On ‘Distraction-Free’ Writing Environments

Oh, for a distraction-free environment. Wouldn’t we get so much done?

I was combing through a backlog of unread feed items the other day, when I came across a parody from Merlin Mann in which he pokes fun at the current glut of non-distracting writing tools on the market. He serves up a fictitious new tool called ū—, a writing environment that’s so minimalistic that it displays only the top-half of your typed words. Funny stuff, but what’s the message here?

We know his intent, thanks to a follow-up in which he elaborates at great length on the original parody. It’s an interesting read, albeit a long-winded rant (his self-diagnosis, with which I agree). While I found it a bit hard to get through this post, I was intrigued by the subject matter.

The essential point that Mann makes is that distraction-free tools can be distractions in themselves. They will not make you a prolific, competent, energized person churning out chapters of engaging prose, nor will they make you a productivity guru. If you find yourself seeking out tool after tool with which to make yourself a more productive and focused writer, perhaps the problem is that you’re expecting the tool to do the work for you. In contrast, if you’re really motivated to write, you’ll write on tree bark if necessary. The same principle applies to any other endeavor, digital or analog.

So on one hand, Mann is criticizing the overblown language and suspect promises that sometimes accompany these types of tools. On the other, he serves up disdain for the type of person who collects such tools in a flailing attempt to fix an underlying concentration problem.

What I’m interested in is this: why does the ‘distraction-free’ tool genre exist in the first place. Perhaps it’s a reaction to how we’re choosing to live our lives. Most of us feel the drag of information overload, the weight of too much clutter, the barrage of too many activities. Much of this is self-inflicted. When we work on a task, we too often monitor e-mails, Twitter and Facebook accounts, phone calls, and text messages. These distractions hamper our ability to concentrate on single tasks for extended periods of time. We think we can multitask, but we most of us really can’t.

Now, we all know that the only way to write in a concentrated manner is to muster the willpower to focus on one task to the exclusion of all others. That’s what concentration is all about. It requires no special tools. It does not require a full-screen mode, nor pleasant imagery, nor ambient sound. True enough. But we like this stuff. As a society, we seem to have a tendency to look for tools or plans or guides to help us muster the self-control we seek. While we know that a tool cannot solve our concentration problem, that doesn’t stop us from seeking tools that do just that. So here’s one view on this current fad: the genre exists because there is a growing demand for environments that simulate concentration. We’re seeking a concentration prosthetic.

Another view is that the ‘distraction-free’ tool genre is a reaction to the bloated, overpowered software that most of us have used for years. What do we need to write, after all? Not very much. What is most like a blank piece of paper? A blank piece of paper. What about a blank piece of paper with subtle background imagery and gentle sound effects? Why not. Distraction-reducing writing tools provide an uncrowded, narrowly-focused experience that just may spur us to concentrate a bit more. There’s nothing wrong with that. If this alternate view seems like a slightly different take on the first, that’s because it is. As I said, it’s all about degrees of expectation.

The point is that distraction-reducing writing tools can only do so much, but that’s not to say that they are useless. Why not try a writing tool that is pleasant, simple, and relatively inexpensive? We routinely choose analog tools based on preferences that balance form and functionality. We create our living spaces in much the same way. And so we are now offered a wide range of tools in the digital space for the task of writing.

So I say embrace this trend. Experiment. But try to do so with minimal expectations. And always remember that the ‘map is not the territory.’ Personally, I enjoy so-called ‘distraction-reducing’ writing tools. I use a few for specific tasks. I find that WriteRoom, for instance, is a wonderful tool for writing long documents. I like the looks of it. It reminds me of writing on WordPerfect on the first computer I ever used back in the 80s. OmmWriter? It’s a bit over-the-top, but I can customize it to suit me. At times I find it to be a very pleasant environment in which to write poetry or short stories. What I enjoy about these tools is less about reducing distractions and more about aesthetics.

I didn’t take Mann’s parody or his meta-post about the parody as a condemnation of such tools. His broader message has little to do with software. It’s about how we work, or should. The best part is at the end:

“Learn your real math, and any slide rule will suffice. Try, make, and do until you quit noticing the tools, and if you still think you need new tools, go try, make, and do more.”

I like the ‘quit noticing the tools‘ part the best. That’s what we’re striving for.