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Navigating Playgrounds of Choice: Working With Digital Distraction

It’s that time again: finals. While most colleges in the U.S. finished finals before winter break, Harvard’s a little slow. Though calendar reform is on its way, we have one last year of January finals.

As I’ve tried to focus on writing three separate papers over the past week, I’ve realized, once again, how distracting the Internet can be. I wrote a few months ago about the risks of “information overwhelm,” and I think that’s relevant here, too. I mentioned that “My friends and I often joke about the peril of Wikipedia—you fact-check one tiny thing, and before you know it you’re down the rabbit-hole.” As my paper-writing nights stretched to 4, 5, and 6 a.m. the rabbit-holes got ever more enticing.

I’ve developed a few strategies to help myself focus even in the face of difficult assignments and the infinite allure of the Internet. And so I was particularly happy to read, today, Cory Doctorow’s latest column on “Writing in the Age of Distraction.” Though Doctorow is focused on writing major things, like articles and novels, his strategies work just as well for calculus homework or chemistry problem sets.

My favorite out of the strategies he mentions is his suggestion to use text editors rather than word processing programs. He writes,

Kill your word-processor
Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, “correcting” your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don’t write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they’re at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features — but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can’t transmit a virus.

Ever since I started using OS X’s TextEdit program—it comes with the computer out of the box!—I’ve been really happy with how my writing has changed. Free from the distracting options of MS Word, I’m able to focus on the real work: writing. Not font-fiddling; not margin-adjusting. Writing.

I use TextEdit in concert with another strategy: timers. I’ll set a timer on my desktop, and negotiate with myself to work only on a given document for a certain segment of time. It might be 10 minutes, it might be 30, but no matter how long or short the time segment, something amazing happens reliably: I’m further along at the end of it than I was at the beginning.

The Internet is an infinite playground of choice. In order to focus, sometimes the best strategy is the simplest: remove a few choices. If all I can do is write, then all I do is write.

Cory Doctorow’s other suggestions for combating distraction are equally great. My favorite part about his column is that Doctorow loves the Internet, too. He writes that “the Internet has been very good to me. It’s informed my creativity and aesthetics, it’s benefited me professionally and personally, and for every moment it steals, it gives back a hundred delights. I’d no sooner give it up than I’d give up fiction or any other pleasurable vice.” Internet distraction isn’t an evil to be stamped out. It’s an environmental factor to be dealt with. Strategies like Doctorow’s can help us deal.