Try to work in a state of flow.
Writing comes easiest when you are fully absorbed in the work.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi invented the concept of “flow” to describe the feeling of becoming fully absorbed in one’s work and losing track of time. (A colloquial phrase expressing the same concept is “being in the zone.”) When writing comes easily and quickly, the writer is probably experiencing flow. If you feel inspired to write, the writing project is beckoning you to enter a flow state.
There are two competing recommendations about what to do if you manage to get in a state of flow. The first is to set a timer and stop working when the timer ends even if you are still in the flow state, with the idea that you should end your writing session on a positive note so that you feel good about the project and are more likely to return to it. The second is to take advantage of the flow state by getting as much done as possible while the state persists. I prefer the latter view. If I am completing a timed pomodoro session and the timer goes off while I am in a flow state, I ignore the timer and continue working.
Your writing experience will be easier and more pleasant if you can induce your brain to enter a flow state. Here are three suggestions for doing so: (1) Complete pre-writing breathing and visualization exercises; (2) avoid multitasking; and (3) minimize distractions.
Perform breathing and visualization exercises
Like some other logic-minded lawyers, I have trouble buying into meditation and mindfulness exercises and concepts. Nevertheless, the science is clear: meditation and breathing exercises improve concentration and performance. They are therefore an indispensable tool for writers. In particular, they can help you set anxiety aside and enter a flow state.
If you search online for “breathing exercises” or “mindfulness,” you’ll find innumerable free sources and apps to guide you as you try to incorporate these concepts into your writing routine. I like the simple Apple Watch app “Breathe,” for example. The app offers a one-minute breathing routine in which you inhale deeply for a few seconds, then exhale. Most breathing exercises I am familiar with encourage you to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Another option is to tense and raise your shoulders as you inhale, then relax and drop your shoulders as you exhale.
Visualization is a closely related technique that is frequently used by musicians, athletes, and other performers. The technique involves mentally picturing yourself taking some action before you act. For example, if you’re feeling resistant to a writing task, you can close your eyes and envision yourself opening a word processor and writing the first paragraph, or picking up a legal pad and filling a page with notes and ideas. This takes some of the fear out of those processes and mentally prepares you to follow through on them.
So-called “multitasking” is the enemy of flow. The essence of flow is complete absorption in a single task, such that other tasks and concerns fall away.
At the outset, if you pride yourself on your ability to “multitask,” you should understand that there is really no such thing as performing several tasks simultaneously. The human mind cannot do two things at once if both require conscious thought. Instead, the mind performs task switching that can be more or less rapid. People who think of themselves as good multitaskers may believe that they are capable of performing several conscious tasks at once, but in fact they are rapidly shifting their attention between those competing tasks.
Writing is a demanding, energy-intensive activity that requires your full attention. Writing while distracted tends to be a miserable and inefficient experience that results in inferior output. You will be most efficient if you set aside competing tasks until your writing session is over. Only by focusing exclusively on the writing session can you experience the flow state in which writing seems to come effortlessly.
Distractions are stimuli that make a claim on your attention and tempt you to divert your focus from the primary task at hand. Minimizing visual, auditory, and mental distractions is essential to getting into a flow state.
For some people, minimizing visual and auditory distractions means finding or creating the equivalent of a library carrel. That doesn’t work for everyone, however. I prefer to work near open windows allowing natural light, and I prefer the white-noise buzz of a café or the background of ambient music in noise-cancelling headphones to total silence.
For most contemporary writers, the biggest distraction of all is the Internet. The Internet is constantly tempting us with little dopamine rushes available from Google searches and social-network newsfeeds. Most nefariously, the Internet can give us the illusion of productivity: we can turn aside from our writing to click through reams of cases on Westlaw, check the latest headlines, or browse Google Scholar or Wikipedia — all valuable activities that have a time and place, but all activities that ultimately pull us away from the primary task of putting words on paper and moving our drafts toward completion. If the Internet is making you unproductive, you can try turning off your connection, using an old computer whose sole purpose is drafting, writing with pen and paper, or using an internet-blocking program such as FocusMe or RescueTime.
Distraction-free writing apps and functions — such as Microsoft Word’s Focus Mode and the iPad app Flowstate — are designed to encourage flow by removing visual distractions. You can also remove on-screen distractions by muting notifications (for example, by using the “Do Not Disturb” function on a Mac or iPad). Another tip is to write in a plain-text editor, which forces you to focus on content and save formatting for later.
You should also seek to tame mental distractions. For starters, many people carry their to-do lists around in their heads, taking up valuable short-term memory. Instead, write your tasks in a planner and put appointments in a calendar. Set automatic periodic reminders before each meeting or deadline. Create a system that you can trust to remind you of something at the relevant time so that your mind can temporarily forget about that and focus on the current task.
Other mental distractions include anxiety, worry, and fear. Typical fears and negative thoughts that interfere with writing include:
· “I’ll never finish this before the deadline.”
· “We should never have taken this case.”
· “I’m just not a good writer.”
· “I’m not interested in this topic.”
· “I should be working on X instead of this.”
Each time a thought like that passes through your mind, it threatens to pull you out of the flow state in which you can enjoy the writing process and do your best work.
It is largely impossible to forcibly suppress negative thoughts, however. Instead, try writing them down. If you feel a sense of anxiety about something, note the anxiety on a “worry list” to attend to later — after your writing session is over.
 I use and recommend Bose noise-cancelling headphones, especially when traveling or working in a public space. For music, I subscribe to Spotify and listen to instrumental ambient or modern classical artists such as Slow Meadow and Ólafur Arnalds.
 For a plain-text editor I can use anywhere — whether for quick notes or for first drafts of letters or other short writings — I use Simplenote. Another good option is Drafts (iOS/OSX), which is particularly useful for dictation. For longer plain-text documents, I use Typora or 1Writer (iOS).
Plain-text editors often include useful advanced features that are worth exploring. For example, when you copy and paste text from a PDF, it will usually contain line breaks that you don’t want. I use a feature called “Paste PDF Text” in an editor called Sublime Text to remove those. As another example, plain text editors often have features to sort lines and delete duplicate lines.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available on Amazon.
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