A simple trick for winning the war with distraction

Here's a quiz. You hit a snag in something you're writing at work. Do you:

a. Power through and keep going? b. Get up and walk around? c. Click away to your e-mail or the Web?

I'm guessing C. That quick and easy avenue of escape is so pervasive it's part of the rhythm of the day. Type, stall, click away. Type, stall, click away.

You bend the idea you’re trying to shape back and forth like a paperclip wire until there’s a tiny snap. Okay. Enough of that. What’s on the web?

Many minutes later, Facebook checked, the great and powerful Google oracle consulted, e-mail scanned, you’re back. Same spot, same task, just a little bit farther behind, a little more stressed. The enemy—distraction—is winning. Sometimes there’s hardly a contest.

Maybe it’s always been like this, but getting stuck was probably more fun when people typed their attempts on paper, looked at them with a shake of the head and then yanked the sheet from the roller and wadded it up. (Typewriter talk is so visceral, no?) A ring of big white wads around the desk was some kind of measure of time and progress. And when the pile got big enough, you could shoot baskets into the trash can.

Now, we just silently click away from what we’re doing, sometimes many, many times a day. And there’s not even a satisfying mess to show for it.

The clicking would make sense if we were lab rats getting a food pellet. Or the fresh inspiration of a real break. But no, what we have here is a time suck. More info bits crammed into a brain that seriously doesn’t need another status update. And now there’s even less time to write the important stuff—our own.

Distract yourself with .... yourself

But here’s a secret: You can have your distraction and your writing too. The trick? Don’t fight distraction, don’t declare war and don’t stop. Just do it a little differently. Distract yourself with yourself.

The truth is, you need a balance of breaks and concentration to get your work done, and you’ve worked out a way to do that. You push a browser button that takes you somewhere far away and creates the illusion of a break. It just doesn’t wind up feeling like one.

So here’s something to try: Click away to yourself. Create a button for your browser toolbar that takes you to a file you create for your own writing. Google docs works well for this. And if aesthetics is a hook that will keep you coming back, try a serene setting like Ommwriter (on a Mac) or Zenwriter on a PC (more on those soon).

What will keep you distracted by yourself? If you’ve been away from your writing for a while and the blank page does not make you squeal with glee, type a prompt onto your “distraction”/”vacation” page when you create it. (There are dozens of prompts here  and some wild ones here.) Or take a few lines from the last interesting work you did—an old poem or essay or story. Just a taste to remind you of what you sound like. You, the real you, the one who writes.

You might get hooked

Then, keep clicking back to that page. Stuck? Distracted? Fine. Leave the problem for a minute or two or five or ten. Click away to yourself. And let your mind tinker with your own thoughts, your own writing.

You’ll recapture the time that’s been dribbling away. And you’ll be seeding your own work daily. Even hourly. Do it for a day. Then for another, and remind yourself if you forget.  I’ll bet you get hooked.

As for the work you’re supposed to be doing? You know that’ll get done. It always does. But alongside it, you’ll be building a writing life of your own. All with “distraction,” and stolen time.

Are you battling distraction? What works for you? Let's chat in the comments.

Image by turinboy via Flickr.