This post is part of a series dedicated to National Novel-Writing Month. If you aren’t participating in NaNoWriMo this year, you should. I have a free workbook available for download on the home page that will guide you through the process in a fun and accessible way.
If you’re abstaining this year, never fear. These posts will help you write better no matter what you’re working on.
It’s almost Halloween, which means November will be here before you know it. And if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of writers participating in NaNoWriMo this year, you may be thinking that October has gone much, much, much too quickly.
For most of us, even a regular November is busy. Those of us in the US gather with family for Thanksgiving, and there’s the mad rush to prepare for Christmas. But to get through the pre-holiday rush, eat all the pumpkin-flavored things, and write a novel means you need to be uber-focused before November arrives.
For me, focus begins with decluttering my life and eliminating as many distractions as possible. Here are the things I do to get into serious writing mode that you can apply to your NaNoWriMo prep:
Step 1: Get your to-do list down on paper.
I know a lot of right-brain types pride themselves on keeping it all “in their heads,” but this only results in mental clutter. I use a bullet journal to keep my life organized. I’m not one of those fancy calligraphers who make beautiful spreads — I just use it to declutter my brain.
My advice? Get all of your to-do items down on paper, or use an app like “Things.” No item is too big or small. Don’t worry about being overwhelmed by the size of your to-do list. If your to-do list is really that long, you’re already mentally overwhelmed — you just don’t realize it because it has become your natural state of being. Once everything is down in front of you, you can create a realistic plan of attack.
Step 2: Give yourself a “power hour.”
A power hour is exactly what it sounds like: one hour devoted to knocking as many things off your to-do list as possible. We all have those lingering items that we’re dreading even though they will only take a few minutes to complete: that notice you got in the mail that you need to call about, that email you need to send, that hotel room you need to book for that trip…You know what your things are. Take one hour and clear them off your list.
Step 3: Give yourself permission to axe the “shoulds.”
After your power hour, take a look at your list and see what remains. If there are some items that are neither important nor urgent, consider whether those things are “shoulds.” You know what I mean. I should make a photo album for everyone in the family documenting our trip together. Take it off the list. I should go through so-and-so’s ski equipment and donate it to charity this year. Take it off the list. I should make all the kids’ teachers jam for the holidays and put it in mason jars like I saw on Pinterest.
No, you shouldn’t. You should be writing. Remember: Pinterest is populated by three types of people: professional bloggers, busy people who use Pinterest to procrastinate, and psychopaths who enjoy making busy people feel inadequate. These things were never getting done anyway because if you really wanted to do them, they’d already be done. Keeping them on your to-do list only serves to make you feel guilty.
Step 4: If possible, get to inbox zero.
Unsubscribe from all those emails you never open from The Gap, The Audubon Society, etc. If you feel guilty about breaking up with The Sierra Club via email, make a donation and move on. Reply to or take action on all those emails you’ve been avoiding. Archive or delete the rest. Skip replying to group emails altogether. Nobody will remember whether you weighed in or not.
Step 5: Do a deep clean.
If you have a day, clean your house from top to bottom and tell yourself that you won’t be cleaning again until just before Thanksgiving. I always find it easier moving into a busy time if I’m beginning from a literal clean slate. (If the house is clean, it also means I have no excuse to mosey around avoiding my writing.) Outer order = inner calm.
Step 6: Stock up on lazy-person meals and snacks.
Go to the grocery store and pick up some easy meals for the week. I mean really easy. Instead of buying veggies that you need to chop and steam, buy some prewashed salad mixes that you can just throw in a bowl. Grab an instant rice packet or sweet potatoes that just needs to sit in the oven for an hour. Don’t do anything fancy.
If you run out of food midweek, pick up a rotisserie chicken on your way home one night, or ask your partner to take over meal prep. Avoid the question “What’s for dinner?” at all costs.
While you’re there, don’t forget to grab yourself some healthy snacks (no chopping allowed), and get some chocolate while you’re at it. Chocolate always makes me a better writer.
Step 7: Wash all your favorite clothes.
When writing a novel, there are a million decisions to make. One way to reduce decision fatigue is to take the mystery out of what you’ll be wearing. If you’re like me, you usually go through all your favorite clothes first. When it’s time to get dressed in the morning, don’t overthink it — just follow your instincts.
Step 8: Go all “scorched earth” on your desk.
Recycle or file any papers left over from your power hour. Get rid of stray paperclips, receipts, dirty dishes, and loner socks. Get rid of charger cables if no one knows what they power. Throw away or donate anything that doesn’t serve your writing or inspire you. Be ruthless.
Step 9: Take social media apps off your phone and bookmarks.
Better yet, log out. I dare you. For me, I have so many passwords to remember that trying to log in really isn’t worth the trouble. Make it as difficult as possible for you to fall back on your old distractions.
Step 10: Create an Internet shut-off plan.
If you’re writing from home and no one will miss the Internet, turn off the Wi-Fi completely while you’re working on your novel. If this isn’t possible, you have several options. Which option you choose will depend entirely on your self-control.
For me, removing my web browser from my dock is usually enough. You can also shut off the Wi-Fi on your computer itself, or install a web plugin like StayFocusd or Freedom that prevents you from accessing certain websites at certain times of the day. This way, you can still stream music and use the Internet for research.
As you contemplate decluttering your life for November, realize that there’s no shame in feeling that you need to eliminate distractions. It’s not as though you don’t have the willpower to resist them; it’s that willpower is like a muscle, and there’s no sense in causing unnecessary fatigue.
Keep in mind that just because the holidays are approaching doesn’t mean you need to do all the things. No, you don’t have to do all your Christmas shopping before December. That isn’t normal. It’s just the big-box stores trying to instill a sense of desperation. No, you don’t need to do any crafting (unless that makes you happy). No, you don’t have to make a million dishes if you’re hosting Thanksgiving. Try a potluck-style meal. And you don’t have to pick up everyone at the airport. That’s why God invented Uber.
Remember: Truly disciplined people set clear boundaries for themselves and for others. Writing takes a lot of energy, which means it needs to come from somewhere. Why not take it from your annual holiday Pinteresting and channel it into your writing? That’s what I’ll be doing this November.
What are you doing to prep for NaNoWriMo? Any distraction-proofing tips to add?
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters