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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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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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