Online Distractions

The topic I was supposed to write about today was “Marketing and Writing to a Target Audience.” Why did I think I could write a full essay on that?

Here is what I know about marketing. The cover is ridiculously important. There’s an entire career dedicated to the marketing hustle, and I’m not skilled in it. In fact, the closer I get to it, the more uncomfortable it makes me.

Here is what I know about writing to a target audience. Uh… not much? I write stories that I want to read, so I suppose my target audience is me. Anything else would feel dishonest, and I question the quality of the stories I might produce if I tried writing something I didn’t want to read.

So there’s my abbreviated take on “Marketing and Writing to a Target Audience.” Now let’s talk about online distractions, which lines up nicely with the topics from the previous two days.

Identifying the Distraction

There’s nothing wrong with visiting social media or YouTube or Reddit. Whatever your favorite flavor, it’s fine, as long as it’s not out of control. When it comes to these sites, how can you tell the difference between a revitalizing break and a productivity sapping distraction?

First, pay attention to how much time you spend with your eyes directed at a site. Compare that to how long you’re working on your manuscript. You must determine if the ratio is healthy or not. Ideally for me, for every hour I set aside for writing, I don’t want to be looking at the internet for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Basically a 3 to 1 ratio, which is honestly probably too generous.

It’s possible for you to be looking at your manuscript but not actually writing. This happens to me from time to time, where I want to write, but I’m too busy thinking about something I read on social media or in the news.

Different writers have different needs. To determine if your online behavior is benign or destructive, you must be honest with yourself and what your needs are. The 3 to 1 ratio might be great for me, but maybe you need 2 to 1, or 10 to 1. Just remember to be honest and be kind with yourself when you’re doing this kind of evaluation.

Dealing with the Distractions

You have taken a long, hard look at your writing and online activities, and you’ve identified a problem. You’re spending too much time on one or more sites. What do you do about it?

The obvious answer — close your browser — works. It’s a fine answer, and it’s as far as some people need to go. With the might of their willpower, they can close the valve on the source of the problem and dig right into their manuscript. For everyone else, it’s like trying to stay on a diet. If you’ve ever struggled sticking with a plan, you may need to try some other techniques.

Something I like to do is turn my distraction into a motivator. If I’m spending too much time on Twitter, I start a writing sprint on Twitter, inviting my friends to participate. In one move, the distraction is now an accountability vehicle.

If the distraction is something else, like YouTube or Netflix, I’ll turn it into a reward. I’ll give myself a reward trigger, such as “once I’ve written X number of words, I’m allowed a video.” Or “between thirty minute sprints, I’m allowed to watch something as a cool down.”

Often for me, the distraction is the news. There is so much wrong right now, I find it difficult to think about anything else. This is a type of distraction I don’t have much of an answer for yet. Some might say, “stop reading the news.” I can’t. The train is moving at full speed and the bridge ahead is broken, and I can’t close my eyes and look away. Not knowing makes the terror worse.

Change Environment

My last tip, which falls more in line with the “just turn it off” crowd, is to change where you’re writing so that it is more difficult for you to become distracted.

I do most of my writing on a Microsoft Surface. This is a fine device that doesn’t have a ton of horsepower. I can’t really play many games on it, and I refuse to install software development tools on it. There is Scrivener, Office, and that’s about it. By only putting my productivity software on my Surface, I limit the amount of distractions I can fall into.

Then I change where I write. Sometimes I’ll go in the backyard. Often I go to Starbucks. I’ve even been known to write in restaurants during November. By changing my physical location, I’m altering how much access I have to the internet. The wifi is crappy in my backyard, limited at Starbucks, and non-existent at the counter at Denny’s. Also, when I’m out in public, I’m less likely to watch a video because I rarely have headphones and I don’t want to broadcast and disturb other people.

Parting Thoughts

I mentioned mental health yesterday, and that changes the dynamic of online distractions. If you suffer from depression as I do, it’s possible the online activity you’re participating in is less a distraction and more of an escape. Sometimes, all a person can do is put on reruns of Star Trek:TNG and play some solitaire while they wait it out.

Most of the advice I offered in this essay can only be applied when you’re in good mental health, and the distractions are coming from a place of desire rather than a place of pain.

If you’re healthy but finding it difficult to put away the online distractions, look at my previous two pages in regards to Staying on Task and Handling Writer’s Block.

Above all, treat yourself with honesty and kindness, just as you treat others with the same honesty and kindness. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Treat it and yourself accordingly.