How do you keep from getting distracted?

One of the classes I was scheduled to teach at the community college this term is called social media for writers. As it happens, not enough people signed up for it, and I’ll admit, I was a kind of relieved, because I would have felt a little bit like a fraud.

I deleted my Pinterest account at the start of the year; I shut down my personal Facebook profile for three or four weeks in January/February before turning it back on, but have been waffling about it ever since. This doesn’t make me sound like the sort of writer who should be teaching people how to use social media, does it?

Don’t get me wrong; this is not going to be one of those “all social media is bad” tirades (because, let’s face it, how boring is that?). I’ve made a ton of friends from blogging, Facebook, and Twitter (and, if I’m really willing to date myself, from Friendster and MySpace at various points in the dim and distant past). Some of those friends were fellow writers, who also knew editors and who pointed me in the right direction a few times and, as luck would have it, led to my getting published. Not bad, right?

I sometimes wonder, though, if anyone else is as easily distractible as I am. Last November, since it was Nanowrimo, I spent the entire month without checking into social media (with a couple exceptions to look up addresses or when someone pestered me for a response on something). I wrote over 50,000 words on a new novel I hadn’t even planned on starting for a while but figured, what the heck. Once I’m finished with Prophecy Boy, I’m going to focus on that one for the rest of the year (along with short stories here and there, because hey, short stories rock).

That showed me how much I can accomplish when I’m focused. It also showed me how unfocused I can become when social media is the ever-present lever I press to get the pellet. Which, I guess, makes me the mouse.

I question everything I post on social media—is any of it useful? How much? What should I post less of? A recent weekend on Facebook, my profile was littered with ‘80s/‘90s pop music videos that most people would find atrocious but which I find kitschy and enjoyable, if vacuous. But what was the point? Am I just contributing to the noise?

(Believe me, I’m asking myself all of those questions even as I write this.)

Because of that tendency to question everything, I can lose a lot of time debating whether to post something. That’s time I could be spending on lots of other things, like freelance work, cleaning the house (you don’t want to see this place, really) or, I don’t know, writing.

If you’re like me, the interconnectedness of everything (what else is social media but unlimited connections?) is primed to distract you. At some point, there’s only so much of other people’s lives and opinions you can consume. You have to stop, step away, and create something of your own: your own life, your own stories. You don’t have to cut off social media completely, or cold turkey, but if the endless distractions of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest board are making you feel antisocial (or unproductive) and you need help to rein it in, here are a few things I use.

Freedom

Freedom cuts off WiFi access. I choose what length of time I want to go on “silent running,” and I can’t check e-mail, or Facebook, or look up something on Wikipedia and wind up down a click hole for hours until I’m reading about Prussian wars and wondering “how the hell did I get here?” Nope, I have to focus on whatever I’m doing, which hopefully is writing.

Antisocial

I haven’t bought this one yet, but it specifically blocks social media sites (leaving the rest of the internet open to you for actual work). I haven’t bought it because I’ve cobbled together a set of Chrome browser extensions that, together, help me sort of do the same thing.

BlockSite

This lets me choose specific websites to automatically prevent from loading in my Chrome browser. I use this to go beyond social media and block sites that just make me mad, like CNN—or rather, specifically, the user comments on CNN. (I know that the majority of people are racist and narrow-minded and don’t need the endless reminders of their grammatically challenged comments on news stories. I feel soul-crushed afterwards and like I need a Silkwood shower.)

StayFocused

This one is awesome. It lets you flag distracting websites and set a daily timer for how much time you’re allowed to spend on them. In my case, I allow myself thirty minutes on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to check Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and so on. This is probably the one that saves me the most time.

Pocket

This one isn’t specifically geared toward saving time on social media, but it makes my online life a lot less distracted. Whenever you visit a page on the Web, you can save a link to it in your Pocket queue, which syncs across devices and makes the content of that page or article available offline once you’ve synced up. If something looks interesting, I can click it, save it to read later, and move on. I can read them on my phone, on my iPod, or on their desktop app. Because you can tag each saved article with keywords, this has also been useful for gathering research links for books and stories I’ve been working on.

And when it comes right down to it, when I need to really focus and shut out all the distractions online, I turn off the computer and pick up a pen or sit at the typewriter. You don’t need a digital device to write, after all.

Do any of you have this problem? What do you use to keep focused? E-mail me and let me know. I’m always looking for tools to improve my focus. Thanks!