I don’t know one writer who doesn’t struggle with distraction. It’s a menace of the trade. Inventing a distraction-free writing device would be my fastest way to riches (quick brainstorm: a notebook and a sensory deprivation tank?).
This question – “how do I focus on writing?” – has inspired advice from authors for decades. Probably centuries.
Pre-Internet, I imagine writers’ distraction came in the form of external surroundings: documents strewn on desks, friends calling by, potential sandwiches singing their siren songs.
To an extent, we are still susceptible to these tangents. I have never been so intimately interested in laundry as when I’m meant to be beginning an article in which I have little interest.
However, the vast majority of my distraction comes from the things I use to write: my phone and my computer.
This is so common that it barely needs specifying.
And yet, if you think about it for a second: how absurd.
How counter-intuitive that the tools I (and many, many others) use to produce are also our main obstacles to productivity.
Just a couple of decades ago, that would have seemed ridiculous – like a typewriter that whispered suggestions for Christmas gifts or a filing cabinet that insisted on reading aloud from the newspaper as you worked.
i heart the internet
In case you’re getting worried, I’m not going to rant about the evils of technology.
I love the stomach-lurching speed of digital progress.
For every problem the Internet causes, an innovator (or several) bursts from the shadows with a fantastical solution. It’s the Cambrian explosion of our time: a mad race of rapidly evolving species.
Within a startlingly brief time, the Internet has produced sectors, specialisations and languages so numerous that I can’t hope to hear of them all, let alone learn about them.
It’s meant that I can write about subjects that I have no business knowing about, or which would previously have cost me a fortune to research effectively.
Drug laws in Bulgaria? Cryptocurrency developments in South America? Laboratory breakthrough in Cornwall (the train connections are bad)?
No worries, a bit of Google-fu will get me the original source and/or the phone number of someone who can get their paws on it.
It’s pretty cool.
I also don’t believe that ‘switching off’ is a solution to the distracted writer’s woes, so I’m wary of the current crop of ‘go off the grid’ articles – I don’t believe for a second that the authors do most of their research in the local library.
(To be fair – living in a remote cabin with nothing but a flip phone probably is good for focus. If you’re an author who relies on naught but imagination, or a poet with a talent for mildew-inspired verse, go for it. But I wouldn’t have a job when I emerged, so it’s a bit academic in my case.)
That said, I have to look realistically at the problems that the Internet causes me.
You need to know the questions to ask before you can find the solutions.
Ps & Qs
I get distracted by the infinite possibilities offered by the Internet.
Can I find a writing app that allows me to forget these potential distractions?
Can I find a tool that blocks these distractions when I can’t realistically work in a minimalist app?
Editing, formatting and otherwise messing around with my work before it’s finished means articles take longer than they should (and sometimes don’t flow as well as they might)
Can I convince my brain that writing is all it needs to be doing right now?
I spend time looking things up that I know I’ve researched before – but it was too long ago to remember the path I took.
Can I find a filing system that makes sense – and that continues to make sense when I’ve forgotten how I set it up?
I keep dozens of tabs open (nicely organised in nested style, to be fair) because I don’t want to ‘lose’ a good article or study – or to forget about it.
Can I find a filing system that I trust – and which shows me what I need to see for each project?
I am a self-employed writer who works from home. This is distracting in many different ways.
How can I optimise my physical surroundings for focus?
That’s what I’ll be working on in this series: experimenting with different tools and techniques to maximise writing productivity and minimise brain unhappiness. Watch this space (or sign up to my mailing list if repeatedly mashing F5 isn’t your bag).