Waging Guerrilla War Against Online Distractions


For many people, turning of their Internet connection can ramp up productivity. But if you rely on the web, you need a more precise offensive.


A few years ago Cory Doctorow wrote a nice little essay on "Writing in the Age of Distraction" that contains this memorable line: "The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies." Indeed. It's something that we all think about, fret about, alternately contest and give in to, write books about. There are few more widely discussed topics among people who live and work online.

Now, The Economist steps in to give a boost to the idea that there just may be a software-based solution to this problem:

"Clear your screen and clear your mind." That is the philosophy behind a new wave of dedicated software utilities, and special modes in word-processing packages and other applications, that do away with distractions to enable you to get on with your work. The problem with working on a computer, after all, is that computers provide so many appealing alternatives to doing anything useful: you can procrastinate for hours, checking e-mail, browsing social-networking sites or keeping up with Twitter. ...

Hardware and software are usually sold on the basis that they can do more, do things faster or have whizzy new features. There is clearly a place for products that are simple to use and hide complexity -- a hallmark of Apple's products. It is perhaps more surprising that there also seems to be demand for products that disable features. But for people trying to get things done, a hobbled computer may in fact be more useful than a fully functional one, for an hour or two at least. Temporarily worse can, in some ways, be better.

All well and good -- but whether an app like Freedom can make you a better writer depends to a large extent on the kind of writing you're doing.

For example, my main writing project for this year is a "biography" of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, for this series. When I am working on this project, I am pretty constantly going back and forth between my text editor and a slew of online resources: I check Wikipedia for basic facts and dates maybe twenty times a day, I consult the Dictionary of National Biography, I look at scholarly articles via Project Muse and JSTOR, I find old prayer books and commentaries on Google Books, I consult amazing resources like this invaluable page. Turning off internet access would therefore slow my work nearly to a halt.

It would be different if I were writing a novel, or a personal essay, or a poem. But as I write I am in constant need of information. There's no question that I also need to avoid distractions, but I can't do that by going the Freedom route; I have to use a dozen little tweaks instead. I search Wikipedia via a menu-bar utility called Wikibuddy, which keeps me from having to leave my text editor when I'm grabbing a chunk of necessary info. I turn off Gmail and Twitter notifications. I hide all other apps when I'm writing.

Apps like Freedom are terrific for people who need to go nuclear on distractions, but that's not where I am. My strategy is to prosecute multiple small-scale confrontations; it's guerilla warfare all the time, against a collection of little temporary enemies. But by fighting this way, I'm also able to maintain some important online alliances. I'm not going it alone; as a researcher and writer, I'm thankful to have my own little coalition of the willing.

Image: Erik Charlton/Flickr.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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