Staying Focused in a Distraction-Filled World

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes.

One of the most difficult things about working these days is simply staying focused. There are far too many distractions in my workplace to stick to the task at hand. And I’m willing to bet that if you work in an office or at a desk, it’s the same for you.

Writers Need to Concentrate

As a writer, it’s vital that I be able to concentrate to organize my thoughts and then get them out in well-written sentences and paragraphs. That’s the task I’m faced with when I need to write something: think about what I need to say and write it.

I’m fortunate. If I can stay focused, I have no trouble writing. Words form sentences, sentences form paragraphs, paragraphs form blog posts, articles, and even books. If I can concentrate on the topic and what I need to say about it, I can get the words out easily. In most cases, I don’t even need to go back and edit other than to check sentence structure and fix typos.

I thought it was like this for most writers. It’s only recently that I discovered that other writers struggle with the actual process of writing. That’s not my problem at all.

My Personal Distractions

My problem is staying focused in an environment full of distractions. Here’s a list of some of the things I face in my office:

  • A cluttered desk. I find that I have a much easier time staying focused when my desk is clear and organized. Yet day after day, I find clutter piles that nag at me and make it difficult to work.
  • Too many open projects. As I summarized in a recent blog post [ADD LINK], I have too many “irons in the fire.” All the time. That’s mostly because I, as a freelancer, need to do work when it comes and keep looking for work so there’s no gap. I’ve been doing this in one form or another for 20+ years. You think I’d be able to compartmentalize better by now. But it’s hard to stay focused on one thing when you know that two (or three or five) other things need attention the same day.
  • Background noise. I have a parrot. Sometimes she makes annoying sounds that can really get under my skin when I’m trying to concentrate. (And yes, getting a parrot was likely a huge mistake. Worse yet, since she’s only 10 years old with a life expectancy of 50, I’ll have her for the rest of my life.) Unfortunately, my parrot isn’t the only source of background noise. At my Phoenix office, there are the landscapers, my neighbor with his loud girlfriend, barking dogs, and the occasional news helicopter hovering over the Apple Store a half mile away any time a line forms for a new product release. Sheesh.
  • The Internet. I could break this down into its components: a Web browser to look up anything anytime I want and an email client to pounce on incoming email as soon as it arrives. Just knowing that it’s there is enough to distract me when I hit even the slightest snag while writing.
  • Social Networking. This is so insidious that it deserves its own bullet point. Thank heaven I’m only addicted — and yes, I do say addicted — to Twitter and Facebook. I bailed out of Google+ about a month ago and am too sick of people trying to sell themselves on LinkedIn to check it more than once a month. But imagine if I’d also jumped in on FourSquare, Pinterest, and those ridiculous “newspapers” people create based on tweets?
  • The weather. In Arizona, almost every day (other than during the summer “hell season”) is perfectly beautiful. Do you know how hard it is to stay indoors when you know how nice it is outside? And then, on those rare days when there are clouds or rain — do you know how hard it is to stay inside and miss the chance to actually get rained on? You think I’m kidding? This weekend, it rained for the first time in three months. I purposely scheduled my work around the expected weather so I could be home to enjoy it.
  • The phone. This is way down on my list because I don’t get many phone calls and I don’t make many phone calls. In all honesty, I don’t like talking on the phone. But that won’t stop me if one of my extra-talkative friends calls and wants to chat. Last month, I used 110 excess primetime minutes on my cell phone — which is my only phone these days — because of long conversations with two chatty friends. (Do you know what that cost? Ouch! I’ve since upped the minutes on my plan.) The phone, of course, is also a source of business for Flying M Air, my helicopter charter service. But at least 80% of the calls I get are people fishing for a cheap flight who tell me they’ll “think about it” when they hear what it’ll cost. And don’t get me started on the ones who need time-consuming flight plan calculations to arrive at an estimate and then never call back.
  • Text messaging. Thankfully, I don’t get or send many. For a while, I had Twitter set to send me Direct Messages on my cell phone. What was I thinking?
  • Chores. Like most people who work from a home-based office, I use chores as a means of “justified procrastination.” For example, “I can’t finish this article now — there are clothes in the dryer that need to be folded!” Or, “I can’t start this outline now — I need to run to the store to buy milk for tomorrow’s breakfast!” (I just did it. I stopped doing this, went outside, toweled off my car (which was wet and clean from the rain), put my Jeep in the driveway, put my car in the garage, and pulled all the clothes out of the dryer. Seriously, I’m hopeless.)
  • Food. I snack all day long. Not huge snacks and not bad snacks. I eat fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cheese on crackers, leftovers. This is not a good thing. I don’t need to snack.

This gives you an idea of what I face. Think about what you face. I bet there’s a lot of overlap.

The Writing Environment

On top of all this is the distraction-full environment of the three applications I normally use to write: Microsoft Word for general writing, Adobe InDesign for book creation, and ecto for blogging.

It’s the formatting options that really get me with Word and InDesign. As I write, I get distracted by the task of formatting my text. With InDesign, the situation is often much worse until I’ve settled on the final styles and template for my book. I’m constantly tweaking things to make them perfect. ecto isn’t nearly as distracting, although since I write in HTML, it’s sometimes more difficult to go back and read what I’ve already written, especially after inserting links and images.

A lot of people swear by applications like Scrivener, which have a full-screen writing mode that supposedly removes all distractions. I’ve tried Scrivener and I really don’t like it for several reasons. First of all, Scrivener has to be learned to be used. That’s an investment in time that I’m not convinced will ever pay off since those skills can only be applied to Scrivener. Second, that distraction-free writing environment has to be turned on. If you don’t turn it on, you have Scrivener’s weird pseudo-outline interface or the cutesy index cards and cork board. That’s not distracting? Third, Scrivener creates Scrivener files, which are generally not readable by other applications. I’ve been bitten in the past when I adopted an application to help me be more productive or “think better” — the program was called Thought Pattern — and wound up with files I could no longer read when the application was abandoned and could no longer run on my computer’s operating system. As a result, I prefer applications that create files in standard formats: TXT, RTF, and DOC/DOCX. (InDesign is a big exception, but worth it for obvious reasons.)

(Just took a 10-minute phone call. Booked a flight for Wednesday. Added two things to my To Do list. Tweeted. )

Now before you use the comments to accuse me of “bashing” Scrivener, please re-read that paragraph. I’m not saying Scrivener is terrible. I’m just saying why I don’t like it. It doesn’t work for me. That doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.

And if all you want is a word processor that has a “distraction-free mode,” why not use Microsoft Word? It’s full-screen mode might be just what you need.

iAWriter’s normal document window is pretty simple.

Of course, I need something more hardcore. So I spent $8.99 for iA Writer, which must be the most basic, distraction-free text editor on the planet. I’m using it to write now. It forces me to concentrate on the actual text by not allowing me to build outlines or format characters or view my document in some sort of print-centric page view that no one really cares about anyway these days. And rather than taking the time to code the links you see throughout this piece, I’m just putting in [ADD LINK] notes to remind me to add the links before I publish.

iAWriter Focus Mode
Here’s iAWriter in full screen view with Focus Mode turned on.

And if I really need to focus on my text one sentence at a time, there’s Focus mode, which basically fades everything I’ve written except the few lines around where I’m currently writing. (I just typed [ADD SCREENSHOT] to remind me to add a screenshot of this and will take the screenshot now. There.) The benefit of Focus mode is that it makes it just a little more difficult to go back and review or edit something you wrote earlier in the document. If you’re like me, you know how much productive time can be lost by tweaking text before you’re finished with the first draft.

There’s zero learning curve to this program. It’s about as close as you can get to a typewriter without losing the ability to edit.

I’m hoping to use this more often to get “back to basics.”

Other Remedies

If a super-simple, feature-free word processor is a remedy for distractions inherent in standard word processing applications, it follows that I should be able to come up with remedies for my other distractions. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Problem Possible Remedy
A cluttered desk. Clear the damn desk. Then clear it again at the end of the work day. Every day. My sister did this at her bank job. Every time I came to visit her, her desk was completely clutter-free. It was spooky, but I think I could work better at a desk like that.
Too many open projects. Organize tasks with a To Do list that prioritizes project work. Stick to it. Also try to work on each project until finished before starting new ones.
Background Noise. Sometimes I can get Alex the Bird to shut up if I move her cage into my office. Sometimes certain foraging toys can keep her quietly busy for hours. I have to work on this. Not much I can do about the other noises. Of course, I could resolve all noise related issues by simply getting a dedicated office in a quiet place — and leaving the bird at home.
The Internet. Close all Internet apps and keep them closed. No browser, no email. Of course, this is impossible sometimes — my work often requires me to consult websites for information, etc. I think I need more willpower. Maybe a sticky note reminding me to stick to business?
Social Networks. Leave the Twitter client app closed. Stay off Facebook. I think if I schedule my social networking activities to certain times of the day, that might work.
The weather. I got nothing. I’m always going to want to get out in the rain — unless it rains for more than one day in a row. I think that if I gave myself a real day off once in a while, I could enjoy an appropriate number of nice days, too.
The phone. Because work comes by phone, I have to answer the phone. Fortunately, I don’t have to restrict myself about making calls because I seldom call anyone else.
Text messaging. Not enough of a problem to warrant a remedy.
Chores. This is an easy one: save chores for break time. Real break time. Scheduled break time. Of course, that means I have to schedule some break time.
Food. See above. Also, keep food out of the house. That might sound weird, but I’m one of those people who shops for groceries almost every day anyway. It’s one of my chores.

What about you? What distractions do you face? What remedies do you use to stay focused and get things done? Share some of your tips in the comments for this post.

6 thoughts on “Staying Focused in a Distraction-Filled World

  1. Great points, Maria. I imagine I came across this when I should have been working. :) I found that absolute silence saps the life out of me, making me look for other things to do. So the dogs, TV, music, the kids playing next door – the noises we usually hear each day – actually help to keep me the the productive environment. The Internet – which is basically what I work on – is both the biggest help and the biggest drain.

    Somehow I’m thinking we met years ago (yikes like a lot of years ago) at a Princeton Mac User Group meeting… I could be totally crazy. I know I have a few of your books. In any case, glad I found your blog!

    • I like to listen to music when I work, although I haven’t been doing that much lately. I like to play mellow music like jazz or Steely Dan and turn it down low.

      We may have met in the past. I know I spoke at a PMUG meeting years and years ago. Thanks for your support — and for taking the time to comment!

  2. I’ve been self-employed since 1994 & before that I was a sales person with a multi-state territory. Staying focused is a continuing project which seems to morph as the technology changes. Distractions have multiplied exponentially with the eclectic assortment of connectivity options.

    I find that I have to periodically reassess my attention levels since it is rather easy to fall into the trap of rationalizing the disruptions of the Internet & 24/7 connectivity. I have to be cautious not to use the excuse of categorizing as “marketing”, all of my surfing, social networking & research because I enjoy it so much.

    I use a lot of tricks & some apps to keep me focused.
    Thanks for the conversation.

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