Getting out of my Skinner Box

When I was a kid my teachers told me I was “hyperactive,” and they gave me lots of demerits to emphasize their point. I’m pretty sure, had I been born later, I would have been considered ADHD. I coped reasonably well for most of my life, but the advent of the smart phone was not good. Since then I’ve struggled to stay focused long enough to write and do other things that require stretches of solitude and flow. These days the one two three punch of laptop, smart phone, and Twitter are enough to keep me nearly always distracted.

I have tried all of the things people try. I used RescueTime for a while but I really didn’t like all the tracking. So, I tried Freedom but I tended to just re-boot my computer when I thought to myself “I just need to look up that one reference, I’ll turn Freedom back on as soon as I do.” An hour of surfing later I’d ruefully contemplate the inadequacy of a reboot to inhibit distraction – it simply doesn’t cost enough.

More recently I set up a second computer that doesn’t even have a working web browser on it and started working in an attic room with the wifi turned off downstairs. I figured at least then I’d have to make a trip down and back up the stairs to turn the wifi back on. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I just get more stair climbs on my fitbit. I’ve also used all the minimalist text editors. Whatever. They are nicely distraction free in their design, but they’re just a screen away from the distractions. When the itch starts to build they do nothing to prevent the quick alt-tab into the rabbit hole.

I meditate regularly, I don’t check email or twitter before noon (or try not to, today I made it till 11:45). I turn off all of the notifications on everything. At one point I even considered buying a cross-country round trip flight just to have 12 hours without wi-fi just so I could finish an important project. Of course GoGo broke that strategy just as battery life got long enough to make it viable by putting wi-fi in the sky. Our last bastion of quiet ruined. I even tried using an old typewriter to get away from my computer. That sort of worked but it was manual with a heavy action that tired out my fingers too quickly, the inked ribbons were a pain in the ass, and OCR turned out to to be a painful process to get to a digital output. Also, it just felt too Luddite’y and Unibomber’ish, even by my lax standards.

At Alistair Croll’s BitNorth conference this year, Brydon Gilliss talked about using software intended to restrict your child’s access on your phone to restrict yourself. Cool idea. I think. I haven’t tried it yet. Seems too easy to circumvent. Yet, it was obvious from listening to Brydon that I’m not the only one trying to deal with online world distractions. Of course I’m not, articles like this are everywhere. I also don’t think you have to be ADHD to experience it, but I suspect it makes the problem worse.

Recently I tried something new and I think it might be working. This isn’t an end all solution to digital distraction, but it seems to work pretty well for when I need to write something and really need to be uninterrupted for a couple of hours. I think of it as my digital Faraday cage, or my concentration cave, or something. It doesn’t matter what I call it, it’s simple and it consists of three things:

1) An absurdly dumb but useful Alphasmart Neo word processor that I bought used from the Houston school district for $44 on eBay with fresh batteries, a cable, shipping, and the guarantee that it had been tested and worked. It accepts typed keystrokes and saves them to a file. That’s it.
2) A $15 cell phone with a SIM card sans data plan. I can be reached, barely, since no one has the number, but I’m not going to absentmindedly pick it up and play with it.
3) My local coffee shop. It’s comfortable, serves a lot of my non-prescription ADHD medication, and is a far enough walk from my home wi-fi and smart phone (left there on the counter) to effectively deter distraction.

I’m at that coffee shop right now and I’ve been here for an hour so far without checking email, Twitter, or any other part of the distracto-net. This is good. If you think an hour doesn’t sound like a long time, don’t be a hater. For too long I’ve measured my productivity in 20 minute chunks. This is amazing.

Here’s how it works. I sit down with nothing but a pad of paper, a pen, the Neo and my feature phone (just in case there’s an emergency, and close family needs to get in touch with me), and maybe a hardcopy of my last draft of whatever I’m working on. I turn on the Neo and push one of the eight buttons that open a file and I start writing. There is no Internet. No Kindle. No games. No nothing.

That’s not all that makes this device conducive to flow though. Its small liquid crystal display only shows five lines of text at a time so only the current paragraph, or maybe a line or two of the previous one, is visible. My thoughts are confined by the limitations of the machine to just this moment and this moment only. To remember something for later in the piece I resort to pen and paper. Outlines happen there too. This is as close as you can get to a typewriter without needing a scanner and OCR software later.

My purchase of the Neo was inspired by one line in Brian Christian’s fascinating read The Most Human Human: “When I type into … my word processor,…” Re-reading it now I realize he almost certainly meant word processing software on a conventional laptop computer, but when I saw the words “word processor” my minds eye saw him typing into an old Brother or Wang or something like it. When I reflexively Googled “word processor” the search turned up some links about journalists and writers using the Alphasmart Neo to avoid distraction. Apparently this is a thing. I bought one about two hours later.

The reason it took me two hours is because I got sidetracked by a link to this beautiful device, The Hemingwrite. What an absurd yet perfect thing, made more perfect by the fact that it originated in Detroit. Basically it’s a Neo, but with the best touch typist keyboard obtainable and updated with a continuous wi-fi connection to your Evernote account. Naturally I pre-ordered one of these too.

It was a total impulse buy, and I already kind of regret it because the Neo is working out so well, but I’m justifying the spend because I just so badly want the Hemingwrite to exist in spite of the glut of secondhand Neo’s out there. I love the idea that someone is building hardware that does less so that we might be focused enough to do more. It’s a wonderful kind of simplification. If it takes off maybe other people will build other cool things like it. We need more of that kind of hardware diversity, I think.

This way of working may be a thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not weird. At least to the culture at large. As a quick aside, here’s something fun to try. Go to the cell phone store and buy a cheap feature phone. “Are you buying this for your child?” “Nope, it’s for me.” “Oh, but we see you already own an up-to-date smart phone, did you lose it?” “Nope, it’s right here. I’m buying this phone so I can leave the smart phone at home. It’s too distracting.” “… oh.”

Anyway, this is how I write now. For at least those periods where I need to focus on a particular project, these two devices are the key that let me out of my Skinner Box. They let me put enough physical distance between me and the pellet lever that I can find some peace from the mind traffic for a bit, and make some room for flow. It feels nice.


  1. Vallory - April 27, 2015 @ 9:00 am

    Thank you for this article. I have struggles with the same issue, although not specific to writing, more on the “I need to figure out my passion in life and start a venture” but cannot focus on any one thing long enough to just “do” something. This content has identified the need for my to remove distractions during my brainstorming and then just write down whatever ideas I have vs. keeping it all in my head or googling and getting totally off course (how did I end up reading about the CEO of Walmart and the triple bottom line when I was suppose to be researching organic materials recycling? My life!). Thank you!

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