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When "distraction-free" doesn't equal "free of distractions"

Over the past few years, the act of writing has become somewhat of a regular task for me. In fact I often find myself writing not with the purpose of writing something for either of my blogs, or to write my next e-book, but simply sort the frequent nonsense which is going on inside my head.

These little snippets of thoughts can be anything. In most cases they are nothing else than a more elaborate pro/con-list. Sometimes though these snippets evolve into something slightly bigger.

This is one of the latter kind.

Since you survived the introduction to this post you already got the obvious: every now and then I just scribble down some things, and with some luck something more or less useful comes out of it. Well, naturally I don’t do this always, as this would turn into a very time-consuming task, but still every now and then. One should think that the simple task of writing something down (taking the quality of content out of the equation here) is just simple. In fact it should involve three simple steps:

  1. sit down and open the computer (if not already open)
  2. invoke Alfred and launch a writing app
  3. start writing

Nine out of ten times step one will be preceded by brewing some fresh coffee, but other than that it should be easy. Unfortunately though, step two bears one big hidden obstacle: The right app!

Over the years I have accumulated many text-editors and by now I have the questionable honor of being the proud owner of a total of 22(!) [1] writing solutions combined on OS X and iOS. Before some doubts about my overall sanity arise I shall point out, that admittedly only a small amount of these is still installed on my system(s). I have become a text-editor collector. Probably only to be topped by Twitter apps or To-Do managers.

And this is where my productivity get screwed.

Distraction-Free or Free-of-Distractions?

Ever since I learned about WriteRoom many years ago, I have been a huge fan and advocate of distraction-free software. Consequently I have used writing solutions like this ever since. Working a lot from the iPad I quickly found in iA Writer the perfect writing solution for me and have been using it almost exclusively. Once it came to the desktop I have been using only this beautifully designed software, with it’s beautiful typography. My workflow was complete.

And I was happily using it. If I needed or wanted a more refined preview of the text that I was working on, I launched Marked and I was totally set.

That is until …

a few weeks ago, when I thought I could somehow re-think my workflow. You know what I am talking about: Just trying to maybe make it a bit more effective, save a few steps if you will. So I was looking for another writing solution. One that has maybe this or that feature more.

And I found one, and implemented it into my workflow and for the first few hours it went rather fine. That is until thoughts like: “Hmmm, wouldn’t a different font be nicer” or “Maybe a font in which the ”L“ doesn’t look funny” started to cross my mind. I have the option to change something. So, why shouldn’t I.

And so I dived into the depths of the internet and searched for the monospaced font to write with. And I searched… downloaded… installed…

Font after font until I found (you might read about this in this post if you want one and then I settled.

And continued writing and working a bit…

Happily, well almost.

At the same time of course, I continue exploring new or different text editors on the iPad. I kept searching for the one, which has Markdown support and a clean design. Or maybe a broader collection of monospaced fonts. “Hey, let’s continue looking for one with some nice color schemes”.

Surprisingly it is a much wider field to explore on this platform, and you might have guessed already: I never found it, because I already had it. I just didn’t see it.

Now back to the desktop:

And yet, every time I sat down to write something, I needed to change just something. “Maybe the font should be a bit bigger”, “Can’t the line-height be a bit higher” or my favourite “What about a darker background?” Or what about using yet another text-editor and use a solarized colour scheme. I could continue with these little tweaks for a while if I wanted to. And remember: All I wanted was to make my workflow just this tad easier!

The above mentioned points, naturally work out equally as well on the iPad. You’d be surprised to see how many editors have a similar feature set like desktop applications. In some cases even more features.

The natural question is of course did I manage to to write something, or being generally productive?

Well, by this time it is secure to say that this ship has sailed at least 10 fonts and three editors ago. In fact, the ship probably has arrived already somewhere else. As I realized is that all this tinkering in fact was nothing else, than an attempt, to (re)create the same writing experience that I already had, earlier with iA Writer.

I am the first to admit that all of this is based on my own (stupid) urge to look for the perfect tool while ignoring that I have had it already there in front of my eyes. Some things are better be learned the hard way.

All self-irony aside, this made me aware that often the aspect of being distraction-free unfortunately often only equals minimal design and the option to go fullscreen, but doesn’t equal being free of distractions.

This is what I learned through all of this. The beauty of this app is what is not there. With it’s lack of settings or tweaking-possibilities as I would refer it to, iA Writer allows me to do only two single things:

to write, hence to think.

The phrase if it works, don’t fix it never felt so appropriate.

  1. The list of applications like this obviously has grown over the years. I am not shocked about the number, but still I am very surprised to be honest.  ↩

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