Typewriter and laptop keyboard blurred together

Writing with distraction

I don’t know one writer who doesn’t struggle with distraction. It’s a menace of the trade.

Sitting down with a notebook or empty document, a head full of ideas, and a whole wide world outside the office door… it’s overwhelming, at times. There is no widget to whack, no idiot-proof checklist, no this-then-that process. Every new job is a sandbox game with a million distracting side quests.  

Pre-Internet, I imagine writers’ distraction came in the form of external surroundings: documents strewn on desks, friends calling by, potential sandwiches singing siren songs, random impulses to alliterate.

To an extent, we are still susceptible to these physical tangents. I have never been so keen to finish the laundry as when I’m meant to be beginning an article.

However, the vast majority of distraction comes from the things we use to write: the phone and the computer. This 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. Who would buy a typewriter that whispered purchase suggestions, or a filing cabinet that read aloud from the newspaper as you worked?

i heart the internet

In case you’re concerned, 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 creates, an innovator (or several) bursts from the shadows with a fantastical solution. It’s the Cambrian explosion of our Millennium – a mad race of rapid evolution, churning out grotesque seven-limbed failures and unlikely dominators.

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.

I can write about subjects that I have no business knowing about, or which would cost me a fortune to research offline.

Drug laws in Bulgaria? Cryptocurrency developments in South America? Union action in Perth? No worries, mate, 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.

I also don’t believe that switching everything off is a sensible solution to writers’ distraction, so I’m wary of the current crop of ‘off the grid’ articles. I also don’t believe for a second that the authors do their research in the local library.

(To be fair: Living in a remote cabin with no tech more impressive than a toaster probably is good for focus. If you’re a writer of fiction with a flair for mildew-inspired prose, go for it. But until they reinstate thrice-daily post, I’m stuck online.)

Despite my broadband fangirling, though, I have to examine the problems that the Internet causes me. Focus failures, digital hoarding, inability to separate downtime from uptime, and so on. Separating personal quirks (including ADHD) from external influence is tricky, but there are stressors that wouldn’t exist without my laptop.

  • While the meat-world distractions I mentioned would still exist, I can’t see them having the same pull as the infinite smorgasbord of Internet nonsense. Aside from anything else, sandwiches and unnecessary ironing aren’t designed to keep people ‘engaged’.
  • Paper clutter makes me so unhappy that I have developed a streamlined, minimal filling system that keeps my bills discoverable and my keyboard accessible. The relative innocuousness of digital clutter, though, snuck up on me and I now have over ten years’ worth of archived documents. Many live in abandoned organisational systems. Others were swept into groaning ‘Temp’ folders and, eventually, migrated to ‘Z-Old’. The growing, unsorted pile of digital rubbish is starting to scratch at my brain.
  • Research material is far easier to lose, or file stupidly, in digital form. While my reference books are bulky, they are at least there – and filled with post-it notes pointing me to the useful chapters. So much of my online research exists only briefly, as a Chrome tab or downloaded PDF. I file some of it (in Bookmarks, or Pocket, or, most recently, Diigo) but often lose track of my own systems. Then I have to start the searching process again if I need the information for another piece.
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