of reader questions serves as an ad hoc outline of your email. With this list in hand, and another three minutes of writing time, you can write any one of these sections.

You don’t have to worry about being interrupted because you don’t have to finish this email in one sitting. You won’t lose your train of thought; you recorded it in the list of reader questions.

And the best benefit of all? By recording your reader’s questions, you’ll keep yourself from straying off topic and wasting time (time you don’t have because everyone keeps interrupting you!)

2. Write short paragraphs.

There’s no “correct” length for a paragraph. But if you write shortish two-to-four-sentence paragraphs instead of longish five-to-seven-sentence paragraphs, you’ll be more able to deal with frequent interruptions.

You’ll write those short ‘n sweet paragraphs more quickly, and you’ll be able to reorganize your draft paragraphs more easily. Short paragraphs are more portable than long ones.

3. Answer this question: “What do I want my reader to do or know after reading this?”

Answer this question before you begin drafting your document or email. Answer it in your head or write your answer on a wrinkled sticky note but be sure to answer this question!

Writing without a clear goal in mind is a time-waster in itself. When you have a crystal clear sense of what your writing should accomplish, you’re better able to cope with interruptions. That’s because you’ll always know what you’re writing toward and what the outcome of your writing should be.

4. Work on your writing when you’re away from your keyboard.

Use non-writing time like the time you spend commuting, taking a walk, or even doing the dishes to think about your writing project.

Grapple with writing issues, such as how to phrase a difficult request, while you aren’t writing. Have your phone or a scrap of paper and a pencil nearby, so you can capture what you come up with. Warning: many of us do our best writing-thinking in the shower! Plan accordingly.

5. Use grammar checker software.

If you use your software’s built-in grammar checker or an app like Grammarly or the Hemingway app, you’ll spend less time proofreading your work. The app will give you better results than your own eye can achieve.

The grammar checker can take some of the proofreading responsibility off your shoulders, so you’ll find those interruptions less bothersome, and your writing will contain fewer embarrassing typos.

6. Use dictation software.

You might be more efficient with those little five-minute scraps of time if you speak your writing instead of writing your writing.

Try Microsoft 365’s Speech Recognition to dictate to your Windows PC or review TechRadar’s list, “Best Dictation Software of 2021,” to learn about other software options. If you like to talk more than you like to write, using dictation software will probably make you a faster—and a happier—writer.

7. Create a template for anything you write frequently.

How frequently, you ask? I’d say twice per month.

If you send the same type of email to your team twice a month, or give the same type of presentation that often, create templates. The effort you put into creating the templates will pay off quickly even if you don’t use this tool every day.

8. Plagiarize yourself.

Most of us reuse our emails, documents, or paragraphs only after we’ve been struggling for a while and the thought occurs to us, “Hey, didn’t I basically write this once before?!”

Then we head out to our hard drive, outbox, or the cloud, hunting for a paragraph we know we’ve already written.

To efficiently plagiarize yourself, you’ll need to make reusable content findable. At the very least, consider creating a folder titled “Stuff I’ll Probably Reuse.”

9. Stop splitting your own attention.

Distraction feeds on itself. If you’re trying to work on a writing project, but a colleague keeps distracting you with Teams messages, don’t add to the distraction by checking email after replying to each Teams message. Deal with the distraction and get right back to your own writing project.

Don’t let one break in your attention justify another.

10. Use encouraging self-talk.

Hype yourself up. Don’t run this negative loop in your head: “I’ll never get this writing project finished unless everyone leaves me alone this afternoon. I need nothing less than two solid hours of peace and quiet to focus! I hate writing already, and I hate it even more with all these people interrupting me.”

Try this refrain instead: “I’m going to break this writing project down into pieces, and I’m going to Lego-brick it, one piece at a time, until I am all done. All these interruptions aren’t ideal, but I’ve written well in little bursts of time before, and I can do it again.”

Writing well is hard, and writing something meaningful in small blocks of time crammed in between other responsibilities is difficult indeed.

Writing well is hard, and writing something meaningful in small blocks of time crammed in between other responsibilities is difficult indeed.

If you get desperate for some uninterrupted time, block out your Tuesday afternoons for a meeting with a “communications professional.” (That would be you!)