Get it done already: 15 tips to beat online writing distractions

Minimalist text editor OmmWriter leaves nothing on your desktop but your words.

Tip #13: Minimalist text editor OmmWriter leaves nothing on your desktop but your words.

Everyone can write and no one can stay focused on writing.

It’s a quirk of our connected universe that drives me nuts. Set out to compose anything longer than a tweet in this racket and your screen, your apps, even your dopamine-addled brain tries to stop you.

But there’s hope.

Below are 15 tricks to getting whole blog posts, essays and long workplace memos past the drip-drip-drip of digital distraction.

Some are mine but most are yours, shared courageously on a Facebook thread. Thank you!

Vive la resistance.

1. Kill extra browser tabs.

Especially the ones with the #$@ numbers.
They’re the devil, and ignoring them doesn’t work. When I have to write something but have to consult email or Facebook for material to write it (hey! like right now!), I put them in their own, quarantined browser window or take a screenshot and bolt.

Tip #4: Author Alex Soojung-Kim uses a few apps and browser plugins to silence distracting sites.

Tip #4: Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang uses a few apps and browser plugins to silence distracting sites.

2. Know your writing phase.

…and when you’ve left it.
Are you brainstorming? Finding your point? Actually writing? It makes a difference. Online distractions can be inspirations when you’re skipping from one idea to the next, tapping the Web’s wisdom and bouncing ideas off people. Keep clicking when you’ve gathered plenty and then you’re wasting time.

3. Put the phone away.

Don’t just turn it off; get it out of your sight.
Nothing triggers gems like, “I wonder who’s written me a really great email in the last 5 minutes?” better than a casual glance at your phone’s blank screen or the feel of it bouncing in your pocket. Give it a time out.

4. Get the apps.

Photo via Shutterstock

Photo via Shutterstock

Fight tech with tech.
The Distraction Addiction” author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang swears by Freedom, Waste No Time and Leechblock to block distracting sites and stay focused. Author Virginia Postrel sets Anti-Social to 30-minute bursts when her attention span has “totally collapsed.” If these guys can actually write whole books, they must be on to something.

5. Try paper.

It still exists, and look — no ads!
I’ve found plain old pen and paper to be the best tools for the part of the writing process where I’ve already browsed a bunch of material and have to figure out what I’m going to say. For best results, shut the laptop. You and your brain have GOT this.

6. Toggle the sound.

Make it quiet. Make it loud.
Make it what you need at the moment. Donte Antonio Parks works best when he’s listening to the score from “Superman.” Jen Zug makes music loud to drown out mental distractions. Jacob swears by the ear protectors that block out all sound. Me, I like the buzz of background conversation. Find your key and turn it.

Tip #6: Jacob uses ear protectors when sound gets serious.

Tip #6: Jacob uses ear protectors when sound gets serious.

7. Toggle the scenery.

And keep it clean.
A change of scene supports a new intention, especially if it’s clear, like a clean kitchen before you cook. “This is likely why I am about 200 percent more efficient when I work in a hotel room or at a coffee shop,” writes Kristen Jacobsen, “where the only thing I need to clean up is my own cup.”

8. Switch devices.

Some cooperate easier than others.
Joey Trimmer writes on his iPad when he needs to focus. Its small screen, easy switch to airplane mode and ability to look at only one app at a time (not to mention his Bluetooth keyboard) makes it the ideal tool. Carly Slater, meanwhile, turns on dictation software as she walks, weeds or cleans.

9. Know your energy levels.

And work with them.
This might be the most important tip there is. Know when your willpower is strongest — over coffee? after lunch? — and tackle your toughest tasks then.

10. Try the early morning.

It’s so…peaceful.
Plus, your brain is too groggy to chase shiny things. I write most all my columns in the morning on a fully recharged brain battery, doing in one hour what the previous night would’ve taken three.

11. Make distractions weird.

And you won’t want them.
Zachary Cohn inverts the colors on his Mac monitor when he writes (command+alt/option+F5 toggles the menu) to make it “really obnoxious” to switch away from his word processor. A neat trick.

Tip #11: Inverted colors are whoa.

Tip #11: Inverted colors are whoa.

12. Read something of yours you’ve liked.

Remind your brain you can do it
I do this when I’m stuck on something. Another lubricant: Open up a space where you write swiftly — like a compose window in email — and type out the knot.

13. Use a minimalist text editor.

It’s just you and your words.
I open OmmWriter and my everything — windows, menus — disappears behind the sentences as I tap away. GearLive’s Andru Edwards prefers iA Writer. Same idea. Namaste.

14. Escape the WiFi.

It’s not going anywhere.
Joel Maxey goes to his car. Finnian Durkan, a WiFi-less coffee shop (they DO exist). Me, I’ve made a spot under my rhodies in the backyard my WiFi-free workspace, summer edition. Some can turn off their device’s Internet and leave it at that. But if it takes actual physical movement to get you to that next tweet or news article, you’re not going to chase it.

15. Get up. Stand up.

Take a walk.
Because science. So much science.

Now get to work.

Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • Phil Palios

    I’ve found in my own experience in coping with distracted reading and writing that I have to really change my habits so my mind is once again able to focus for longer periods of time. It’s taken me about two years since I first read Carr’s “The Shallows” to notice significant improvements in my ability to focus on reading and writing tasks for extended periods of time, but it’s worked. My point is that I suggest writers not resort to a set of short-term tricks to help them bang out their current piece they keep getting distracted from completing, but take time to step back and analyze their habits throughout the day and find long-term changes they can make to develop more focus in their work.

    Of course, if people are too distracted to read more than one paragraph maybe it’s ok if writers are too distracted to write more than one graph. Personally, I feel this trend leads to the dumbing-down of society. Complex thoughts and ideas can’t be communicated in brief bursts.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Just finished “The Shallows” myself (and halfway through Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think,” which makes for a fun rebuttal). Couldn’t agree more that one or two tricks don’t solve much. That’s why tips #2 and #9 here, I think, are the most important. Everybody’s different. Knowing what kind of inspiration/environment YOU need and how you can get it is the best tip there is. That takes paying attention to your own attention.

  • http://thinkspace.com Peter Chee

    Some really good ideas Monica! #11 and #13 are definitely one’s I want to try.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Hope they’re helpful! Let me know how it goes…

  • http://seattlerealestatenews.com/ gerhard

    Great set of recommendations. These are for me: paper, read what I wrote and liked, early morning.