My setup for distraction-free writing
These days, my evenings and weekends are filled with trying to finish my first book - The Cold Start Problem (preorder now! lol) - which has been incredibly hard after seemingly destroying my attention span via social media, constant meetings, and endless distractions. You know things are bad when watching a two hour long movie feels too tedious and lengthy, but that’s how I feel about Netflix films these days.
One of the hardest things about doing lots of writing — in particular staring at a screen for hours and correcting endless sentences, reformatting entire chapters, and writing new passages - is that it’s very distracting to also do email, check your texts, etc. Sometimes I find myself wondering about some little fact, searching my email to get an answer, and then an hour goes by while I go back to a natural pattern of replying back to people. And the more emails you reply, the more emails you end up getting, and so the entire situation continues.
It reminds me of the “loops” that exist in the Westworld universe where you wake up, jump on Zoom meetings, reply to emails in between, grab a meal, have a coffee, Facetime a few friends, and repeat and repeat again. It’s a weird kind of professional autopilot that too many of us are stuck in.
But back to deep work. It’s hard to force myself to write. So I’ve come up with a lot of different systems and gadgets to make it so there’s literally nothing to do except write my book, and I want to share a few of the better tools.
The first thing is a phone jail. The idea here is that when you want to put away your phone for, say, 5+ hours, you can throw it in a jar, set the timer, and that’s that. You can’t retrieve it until things are done. I do this all the time, and it’s particularly useful during the weekends when you can set it for 10+ hours at a time.
Second, I use HeyFocus on my laptop which blocks apps and websites. I put all my favorite social media and news sources on there, plus email, iMessage, Signal, Whatsapp, and all that good stuff. You can turn on a “hardcore mode” which makes it so that you can’t turn your phone off.
I find that I associate my laptop with email and meetings, however, so I also have a dedicated writing iPad with no apps installed besides Ulysses, which is what I use for writing. If I grab the distraction-free iPad and go to a cafe, I find it’s super helpful to getting shit done.
If I miss some amount of stimulation, between walks, I also have a separate iPod Touch device which again, has no apps on it besides Audible, my favorite podcasting app, etc. The idea here is that I use it to take breaks, but don’t fall into a work autopilot hole.
I am also constantly experimenting with new eInk devices like the Boox Max (which runs full Android) and the Freewrite Traveler, but find that an iPad/Laptop is still more comfortable to write for hours on. When I get eyestrain from staring at a screen for too long, switching to an eInk display is pretty cool though.
All of this is going pretty well. I’m well over 100,000 words into my book and have been able to force myself to write for hours at a time. But it definitely took some tweaking and adjusting. I still find myself super distracted on days where I need to write a few hours but also have a bunch of meetings to prep for. But it’s coming along.
I’m hopeful that after I’m done with the book, I can still use some of these techniques to blog more generally. Back when I first moved to the Bay Area, I was writing 2-3 times per week about stuff I was learning. Then as more people read my newsletter, I raised my bar and it got harder and harder. Eventually I got to writing once a month, then once a quarter. I’m excited to get back to a routine. Having this smaller Substack — right now it says there’s just a few thousand of you — is a nice place to start.
Hope you have productive start of the week!
-Andrew from Austin, TX