Creativity vs. Distraction: 13 Tips for Writers in the Age of the Internet

I was twelve when I learned how to use my first hand-me-down computer. It ran Windows for Workgroups and played games like Crystal Caves and Commander Keen. Getting that computer was a life-changing experience. In some ways, it was probably the event that truly fated me to be a writer. Although I had written stories on a typewriter, the computer was a delightful toy that pulled me deeper into the possibilities of word processors and design software. I wrote as much because I liked typing away at the computer as much as I liked the actual writing.

When I was fifteen, my computer got hooked up to the Internet. It was dial-up, which meant only one computer in the house could be connected at a time. It loaded a three-minute video in about three hours. And in absolutely definite ways, it put me in the career path of a writer. The innovations that followed rapidly in the next ten years, not least among them the advent of the Kindle and the self-publishing boom, were timed to allow me opportunities that past generations couldn’t even have imagined.

The Internet has been good to me, in ways large and small. It’s allowed me to make a living doing something I’m passionate about. It’s allowed me the ability to talk to all of you every week and to get to know so many people I never would have encountered in actual life. It’s taught me to be a better writer. It’s allowed me to live in the middle of nowhere and still purchase just about anything I could want from just about anywhere in the world. It’s given me access to the world’s library of books, music, and movies. It’s put a mind-boggling amount of information at my fingertips. It’s plugged me in to a global community of opinions, news, passion, support, and possibilities.

Twenty years after first dialing up the Internet on my clunky old computer, I take for granted how phenomenally this technology has affected my life, as a person and a writer.

Vintage everything. My first computer, sans Internet.

But along with all the blessings have come an equal number of challenges.

If I sometimes take for granted the gifts given by the Internet and its related technologies, I also sometimes take for granted how much its very blessings are also its curses.

If the Internet has given my creativity a voice and a platform, it has also encroached upon the way I create. My fifteen-year-old self could have had no idea how this technology would change her life and the world in the next two decades. She could have no idea how this technology would literally change her, her brain, her very physiology.

In short, if the astounding technologies of our lifetime have given us countless good things, they have also given us… Internet brain. This creates concerns for any human anywhere who uses a screen (and, honestly, for those who don’t too), but as writers we must confront special challenges in protecting and empowering our creativity in this Age of the Internet.

The Unique Challenges for Writers in the Age of the Internet

When I was fifteen and just starting out as a writer, I had no idea I would face challenges much different from those encountered by Charles Dickens (other than, you know, the ink-stained fingers). But in the last half of those two intervening decades, I have found myself putting more and more energy into combating the totally unexpected challenges of the very real ways in which my brain has changed.

Comparative carefreeness of childhood aside, I’ve recognize that as an adult it has become so much more difficult for me to sink into the dream space where the stories live. A lifetime of habits and skills keeps me writing, but it’s not the same as back in the day. And as I’ve been chronicling in the past year or so particularly, I’m not too happy about that.

Despite the fact I’ve always been determined not to let technology run my life, I’m far more addicted to and affected by it than I want to admit. It’s a Catch-22 since, as noted, the Internet is both the blessing and the bane of life as a writer. But I am determined to learn to live in peace, and even true creative productivity, with this omnipresent centrifuge of my life.

To that end, here are fifteen steps I believe are important to help modern writers walk that fine line between being masters of our technology or being mastered by it.

8 Steps to Mitigate Distraction

I recognize that the first, the biggest, and probably the most important task I must accomplish is to reduce the amount of distraction I allow into my life. Without hindering necessary functions, I must learn how to take back ownership of my own brain—and with it my creativity.

1. Turn Off Notifications (and Texts)

Our computers and phones are great at letting us know about things right away. But probably 95% of those “things”—whether notifications from email, social media, text, or even phone calls—are hardly crucial, much less time-sensitive. Every time one of them “pings” into our attention, our concentration is broken. Whether this happens during an actual writing session, or perhaps just a daydream, we’ve lost at least a measure of momentum and continuity.

The Solution: Turn off the notifications and/or log out of sites and apps when you’re not actively using them. If you can’t see/hear them, they can’t control where your attention goes.

2. Never Use More Than One Screen at a Time

These days, we may have the TV on the background while we’re typing on our computers with our phones (or even multiple phones) nearby just in case any notifications come through. This is rarely, if ever, as productive as it seems. It trains us to be ever less present, even as it divides and conquers our limited attention into multiple surface channels rather than encouraging a single deep dive.

The Solution: Make a strict “one screen at a time” rule. If you’re watching TV, watch TV. If you’re using the phone, use the phone. If you’re writing on your computer, write on your computer.

3. Opt Out of Ads When You Can

Part of the problem with #InternetLife is that we have so little control over our experience. We may google an article we need for research, only to be bombarded by half a dozen cookie-enhanced animated ads urging us to stop writing and go buy something. At the very least, our attention is now schismed. One minute we’re thinking about how our character might escape the guillotine—and now we’re thinking that, yeah, that new yoga mat is super cute and maybe we should buy one or at least go look at it because what can it hurt it’s just a second ohwaitIjustwastedtwentyminutesofwritingtime!!!

The Solution: Use AdBlocker where you can (although seems to be growing less effective). Or if you’re able, splurge for the ad-free versions of your favorite sites, apps, and subscription services.  The ads seem harmless enough, but it’s shocking how much static they add to our daily lives (not to mention how much time they get us to waste window-shopping and impulse-buying). Of course, when none of the above is possible, you can always opt for not jumping onto the Internet for that quick research check while in the middle of creative time.

4. Resist “Crazy Tabs” in Your Browser

My regular Internet routine of checking email, social media, and other daily necessities (and some not-so-necessities) sees me opening 20-30 tabs in my browser—and then blowing through them as fast as possible. It’s time-effective, and it’s stimulating enough to keep my attention even on the routine boring tasks. But I know it contributes to my Internet brain. How can it not?

The Solution: I admit, I’m still struggling with this one—mostly because I haven’t found an alternative that gets me through my work as quickly. But when possible, I encourage trying not to open more than a handful of tabs at once. In fact, one tab a time would be peachy. Even just having tabs open in the background (I currently have five open—two as reminders to do things later) keeps you from focusing completely on what you’re actually doing. (*goes to close extra tabs*)

5. Categorize Tasks Into Related Groups

One of the problems with “crazy tabs” is that it has your brain jumping all over the place. One minute you’re checking your bank account, the next you’re liking a cat video on Facebook, then you’re trying to understand some heavy-duty article about world economics, then you’re confirming your grocery pickup order—all in the span of five minutes. On the one hand, that’s kind of impressive. On the other—no wonder our brains are fried.

The Solution: Something I’m experimenting with is grouping all my crazy tabs into categories. By grouping all the social media sites together, all the articles-I’m-reading together, all the emails-I’m-answering together—I’m at least giving my brain a chance to settle on one type of task for a longer period of time.

6. Unsubscribe, Unsubscribe, Unsubscribe

It’s just good email hygiene to go through your inbox at least once a year and unsubscribe from anything you don’t read and/or don’t truly benefit from. However, most of us aren’t so great at this. I’m just now doing my first email purge in years, and I’m surprised by how much stuff I receive that I brainlessly delete without reading and/or browse through daily even though I never find anything that actually enhances my life. And yet, even just taking the time to notice and reject/delete an email is a precious bit of attention wasted—over and over again on a daily basis.

The Solution: Clean up your inbox. Delete all the junk so you don’t have to look at it anymore. Put stuff in folders, so it’s organized and you can find it when you want it. And unsubscribe like a crazy person. If you don’t read it, unsubscribe. If it doesn’t enhance your life or encourage you to be a better person in some specific way, unsubscribe.

7. Do One Thing at a Time

Even we’re not on the Internet (but especially when we are), we’re Masters of Multi-Tasking. But studies have shown multi-tasking actually doesn’t make us more productive. We feel busier and therefore more productive. But because our attention is split, we’re not able to dig as deep. Granted, sometimes focusing on one task at a time does mean we get less done. But actually standing there and waiting while the coffee percs, instead of checking email or browsing Pinterest for inspiration, can be exactly the reset time our brains need before we turn our attention to writing.

The Solution: Become conscious of when you’re multi-tasking. Often, we do this without even recognizing it. Or we may even think we’re doing it as part of a useful strategy. For example, when I’m in the midst of a comparatively boring task such as typing up notes, I will “bribe” myself into focusing by hopping over to browse Etsy every ten minutes or so. Yes, it makes the boring job more fun, but is it really helping me be more productive? I think not.

8. Turn Off the Internet, Use Focus-Enhancing Extensions, Set Up Different Machines/Accounts

It’s one thing to decide to limit technology. It’s another thing entirely to resist popping onto the computer to check our email real quick. It’s just five seconds after all. We’re not even going to respond; we just want to see if anything new came in. Or maybe it’s killing us that we can’t name that familiar celebrity we saw in last night’s movie. So we pop on real quick just to remember that oh, yes, that’s who she is. Or maybe our story requires us to know the name of the twenty-sixth Vice President of the United States. So we pop on real quick, and before we know it, we’re thirty pages deep in Wikipedia. (Or… that yoga mat ad got the better of us again…)

Even if we’re true to our self-promise and the visit is, indeed, real quick, we’ve still severed our attention. We have to start all over—and then, when the next urgent need pops in our heads ten minutes later, we have to start all over again and again and again.

The Solution: Sometimes willpower and good habits aren’t enough. Sometimes we have to physically remove ourselves from temptation. When possible, it’s often helpful to create two desk/computers/accounts to help us separate necessary Internet work from our creative work. We can also simply unplug the Internet during writing time. Or we can find an add-on or app that will block our inability to control ourselves. (I’m currently experimenting with Freedom.)

5 Steps to Enhance Creativity

Controlling and cutting down on distraction is the first step in reclaiming our full creative capacity. But from there, we also have to look for ways to nurture the creativity itself.

1. Ground Yourself

Take time every day to return your brain to its full and deep potential. Meditating, doing yoga (as long as you aren’t using it as an excuse to go yoga-mat shopping…), or even taking a walk or a bath can be all it takes to reclaim your brain. You may also need to take it a step further. If your emotions are all over the place, it will be difficult to be fully present to your creativity. You may need to actively work through anxiety and even trauma. This may take time (but in my opinion can totally be counted as creative work).

2. Make Time for Active Imagination

In addition to your writing sessions, try to make time for regular “artist’s dates” (as Julia Cameron calls them). This can take any variety of forms, but one of the most pertinent is focusing on what Carl Jung called “active imagination,” and what I’ve always thought of as “dreamzoning.” In other words, make space and time to just zone out and daydream. Because this is a form of active meditation, it is not the time to let your thoughts wander and think about any old thing. Nor is it necessarily the right time to work through your feelings. It should be a time of “watching the movies in your head.”

3. Become Conscious of Monkey Mind

One minute I’m thinking about writing—then I’m thinking about what I read this morning—then I’m remembering something that happened yesterday—then I’m thinking about my plans for the day—then I’m realizing my thoughts are all over the place. Every time you recognize your thoughts are a train that’s come off the track, focus on bringing yourself back to conscious presence. Just as with the unwanted ads on the Internet, we can learn to discipline our minds to focus primarily on the thoughts that bring the most value into our lives. And I’m not talking about doing this just during meditation. Do it all the time.

4. Concentrate on the Pictures, Rather Than the Words

One thing I’ve realized about the difference between my pre-Internet brain and my post-Internet brain is that my creative thinking used to manifest largely in pictures and now manifests largely in words. Instead of walking through life and seeing stories, now I just talk, talk, talk to myself incessantly. Psychologists say the unconscious has no language; it speaks to us solely through symbols, or images. To me, that says I’m much less in touch with my unconscious creativity than I used to be. So now, in the down moments of my life, I am trying to shut up and see again.

5. Savor Your Beautiful Life

I’ve decided (somewhat belatedly) that my word for this year is savor. I want not just to be present, not just to ground my wandering and distracted brain, but to savor everything around me—whether it’s the golden sun in the green leaves or the cardinals prattling at each other or just putting on my pants in the morning. It’s my life, and I don’t want to miss a second of it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you struggle with in balancing creativity and distraction these days? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Excellent Blog.

    I’ve been looking at all kinds of life hacks lately, to help me and others with creativity.

    I’m definitely going to remind this blog for my audience.

  2. David Snyder says

    I am sure I am not saying something that everybody does not already know, but there are an increasing number of studies and books that show the Internet and Internet culture IS the enemy—that it has led to short attention spans, a loss of the ability to comprehend long passages, to memorize, to think abstractly, originally, creatively, etc.

    In other words, wallowing in the Internet as a lifestyle leads to lasting neurological changes associated with impatience, higher and higher thresholds for arousal, the need for ever more graphic or violent stimulus, and the inability to concentrate.

    One from a while back: Carr, Nicholas The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains . W. W. Norton & Company.

    I have very mixed feelings, because I love the ease of Internet research, but there is no doubt in my mind that the online lifestyle and culture has destroyed entire worlds of real experience and real feeling—and not only reading but writing has suffered. When I read many new books today (not all, but many), it seems like someone has just lifted some trope from Netflix or a how-to book on writing, and crafted a plotty plot. But I can’t feel anything. It does not feeling “living.” It feels concocted and artificial—much of it anyway.

    So, as much as I love the Internet for research, I have to force myself to stay away. I force myself to stay in a zone of hyper focus with my critique partner, with my head down, working on one paragraph at a time as job number one—and I only join the virtual stream when I absolutely have to. And I try to stay in the real world.

    I remember that as far back as the 90s I heard experts at famous medical schools warning of the damage that computers would do to the human brain and consciousness, for all of their wonder, and I find much of that prophetic now.

  3. OMG I need to read this daily and share with all my good friends. I do pretty well with some stuff but not well with others (not aided by the current pandemic and feeling one needs to stay perpetually informed). I did achieve “inbox zero” (which feels like when you just step from the shower) and now task myself with keeping it low. (I have a software, EagleFiler, to archive important communications.) — Thanks for all your newsletters; yours is one that I always open. 🙂

  4. M.L. Bull says

    The internet is one of my distractions as I listen to songs on YouTube while I write and ads tend to play sometimes between songs, but I ignore ads really well. I actually think email is my biggest distraction. I’m almost always checking it on my phone.

    Recently the start of this week, I decided to unsubscribe from any and everything I don’t need, and to delete after I finish reading emails. If I don’t, it will pile up like crazy. Some things I don’t even remember subscribing to. Like, when did I sign up for this? Lol…

    As far as social media, I’ve actually had my social media notifications on my phone off at least 2 or 3 months, and I barely use Facebook or Instagram like I used to. Although Twitter more than the rest, I typically check my social media when I feel like it.

  5. Thanks for these tips. I must admit I have conquered the social media distraction to a large extent, but as an indie author I still get swept up in the multitude of things I must do. Your advice on doing one thing at a time is something I need to master. I am prone to bouncing from task to task without completing any. Love the term Monkey Mind – it’s exactly how I feel in those moments 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, gone are the days when a writer can be *just* a writer (if those days ever really did exist). Now, we have to be prepared to wear many different hats. It can be challenging, to be sure!

  6. Great tips. I write tech articles for an online news site, and I fight a constant battle for focus. I have to go online to research, but like you say, it’s so easy to fall down a rabbit hole and waste time. As I’m paid per post, I’m literally throwing away money by doing this. But it’s still soooo hard to discipline myself!
    When I write for myself, i.e. my novel in progress, I switch off my WiFi and it’s much easier to focus. If I need to research something I make a note and go back to it later.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. When possible, I like to find research articles and save them in some offline medium, so I can focus on reading them away from the computer. But sometimes you need just that one quickie little fact, and it’s the Pied Piper that leads you away…

  7. OMG I played Crystal Caves and Commander Keen! I had a computer at 12 and internet as a teen too. You could be describing me. I made websites at 16 and starting blogging in 2003. I also wrote a few articles for (now-defunct) online magazines. I wish I had a picture of me on my old computer, so cool!

  8. Nikki Morton says

    This is fantastic. I really needed this. There is NO telling how much time internet rabbit holes have taken from my life. And…I couldn’t put my finger on it, but your point about focusing on the pictures, not the words, is exactly what I’ve been struggling with. I used to “see the movies in my head” as you put it, and now it’s just babble it seems. Thank you for this!

  9. Abigail Welborn says

    Thank you for a great post, again! I love how you are constantly interrogating your own habits and sharing with us. My first computer was a Mac Classic my mom brought home from work and I was similarly fascinated… then I went online in the AOL days… 😉

    Here are some other tips for people looking to combat distraction:
    – I read DEEP WORK (by Cal Newport) and then bought it to read again every time my motivation wanes
    – uBlock Origin is my ad-blocker of choice, and so far it seems to work for everything except sponsored Facebook posts; plus it lets you selectively filter content to fix the layout of a site (e.g., when an ad leaves a big gap at the top)
    – Firefox has a feature/extension called Snooze Tabs. I also use browser windows as reminders, but then it constantly weighs on me, so if it’s something I know I need to do and don’t want to forget, I snooze the tab until a time when I know I can deal with it.
    – The book GETTING THINGS DONE suggests grouping your to-do lists by where they get done. So you could have a list of things that have to be done online so that when you sit down at the computer you can knock them out. Trello, Todoist, and other apps (which I am very bad at actually using, hence the Snooze Tabs…) would all let you group like this and/or refine further. It’s an alternate way of grouping by type.
    – Freedom has several free extensions that will keep track of how much time you spend on each website or turn them off after a certain amount of time. LeechBlock is a similar Firefox extension with highly customizable filters. On Android, the app Time Limit will do the same thing.
    – the new Android system update (at least on LG) also has a digital health option which will limit certain apps and turn my phone to black-and-white (either all the time or at a certain time in the evening until the next morning).

    Especially during the pandemic, I crave the connection that can be found mostly online these days, but I also need a way to control the randomness. (A previous commenter recommended THE SHALLOWS and yeah, wow, is that sobering, but the addiction is real!)

  10. Paul Worthington says

    “Savor” is a great word, and an ideal philosophy of life!

  11. The Internet is my great resource and my greatest enemy. I’ve been getting up earlier and earlier to write, which is GREAT. But getting up at 6:30, and finally writing some words in Scrivener at 8:30–is discouraging. Two hours wasted, all because I “just wanna check on what Kevin said about xyz on Facebook.” Not just wasted time, but my mind all stirred up about some stupid thing I can’t do anything about. My only recourse is just shut off the phone and turn off wi-fi on the PC.

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