Distraction-Free Writing

If you do a lot of writing, you already know the benefits of a distraction-free writing environment. It’s hard to keep yourself on-task when there are noise, people interrupting you, or the ever-present temptation of Desktop Tower Defense only a click or two away on your PC. It’s especially hard when you reach a rough patch and it’s so much easier to do something else than think your way through and out of your problem spot. And if you’re not a writer by vocation, it can be even harder!

The bad news is, there is no easy fix for a weak resolve or lack of commitment — if you’re not passionate about your work or at least dedicated to getting it out of the way, you probably need more than a handful of tips to bring your work and your soul into alignment.

But if lack of desire isn’t your problem, here are a few things you can do to help minimize distractions and keep yourself focused on your writing.

Prepare for concentration

Help minimize distractions by taking some time before you start writing to prepare.

  • De-clutter your workspace: Although a lot of people manage to work quite comfortably in a cluttered environment, having a lot of “stuff” around you can be a problem when you’re trying to focus on your ideas. An uncluttered workspace doesn’t give your eyes (and mind) anything to “catch” on when your eyes stray from the screen or paper in front of you. It also eliminates at least one piece of major procrastination-bait — the sudden need to clean up. Keep your workspace uncluttered so you have no need to clean as a way of procrastinating.
  • Make yourself comfortable: Good workspace ergonomics are important, not only to minimize work-related injuries but to keep your attention off your various bodily discomforts and on the task at hand. Make sure your chair is comfortable, your hands rest easily at your keyboard, and you can easily see your screen without leaning into it.
  • Schedule alone time: Let people know that you’re going to be busy for the next hour or however long you need. Put up a “do not disturb” sign, or otherwise make clear to others that you’re to be left alone. Turn off the phone, shut down your email program, and close your office door. This time is for you and your writing.
  • Set a timer:You may not be able to work for 8 hours straight, but you can probably keep yourself on target for 30 minutes at a time. Set a timer to a comfortable, doable length of time, work until the timer goes off, get up and do something else, reset the timer, and do it again.

Make your software leave you alone

Although today’s software is chock-a-block full of great and usually helpful features, all those features can sometimes get in the way. Everyone remembers the frustrations of Microsoft’s “Clippy”, the far-too-helpful “assistant” that popped up at the most awkward times to say “It looks like you’re writing a letter! What would you like me to do?” — utterly breaking your concentration and demanding immediate attention.

Clippy was truly awful, but almost any piece of software can have annoying features that limit your ability to concentrate or offer too many tempting distractions. How many hours of work has messing with fonts and margins cost you in your life?

While there’s a time and place for those whiz-bang features, it isn’t when you’re trying to write. Instead, try some of these alternatives when you’re writing, and save the fancy stuff for when you need to worry about formatting, layout, and editing.

  • Use a text editor: Every operating system ships with a basic program that just saves the words you write without any formatting, layout, or other options to distract you. Use Notepad, TextMate, VIM, Emacs, or a tabbed text editor like Notepad++ to limit your options so your only choice is to write.
  • Downsize your word-processor: If using a text editor doesn’t appeal to you, try minimizing the toolbars of your favorite word processor. In Word 2007, for instance, use the “Full screen reading” mode (select “Allow typing” under “View options” to use this view for writing); this removes the toolbar ribbon and access to most other functions, allowing you to focus on writing. Check your word processor to see if it offers a similar function — look for “full-screen” or “hide toolbars” in the menu to start.
  • Use specialized tools: There are a variety of tools that tackle the issue of distraction head-on. Try using a distraction-free writing program like JDarkRoom, WriteRoom (Mac-only), or q10 (PC-only), or the online app Writer. All three run in full-screen and offer few options other than saving what you write. Or you can try one of several quality programs created especially for authors, like Scrivener or Avenir on Mac, or Liquid Story Binder on PC. These offer a lot more bells and whistles, but they are bells and whistles designed solely with the writer’s needs in mind; all three of them also offer full-screen modes so you can get down to the business of just writing when you need to.

Use minimalist hardware

If you feel that working at your computer is always going to offer too many distractions, try leaving your computer behind and work on a low-powered device that doesn’t have anything fancy to distract you with.

  • Pen and paper: The tried and true tool of choice for tens of generations of monks, philosophers, and scribes, pen and paper are still a valid choice when you need to focus. Neal Stephenson supposedly write his mega-epic Baroque Trilogy using a quill! A lot of people find that the feel of pen and paper keeps their creative juices flowing and their mind focused. On the other hand, hand-written work usually needs to be re-typed later, which can be a chore (though that’s a good time to do editing and revision).
  • PDA: Most Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian-based PDAs and smartphones have text-editing software available for them, and third-party manufacturers make folding keyboards that connect via infrared or Bluetooth, making for a pretty decent writing setup. Though they’re getting rarer, some of the older units with built-in keyboards can still be found on eBay, like the HP Jornada or the Psion Series 3 or 5.
  • AlphaSmart: Designed for elementary schools, the AlphaSmart portable keyboard has built up a strong following among authors. At under 2 pounds and running some 700 hours on three AA batteries, the AlphaSmart is easy to carry anywhere you want to go, and since it’s designed for schoolkids, it’s tough and easy to use. The AlphaSmart is basically a keyboard with some memory — it saves your keystrokes, and when you connect it to a PC, it sends them into whatever program you have open at the time, just like you were typing normally.
  • Dedicated writing laptop: For under $200, you can easily find a decent 10-year old laptop that runs Windows 95, or that you could install a Linux installation like gOS. Set it up with only the software you need to write, and enjoy distraction-free computing.

Close your eyes and ears to the outside world

If you can’t control the noise and general busy-ness of your working space, use these tricks to remove the outside world from your attention space:

  • Music: Listen to music to drown out outside noises and create an environment that encourages creativity and focus. Try listening to ambient, jazz, or classical music — instrumental music gives you something to listen to without putting words in your head that can interfere with the work of writing. Or, if you can take it, listen to techno music to create a high-energy intensity and keep you moving forward.
  • Wear headphones: Whether you listen to music or not, try putting on a pair of headphones while you work. As it happens, people are far less willing to interrupt someone who is wearing headphones, so you create a kind of “privacy bubble” around yourself if people think you’re listening to music. Also, try a pair of good sound-canceling headphones, or even plain over-the-ear headphones — they’ll block out a lot of noise from your surroundings — again, even if you choose not to listen to music on them.
  • White/pink noise: White and pink noise are sounds that include every possible frequency; they fill the air and dampen other noises. To the ear, they sound like static; played at low volume, they can fade into the background and do a good job of blocking outside noises.
  • Reading glasses: Low-powered (+1.00 or so) reading glasses can act as blinders, keeping your eye focused at a short range and minimizing peripheral vision. They can also make you more comfortable, allowing you to sit back a little from the computer screen if you normally have a hard time reading the small text.

Whether you write for a living or just need a half-hour of quiet time to finish off a one-time assignment, getting rid of distractions is essential if you’re going to get your work done.

And, of course, much of this applies to other areas as well, whether it’s making space for a weekly review or finding a quiet time to do your quarterly tax statements — focus is key, and distractions seem to hover at every turn.

These are some of the things that have worked for me. What do you do to keep focused and eliminate distractions?

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