Everywhere I look in the technology world, people are clamoring for more “distraction-free” interfaces. Yet at the same time we are adding more and more screens to our environments with which to contain things to distract us. Take me for example. As I write this, I have three screens in front of me: two large (30+ inch) flat-panel monitors, and the screen of my MacBook Pro.

On the leftmost screen, I am writing this essay. I write using MacVim, and I run the application in full-screen mode, using a distraction-free plugin called Goyo in order to keep me focused on what I am writing.

MacVim in distraction-free mode
MacVim in distraction-free mode

The left screen is where a lot of my active work happens. But despite the distraction-free mode in which I write, there is still plenty to distract me on the two other screens. The second large monitor contains my productivity apps. Todoist runs there, as does Fantastical 2, which contains my calendar. I also keep a terminal window open on that screen. I do a lot of stuff in the terminal window because I’ve scripted a lot of routine tasks and can perform them quickly from there.

Finally, there is the screen of my MacBook Pro. On this screen I keep my Jabber client and chat windows.

Distraction-free only works when all distractions are truly eliminated. I don’t see how adding more and more screens accommodates this. If I am writing in distraction-free mode, there are still plenty of other things that can distract me. The phone in front of me can ring. I might not answer it, but it’s ring will distract me. I can put the phone into Do Not Disturb mode, but whenever I do that, I forget that I’ve done it and wonder why no one has called me for three days.

Email is a constant distraction, although I have gotten better at checking my email less frequently than I used to. Social media can be a distraction. When I got my new phone, I deliberately refrained from installing Facebook and Twitter, and it’s had a positive effect. I thought I’d check them more on the computer, but I’m probably checking them only about once a day now.

My phone alerts me to changes in the Yankees score, or if it is about to start raining. Every app I install seems to want to interrupt my life with some kind of notification. I turn off the notifications I don’t think I need, and I put my phone into Do Not Disturb mode in the evenings to avoid these distractions.

There are other distractions that distraction-free software can’t address. The baby needs my attention, or the Little Miss invites me to a birthday party for her stuffed animals. The Little Man wants to show me his progress in a game that I don’t understand. I have to bring the garbage cans and recycling bins around to the backyard.

I think the best solution to working distraction-free is to learn to roll with the distractions, to not let them bother you. During the two-plus years when I wrote every single day, I learned to write with the TV blaring in the background, and my kids running around. I learned to stop on a time to help Kelly with something, and then come right back to where I’d stopped and start again. It was one of the best productivity lessons I ever learned. It’s not about working distraction-free, it’s about learning to work in the real world, where distractions are everywhere.


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