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The interweb killed my attention span.
February 28, 2009 6:41 PM   Subscribe

I have the attention span of a gnat.

I find it incredibly difficult to get any meaningful work done. I seriously cannot even get up from writing simply to change a CD without being distracted by something shiny and then falling into a two-hour timewarp and then I look up and it's 5pm and instead of working I'm brushing my cat and I still haven't even changed the damn CD, and nothing gets done.

I think my attention span fell apart for three reasons:

1. I went freelance and now have less external structure to keep me productive.

2. I got a laptop and now spend about 6 hours a day online, sometimes working, but more often clicking around the internet. The ability to keep switching my focus by clicking to a new page seems to have trained me to change mental channels constantly, and drastically shortened my tolerance for boredom. I read an assload of stuff online, and can easily get focussed on something interesting, but if it's boring... NEXT.

3. The work I do now is much harder than the old work.
I did okay when a prof or boss would give me an assignment and a deadline. I could just cough something up, revise it, and get it in on time and reasonably well-done, without caring too much. All my writing was a re-explanation of something I already knew or had just researched, no problem- there's pretty much a "right answer" for that kind of work, and the job is just to write the right answer with some finesse. That I can still do.

But now I'm trying to shift my work, so that I mostly write fictional things that I have to generate myself. There are so many possibilities, none are right or wrong, and just considering the ideas daunts me, let alone writing iterations of those choices. And I really want my writing to be perfect, so the easiest way to do that, obviously, is to procrastinate. There's no deadline, no accountability, and the work itself isn't fun. Sure, the reward of "having written something" is great, but the process of "writing something" kicks my ass.

This is the real problem, I think; how to kill the brain-imps who would rather I have a sparkling clean apartment and an unwritten screenplay forever?

I've read articles on many major productivity websites and the GTD book. They didn't really help. I would rather not go on prescription stimulants (even though I probably do have ADD). I have no substance abuse problems and I'm in excellent health.

So far, the best I can do is earplugs + coffee + a very granulated to-do list + a timer set for short increments of time (10 minutes) to keep me on-track in bite-sized amounts. Those work OK, but there must be more good tricks where they came from.

So hive, what do you do? How do you motivate yourself to work on rewarding long-term projects that are boring in the short-term? How do you avoid the sugar-high that is MeFi and the rest of the web, and focus on the insoluble fibre that is your pet project? How did you train yourself to have discipline?

posted by pseudostrabismus to Work & Money (20 answers total) 119 users marked this as a favorite
The only way I can focus is to to portion my work out into smaller chunks and set deadlines for myself and keep them. I managed to finish a novel by writing, first, 500, and later, 1000 words a day, no excuses. I do the same thing with, say grading--if I have 20 papers to grade, I grade 5 a day.

I actually feel like I aim pretty low with this stuff, and I think that's a benefit. When you hit deadlines you set for yourself, you're able to feel pleased and satisfied and, over time, that becomes a pretty powerful motivator. Set your standards too high and you'll just find yourself failing over and over again, and give up even trying.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:51 PM on February 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

I've been working at home for over 7 years, and somehow I still get enough work done to pay the mortgage, but it hasn't been easy. I can stay focused, to some degree, with tea and terror, but I know the Net and other shiny things have made my lifelong mild ADD worse.

The Net is the mindkiller, I swear. The only thing that helps me during the workday is staying unplugged by default. I check morning email, then unplug until lunch. If I absolutely, positively need to look up something online, I try to do it during my lunch hour (when I also allow myself some recreational surfing -- although as my posting history here shows, I can slip up from this plan and still surf outside of lunch and evenings.)

Can you train your clients to expect you to read and reply to email only during certain times of the day? If something urgent comes up, they can call you and you can plug in again, do what needs to be done, then unplug. And you can plan your online research times for only specific, short windows during the day, instead of always staying connected.

When you unplug, get out a stepstool and put your network cable on the highest, least accessible shelf in your place. Don't make it too easy to plug back in.
posted by maudlin at 7:54 PM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's something I struggle with and I have an office job. My only advice I would have is to take yourself out of your environment. If you need to write, grab your laptop and head to the local library where it's quiet and everyone around you is working or studying.

I do believe this behavior is some kind of addiction, similar to compulsive gambling.
posted by chairface at 8:11 PM on February 28, 2009

What has helped me:
1. Mefite myrrh made this timer thingy. I give myself an hour of internet-clicky-clicky and then work. Keep it in a tab and it pops up when your time is done. It saves from a little bit of browsing turning into a day wasted.

2. One hour online = one hour of work, broken into 15 minute segments if necessary. I just downloaded a little egg timer thing that sits in my dock. There are tons of them out there - but don't spend all day customizing it! (Sorry, on preview, I see that is what you are already doing.)

3. I greatly envied a co-worker's ability to write a list, and then simply tackle the items one at a time starting from the top of the list. So simple. I thought to myself, why the fuck can't I do that? Faced with a list, I jump around, or too many things are added to the list and I can't focus on one thing. Anyway, it was all in my head, I decided. There was no good reason that I couldn't work that way. Now I make a list, quickly, in neat caps. (So that I don't scrawl mindlessly. This is important, at least to me to have consideration into the list.) Then I prioritize that list, 1, 2, 3, 4. Then, I just tackle the list. One thing at a time. Can't move on until one task is done.

4. The last thing, the last thing helped me but it is not really feasible all the time. I took a vacation. I was not working for two months including the Christmas break. I went beyond the point of rest, past boredom and into some clear-mind zen state. My mind was clear, my body was rested, and when I came back in January I could focus again. I could write again. I don't know, maybe you need a break?
posted by typewriter at 8:57 PM on February 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

Ack. Here is the little egg timer link.
posted by typewriter at 9:06 PM on February 28, 2009

Same here with this issue. I write scripts on my own, too, so I feel like I can write a ton about this. I'm going to throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks for you.

It could be that you're burnt out. Typewriter might have it, that you need a break. For me--here comes a metaphor--creativity is like a muscle--it strengthens the more I use it, but overuse can blow it out.

I would suggest, for working habits, getting away from the Internet if you can. Go to a place where you can be creative and you know you can't get online.

Here are a few script-specific thoughts...

It's daunting as hell to look at a script as a single huge story, but you don't have to. The good thing about them is that they're already compartmentalized for you. It's not a novel, where it can have any length. You know you've got your acts, your plots and subplots, your scenes, and a rough page limit.

1) However you want, try breaking it up. After I've got my outline in place, and I'm actually doing the script, I like to write each scene individually, in its own document, like it's its own little story on its own. It's way easier to write page one of a two-page scene than page one of a 120p-page script.

3) Another possibility to spur yourself is to get a writing partner, or join a writing group, or get friends together and swap notes. Guilt from without can do wonders.

4) I completely agree that one trap is seemingly limitless possibilities. It really sucks when you don't feel that satisfied with a project I'm on right now, I had a really straightforward structure, but then I got obsessed with making it more complex, and I did, but who knows if it works better? That's where getting notes helps.

5) Remember that it gets easier the more you do it. Just like exercising. (I can't seem to avoid that metaphor).

6) And when you feel like you're revising or rethinking something to death, you probably are.

I hope something in there helps.
posted by world b free at 10:16 PM on February 28, 2009

I just reread your original post. One more thing...

It sounds like you've got perfect-on-the-first-draft-itis. It really doesn't work that way. Everyone revises, especially scripts. You'll really just make yourself more stressed and unproductive. Try and free yourself of the perfectionism. I know, it's not easy.
posted by world b free at 10:24 PM on February 28, 2009

How do you avoid the sugar-high that is MeFi and the rest of the web, and focus on the insoluble fibre that is your pet project?

Download Temptation Blocker and/or the Leechblock extension to Firefox. The minute you think "I shouldn't be surfing the web anymore," quickly lock yourself out. I use Temptation Blocker -- block for an hour, allow ten minutes of fun, block for an hour, allow ten minutes of fun. For me, when I'm first locked out, the little addicted demons in your brain all die a painful death screaming AAAAAARRRRRRRGGGH but then my brain is free from those life-draining parasites and enjoys an hour or so of health and clean energy, so I try to focus on how much better it feels to be without the internet as a way of motivating myself to keep doing this. I seriously love those tools.
posted by salvia at 10:35 PM on February 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


What is your learning style? My productivity really increases when I switch on iTunes - I need background music to concentrate and crank out product.

It's amazing. I get to work at 830am and check my email. If I'm not careful, I'll be drawn into Facebook, MetaFilter, checking my RSS feeds, goofing around on Wikipedia. There were some days when I wouldn't start working until 3 o'clock.

But as soon as I switch on iTunes or, I can get to work (of course, I have a list of tasks to complete for the week and for the day to guide my workflow).

I've also noticed that I really get productive around 3pm - 7pm. I can really crank out work in this period. How about you?

Unfortunately, I need to be in the office at 830am (it's a salaried job) and I need to leave the office by about 5pm so I can spend time with my family. So I need to get a move on earlier in the day.

Anyway, check out your learning style and try to figure out when you are most productive.

And change your diet.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:38 PM on February 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

If the process of doing this is really that awful for you, is this what you really want to do, professionally?

I have some of the same problems and need to work on them, but it helps that I got a job where being quasi ADD actually helps because I have to deal with a bunch of different tasks at once & wrap them up quickly..

One thing that used to help me when I wrote term papers for school: get your laptop and take it to a public space to do work, if you can find a space where everyone around you is doing work. My school had a big classroom auditorium that was an open study hall in the evenings and we were all sitting in rows so anyone could see my screen, not that they cared, but the fact that they were all reading and writing essays.. I felt compelled to keep on task, mostly. If you really can't resist leave the wireless card at home. Another thing that helped was music.. not stuff that got stuck in my head.. some electronic stuff or classical or choral music. Somehow a small amount of noise in my brain helped to keep out the usual noise.

Your writing doesn't have to be perfect, I'm sure you know that, but.. what about cranking out some text on your computer, print off the pages, and take them out somewhere to a cafe and do your editing/revising there, so you really have to just sit down and work?

What about joining some kind of.. writers' group, or informal group, or basically making a pact with someone that you'll have X amount of stuff done (number of pages, first draft, revised draft, etc.) to show them on a certain date, so you'll stick to it?
posted by citron at 10:46 PM on February 28, 2009

This is all great so far- please keep them coming! For what it's worth, I'm kind of a writer and kind of an "other-things"-er, so if you have some sort of productivity hack that's not specifically related to writing / screenwriting, please don't be shy to toss it into the mix. Odds are it'll help someone who reads this even if it doesn't directly apply to me and my tiny shiny problems.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:13 PM on February 28, 2009

Writing gets easier over time. I graduated with a Creative Writing degree and never wrote anything for almost ten years, when I started doing freelancing. I could always write successful pitches, and had no problem doing research, but when it came time to actually write the article it would take me hours and hours to craft even one paragraph.

A couple of years later I got a job as a writer in a communications shop in government. One of the challenges in our office was to see who could write an effective first draft of a one-page news release in the shortest amount of time. The record was 13 minutes. I can't remember if I beat that record, but ever since then I've tried to create a first draft, one-pager in 20 minutes, just as a personal point of pride (no one else knows I'm doing this).

Revising the copy can sometimes take another hour, but perhaps making work into more of a game might help, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:31 PM on February 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

Well because you stated this is open to “other-things”-er and to share productivity ideas, I’ll throw a few in. However, stating this with the understanding that although this has worked for other small goals, uh, I also just went freelance and have also spent 10 hours web-surfing and then I am up half the night working on a project – so as it is I will definitely be implementing the other tips above. Thank you so much for asking the question.

-Get a goal buddy for project X, and go meet your goal buddy a few hours per week and work on it. For example, I wanted to write scifi and a friend wanted to try science writing. We met at Starbucks once a week for a few hours, brought our computers, and worked on our respective projects. We also stated that we would do something with the project by a certain date (she posted an article on a blog, I submitted my story to a magazine).

-Make it competitive/work with a group. I am part of another forum for writers, and they are actually having a competition between other writers for how many queries you submit, how many letters of introduction you send out and points are tallied weekly. Each group of writers is randomly assigned a team and we check in a few times a week in email. There is something about this that eggs me on – competition, don’t want to let down the team, when in reality if I don’t succeed at this I am going to be eating cat food for several months, but the completion thing works. Another group that I just joined has us submit our goals online and we will discuss progress each week by phone. Humiliation factor will spur me on – and learning from other group members will also help me.
posted by Wolfster at 11:44 PM on February 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Do you have a separate, dedicated work space? I found that it was easier to stay on task and on schedule when working from home when I had a place to work in that could a) give me a place free from distraction, and b) give me psychological separation from home life and home tasks.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:57 AM on March 1, 2009

Things that help me on different occasions:

1. Put music on that gets me in a work zone. For me it's instrumental non-distracting stuff. If you play this stuff and force yourself to work the first few times, the music itself will help get you back in that zone on future occasions.
2. If I'm feeling highly distractible I put something on the TV, or iPlayer or YouTube. This can help scratch that brain itch without distracting me entirely from my work. This only works if I'm not writing something, though, so this might not be so good for you.
3. Get up, shower, have breakfast. Put on vaguely sensible work clothes. Go for a short walk around the block. Go inside. Now you're at work. At the end of the day, go for another walk to leave it all behind.
4. Take a proper break at lunch-time, or roughly halfway through whatever your hours are. This might be as little as 20 mins, but as long as you need to be refreshed enough to go back to work for a while. Going outside helps me.
5. Take your laptop to the park, a cafe, a library, or fuck it - a bar. Choice of location depends on what you're writing. I write well in pubs. No idea why.
6. Turn the router off if you're continually distracted by the internet.
7. Reward yourself intermittently. Make it goal based.
8. If you're starting a new writing project make your first goal to write 300 or 500 words. Don't worry about how good they are. Don't spell check or grammar check as you go. (Programs like Write Room (OSX) and Dark Room (Windows) offer great distraction-free write pads). Just get the words out. Separate the processes of getting words out and making words good.
posted by nthdegx at 5:49 AM on March 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the feedback, all. I'm not gonna mark any answers as best because there are so many awesome ones, but I got some great ideas from this post and have actually implemented several and therefore been pretty productive in the week since I asked it. Much appreciated!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:09 PM on March 3, 2009

I'm going to expound on the music thing for a second, here. I would recommend against anything with lyrics (otherwise you'll start singing along or simply be distracted by them).

Here are some of my recommendations for get-stuff-done music (outside of the typical classical music realm, these are mostly post-rock artists):

-Explosions in the Sky
-This Will Destroy You
-The Album Leaf
-Zoe Keating (awesome cellist)
-Moby (you kind of have to find some of his more ambient tracks)
-Sigur Ros
-Godspeed You! Black Emperor
-A Silver Mt. Zion
-God is an Astronaut

Anyway, I've probably listed more than you care to look into, and this may not suit everyone's tastes, but I find that this sort of instrumental music that has somewhat of a beat or rhythm keeps me on track when I'm working.
posted by sciencemandan at 3:51 PM on March 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

There's no deadline, no accountability, and the work itself isn't fun.

1. Set a deadline. Make it soon. When you hit the deadline, stop. Assess what you've done to that point. Rework it until it's to your liking. Repeat.

2. Be accountable. Special emphasis on account: Don't spend any money on anything other than bills and ramen until you get something done.

3. Make the work fun. You're writing fiction? When you're writing, try this:
A: Summarize the basic gist of the scene as concisely as possible. (e.g. "Harry meets Sally")
B: Write it as slapstick. Go on as long as you want.
C: Write it as horror.
D: Write it as melodrama.
E, F, G... whatever.
Z: Write it how it should be.

4. One more thing: Routine. If it's a job, treat it like a job. Set a schedule. Stick to it. Get up early.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:12 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Salvia, leechblock has changed my life. Thanks!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:42 AM on March 10, 2009

Congrats! Glad it helped.
posted by salvia at 9:55 AM on March 10, 2009

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