Distracted: A Guest Post by Sherry Simpson

It took longer than it should have to write this post on reducing distractions because first I needed to do some research using that wonderful, terrible invention known as the World Wide Web. (Sidenote: Why is it called the Web? Why not the Galaxy? Or the Labyrinth? Or the Ginormous Black Hole of Time-Suck?  Just a sec while I go look that up. Wait, no. Bad writer! Focus!)
What was I yammering about? Never mind. The point is that for writers, the Web is just one of the many, many, many, many distractions conspiring to come between you and your . . .
Many psychologists, writers and scientists have described how various technological gee-gaws are eroding modern attention spans. Writers battled distractions long before the computer age, but it doesn’t help that Web surfing is one of those activities that, like eating French fries and gambling, “stimulates your medial forebrain pleasure circuit,” according to neuroscientist David Linden in The Compass of Pleasure.
Distraction is closely related to procrastination, an affliction that I don’t have a single useful thing to say about (although this guy does). I can, however, suggest a few strategies for thwarting technology’s incessant tug of war over your attention. (To those of you thinking, “Just muster some willpower, you loser,” I say: Go away. You’re a freak of nature.)
Some tactics seemed obvious—after I tried them. Those Pavlovian dings, buzzes, bouncing icons and jangles that announce the super-exciting arrival of an e-mail, text message, or phone call? Turn them off. Better yet, don’t allow any phone, smart or dumb, into your writing arena. Your friends, like mine, will learn that eventually (probably) you’ll call back. Best of all, take writer Ron Carlson’s advice and never check e-mail until after you’re done writing. “If you open your e-mail, you are asking to let go of the day,” he says in Ron Carlson Writes a Story.
I once sneered at the thralldom known as Facebook until I joined it. I might as well have started mainlining heroin. The day I caught myself wondering whether FarmVille is any fun, I posted a status update placing myself on hiatus. What a relief. When I came crawling back months later, the spell was broken. Now I check in once or twice a week. Book publishers can insist that serious writers should twitter their heads off, but my inner Luddite refuses to follow or be followed until I’m wealthy enough to hire a ghost-tweeter.
Even your computer set-up can create enough friction to hamper the flow between thought and word. The mental static caused by a visually busy computer background wasn’t obvious until I installed simple, soothing wallpaper. That tip I learned by wasting time researching “minimalist computing,” as advocated by Minimal Mac and Lifehacker, among others.
If your writing software constantly pesters you with auto-correct and formatting prompts, zenware is your friend. Setting your word processor to a full screen view blots out the desktop and suppresses menus and tool bars, but several software programs can reduce your writing environment to nothing more than words on a screen. Lifehacker, which has hoovered up distressing amounts of my time with posts like “Hack a manual cheese grater to run via cordless drill,” describes their “five best distraction-free writing tools” here. Other programs include Darkroom for Windows, JDarkRoom, and Grandview for Mac, which allows you to engage with your writing one word at a time if you like.
Having devised so many enticing ways to entertain ourselves, it became inevitable that we invented technology to foil technology. A Ph.D. student named Fred Stutzman earned the gratitude of writers like Zadie Smith when he developed Freedom, which blocks Internet access for Macs and PCs for up to eight hours unless you cave and reboot. Trials are free.
Several methods allow access to, say, Google Scholar but not to guilty pleasures. Enlist parental controls or install free browser extensions like LeechBlock for Firefox. Chrome’s StayFocusd rations time on particular sites and can inflict the “nuclear option.” Stutzman recently released Anti-Social (Mac only) to keep your friends and “friends” at bay. Concentration uses these methods and others to help you focus. (Please leave recommendations for similar Windows software in the comments.)
If you possess an iron will, I don’t want to hear about it, but you could try Sid Savara’s tips for improving concentration and Matt Might’s ideas for crippling technology. You could take a peek at this page whenever you feel the urge to surf. More radically, find your computer’s off button, which cartoonist Randall Munroe named the “Distraction Affliction Correction Extension.” Or, return to the time-honored method of writing on paper with a pencil, which was invented in . . . well, let me just Google that and get back to you.

6 thoughts on “Distracted: A Guest Post by Sherry Simpson”

  1. I set up two desks, each with its own computer, in my office. One is dedicated to writing and is totally internet free. It helps me avoid the enticements and destractions of the internet. I also had to corrupt the built-in games programs because deleting them in Windows was about as permanent as putting my hands over my eyes.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    This is a phenomenal post, an absolute treasury of links. We are in your debt, Sherry. I will come back to this often (and share on FB — and hope I don't get lost while I'm sharing it.)

    My problem is that I have enough tech to distract myself and not enough technology (or know-how, or patience) to get all the stuff that will help babysit my bad habits. I tried to download Freedom a few months ago and discovered my laptop and desktop PC are just too old. (Yes, I'm a cheapskate.) Haven't tried the other options.

    Morgan, I love the idea of two separate desks or workspaces. I'd love to have one completely connected computer and one connected one that would give me the visual cues that while I am on computer B, I am basically using a typewriter. I also imagine that one separate clean desk with fewer papers and less mess would be inspiring. All the research shows us that we can't really multi-task — it's bad for our brains — but all keep trying anyway.

    I've watched my teen-age children pick up these bad habits — toggling back and forth between gmail, FB, youtube, webcomix, wikipedia (which I love), Pandora, and writing school papers. The 17-year-old is old enough he must find his own way but I worry for their generation. One thing he has discovered on his own is rainymood.com, which produces rain sounds in the background, and seems to stop him from searching online for one song after another, when he needs auditory background. I have it now to block the annoying sound of the heater in my hotel room.

    And now: back to work!

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I noticed I wrote that I wanted "one connected computer and one connected one." (Instead of one disconnected one.) Freudian slip, or ghost-in-the-machine — perhaps my computer autocorrects me when I type "disconnected"!

  4. I have to admit, I clicked on the "Squirrel!!!" link. I am so bad. Thanks for the chuckles, Sherry, and the info.

  5. Got up early this morning to write and started by checking email. . . then Facebook — whereupon I clicked Sherry's great article with ALL The great links. Yep, got sucked into checking out four of those links, starting with "Squirrel." And here I am an hour later . . . thinking maybe I need a nap. Getting up early to write is exhausting. 🙂

  6. Great idea, Morgan. I once tried making my husband take our wireless router out of the house. It worked until I realized someone in my neighborhood was broadcasting password-free wireless . . .

    I'm definitely checking out rainymood.com, Andromeda. Anything without words does seem to have a calming effect. I used to listen to a CD with long recordings of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. I stopped when I realized I was always subconsciously trying to tell which was which.

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