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Driven to Distraction

Today's column has probably been years in the making. It's great that the Internet has been such an everlasting font of knowledge and entertainment, but at a certain point you actually need to focus and get one task done--whether it's writing that e-mail you owe to a long-lost friend, finally uploading the best photos from your last vacation or writing this week's column.

And I have a problem doing that. As I noted in a blog post at the start of this year, it is far too easy to buy the big lie of the Internet, that downloading yet another data point into your head will make you that much smarter.

I first heard about the WriteRoom program that I reviewed today maybe a year ago. I thought the idea was crazy--as in, maybe crazy enough to work. After using it to write this week's column, I'm sold: You really do need some way to blot out everything but the words on the screen, and a cleaner layout of toolbars and menus isn't always going to help.

(I must give a tip of the virtual hat here to the Lifehacker blog, which has covered this topic numerous times and even released a few utilities to help cut down on the distraction factor.)

But I don't think software alone can save you from yourself. As I observed in that January blog post, you have to resist the temptation to Alt-Tab over to your e-mail or RSS reader every other minute. You have to be able to realize when you're getting your news fix too often and recognize when you're just spinning your wheels on the Web.

If I can make one practical, timely suggestion about how to do that: Resist the temptation to read comments on political blogs or political news stories. I hate to dump on the minority of people who contribute thoughtful, reasoned feedback, but most of the stuff I see consists of the same 6 arguments du jour, written with minimal attention to logic and grammar. This blather betrays a profound ignorance of the difference between persuading people who disagree with you and entertaining those who agree with you, and reading that kind of nonsense will only make your head hurt.

At very least, spare yourself the comments with multiple!! exclamation points!!! and random WORDS in all CAPS.

What do you do to stay focused when you're trying to get things done on the computer? Talk about that in the comments below--then let's continue the discussion at 2 p.m. in my Web chat.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 20, 2008; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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Comments

It's a HUGE problem for me (see, I'm doing it now!), and I don't have a solution other than sometimes I just have to knuckle down and get rolling on something.

Posted by: 23112 | March 20, 2008 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Great points.

First of all, the best way to block out diversion is to actually have a deadline. It's really hard to exercise self restraint when there's really no need for it.

I think a lot of us have the problem that we can use x y and z tools to make our information gathering really easy and streamlined (google reader for me). But the more time you free up, then you'll find new blogs or websites to fill it with. (kind of like money or oil)

I'll tell you what I'm looking for in software. My work display is too big (24" wide screen). I'd like software to mask the sides (like the left & rightmost 200 pixels), so if I push a window off to the side, I can't get a peak of it that might distract me and pull me back in.

What's the solution? a smaller screen? :)

Posted by: Gee Who | March 20, 2008 11:38 AM | Report abuse

...and please spare me the emoticons. I've dropped off reading a couple of message boards b/c those things drive me batty. Folks use 'em after every phrase. Winky-blinky, frowny, browlines....I am grumpy today and posting here instead of doing what I'm supposed to do...write material for my web site content. A perfect example of your column. I will try to work until your chat at 2

Posted by: Tina in Falls Church | March 20, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Now I've decided I really should find the start times for some of the games. I did write two whole paragraphs.

Posted by: Tina in Falls Church | March 20, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

This software is perfect for high school students who would otherwise be Facebooking, Twittering, blogging, and playing games. I just wrote an English report in half the time it would otherwise take me. I even heard the e-mail chime while I was writing, but because I didn't have my little Thunderbird pop-up to tell me who it was from, I didn't bother to stop working and check it.

My only pet peeve with the program is that it doesn't let you bold or italicize font, and my English teacher is HARSH on formatting. Only took me a couple of minutes to reformat in Word, but the longer your document, the harder it is.

Posted by: Doc | March 20, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I try to structure my work so I can spend a few hours each day with my Internet cable unplugged, focusing on a specific project.

Sometimes I'm successful about this, and sometimes not.

Occasionally I need to remove my (web-capable & email-capable) cellphone battery as well.

Posted by: anon this time | March 20, 2008 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Um...for Mac users;

Strategy #1: Open TextEdit. Click the Full Page jellybean at the top left to eliminate distractions. Start typing.

Strategy #2: Wait till 2 hours before deadline to open a word processor. Start typing.

Posted by: doshea | March 20, 2008 5:41 PM | Report abuse

One method I use to both get more done as well as avoid the myriad of distractions that plague me, is to use two computers, sort of simultaneously. I use one strictly for everything offline, and the second for all online. One is a desktop and the second a laptop. I have them set up so I can look straight ahead and see and use the laptop. To use the desktop, I look above at the monitor and pull out a rolling shelf for that keyboard. The other factor that strangely enough keeps me from being frivolous with my online stuff is I use dialup! Yes dialup. I actually feel safer on the internet with it than with a high-speed connection. I do have a firewall as well as a virus protection program (and I admit running the updates can take forever). But I turn on both machines, put my laptop on the Internet, run the virus updates first, and while it downloads I can do other things up on my desktop so I stay productive while timesharing. I tend to do tasks one at a time because multitasking is really a myth. Dialup encourages me to be selective in my Internet use. I like to give my full concentration to whatever I am doing.

I began using computers (a TRS-80) in the mid-1980s. I had the DOS version of Wordstar and learned everything it could do. My next computer was an IBM PC and I used WordPerfect 4.2. I also learned many other programs then. My next computer used Windows 3.1 and still DOS. Finally my next computer was a Mac (which I loved). I then went with PCs and began with Windows 95, then 98 and finally 2000 Professional. Once I had 2000 Professional I have stayed with it. It is so stable and can do everything I need. And all my hardware that I used with my Windows 98 speaks with it. I do not like to part with something that still works, and works well. (I actually still have my original 98 machine and it is just fine too.)

I am thinking of getting an ASUS (after reading your article about it). I think it would suit me to use it for most Internet things and then keep my other systems safe off-line. I am aware it will not work with dialup, but thanks to its light weight and size, it will be easy to take it to WI-FI spots to use.

As regards the move to digital TV...I have rabbit ears on both my TVs (which are vintage Zenith from 1985 and 1989). They get good reception and are quite healthy. Therefore, I intend to install the digital converter boxes with them to receive my signal once the switch occurs. Obviously, once they "die," I will get a digital TV. But sufficient unto the day. Waste not, want not!

Posted by: Felicia C. | March 24, 2008 8:35 PM | Report abuse

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