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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 January 13, 2020

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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