The Analog Focus Edition

On distraction, writing and experimentation

Colin here. Our world of digital distraction is nothing new. I’ve written about a few hacks and companies taking new approaches to help you get things done, but more recently I’ve also been thinking about the analog methods that can prevent the pings and pop-ups from interrupting your flow state.

In an interview a few years back with Time, Jonathan Franzen outlined his lo-fi approach to putting words on the page:

Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can't write serious fiction on a computer that's connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell's wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. "What you have to do," he explains, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it."

Sure, there’s plenty of approaches like the Pomodoro technique, apps like Freedom, and countless others, but sometimes some good old-fashioned physical manipulation can cut out the worst impulses. 

Why is this interesting?

WITI contributor Chris P told me recently that he bought a small, Japanese-made portable computer that does nothing but put words on the page. Soon after, another WITI contributor, Reilly Brennanbrought this article about AlphaSmart to my attention:

About six months ago, I decided I should probably do what I’ve been putting off for the past five years of my life and actually write a book. In the very early period of that experiment, I thought that what I really wanted, what would really help me get the damn words on the page, would be a computer that didn’t do anything but write. A typewriter, basically, but with a screen, so I wouldn’t have to retype into a computer the sludge I produced in that initial draft. What would that even be? I hadn’t heard of such a thing, but I knew it was what I needed if I really wanted to barf up 300 pages of something that resembled a novel.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the AlphaSmart, a “portable word processor” first released in 1993 by two former Apple engineers who wanted to make teaching students how to type cheaper and easier. My version, the Neo 2, was released in 2007, although like every other model, it was discontinued in 2013. It has a small grayscale LCD screen that fits up to six lines of text, though, in my opinion, it looks best at four lines. A USB cord transmits up to 200 pages from the device to the computer as a simple text file. Three AA batteries power it for up to 700 hours, and, at 1.75 pounds, it’s lighter and more portable than my supposedly lightweight 2.65-pound Dell XPS 13 laptop. At only $35 plus shipping on eBay, it was also substantially cheaper. Of course, it ought to be cheaper: The only thing the AlphaSmart does is type. And therein lies its appeal. 

The trick here is eliminating the little digital temptations that cause your mind to drift. Doing anything with focus requires a lot of cognitive effort. Think presentations, long essays, deep work in a spreadsheet, etc. And the mind likes to follow the path of least resistance, which is why the social feed sings to us. It is relatively low lift by comparison, and much more pleasurable as it gives us dopamine. 

Part of the additional appeal of the Alphasmart device is the lack of a cursor. It forces you to keep writing because it doesn’t allow for the ability to go back and self-edit. Another task that, to many writers, is much easier to get stuck in rather than forging ahead with new thoughts on the page. You simply edit when you export the text file, a manual process that you’re not going to every minute. The author explains: 

In this way, the AlphaSmart provides an almost Pavlovian space in which to write: Get the device out, and the brain immediately moves into writing mode. This is another reason why I’ve been resistant to software on my computer that’s supposed to compel creativity and productivity. Because I do such a wide variety of tasks on my computer, my brain isn’t primed by the space to focus on one particular job. In this way, my computer’s all-purpose abilities, which is the main selling point of most laptops, actually becomes a liability. But the absolute simplicity of the AlphaSmart means that when I bring it out, I subconsciously know exactly what it is I need to do: write.

This notion of physical forcing factors nudging you in the right direction is immensely interesting to me. It helps rewire the bad habits by really emphasizing a catharsis into the machine—a device that does nothing else but formulate words out of what you write. Obviously, this was true with the typewriters of old, but the lo-tech approach with devices like the Alphasmart (and even, to some extent, the Kindle) seems hypermodern in their functionality, even if they don’t have the bells and whistles of say, a new Macbook. They do one thing and help you do it extremely well. (CJN)

Teacher of the day: 

For the past three years, I’ve been studying Arabic with a great (and patient) teacher. She specializes in the Levantine dialect, which is the accent from Lebanon. Her argument, which I agree with, is that a lot of people from other regions (Gulf, etc) understand this dialect because Lebanon exports a lot of culture through TV (soap operas!), music, and movies. So it’s more useful than studying Modern Standard Arabic, which is the formal version of the language used by news presenters, etc. She also launched a podcast (in the vein of Duolingo’s) that helps with comprehension. If learning Arabic has been on your to-do list, drop her a line for tutoring. It isn’t easy, but it has been really, really worthwhile. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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