From Our Archives: 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 psychologistswriters 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.

of Dominion of Bears, The Way Winter Comes, and The Accidental Explorer,
Sherry Simpson teaches in the 
Low-Residency MFA Program at the
University of Alaska Anchorage and the 
Writing Workshop
 at Pacific Lutheran
University. She’s also on the faculty of the annual 
Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared
in such journals as 
Orion, Creative
, Brevity, Sierra, Superstition
, Bellingham
, and in numerous
anthologies. This post was hugely popular when it first ran back in 2011, and
with the distractions of summer, this seemed a great time to re-run it.

1 thought on “From Our Archives: Distracted, a guest post by Sherry Simpson”

  1. Great post, Sherry. Thanks! It was a fun distraction. Which I think makes you an enabler…

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