Distraction-free vs. Focus

How are you removing distractions so you can write? §

My first response was “focus.”

If I am fully engaged in a task, a bomb could go off and I won’t notice. I think this is a universal concept. Books have been written about The Zone or getting into Flow. The fastest way for me to realize that I’ve been in a state of focus is the surprise when I’m knocked out of it. When something as simple as a soft word or electronic beep jolts me out of the chair, that was focus.

The conversation around “distraction-free X,” is currently a big deal in software design. X could be any sort of software. Word processors, text editors, terminals, and others are all sold as distraction-free. I’m sure someone, somewhere, is working on a distraction-free email app.

Usually the core function of the app has something to do with writing. The distraction-free movement seems to have its roots in rebelling against overloaded MS Word toolbars. With the desired goal to somewhat replicate the feeling of blank page where there is nothing but words.

I understand, and have benefited from using these tools. But the conversation may be headed into the briny deep.

Distractions vs. Interruptions

When talking about distraction and interruptions, this is how I define them:

  • Distractions are things in my life that, well, distract me from my current task. But not everything off-task is a distraction.
  • Interruptions are external events that demand my attention. By their nature, they are unscheduled.


Blocking interruptions requires a certain amount of control over my immediate external environment. I can do this by turning off my phone, disconnecting from wifi, or just finding a quiet place. Interruptions are things that I can remove.

Other interruptions are intentional. A huge interruption is the end of a Pomodoro block. I stop writing and take a break. As it serves a greater purpose (my health) I allow it.


Distractions are internal. I’m distracting myself when I do things like check social media, follow related links on Wikipedia, or just mentally wander off. Distractions are things I must control.

A simple, clean writing app helps with preventing distractions. Even with the wifi off and the software equivalent of a blank page, distractions are still possible.

Even with the ultimate distraction-free writing tool, the typewriter, writers still found ways not to write. We have to find our focus.


Focus is the anti-distraction. When I find focus, I’m not interested in checking Twitter. The stuff that could distract me doesn’t exist while I’m focusing. I’m also truly startled when the Pomodoro timer goes off. Sometimes I jump.

That level of focus is special. It’s also hard to recreate. I’ve been experimenting, and have found two things that lead to focus: planning and deadlines.


If I can plan out a work session, it’s easier for me to slip into focus.

For writing this means doing some sort of outline. Even if I just make notes about subheadings. This bit of forethought removes some of the “how is this going to end” fuzziness every piece begins with.

I find it easier to focus when I have a structure to build upon.


Even arbitrary deadlines can make the words flow. Nothing is more arbitrary than the 25 minutes of a Pomodoro. At the same time, knowing that the next break is fast approaching, I will speed up to finish a thought.

Not just software

Embracing a rough outline and an arbitrary deadline have helped me write more than anything else. I’ll put any writing app a distant third behind those.

I hope the distraction-free app trend continues and new ideas keep flowing. More software choices benefit everyone.

In the end, it’s not about just the software. It’s about taking control of my environment and my mind.