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Eliminate, plan for, and pivot from distractions
Minimizing visual, auditory, and mental distractions is essential to getting into and staying in a state of flow.
Distractions make a claim on your attention and tempt you to divert your focus. This post shares strategies for minimizing and overcoming them.
Think strategically about where to write.
When faced with a significant writing task, think ahead about where you will write your first draft. Consider how to minimize distractions in whichever place you choose.
Different writers prefer different environments, so figure out what works for you. For some people, minimizing distractions means finding or creating the equivalent of a library carrel. But that doesn’t work for everyone. I like working near open windows in natural light and don’t want silence, preferring instrumental background music and the white-noise buzz of a café.
Some writers recommend writing in a dedicated space that doesn’t change from day to day, but I find it helpful to regularly change where I work.
Wherever you decide to write, remember that you can work in just about any environment if you have to, so don’t allow suboptimal conditions to become an excuse to procrastinate. After all, Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time from bed; Milton, who was blind, worked by mentally composing lines for “Paradise Lost” at night and dictating them to his daughter the next morning; and William Carlos Williams, a full-time physician, scribbled lines of poetry on prescription pads throughout the workday.
Minimize auditory and visual distractions.
When you’re ready for focused work, minimize auditory distractions by silencing notifications, turning off your phone, and closing the door. Tell your colleagues when you’ll be unavailable because you have scheduled time for focused writing. Then make the most of those opportunities by disconnecting from everything except the draft.
Minimize visual distractions, too. Keep your desk surface free of clutter so that you don’t see reminders of anything but the task in front of you.
Simplify what you see on your computer monitor. Make your editing software full-screen and hide features that are irrelevant at the drafting stage. In Microsoft Word, for example, you can use Focus Mode to hide everything except the page. Alternatively, you can prepare first drafts in text editors such as Ulysses (Mac only), Typora, or Obsidian to defer formatting until a later stage.
Minimize technological distractions.
For most writers, the biggest distraction of all is the internet, especially as accessed through smartphones and tablets. It constantly tempts us with dopamine rushes and makes us fear we’ll miss something important if we don’t click notifications the moment they arrive. The internet has also accelerated the already stressful pace of legal practice; many attorneys, especially junior attorneys, feel obliged to be constantly available and instantly responsive.1
Most dangerously, the internet can give us the illusion of being productive. We can turn from our writing to click through cases on Westlaw, check the latest legal headlines, network with someone on LinkedIn, or browse Google Scholar or Wikipedia. These are valuable activities, but they often pull us away from more important tasks like moving drafts toward completion. They also train our brains to resist long-form reading and other solitary activities that require extended focus.
To write productively, you must control your internet use. Force yourself to use the internet as a tool, rather than allowing it to govern when and how you work.2
If the internet is making you unproductive, there are many things you can do other than berate yourself and pledge to do better. You can turn off the connection, write with pen and paper, set your emails and notifications to be delivered in scheduled batches, or use internet-blocking and time-tracking programs such as FocusMe and RescueTime.
Consider using a separate device whose sole purpose is writing. You could also set up a separate writing-only user account (a.k.a. profile) on your computer. The account can be set up with only writing applications installed, notifications turned off, and internet access limited, as though it were a child’s account with parental controls.
Minimize mental distractions.
You may need to tame mental distractions, too. For example, try not to carry your to-do lists around in your head, taking up valuable working memory that ought to be reserved for your writing project. Rather than trying to remember tasks, write them in a planner and put your appointments in a calendar.
Set periodic reminders before each meeting or deadline and use countdown apps to tell you how many days you have before something is due. Create a system that you can trust to remind you of appointments and deadlines at the relevant times so that your mind can temporarily forget about such obligations and focus on writing.
Other mental distractions include anxiety, worry, fear, and associated negative thoughts that interfere with writing:
• “I’ll never finish this before the deadline.”
• “We should never have taken this case.”
• “The judge won’t even read this brief.”
• “I’m just not a good writer.”
• “I’m not interested in this topic.”
• “This job isn’t a fit for me.”
• “I should be working on the Jones v. Smith brief instead of this.”
Whenever thoughts like these pass through your mind, they threaten to pull you out of the flow state in which you can enjoy writing and do your best work.
It is sometimes impossible to forcibly suppress negative thoughts, but try writing them down when they occur. If you feel a sense of anxiety about something, note it on a “worry list” to attend to later, after your writing session is over.
Plan ahead about how to handle distractions.
Even if you’ve gone to some lengths to create a focused writing environment—you’ve silenced your devices, closed your email and web browser, and told your colleagues that you’ll be unavailable—some distractions and interruptions will pierce your defenses. But you can often control how much time, focus, and mental energy they divert from your writing project. Squash them as quickly as possible and reorient yourself to the writing session, refusing to let it be derailed.
One distraction often leads to another. If you interrupt your writing session to take a phone call or check your email, those tasks can remind you of other items that demand your attention — and before you know it, the workday has passed. Stop that cascade the moment you notice it. Turn away from whatever is distracting you, take deep breaths, remind yourself of your intention for the writing session, and return your focus to the page.
As an exercise, make an inventory of common distractions that pull you away from writing. Consider the steps you can take to prevent them and mitigate their effects. Try the “if this, then that” strategy, making plans like these:
“If I get discouraged about how much I still have to write to finish the document, then I’ll remind myself that at this moment, I only need to write the paragraph in front of me.”
“If I start editing and backtracking as I write the first draft, then I’ll remind myself to keep my pen moving and defer revision until later.”
“If I suddenly remember an upcoming deadline in another case, then I’ll make a note to deal with it after my writing session.”
In short, writing is a demanding, energy-intensive activity that requires your full attention. Writing while distracted tends to be a miserable and inefficient experience that results in inferior work. You will be most efficient if you set aside competing tasks until your writing session is over.
Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn) is the author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, and an adjunct professor at LMU Loyola Law School. The Elegant Legal Writing book is now available for preorder. For more writing tips, subscribe for free to the Elegant Legal Writing blog:
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Photo credit: Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash.
It is wise for practicing attorneys to create the impression that they are regularly available to help their colleagues and clients, but it’s often enough to alert others before a period when you’ll be unavailable and let them know when to expect a response. Doing so can reduce the need to check your messages and watch for notifications throughout the workday.
For more suggestions on getting sustained intellectual work done despite the distractions of modern technology, see Ryan McCarl, Elegant Legal Writing (forthcoming, U. Cal. Press 2024); Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central 2016). See also Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton 2020).