A Kick in the Pants: How to Obliterate Distraction, Clear Your Head, and Finally Write What Makes You Happy

It was the most embarrassing moment of my professional career.

A few weeks before deadline, my boss asked for a progress report on the current project. Not only was getting this project finished important, but it was also crucial for ability to move onto the next one.

I expected to get reamed out for being so far behind. My boss, understanding human psychology, didn’t do that. Instead she said the same thing our mothers say: “I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.” She followed up by asking what was wrong, and what she could do to help. The problem, of course, was with me.

The process of distraction starts so innocently. It’s just checking Twitter a few times, and then loading Facebook. Then it mounts and builds. It’s checking my smartphone at every little notice. It’s browsing around the web, because hey, someone might have posted something new in the last three minutes.

The trouble with eliminating distraction

There is no shortage of advice on the internet about how to eliminate distractions. Much of this advice goes specifically to writers. We’re apparently an easily distractible bunch. But that advice just wasn’t working for me.

The problem is that each person’s distraction problem is different. We might be distracted by the same things, but the distractions appear for different reasons. For some of us, the most distracting aspects of the web are necessities.

When trying to solve my distraction problem I came across a wonderful post at Write To Done, titled, “How to Write Without Distractions.” Perfect, right? Unfortunately, I was working on a marketing job for a client, and needed their webpage open. Turning off the internet, then, wasn’t an option.

I needed something a bit more customized to my writing needs.

Eliminating the unnecessary

If an internet connection is necessary for your writing process, then the only way to eliminate internet-based distractions is to find the specific sources. What are the things that distract you the most?

For me it was a small handful of items:

    1. Twitter
    2. Gmail and GChat
    3. Blog comments
    4. Web surfing
    5. Smartphone notifications

The top item is easy enough. Sure, I love Twitter, but it’s a real attention hog. Simply closing my Twitter client instantly eliminated that distraction. And you know what? I didn’t really miss all those 140-character messages scrolling by.

Similarly, email and instant messaging is easy enough to eliminate. You just have to answer one question: When was the last time that you got an email that, if not responded to immediately, would bring dire consequences? Chances are, the answer is never. Email is a terrible medium for instant interactions. If someone has something of immense importance, they should probably call me anyway.

Like many bloggers, I’m obsessed with checking comments on posts I write. At one of my blogs, a baseball blog about the New York Yankees, we get 50, sometimes 100 comments on posts. It’s addicting to go back and see what people are saying. But it’s distracting, too. To eliminate this distraction I actually had to install a Google Chrome extension that disallows my from visiting that site without entering some 24-character string.

(Perhaps more importantly, it taught me that something else was amiss. More on that in a moment.)

That Chrome extension did help curb my web surfing, since I could block sites that typically draw my attention. No Facebook, no Twitter, none of my own blogs, etc. But really, web surfing was going to be a tough distraction to eliminate. After all, I need the web for work, and it’s tough to ignore the urge to click around.

Another tough distraction was my smartphone. I’m a tech nerd, no doubt — part of my job is writing a pair of tech blogs. Plus, I have the new T-Mobile Galaxy S3, which is the definition of a shiny new toy. But you know what? I don’t need to know immediately when someone makes a play in Words With Friends. I don’t need to see new emails on my lock screen. And I don’t need a sound to play every time someone sends me an IM. Basically, the only time my phone will light up or play a noise is when I get a phone call or a text message — and when I’m writing I turn off the text message sound.

There. Maybe I didn’t get all of them, but I successfully blocked out some of my biggest distractions when writing.

Clearing My Head

The compulsion to check blog comments and surf the web brings to light another big issue. I realized that I didn’t need to check those comments. They were going to be there later. The web wasn’t going anywhere, either. So why was I so immediately distracted by them?

This is another instance where WTD came in handy. Earlier this year Ollin Morales wrote a post about hacking your mind to become more creative. What I had was not a creativity problem, but it certainly was a mind problem. This paragraph was key for me:

Say you’re worried about paying your bills, but you have to write a freelance article in order to pay those bills. But worrying about paying your bills is stopping you from writing that article you need to write in order to pay those bills. (What a vicious cycle, isn’t it?)

This is what I was doing when checking blog comments and surfing the web. I was worrying about something, and it was preventing me from writing. And so, with a massive distraction at my fingertips, I ran away from the problem.

The solution: clear my head before writing. For me this meant three activities.

1. Take a walk. Nothing clears the mind quite like a walk in nature. Unfortunately, living in a semi-urban area, I don’t quite have that. But a stroll around the block suffices.

2. Meditate. This doesn’t have to be anything complex. For me it was sitting on a cushion on the floor and concentrating only on my breathing for 15 minutes. Thoughts come and go, but by the end I feel light and refreshed.

3. Playing guitar. Playing guitar is one of my past times. Incidentally, my mind goes blank when I’m jamming along to my favorite songs. Perhaps you have a hobby that does the same. If so, it’s just as effective as meditation.

With a distraction-limited environment and a clear head, it was time to get into the workflow.

Developing a Workflow

The last step in the process was to develop a workflow that would allow me to work for extended periods while not becoming bored. Previously I’d tried to concentrate for 30 minutes and then take a break. But those breaks ruined continuity. I needed a different workflow conducive to long-term writing projects.

As I was struggling with this one of my favorite bloggers, Seth Roberts, put the answer right in front of my face. His magic dots method was perfect for times when I needed to sit down and hammer out a writing project. You’d think checking a timer constantly and making a mark every six minutes would be distracting. But it’s actually the opposite.

The idea is to keep engaged throughout the writing process. Time seems to go a bit faster when you’re making a mark every six minutes. Not only that, but each mark feels like an accomplishment. I’m using the method right now, as I type out the draft to this post.

It’s funny: once I eliminated distractions, got my thoughts focused, and got into a workflow, I found that I was much happier with the work I was doing. It was the same work I’d been doing, but for some reason I felt more upbeat while composing it. My bosses, of course, loved the changes as well. We not only knocked out that deadline, but got started on more new work than we’d anticipated. I don’t expect I’ll be submitting a progress report like that ever again.

About the author
Joe Pawlikowski writes and edits several blogs across the web, and works on promotional material for various clients. He keeps a personal blog of what he hopes are thoughtful subjects at joepawl.com/blog.



About the author

Joe Pawlikowski