The Distraction Engine: Digital Detox for Writers

By George Dunford

Writer and digital native George Dunford shares some tips for what to do when the internet keeps luring you away from your work … and jamming your thoughts with kooky videos and streams of tweets.

A few years ago I started calling the internet the distraction engine. The nickname made light of my procrastination habit: with a reliably kooky video, or a joke site to tickle my lazy brain. This was before social media and LOLcats pushed distraction to a new level. Devices – iPhone then iPad – meant that I was never far from the internet, so I could check my email on the train or in the bathroom.

All of this changed my online behaviour: emails on my phone became more like texts – briefer, as they were pecked out on a tiny keyboard. Browsing the internet became more scattered and my ability to complete tasks was limited, as I started checking email, updating Facebook, responding on Twitter… and forgetting what I had actually powered up the machine to do. The engine was running too fast.

Turns out I wasn’t alone. American uber-novelist Jonathan Franzen told the Guardian, ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction’. In a Time magazine profile he detailed how he sabotaged his trusty Dell’s ethernet cable to block his wi-fi access while bashing out drafts of Freedom.

Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) concurs that deeper thinking – like research and writing – is made harder with the internet constantly poking into your brain. Carr surveyed neuroscience to conclude that the internet is rewiring our brains with ‘the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information’. For writers, deep thought becomes harder as our brains start to follow the constant interruption patterns of the internet. Add social media into the mix, offering instant feedback to the insecure writer, and you get an addiction to distraction. No wonder contemporary works of literature require time in an isolated residency to be completed.

Unplugging writers

Several writers are becoming conscious of how the web is changing our brains and trying to find new ways to work. In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers romps through history looking at how disruptive technologies have gradually become part of human endeavour. He recounts how Socrates once eschewed writing itself, preferring oratory as the best way of thinking through a problem.

Turns out he was wrong.

Along with an historical meander through old new technology, Hamlet’s Blackberry offers practical advice on unplugging. The bad news is that most of Powers’ suggestions involve self discipline. He talks about his family observing ‘an internet Sabbath’, where they unplug to spend more time together. Going cold turkey proves challenging. In The Winter of Our Disconnect, Susan Maushart tries to reconnect with her teched-up teens by unplugging the wi-fi.

If totally cutting the ethernet cable sounds extreme, there are smaller measures for coping with technology addiction. I recently deleted the Facebook app from my phone. A small step, admittedly – but it had been there three years, and I’d developed a habit. At first, I was twitching to upload cute kid pictures or post an update on the meal I was having – after a while, I barely missed it.

Rather than dropping Twitter entirely, writers tweet a commitment to achieve a word count or complete a project, then log off to meet that goal. The tweet is a statement of intent.

Powers talks about this as ‘putting distance’ between yourself and technology to allow for deeper reflection. Of course, several apps are designed to yank you back in: for instance, LinkedIn sends you an in-app notification and then emails you – just so you know that someone you knew in primary school wants to catch up. Limiting the ways your apps notify you can help, as a minimum – just as reviewing the email updates you subscribe to can save you time otherwise spent cleaning your inbox.

Email curfews and social media fasts

Many writers find email dominates their working time. Drafting an email or striving for the goal of ‘inbox zero’ robs time from writing or offline thinking. In The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman argues for ‘slow communication’, a reaction against the knee-jerk need to reply to that email or bounce back instantly on a tweet. He advocates changes in routine, like never checking emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Every writer is different, but some find the early morning period sacred, where they can continue the previous night’s dreaming. To preserve this post-dream state, ignore your inbox first thing. (Or dream better by imposing a device curfew.)

Another strategy employed by social-media-addicted writers is limited fasts. Rather than dropping Twitter entirely, writers tweet a commitment to achieve a word count or complete a project, then log off to meet that goal. The tweet is a statement of intent. Others use social media for research, asking a question to #lazywebs – though this can lead to a sinkhole of procrastination, as you are sucked into replying and then chatting with other writers looking for distraction. Try setting a question, then limiting response time to the next 15 minutes – then close the browser and get back to writing.

There’s also the chance to focus what you do online. Focused writers avoid wandering the web and clicking through to ‘related items’. Some writers approach social media with a shotgun strategy of spraying as many messages on as many channels as possible, but it’s more effective to review what channels work for your message and your style. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are the big three. There are other media channels with large audiences – but not all of them necessarily work for writers. Is the visually led Pinterest, for example, productive for writers – or are they better suited to something more text-based?

Lo-fi my way

Powers offers another suggestion for writers: go back to paper with a notebook. For digital natives it must sound positively medieval to scratch away with ink rather than bash it out on a keyboard or peck at your smart phone (and instantly speak to the world), but that distance gives writers room to think. ‘In a multi-tasking world where pure focus is harder and harder to come by, paper’s seclusion from the Web is an emerging strength.’

Sound far-fetched? Recently Moleskine has gone into partnership with the omni-device-linking software Evernote to make it possible to scan your notebooks into your laptop, iPad or phone. It’s a convenient link that means you can still separate yourself by using paper, without wasting time transcribing. Paper just crept closer to the screen.

For me, the notebook is still the laboratory: a free place, but also secluded enough to get up to all the right mischief. Other writers prefer the convenience of tablets or their phones – but a notebook is a fortress of solitude, while a device means writing while dodging web traffic.

And readers are stuck in the same traffic. Most e-readers now come with their own distraction engines: the Kindle Fire, for example, plays movies and music and browses the web … which makes it hard to escape into a good e-book.

On a web browser, attention is even harder to retain. In an article of this length, it’s doubtful many readers will make it to the conclusion without getting an instant message or needing to check their email. A recent study says that readers will share based on the first paragraph, rarely reading beyond that.

But perhaps this makes the escapist power of paper even more valuable to readers. In an essay that served as an early draft of his book, ‘Hamlet’s blackberry: why paper is eternal’, Powers argues that paper supports readers because it ‘becomes a still point, an anchor for the consciousness. It’s a trick the digital medium hasn’t mastered – not yet’.

We’re evolving as writers and readers. The internet has clearly brought information to millions and made us all content rich. But just as agricultural technology brought a stable supply of food to the twentieth century, requiring us to manage our diets, individual writers need to control our information diets, to manage the new abundance.

Rather than the sci-fi futurism of having our brains rewired by technology, we should take responsibility for how we use it – and look at how it can work for us.

Portrait of George Dunford

George Dunford has been writing about graphic novels since 1994 when he wrote a history thesis about the censorship of comic books.