How to not get distracted while writing

I’ll come clean — my name is Tommy, and I’m an inveterate consumer of productivity porn. Top 10 Study Tips, Best Apps for Writers, Student Productivity: Unlocked. If a link like that crosses my Twitter stream or RSS feed, chances are I’ve already clicked on it.

But while I’ve sampled the offerings on both sides of the scriptorial spectrum, from distraction-free writing apps to all-purpose digital filing cabinets like Scrivener and Evernote, I find myself consistently returning to two pieces of software: TextEdit, the RTF/TXT editor that comes bundled with every Mac, and Hackpad, for collaborative writing.

Both fall somewhere in the middle: they’re not a blank slate, but they’re not bloated with bells and whistles either. But more to the point, they allow me to open a piece of software and start writing, the oft-elusive state for many writers. As a recovering addict, I can only see now, with the clarity of hindsight, that the search for the holy grail of writing applications was getting in the way of the one thing that mattered: transferring words from my brain onto the page.

At Stripe, they talk about streamlining the payments process — removing the bumps and stops for people who just want to click a button and order a thing. Similarly, distraction-free writing apps like WriteRoom (“the ultimate spartan writing utopia,” according to The New York Times) promise a good thing, but — ah! — which distraction-free writing app do you want? I also tried Byword and iA Writer, two other apps which promise much the same thing. What background color do you want for your minimalist app? Font? Screen size? Typing sound (no really)?

Now we’re getting mired down in decisions — you’ve pulled the packaging off your fancy new distraction-free app and spent half an hour (or half a day) tweaking software that was designed to obviate such tweaking.

Editing a final draft of a blogpost about 2016.

TextEdit, I feel, allows just the right amount of fiddling (I like writing in Times New Roman, 15-point font) before you’re off to the races, doing what you’re supposed to do: writing the damn blogpost, long email, column, or academic paper.

My new, acetic lifestyle has led to inner peace. I write more, and am paralyzed by indecision less. Every few months, I check the lie of the land to see if there’s a new trailblazer I should try, but now, most of my time allotted to writing is spent typing words on a page.

New software is great, but often, all you need to be productive is to just get started.

Originally published at on January 4, 2016.

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