How to Put Yourself into an Effortless Writing Zone

How to Put Yourself into an Effortless Writing Zone

Reader Comments (93)

  1. James:
    Thank you for the simple steps to start and sustain the writing process. Down the road, we might look for deeper advice – build the zone. Perhaps quieting the mind through some Insight Meditation, Yoga, or Zen. Maybe listen to classical music pieces, or read classical literature, or works of philosophy. But we need to get started. You can’t learn better ways of driving until you take the keys and start the car. Same with writing! You covered the simple elements elegantly – time, space and zone.

    • Randy, well-said. I love the classical music advice…..and much as I love writing in silence, that music does open up the synapses and even helps me get started – although the best starting paragraphs always happen in the shower, go figure! 🙂

  2. “Then sit down and write. Anything.” Well said. I think that’s the best advice right there.

    I almost always start by writing something completely unrelated to the job.

    Even though it’s hard to hear sometimes, I think the little voice that stops you from writing is saying “You rather write something else.”

    So just write something else. Get it out of you. And then move on to the writing that pays the bills.

  3. Nice to see your routine!

    My writing routine (when I’m in the ZONE) generally consists of getting up at 3:30am and flinging myself smack dab into it. The Twitter Budgies are silent, the mooses are sleeping, the passel of children are NOT trying to beat the Sock-eating Laundry monster into submission…it’s peace.

    Peace == inspiration for me.

    Oh! Yes! There IS one more thing I do (which my kids and husband can attest to – it drives them batty at times).

    During sheer creation mode (like now), I have on as background music the 2009 Star Trek Movie soundtrack. It’s on a continuous loop (which means we’re talking non-stop 12+ hours of Star Trek). I find the music extremely inspirational and never get tired of it – it’s been my Music of Choice now for over a year.

    You can always tell when Im in do-not-disturb mode – the Enterprise is always close by. 🙂

  4. Training the brain is something many writers don’t consider. We tend to force ourselves into a routine, which can feel a little too much like punishment at times.

    Thinking about the benefit – toning up that proverbial muscle – provides a terrific shift in perspective.

    Not that I’d ever need that advice or anything.

    Thanks, James, for the welcome reminder.

  5. My writing routine at work goes smoothly. It’s when I get home and being to work on my “personal” writing that it’s hard. It’s challenging to remain enthused and inspired during the “2nd Writing Shift”.

    Anyone have tips on how to stay motivated if you want to write at the office AND at home?

    • Why not try to switch them, Van? If the writing-at-work is going well… do that work at night. Bring your personal to work (um, don’t get caught, mind you) and apply your work routine to your personal writing.

      Replicate what IS working. Analyze your pattern. What are you doing at work that you can bring home?

      • Great minds think alike. I’ve been doing this and it works beautifully. But shh…don’t let the Bossman know.

        I do feel a bit guilty about it, though. So I’m going to analyze the patterns and replicate the routine at home as per your suggestions 🙂

  6. I have a little routine too – I check my favorite blogs, and start writing some comments, clicking links, free falling around the internet.

    Writing comments gets my brain and fingers working together, gets the kinks out and gets ideas flowing. Usually after half an hour or so, I’ve got some ideas of what’s going on in the world and I’m ready to say something on my own blog. Or at least my head is in a place where I can start writing articles.

  7. Wow, I never thought how important the prep work is. It makes so much sense b/c we crave structure and routine to combat all the distractions and noise of our daily lives.

    I find if I’m in an environment and mental state conducive to calm and productivity, I write more compassionately. I always meditate and say a silent prayer before seeing back-to-back clients, and I need to accord the same respect to blog posts.

    Of couse, I felt momentarily guilty when you talked about clearing out your email before you write (as I just sent one ;)), then I said to myself “James already wrote this, so relax.”

    Thank you.

  8. That reminds me, one of the best things about using speech recognition software is the space it gives me – I get to walk up and down and dictate to the computer, instead of hunching over it.

    And I’m glad you didn’t leave out the coffee. 😉

  9. I think I need to work harder to get into a routine like James does to get ideas flowing and writing done. Training your brain does have its benefits. So far that hasn’t worked for me though. My brain is very ADD and I find I get ideas and write them down and go about my day. Then I come back and work on the idea that I can get into the “zone” with. But lots of times I can’t finish and have to come back again, hopefully to finish that idea or another. Yikes! Probably not the best technique but right now its all I got…

  10. As Stephen King said, it’s important to take your writing seriously and to close that door. The closed door will also tell others that you are working/writing.

    Thanks for this post!

  11. Very well explained, especially the bit about distractions, just explain my case. When I just put my fingers on the keyboard there comes a commitment, a very important one which you can’t postpone even for 5 minutes. So I had to get up, finish that and when I come back, I feel all blank!

    The thing about space is also so true, every writer needs to be comfortable and he/she deserves it.

    Yes I finally have started using your brain-training exercise. Now I have taught my brain the right routine so it knows when it is time ot write.

    Thanks for the article, James.

  12. So the little muscle twinge in my upper back as I write shouldn’t be there? =)

    Thanks for the pointers. I like the idea of setting up my brain. My day usually consists of mad dashes to the computer, here and there, to get some work done… in between Mom stuff (not too productive). Likely my writing will be better if I follow these tips.

    Thanks again,

  13. I agree with your point about starting writing being the hardest thing. Sometimes I can procrastinate for ages thinking about the piece I have to write. Then I put it off a bit longer. But when I actually sit down and write, I find the DOING is never ever as bad as the THINKING about it beforehand.

  14. James, thanks for your excellent writing tips. I’ve admired your work on Pen With Pens, and I believe I also noticed you popping up on KISS Metrics.

    Love the advice on really needing a quite place to write, without distractions. On that note though, I’d also encourage writers to look for snippets of time that otherwise go wasted, to write, such as while waiting to pick kids up from school or practice.

    I’ll grant you that isn’t when you’ll do the bulk of your writing, or a proper place as you point out. But there are those snippets in time where chunks of writing can get done, so long as you’re prepared with a laptop, or pen and paper. I’ve even cranked out blog posts into Evernote via my iPhone, while waiting for some even to begin, waiting for a bus or plane, etc. Be creative.

    • There are tons of these moments. On Saturdays, my kiddo dances… and I have a nice corner in the studio where I can sit and type away peacefully for an hour. Same thing with swimming on Sunday. Same thing with taking her to the park (great for jotting down notes while she plays.)

      Bits and pieces, fits and snatches! 🙂

  15. Thank you for posting. It seems going for a walk outside for 15-20 minutes does the trick for me.

    Once I’m on the sidewalk I have to refocus because my mind races with blog ideas. Then I get frustrated because I don’t have my writing notebook to capture them on paper, hence the refocus on why I’m walking outside in the first palce. 🙂

  16. My mind knows I’m serious about writing once I start writing bullet points. It’s a great way to start itemizing what I want to write about and get my thoughts into some sort of order. Even if they’re not very creative, they provide a wonderful sense of direction.

  17. My best time is 4am. It is 10:56 now. I need to sleep first, then hope that I will wake up before 4am tomorrow. My mind flows well when almost everyone is asleep (in the Philippines).

    Thank you this article.

  18. I think sometimes my problem is not the getting started part but knowing when to shut up. Sometimes I am a little concerned about what I’m saying and am afraid I’ll rub somebody the wrong way. I have opened up and let my writing flow recently, trying to be unafraid… then I re-read my posting a week later and decide it really wasn’t that bad after all. I guess I tend to overthink a bit.

    I also notice my fingers hit the wrong keys and I don’t pick it up until the 5th proofread.

    But writing is just like talking… with your fingers. Just start and put down whatever pops into your head. Often I write and write only to start over with a thought I’d developed while writing. So just write stuff and you’ll be fine.

  19. Thank you for this post and the many others that you produce daily. They are so helpful for newbies like myself. I’ve been writing for almost a year now, part-time and just for pleasure. I haven’t turned my blogging into a profession and don’t think I’m ready to do so just yet either. But your blog and posts certainly help a lot. Just when I think your last post was so helpful and amazing you guys come up with an even better one. 🙂 Thanks so much! It’s really helping! I think with all your suggestions and guides, I’m getting better at this thing!

    Serene ~ ZiDDi TaMaNa

  20. Finding time is probably the most difficult for me. I have found thought that once the wife and kids go to bed, I can get 1-1/2 to 2 hours of writing in… barring there is nothing good on tv.

  21. Great post, James,

    I’ve recently started doing many of the things that you recommend. One thing I find very, very useful is having a weeks posts planed out in advance. I have a bit of paper with a little brainstorming, a little outline and some resources already laid out. When the day comes to write it, I already know that I’m going to do that post.

    It helps me get started writing it and means that I have already got some ideas about what I am going to be writing about, making it flow better.

    I certainly know what you are talking about with the kids – I’ve had to make very clear boundaries in order to get on top of that one.

    • Great job, Vernon – using pre-written ideas and outlines is a method I teach in my writing program, and it’s a great way to get that idea down… then you can walk away from it to come back to it later when you have the time and space.

      Kids… oy! Gotta love ’em, eh?

  22. This post is revolutionary! Isn’t it amazing that things that are simple and effective go overlooked? I’ve bee looking for the right formula for writing and finding time and, well, this is it. Now, if I can only make the time to implement finding the time (har har!). Thanks for this James! Simple and effective… there should be more of this in the world.

  23. This is a great summary, thanks James. The things you mention are integral part of blogging. They are directly part of writing but they make the good writing possible. They create the condition for success.

    Being the father of a 4 years old daughter, I get your point about kids and partner. But I don’t totally agree with mail. Kids and partner can’t be switched off, but you CAN not open you mail client, put your cell phone away (and God knows I love my iPhone).

    My productivity peaks when I’m flying the airlines, on business trips. No family, no distraction, no temptation, and offline. Check this post of mine for more:

    Working at the local coffee shop also works well for me, as long as I have music with. And if you’re a family person, see it this way:

    One hour out of the house and away from the family to blog is much better than two hours in the house where you are not really with your beloved ones because you try to blog. You can’t really divide your attention between your blog and your family. So focus on your blog, be efficient, it will be shorter. And then you’ll have more time for your family.

  24. Thank you for sharing these 3-easy steps. Often times its frustrating not being able to sit down and write, especially when you have limited time between all other life-happenings. However, you must remember it is not a sprint, but a marathon. Take it one step at a time and continue to add the building blocks and you’ll get to where you want to go. What I’ve found works for writing inspiration, is reading others’ work to inspire my thoughts, trigger emotions and wake up my brain.

  25. Simple but effective! Getting yourself a routine seems to be a wise choice.
    I’ve got my routine as well: choose a topic, write the layout, surf my favorite blogs, come back tomorrow and start writing; look again, edit the post on the next day.
    Work quite well.

  26. Hi James —

    I feel like the missing ingredient in this post is that most of us who’re really successful in writing have cranked out just volumes and volumes of stuff. That’s really the secret sauce to me — just doing it tons, as opposed to once a week or month or whenever the “mood” hits.

    I wrote more than 1,000 articles at one six-year staff job alone. That gives me an incredible grounding in how to stick my metaphorical finger down my throat and make that story appear by 10 am this morning because that’s the deadline. When you’ve worked enough deadlines, you develop the focusing muscle and the writing muscles to get it done, reliably.

    I know some writers who’re blogging for themselves who have more success when they create deadlines for themselves and take them seriously to compel the writing. When you get into a routine like yours, and couple it with the idea that writing MUST get done today, and every day, you get over whatever your writing phobias are pretty quick and develop the skill of being able to reliably create.

    • Very true that the more you do it, the easier it gets. But people need a way to get from here to there. 🙂

      I could do better at creating a solid writing ritual for myself so I can dive in more efficiently, so thanks, James. 🙂

      • I’m with Sonia on this one – cranking out volume writing worked for my first year of business… and then drove me to exhaustion pretty quickly.

        For me, it was *consistent* writing that made the difference. Not constant, not volume, but consistently writing something every day, be it fiction or a long email or some web copy or a blog post. Sometimes long, sometimes short, but always generating that daily habit and routine.

        (Yer welcome, S!)

        • That’s a good point. Writing for even 10 or 20 minutes every day is very beneficial. Doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering or world changing. Just a little piece of writing, sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not good.

  27. Thanks for the great information. Writing is fairly new for me and I normally just sit down and start writing. Lots of times things just don’t seem to come and other times it does. I love the idea of the routine and will put that into practice right away.

    Lots of great ideas.

  28. Can’t do that right now !

    Following you, gonna sleep very soon….

    Maybe write in a better way afterwards !

    Original post, healthy one!

  29. I love this post and need to heed the advice. It’s the uninterrupted part (the crux of the post) that I haven’t devoted myself to. I’m always telling my artist-clients to create a boundary around their studio time. I should pay attention to my advice (and yours) for my own writing and working.

    I know it works. I vow to figure out a routine and try it for 30 days. That’s how long it takes to gel, I guess.

    You’re my witnesses.

  30. It true, it boils down to the discipline that creates the habit. My routine is similar to yours – cuppa tea, respond to email so I don’t have to think about it – write for clients (never me) for 90 minutes, get out and walk for 60 minutes and the rest of the day flows in productivity/creativity.

    When I BREAK my routine, I just can’t the mojo back and my day doesn’t feel as satisfying. My next goal is to be able to change it up when needed and still get it all done and feel good about it.

    Someone posted the idea of music a month ago or so and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t tried it – it really gets the ideas flowing for me – who knew!
    Thanks for putting this together so concisely.

  31. I write in an office, and other people can be very distracting. Questions, nearby conversations and ringing phones can really throw off the train of thought. Makes proofing difficult as well.
    Background noise is inevitable, but sometimes I do try to get in a bit early, stay late or work when everyone else goes to lunch.

    I like your suggestions about warming up. Drinking hot tea and checking email before throwing together that first sentence can be extremely beneficial. Thanks for the good advice.

  32. Robin Hood could probably hit that bulls-eye even with all of the distractions (of course I’m thinking of the version “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”, hilarious).

    But on a serious note, I do schedule some time to write on a daily basis. I’ve tried to change this from night time to morning but I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m a night person (I’m most creative then). For me, my process involves grabbing something to drink + Pandora + pacing around with (or without) a book for a few minutes. At that point the ideas start to flow in and I start to write. I don’t always publish what I’ve written but it’s still important for me to get those words out. I think it’s a good exercise and well, it builds a good habit doing it daily ya know.

    • I am a night owl too. That makes it extra hard to do it, having spent the say being a mum and all. Badlly want to, but sometimes body doesn’t cooperate, like everything else in life.

  33. I have the time and the space, but what I need is a routine. My writing schedule is very sporadic, writing whenever the mood strikes me. Which causes me to be in a terrible crunch when deadlines approach.

    Going forward, I will establish a more formal writing routine and schedule.

  34. I definitely need to work on step 2. I am in a poorly lit room as we speak, laying down on my bed, with my head forward, and my back bent. However comfortable I may be, this is definitely putting some damper on my critical thinking.

    As far as step 1 is concerned, I have no problem thinking of new ideas. My content usually comes to me spontaneously and I am usually extra motivated to do the research and write about it. I got flow – this also helps make step 3 a cinch!

    Really great read all around. I dig the stories and analogies a lot – especially the bow and arrow one!

  35. Sitting at a desk (and sometimes banging your head against it) is a dead end. All of these techniques are crucial. But, I would add one more. Exercise! Yes, exercise. Our brains are deigned to work better with exercise. It increase blood flow, etc, etc, blah, blah. You know the reasons. Making exercise as well as writing a routine, will help tremendously in improving your blog’s reach.

  36. How about hammering the keys and writing, writing, writing to break through that barrier?

    Always works a treat for me. That and thrash metal!

  37. Really good article James. Actually starting to write is certainly the hardest part of the process. It is also very dificult to stay motivated when you have worked hard to find the time and space to do it and then aren’t 100% happy with what you have written. Like you say though, it does come. You just need to stick at it.

    Does your routine stay the same no matter what type of writing you are about to do?

    • That’s a damned good question, and I’d have to say no. The above routine is typically one I use for what I call business writing – blog posts, articles for clients/other blogs, web copy for clients, newsletter material.

      I do other types of writing – ebooks, for example. I actually start my routine for that type of writing by creating an outline and expanding it into tiny little points and sections (and eventually grab one that jumps out and inspires me) or revisiting an outline I’ve created.

      For fiction writing, I’ve noticed I’ll break off all business writing work, get away from email, hang out on Twitter for a while to joke and chat… I set myself in a very casual and relaxed mood as if my day is done and I’m chilling.

      So yeah. Good question – very smart.

      Side note: I’m always 100% happy with what I’ve written, because I’ve always done the best I can for the moment, and because I always know I can come back to it later/tomorrow and make it even better. 🙂

  38. Sweet post man! Love the idea of listening to a few rock songs on a walk before you hit the desk. Personally I like the idea of just getting on a bus in London with no purpose and just sit there on the top level. You see so many different things on a bus ride and soon enough you find something to write about!

    Sometimes just a good run will do it where you can clear your mind of all the days activities and it somehow makes room for a good idea to pop into your brain!

    One thing that I struggle with is time I find that as I have a full time job it makes writing a little difficult, do you write full time or do you have another job?

  39. Thank you for this – clearly you were in the ZONE when you wrote it. I love the end where you make it a habit to get your brain into that right brain creative space.

  40. Step one…rename. Don’t FIND the time…you never will. MAKE the time.

    Making space…I solved that by unlinking myself from the kyboard. I went speech recognition and now just have a one-sided conversation with my laptop.

    Go basic and cheap…Vista has MVR (Microsoft Voice Recognition) for free and you can pick up a cheap headset (NOT BlueTooth…more on that in a minute) at WalMart for about 13 bucks, or get rid of the wire connection and…

    Get a GOOD bluetooth headset. Good doesn’t mean a phone earset…clarity is too crap for speech recognition…but ut doesn’t mean a 400 dollar headset either. A good quality headset like I have can be had for under a hundred dollars. I won’t name brand and model here, but if anyone wants to contact me thru my blog I’ll be glad to share info.

  41. Thanks for the post! I appreciate the point about creating your zone and causing your mind to get into a certain routine so that it’s primed to come up with content.

  42. I tend to use my time on the train commuting for writing. The space is not ideal obviously, but my headphones are noise cancelling, and once you get over the fact that people *can* look over your shoulder (they don’t), it’s not too bad.

    This process has a built in preparation time as well. I have about 15 mins walk to the train station, and I can listen to music and think a little about the piece of writing I’m going to work on.

    Of course, there’s always that little bit of uncertainty when taking the train in the UK! Lateness or cancellations can lead to packed trains where you can’t get a seat, and can put you in a foul mood, too. So, it’s a risk, but pays off overall.

  43. For me, the writing itself is not the hard part, its even not starting, but yes that would be the case for most people. The hardest is to find some time – some UNINTERRUPTED time. Like most stay at home mums, this is where I struggle the most. I can sit at my computer in bite size intervals only, write a post here, a comment there, but never enough time in one sitting to get some serious writing done. Now any help sorting this out would be truly something. 🙂

  44. I’m guilty of doing these 3 things (no time, no space and no proper “stretching”)… The hurdle of ‘getting started’ is hard to overcome.

    Setting up a routine aligned with my natural work habits can only be a good thing but, I think the biggest thing for me is convincing myself that starting is not a big deal. It always appear more difficult than it really is. I might have to trick myself into writing.

  45. “write something amazing” Well said. I think that’s the best advice right there.Thank you for this – clearly you were in the ZONE when you wrote it.

  46. Your tips are right on the money. And I’d like to expand on #1–along with finding the time, figure out what time is the best time for certain types of writing. For example, I do my best creative work (starting something from scratch or working on my fiction) first thing in the morning. (I wrote my first novel in 3 months writing only 30 minutes a day–first thing in the morning before I even allowed myself to check my e-mail or go online.) But I can do editing any time and any place because it is less creative and more, well, fixing! It’s all about knowing when your prime writing time is and taking advantage of that!

  47. “My brain knows that coffee, email, walk, and fresh air = writing” Great advice James, and since your “fresh air” is a whole lot colder than mine, I guess I have no excuse.

    My routine is to run to the computer the minute my family leaves the house. Gotta say, it’s helped my credit card balance because I don’t even want to go shopping anymore–that’s time away from the computer. It’s helped my nightmares because my brain’s always planning my next post and there’s no room to rehash past failures. It’s helped my social network because now I have new blogging buddies….

    It hasn’t helped my writer’s butt! But I’ll try your routine and the fresh air tomorrow. 🙂

  48. Awesome post! The one factor that I really need to apply personally is “the warm up.” That makes so much sense to have a specific routine to prep yourself for some serious writing work… thanks for the inspiration!

  49. Hi, I always thought that when I tidy my desk, put the kettle on, wander round the room…etc. it was displacement activity to avoid sitting down and – just writing! I now realise that in reality I’m doing just what you say, and getting myself ‘in the zone’. Thank you for removing the guilt!

  50. My zone of writing is Night always, when I am alone sitting on computer then only coming many thoughts about effective writing, I used to write on My blog.

  51. Thanks for the post.

    I’ve already singled out night times for my writings…though my wife is not so happy about it 🙂
    That’s the best time during a day when you can find solitude.


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