Books for Writers
Reclaiming Your Writing Focus in a Distracting World
Successful writing is all about managing attention.
Writers need extended periods of focus for the drafting part of the process. Uninterrupted focus is tough to maintain in the modern world. A thousand seemingly urgent messages demand our attention and quick responses.
If you want to be creative (and we all do), you also must give your mind a chance to think laterally and discover unexpected associations. Creative insight happens during periods of open attention, when our minds wander while we’re doing something else or when we’re bored.
Those opportunities are disappearing as we fill every moment with consuming information. If we have a few spare moments standing in a line, we turn to email, Instagram, Twitter, or other dopamine-firing activities that protect us from boredom or daydreaming.
As a writer, focus is my most important asset. That’s why I jumped at the chance to read Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the author of the best-selling Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Who better to tell us how to reclaim our focus from the world of distracting tech?
Bad News: We Can’t Blame Technology Alone
As you might expect, this book offers valuable guidance for how to “hack” the technologies in your life to protect your time and attention. With his deep understanding of how technologies and devices trigger our behavior, Eyal offers sound advice for taking control of your attention.
But although we love to blame the technology for our distractions, the real problem is personal. It’s ourselves.
Ultimately, we give in to distraction because we are uncomfortable with our current situation, whether in the fleeting moment or overall. Understanding that discomfort is the first step toward mastering it. Writes Eyal:
Dissatisfaction and discomfort dominate our brain’s default state, but we can use them to motivate us instead of defeat us.
Distractions take hold when we don’t prioritize the work that is important to us. Like weeds in a garden, they thrive in the spaces that aren’t planted and tended.
What are your distractions crowding out?
“You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it’s distracting you from.”
The opposite of distraction, writes Eyal, is traction — the actions that move us in the direction we want to go. For writers, these actions may include researching, planning, drafting, or revising.
Indistractable offers valuable advice for anyone who wants to do meaningful work that requires time and focus. The main substance of the book fleshes out Eyal’s four-part model for reclaiming your time from distraction:
- Mastering the internal triggers
- Making time for traction (the things you value)
- “Hacking back” external triggers (including, but not limited to, technology)
- Preventing distraction with pacts
Each of these sections combines a larger discussion of the issue with practical advice for handling it. The section on mastering internal triggers includes Eyal’s 10-minute rule: If you yearn to check email or do something else off task while writing, give yourself permission to do it after ten minutes have elapsed. The urge may have passed.
I suggest you read the book with an eye to your writing process.
For example, since reading his book I have tried to “time box” my writing. I set aside morning hours to do the most important work of the day, usually writing. I’ve started dedicating time windows for handling email, rather than returning to it throughout the day. I’m not as disciplined as I could be with my calendar, but I’m improving. (Eyal also suggests practicing self-compassion, which I appreciate.)
Advice for Workplace Writers
Distractions are harder to ignore when they are part of your job.
A large technology company (which shall remain nameless) once invited me to speak with its in-house writing group. The corporate headquarters were beautiful, with open plan workspaces and glass-enclosed conference rooms. It looks like a fun and engaging place to work — but to write?
When I asked the writers how they handled writing tasks, they responded with a list of strategies, including coming to work early in the morning, writing at home in the middle of the night, going to a coffee shop, and reserving a conference room to work.
Having read this book, it’s clear that these writers are trying to “hack back” the work environment. The book offers creative ideas for handling disruptive workplaces.
If you’re writing in a workplace, pay attention to the chapters on managing work interruptions, group chat, email, and meetings.
Take-aways: Becoming an Indistractable Writer
Simple hacks aren’t enough. The deeper message of the book is that you should identify the work that matters (your traction) and plan for it. The book combines practical guidance, illustrative stories, supporting research, and a dash of inspiration for taking control of your attention.
Becoming indistractable is a process, not a task. The world will continue to throw things at you. Your plans will change. But when you are aware of your internal triggers, you can identify and manage the discomfort, channeling it to something productive. When you understand external triggers, you can modify your environment to mitigate the risks.
You can’t escape the distraction-filled world, but you can protect your time and attention—and your writing.
See more reviews in my Books for Writers series on AnneJanzer.com.