An American Editor

October 5, 2016

On the Basics: Dealing with Distractions

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

One of the attendees at a panel session I participated in recently asked about managing distractions when working from home. This comes up a lot in conversations among colleagues. It’s a good question in these days of what often feels like constant distraction — not just from friends and family whose demands for attention can pull us away from our editing (writing, proofreading, indexing, graphics, etc.) work — but, more invasively, e-mail and social media clamoring for both attention and response. It can feel as if we’re missing out by not responding to every incoming message or new Facebook post, but doing so breaks concentration on the project in hand.

How do we get work done with all this “stuff” going on around us, much of which seems either more urgent or more interesting than that open project on the desktop?

Everyone is different, so what works for one person may not work for another, but here’s my basic approach. Keep in mind that I don’t have children or pets, although I can share few tips for balancing them with working at home.

Nowadays, I check e-mail first thing in the morning, to make sure there’s nothing urgent and to clear out or respond to anything of interest that came in overnight. Then I check Facebook, because I belong to several work-related groups that might have conversations I want to participate in. I give myself permission to be distracted from work by responding to messages and by dipping in and out of both personal and work-related forums as a way to start my day. It’s like meeting at the office water cooler to gossip about what we did over the weekend before the real workday begins.

I dip into LinkedIn and Twitter less often than I go to Facebook, but am trying to be more active in both environments. That’s something else that I do first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, mainly to keep up with what colleagues are doing and get my activities and opinions out there. Again, these are potential distractions, but ones that can be useful to my freelance business.

I usually keep e-mail and Facebook open throughout the day, in part because I have a couple of clients who send me editing and proofreading work on demand, but that doesn’t work for everyone. I have colleagues who close both while they’re tackling assignments, or turn off the sound so alerts to new messages or posts don’t distract them from the work. They go back to e-mail and online forums once they’ve finished, or have at least reached a good break point — such distractions can be used as rewards for getting a certain amount of work done. However, if I have to focus on a demanding writing, editing, or proofreading assignment, I do close both e-mail and my browser.

Some distractions actually are work. You might be focusing on a lengthy editing project when a smaller assignment pops up. Depending on the status of the deadline for that first project, you might be able to set it aside and take care of the new one then and there. It might even be a good change of pace from intensive editing of a complex manuscript. We all need the occasional break, both physical and mental.

Those distractions are reasonably easy to deal with. You can set a time for non-client e-mail interaction and social media participation, and limit the number of LinkedIn groups you belong to or the amount of time you spend in those groups. Managing distractions caused by family and friends can be a greater challenge.

Step 1 might be to establish office hours and stick to them (see, e.g., On the Basics: So You Want to be a Freelancer, The Business of Editing: A Fourth Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make, On the Basics: The Issue of Availability, The Proofreader’s Corner: How Lucrative Are Your Editorial Clients Really? Keeping an Eye on Creeping Costs [Part II], and Summertime & Wondering Why). Post them on your home office door so anyone in the house knows when you’re working and prefer not to be disturbed, and at your website so prospective and current clients can see when you’re available. If the phone rings, let it go to voice mail, or at least use Caller ID so you can shield yourself from nuisance calls — spammers, robocalls, unfamiliar numbers, etc., that get through the Do Not Call list. Plan ahead for saying “No” when friends or family call to chit-chat or ask you to run errands because you’re home all day. It can take constant reinforcement for the message to sink in that “I’m working here. I can’t stop to take Johnny’s lunch to school for you or pick up Susie at school or walk your dog” or “I’d love to chat, but I’m on deadline. I’ll give you a ring this evening.”

I was lucky in that I was already freelancing successfully when I met the guy who became my husband. We didn’t have to change any routines, and I didn’t have to justify or explain what I did for a living. He’s always been impressed by and supportive of my work (although there were times when he’d have preferred that I ignore it, such as when I’d spend part of a vacation day on finishing up something that came in unexpectedly just as we were leaving).

When my husband was working, he didn’t have to know very much about my work style or schedule. My routine was to get up at around 7 a.m., check messages, work for a couple of hours, run errands and get a light lunch, do some more work, break for an early dinner when Wayne got home around 3 or 4 p.m. (he was on shift work), and do another hour or two of work in the evening if I didn’t have something social going on. To my everlasting delight, he loves to cook and would fix dinner when he got home, so I could keep working until close to 5 p.m., when clients might expect me to be available by phone or e-mail.

Once Wayne retired and was home all day, I had to educate him about what it takes for me to get my work done, and I had to train myself a little as well. He had to remember to actually walk toward my home office to see if I was on the phone with a client, rather than holler from the other end of the apartment if he wanted to ask or tell me something. I had to remember to let him know if I was on a deadline and couldn’t take the day off for us to go on an adventure together. I made a point of staying ahead of deadlines as much as possible so I could drop everything for a play day as often as feasible.

Those with different spouse/partner situations may have to do more work on communicating what they need. You may have to set up something fairly formal about, for instance, who fixes dinner when, gets the kids to and from school and extracurricular activities, etc. It can help to show a spouse or child what you’re working on — and maybe your latest check for your freelance work. That makes it a lot more real to people who don’t understand what you’re doing and why.

Colleagues with babies or small children often schedule their work time around the kids’ naps. You may want — or need — to find someone to provide an hour or two of respite care/babysitting so you can achieve uninterrupted focus on work. That might mean going to a coworking space, library, or cybercafé, or just having a minder with the little one(s) in another room.

My dad once told a relative that as long as there was no blood on the floor and no detached limbs, my brothers and I were free to tussle around at will. You may need to adopt a similar philosophy. With older children, you may have to set very clear rules about when you can be interrupted, and even put a Do Not Disturb sign on your office door. The trick is to make the rule and stick to it.

People with pets schedule walks and play time around their deadlines whenever possible. Some let the animals join them in their home offices; others have doors (solid works a lot better than glass!) to fend off the beasts. As with any other potential distraction, the freelancer has to remember who is in charge.

As with everything else these days, there are apps for managing distractions; electronic timers come to mind. I prefer to be my own app — to train myself to manage distractions without outside assistance. It’s better for self-discipline, and it means I’m not depending on something that could go wonky when most needed.

Dealing with distractions, like much of freelance life, means developing a sense of discipline and self-worth. You’re in charge of your freelance business, which means that you also have to be in charge of your life in general. If you let distractions throw you off track, your business will suffer. Your personal life is likely to suffer as well, because you’ll be resentful or upset by interruptions and the inability to control what goes on around you and interferes with getting your freelance work done. Family members may be resentful as well, if they don’t have any idea of when you’ll be able to pay attention to them.

How do you manage, head off, or give in to distractions from your freelance work?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.


  1. I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro method, and couple it with a dedicated work playlist (classical, for the most part) to keep me on track for short bursts. Since I often do Pomodoro in longer bursts than 20 minutes (usually an hour), the music is actually a really helpful reminder if I find my mouse wandering over to the email or Facebook tab while I’m looking up something task-related. I don’t use any timer apps; I just keep an eye on the time. (Useful if a task takes a little over or under the hour mark, so I can stop at a natural resting place instead of when the timer says I should.)

    I also have a tendency to get distracted and lose time because I don’t remember everything that I have to do, or don’t have a clear idea of what should be done next. Bullet journaling is taking off, though I haven’t tried it myself. I use Habitica (formerly HabitRPG), where I can keep track of both a long-term to-do list and things I need to do daily. But people who aren’t so much into video games and gaming culture might not find it useful or engaging.


    Comment by Katherine — October 5, 2016 @ 7:07 am | Reply

  2. What is the Pomodoro method? (I realize I can look it up, but I’m interested in your take on it.)


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — October 5, 2016 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  3. I never kept office hours as I live alone and can work when I feel like it. Instead, I used a stopwatch. Thus if I felt like taking a walk or if a friend telephoned, I’d just turn off the stopwatch. This meant I might start work at 9 am and work until midnight and have only 6 billable hours. When I worked in an office temporarily, I was reminded of how much time people were actually not working. I think 6 billable hours is equivalent to an “8-hour day.”


    Comment by Gretchen — October 5, 2016 @ 9:20 am | Reply

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