Good Distractions

Writing requires focus. Writing is not a technical activity. It certainly has some technical aspects, but for the most part, writing and thinking are inseparable. When you write, you think, you process, you read and refine; you are considering the next move while keeping in mind the previous one; you zoom out to keep an eye on the big picture and zoom in to explore the details. All this is nontrivial and requires a lot of cognitive energy that requires deep focus. And focus means no distractions, as we’ve all come to learn. 

But not all distractions are created equal. Some distractions can actually do you good. Even while writing. 

When you think about a diet, the first thing that comes to mind is consuming fewer calories. But, of course, this is an oversimplification. When on a diet, we try to reduce the empty calories we consume — the calories that have no value to our body. At the same time, it is important to eat nutritious food, even though it increases the calorie count. These foods are essential to our body. If we stop consuming it, the result could be fatal. It doesn’t matter how much weight you wish to lose; your diet has to be balanced. 

Distractions are like calories in a diet. The amount of distractions is obviously essential, but we must distinguish between the empty distractions and the good, nutritious ones. 

The notifications from your social apps, for example, are primarily empty calories: they can be gratifying, but they typically have no value for a thinking-intensive activity like writing. Such distractions are a burden on your writing process. The fewer of them, the better, and if you can eliminate them entirely while writing, do it. 

But we must not take the idea of masking distractions to the extreme. Surprisingly, some distractions have value, and one might even argue they are essential. Some distractions can help us generate new insights, surprising connections, and come up with unpredictable revelations. These minor detours enrich our writing and can even lead to new ideas. 

I am designing this post as I am sitting in the waiting room in a hospital. It is not unlikely that something in this setup has triggered the diet metaphor. It could have been something I’ve overheard, a poster I saw, or just the association with health. I can’t say it was a conscious trigger, at least not this time. But it is not rare that something I encounter finds its way into my writing. Had I worked on this text in a sterile, isolated environment, I might not have thought about the connection between distractions and going on a diet. The waiting room I am sitting in is anything but a distraction-free environment, and this might have some cost in terms of focus. But it is an enriching environment that this text is likely to have benefited from. 

To find your optimal writing setup, you’d have to experiment and be mindful of what works for you and what doesn’t. Try different configurations at different times; notice which distractions are exciting and enriching and which are nothing but empty calories. Don’t stop exploring other environments, even when you find the setup that works for you. That’s part of the fun and a source for new revelations. 

Sometimes you will need an isolated bubble to work in. If you can identify this need in advance, don’t fight it. But don’t limit yourself to this sterile environment all the time and for all writing activities.

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