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Taming Technology as a Writer

13 February, 2009

Cartoonist Michael Leunig created a cartoon depicting a worried character surrounded by electronic bits and pieces. The caption: There comes a moment when all the cable leads, battery chargers and power adaptors we have ever owned, gather together and assemble themselves around us and ask us the terrible question, “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOUR LIFE?” (You can see the cartoon here–go to the June selection.)

As writers, we may ask a similar question with regard to our computer use:  ‘What has happened to my writing life?’ In an earlier post, I discussed the general problem of busywork. One aspect of busywork has to do with computers. Yes, they provide interesting ways to engage with the world, letting us keep in touch with friends, expand our knowledge, and provide ways to relax. But they can also sap our time and energy, which means they may be moving us further away from achieving our writing goals.

It is useful to analyse your computer use to see what is helpful and what is not. Do you play too many  games? Spend too much time on your emails or let them interrupt your concentration? Tidy up electronic drafts instead of undertaking the harder task of a complete rethink? Go beyond essential research to look up unnecessary but interesting stuff on the Web? Stay too connected to friends via social networking sites such a Facebook and Twitter?  Spend too much time reading blogs and e-journals about writing rather than getting on with your own writing?

How can you change?

Do you need to make some changes? Here’s some common problems, plus some  suggestions to tame the technology so that you free up your time and keep your attention on writing.

Problem 1: No goals, no direction

Without goals, you can easily find your writing time filling up with computer-based busywork. Set a  writing goal you want to achieve. Then plan your next day, focusing on the activities that will move you closer to attaining this goal. What will you do? When? For how long? Planning your writing work each day helps to keep you from indulging in too many non-goal activities when at the computer.

Problem 2: Too much connection

If you write using a computer, try not logging into other programs, such as your email or a search engine. Disconnecting in this way means it is more difficult to wander onto the Web to do fun things whenever you hit the wall in your writing. If you need to check on something, make a note and so this later, when you reconnect.

If you find you’re addicted to the computer, do something more drastic. Some reforming workaholics give themselves a briefcase-free, Blackberry-free night. You could give yourself longer breaks from your computer. If you usually turn on your computer when you wake up, wait until after breakfast or lunch. Try doing some writing work—planning a scene, etc.—using paper and pen. Have a non-computer day.

Problem 3: No life beyond the computer

Some people say that computer activities—playing computer games, reading Facebook—provide ways to relax. Try adding some non-computer activities when you need to refresh yourself. Take time each day enjoying sensory impressions from real life. Walk around the garden, relax out in the sun,  read a book, go out for a cup of coffee.

If  you tend to lose track of time when you are on the computer and forget to take breaks, set an alarm.

If you still want to play computer games or get on social networking sites, give yourself a time limit for returning to your writing.

Problem 4: Email woes

Pavlov, a famous scientist, trained dogs to salivate whenever he rang a bell. Does the ‘new message’ ping on your email do the same, sending you immediately to your inbox? Break the stimulus-response pattern by turning off the ‘ping’ and setting specific times to check your mail.

It can help to set up separate mail accounts, e.g., one for work and one for friends. I have one for personal contacts and one for material I do not need to respond to, such as online journals and notifications.

Try reading your non-essential email only once or twice a day. It may help to make two e-folders—To Read and To Reply To—and then immediately transfer new mail into these folders. You can read and reply when it suits you rather than breaking your concentration to respond throughout your writing time.

Email opus. Put your creative energy into your writing project, not your computer-based dealings with others. Keep to short emails for most people. If they want more information, they will ask for it.

Problem 5: The empty-mailbox fantasy

In one job, I received literally hundreds of emails a day. I had a fantasy that one day I would get on top of my emails, so I tended to answer them first rather than get going with my major projects.  Guess what? The more quickly I responded to people’s emails,  the more they expected me to keep up the pace. I felt like King Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, whose eternal punishment in hell was to push a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. The lesson:  Don’t spend your ‘fresh time’ working on less important activities such as your email. Make your writing come first.

Problem 6: The IBIS syndrome

Many writers spend a fair amount of time searching for information on the Web. But it is tempting to get lost in the land of IBIS: Interesting But Irrelevant Stuff. You know what I’m talking about. You start in the morning looking up ‘cults’, the topic of your latest short story. You jump to other sites, following interesting information, and one thing topic leads to another. Before you know it,  it is noon and you  have wasted a whole morning trawling through old TV show theme songs .

To get a handle on  how much time you waste IBIS browsing, find out how many sites you visit in a day. The results are an eye-opener. You can  download a site tracking utility (such as Page Addict for Mozilla Firefox), which shows each site visited and the amount of time spent there. Or check the ‘history’ option in your browser.

Problem 7: Drowning  in information

Information is constantly coming in via the computer.  If you start feeling submerged by all this incoming, do something. If online writing journals are piling up in your email, pop them into a ‘Read Someday’ electronic folder or remove them. When signing up for electronic journals, groups, etc., give yourself a three-month trial and mark the end date on your calendar. If by that date you have found little of value in them, get out. Ask yourself  if you need all the material that comes in regularly via the Web. Do you need that automatic digest or newsletter? The weather report? The daily news? The humour site with its daily updates?

Some information above was based on an article written by Leo Babauta and published (8 Aug 07) in Web Worker Daily

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 March, 2009 10:29 am

    Sage advice you got there. Great post!


  2. 26 February, 2009 12:02 pm

    Great suggestions for staying focused on the writing! That email ping is the one that gets me the most. Thanks for a good reminder about how to not waste time on the computer.


    • Marsha permalink
      3 March, 2009 9:00 am

      Thanks Laurin, Had a look at your blog, Between the Lines. Good links for people who write. Marsha


  3. 13 February, 2009 8:00 pm

    I loved this as what most of you said is sooooooo accurate. I spent almost all of yesterday on the computer just updating my CV and going to the jobsites and registering with them. I didn’t get dressed until well after lunch!
    I admit that I use the computer to write as it is easier for me to read and can type faster than write (don’t do shorthand). Sometimes when I get stuck I will check out e-mails, etc. It is very easy to be stuck to the laptop.
    I love your site. You are very encouraging and have a lot of useful information. Thank you, from a budding writer.


    • Marsha permalink
      14 February, 2009 10:35 am

      Like you, I type quickly so I’m on the computer more often than not. It’s only lately that I’ve realised how many ways I can waste time while looking terribly productive at my desk. I’m now building more computer-free time into my days, both for the physical and mental benefits.
      Good luck in your job hunt. And thanks for the nice words about my blog. Marsha


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