Writing in the Age of Distraction

The internet is the best thing that's ever happened to the communication of ideas, and the worst thing that's ever happened to their articulation. It's great for research, broadening your horizons, instantly finding a hundred perspectives on an issue, and grabbing quotations and facts easily and quickly. Good blogs can save you time and hassle, make you wiser, or flip your worldview around, and the best content floats to the top on a wave of links, diggs, and tweets.

Unfortunately, it sucks for writing. Most bloggers (and many non-bloggers, if you count email and online office suites like Google Docs) spend their time writing just a single temping mouse-click away from twitter, google reader, alltop, and all sorts of sites that are easily to mentally classify as "research," but which really just give you ten open tabs and ten different thirty-second-attention-span ideas. I always have a hard time writing coherent blog posts; it's much easier to get my urge to communicate out in a few tweets, a picture or two on flickr, and maybe a Facebook wall post.

If I look at all the times I've gotten in a groove and pumped out a paper or a blog post as quickly as I think I should be able to, they always happen when I'm offline. I know I'm more productive when I'm disconnected, but when the internet's a click (or Quicksilver trigger) away, it's tough to resist. That's why I was so happy to find these tips by Cory Doctorow, blogger extraordinaire over at BoingBoing (especially since I'm in the middle of finals and final papers, and productivity is actually kind of important). None of them is revolutionary on its own, but together, they constitute the best advice I've found on managing to articulate coherent thoughts in a time when everything comes at you in 140-characters, three minutes, or captioned pictures of cats.

  • Short, regular work schedule It's not plausible or desirable to try to get
    the world to go away for hours at a time, but it's entirely possible to
    make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me
    more than a novel per year — do the math — and there's always 20
    minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty
    minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep
    or meal-break (though this shouldn't become a habit). 
  • Leave yourself a rough edge When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're
    in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a
    sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day,
    your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a
    little push before you begin your work.
  • Don't research Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't.
    Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the
    population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies
    distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of
    composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what
    journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The
    Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite."
    "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is
    "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell
    you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your
    editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to
    your attention.
  • Don't be ceremonious Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse
    into the room. Forget candles, music, silence, a good chair, a
    cigarette, or putting the kids to sleep. It's nice to have all your
    physical needs met before you write, but if you convince yourself that
    you can only write in a perfect world, you compound the problem of
    finding 20 free minutes with the problem of finding the right
    environment at the same time. When the time is available, just put
    fingers to keyboard and write. You can put up with
    noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.
  • Realtime communications tools are deadly The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem
    of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype
    rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even
    subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your
    screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you
    can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and
    similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for
    planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now
    helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat —
    voice, text, or video — when it's needed, but leaving your IM running
    is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant "DISTRACT ME" sign
    over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the
    entire world.

There are a few more tips and a preface in the full article; go give it a read. If you like Doctorow's style (who doesn't?), you can find him over at BoingBoing.net, or penning novels and nonfiction at his personal website, Craphound.

These all do a lot for me. Going from blocking out time by the hour to setting 20-minute goals has gotten me writing a lot faster, and the 'TK' trick just wrote me most of a five-page comparative literature essay in two hours. Once I've researched or skimmed my materials enough to know what's conclusions I could support if I put my mind to it, I just pump out an outline off the top of my head, turn that into paragraphs, and deal with the editing and citation later. I've also been cutting back on the IM/facebook a lot; if I've got something to say to someone, I pop it off in an email or add it to a to-do list. I don't want it clogging my brain, but a quick IM can easily turn into a two-hour conversation.

One more trick that's been working really well for me lately: separate your to-do's into things that require creative energy, and things that don't, and do each when it makes sense. I write and study as early as I can, and if I'm in a groove, do everything I can to keep attacking long-attention-span things. I do emails, edit pictures, file taxes, and do the tiny-but-boring things on my list in between facebook, twitter, reading, and the occasional video or phone call. Things that don't take attention don't require their own mental space in the same way as, say, studying Kanji or writing an essay.

If you're reading this in a reader or email, check out the real thing. I tweaked the layout, sidebars, and design a bit to make the blog (hopefully) prettier and more usable. Things I'm still not totally happy with:

  • -typography (I don't know what to do with the text in the nav bar)
  • -width (it's begging to be about 100px wider, no?)
  • -sidebar ordering (not so much unsatisfied as much as indecisive).

Any thoughts? Let me know in the comments!