I admit I’m late to the party on the “distraction free writing” trend. These are basically simplified text editors, designed to work full screen in a windowed environment. Some are designed to limit how much you can shift tasks, or have system messages come across. The idea is to limit the temptation to check e-mail, peek at Facebook, or any of the other distractions inherent to working on a computer.
The thing is, it seemed silly to me. If your job is writing the type of thing that would be the market for this (blog posts and creative writing, rather than more incidental e-mail and policy type that I do), no one is forcing you to have e-mail or Twitter open. Ostensibly, it keeps you from having to deal with system distractions, but once you shut down the obvious culprits, how many system messages do you get? Do you really want to ignore a “low battery” warning?
To me, it seems like a pretentious hipster “we’re too cool for ‘mainstream’ tools” attitude on one hand. On the other, reading about it seemed less about getting the task done, but a sort of meta-procrasitnation–spending time not facing the blank page by picking the right tool or workflow. Other folks, such as Merlin Mann, did perfectly good parodies of the form.
In the interest of fairness, I downloaded one, FocusWriter, and took it for a spin. The feeling was very reminiscent of running a text-based word processor on an old DOS system. The effect could be replicated by opening a terminal window and writing in EMACS. Yet I could still command-tab to my browser when I really had to know what the temperature was. To really have a distraction free computer, you should dual-boot it to DOS and dust off those WordPerfect 5.1 floppies.
Even forcing myself to work just in this window, there were a million and one other distractions. My daughter was working on a homework assignment, and needed help (first just getting over the fear of the blank page, then staying on track). I had a cat jumping on to my desk (thanks, Beso). This is without any of the other multi-tasking things that occur when I’m trying to write at home, such as making supper, or planning more pressing things with my wife.
In fairness, my distraction level was relatively lower when using this. This is less because the tool in and of itself did a better job keeping me on task. Rather, it created an environment of greater awareness. When I wanted to make that check of the weather, it was a concious choice. At the risk of sounding like I made up my mind before using the tool, however, I don’t think there was value in it. My ability to distract myself was too great.
I mentioned that I was late to the party on the “distraction free writing” trend. I noticed one day I was using a toolset that produced a lot of output with many fewer distractions than I typically faced. In short, I had pulled out a notebook and pen, and was handwriting some thoughts. I had the house to myself, and, before I realized it, an hour or so went by. The writing became a draft of some other writings. In a weird way, I got it: you have to find a toolset that works for you. It could be that you are OK with Word, while Outlook beeps at you. You may need a specialty word processor. Or, you might have to find some other toolset that lets you write in the most productive fashion, even if you have to move it later. The key is to recognize when you are finding the tool to be productive, rather than searching for just the right tool to avoid a blank page.