Distractions, Distractions, Distractions

In my house, trying to avoid distractions feels like a Herculean task. I have a TV and video games. I have two very needy, large dogs who love to wake me up before my alarm goes off. My roommates like to make noise as they cook and go about their day. I have work not related to writing college essays, friends who want to hang out, friends who won’t stop texting me… The distractions can seem endless.

And that’s in the best case scenario. If I go to a coffee shop or even a library, well, I can’t control the space. Distractions become the rule, not the exception.

In some ways, you can’t even call what surrounds you distractions. If you’re good enough, you can tune out the white noise and the pings from your smart phone. Some people truly have that ability.

But in general? It’s the exception to the rule. Your goal shouldn’t be to overcome distractions. Your goal should be to eliminate them entirely, or put yourself in a spot where they don’t even become an issue.

Defeat Distractions Through Avoiding Them

When I write, to avoid distractions, I do so in utter silence in a room devoid of anything except my laptop, my desk, my chair, a whiteboard for writing down a list of to dos, and a filing cabinet. That’s it. No posters, no speakers, no TV, no dogs, no phone, no friends, nothing. If I could, I would write without Internet. In fact, when I’m writing fiction, I do. I use an app called Freedom that effectively chokes off my Internet coverage for a period of time. I highly, highly, highly recommend it.

This is because writing, in terms of the amount of mental energy required, is one of the hardest things you can do. When you workout, you can get into a rhythm. When you listen to a lecture, you can always go back and listen to it again or follow the PowerPoint. Even reading is somewhat passive. If you’re solving math or science problems, generally speaking, there are clearly defined steps you have to take that allow for pauses in the work.

But writing is a creative act, and creativity, as fulfilling as it is, sucks so much of your brain power you can’t afford to waste any of it on even the smallest of distractions. From the time that you start to the time that you finish, you’ll rarely find a good “break point” to pause. Not only does writing take a lot of energy, it takes a lot of consistent energy. This is especially true given that studies say if your flow gets interrupted by a single distraction—email, friends, TV, you name it—it takes several minutes to get back into work. You may be able to solve a physics problem and pick up right where you left off, but it’s much harder with writing.

When you write, no pets, no TV, no music, and no friends should be allowed. I’d even go so far as to say no windows, but I violate that “rule” and some people feel more creative with a window anyways. But the point is the same—less isn’t more, it’s the most. You’ll find that you can concentrate more easily, you can produce higher quality work, and you can do so faster, freeing up more time to go do what you want.

So remember. Don’t fight distractions. Just don’t ever let them show up in the first place. Avoid distractions entirely.

The Exception (That Probably Won’t Apply to You)

There’s one subset of this that I have found success with, and that is music. But, it must be a very specific type of music. It must be lyric-less music, or songs you’ve heard so often that they’ll just blur in the background. If you find yourself singing along to the song, if you find yourself listening to the meaning of the lyrics, you’re distracting yourself.

Done right, music can get you into a good rhythm. However, I strongly advise you not to listen to music unless you’ve already formed the habit or have plenty of experience writing. If you have to wonder if you do, you don’t, not if your goal is to write your college application essay. I used to write to electronic music when I wrote fiction, but now, I almost never do. The only time I listen to music while writing is if I’ve hit such a block or I’m so tired that I have no choice but to try something radical. As I said, unless you have the habit, it’s better to not listen to music to help avoid distractions than to try experimenting with it.

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