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Tips and Tricks for Distraction-Free Writing

Tips and Tricks for Distraction-Free Writing
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.

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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.

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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.

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  • 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.

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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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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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