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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Why Writers Should Schedule Distractions


61779303 - people using tablet pc and time for social media announcement concept on screenScheduling distractions? Seems like an oxymoron.

In a previous post, I encouraged you to reserve time for your writing.

Imagine my surprise when I read Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, recommend that instead of scheduling time for focused work, like writing, we benefit more from scheduling time for distractions.

Newport writes, “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.”

It’s a subtle but significant distinction and it has to do with the marked case.

marked-case-suitcaseThe Case of the Marked Case

When I was a teenager, I bristled when I heard the then-common phrase “lady doctor.” I couldn’t explain why, but I knew it was insulting and demeaning.

In linguistics, the unmarked case (for example, “doctor”) reflects what is considered normal. A word is “marked” in the linguistic sense to highlight what makes it different.

Back then, people assumed doctors were men, so there was no need to specify when a doctor was male. A female doctor needed to be marked linguistically because “lady doctors” were deviations from the norm.

In English, the female is almost always the marked case and the male the unmarked case. Furthermore, the female is marked as diminutive, smaller, less serious or significant. (Read more…) Hence my irritation with phrases like “lady doctor” or “woman engineer” that reflected the assumption that women with serious jobs were abnormal and didn’t need to be taken seriously.

American society has changed on this matter, though I don’t think we’ve changed nearly enough.

What Does Marked Case Have to Do with Reserving Time to Write?

Knowing about the marked case (even if you don’t use the term “marked case”) allows us to become conscious of unconscious assumptions. Which in turns allows us to challenge and transform assumptions that no longer reflect our values.

When we schedule, we literally mark a specific day and time in a calendar. Scheduling is a form of the marked case that highlights a particular time as different from the norm.

39383451 - human hand writing reminderFor example, most days I don’t go to the dentist, so to remember to take the non-normal action of going to the dentist, I need to mark it in my calendar.

What and how we schedule reveals what we consider normal, just as the once common phrase “lady doctor” reflected that era’s underlying assumptions and beliefs about women.

When we schedule time to focus instead of scheduling time to allow distraction, we assume that distraction is the norm (read more Distraction is the New Normal…) It’s time to turn that assumption on its head.

Making Distraction Normal Is Dangerous

dilbert-digital-distractions-gifWe all know we’re distracted. We all want to think we can shift from a distracted brain state to a focused brain state (which is what we need to write effectively) whenever we need to. That is a myth, a dangerous myth.

In Deep Work, Newport points out, “This assumption is optimistic: Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.”

He recommends scheduling in advance when you’ll allow yourself to be distracted:

“… the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching… at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.”

Resisting the temptation to distract yourself strengthens your ability to focus. However, if we assume being distracted is normal, aka the unmarked case, we won’t even consider resisting it.

An excellent first step, then, is to start marking distraction as abnormal by scheduling time for it. The essential next step is to not accept distractions outside of the time scheduled for them. As soon as you realize you are distracted, stop and return to what you intended to focus on.

I know this is easier said than done. Which is exactly why you have to keep practicing; only with repeated effort can you rewire your brain and reclaim your ability to focus. And unless your writing goals include only To Do lists, emails and snappy Facebook comments, you’ll never complete your writing project without the ability to focus.

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5 Comments on “Why Writers Should Schedule Distractions”

  1. Joel D Canfield September 23, 2016 at 1:02 pm #

    What a marvelous concept. I firmly believe that small semantic differences and perceptions like this play a vital role in making “the right thing” the easy and automatic thing. Affordances, Donald Norman calls them.

    Like

    • rosannebane September 23, 2016 at 1:53 pm #

      Thanks Joel. I’ll look into Donald Norman’s “affordances.”
      I always think having a why is at least as important as the what.

      Like

      • Joel D Canfield September 23, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

        His book The Design of Everyday Things is a design classic. Regarding its perspective, it is telling that his original title, shot down by the publisher, was The Psychology of Everyday Things (note the acronym.)

        Like

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