Creating an attention paperweight

An actual paperweight.
An actual paperweight.

My friend Julie sent me a great piece about Mary Oliver’s essay “Of Power and Time,” that counsels on protecting yourself from distractions in order to write. This comes up a lot for me when I’m journalling, which is pretty much the starting place for any other kind of writing I do.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions…But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.
—Mary Oliver, from Upstream: Selected Essays, quoted in Brain Pickings

Sometimes it’s the thing I’m journaling about that sends me away from the desk (“Susan asked me about–Oh right, I forgot to email Susan–I’ll just do that and finish journaling”…which I never do). Other times it’s just self-doubt (“This isn’t a worthwhile thing to be writing about”), or other perfectly valid thoughts that are nonetheless counter-productive and unwelcome at the journaling table.

Being at Hawthornden Castle enabled me to write so much–not because I didn’t get distracted, but there was a lot more time to entertain the distraction and then get on with it. Also, there was no internet to feed my distraction habit (“what’s the weather today?” “what does yeoman mean?”).

But here, technology is embedded into my personal space. I can’t turn off my phone. I’m sorry, I just can’t. What if I get an emergency call or text from Max, a deeply depressed person I love and worry about constantly? What if what if what if?

Then there’s the chinkle of Nola’s collar and click of her nails as she trots over to see if I’m ready to go to the park. No I’m not ready, but maybe I can take her and come back and finish. (Of course I won’t come back and finish, the workday will have begun. The to-do list and the deadlines will take over.)

Enter Insight Timer.

It’s a free meditation app that includes an easily customizable timer that—and this is important—you can add ambient sound and interval bells to. Here’s why I love it:

  • The timer makes the experience finite and out of your control. Like being in class, you just write until a force outside you says “Stop.”
  • The interval bells provide just enough of a distraction to placate my addiction without taking me too far from the page. (“Wow another five minutes has gone by. That was long/short.”)
  • The ambient sound serves as a paperweight, holding down my fluttering attention. It provides a soft barrier to other sounds, and reminds me that this time is special.
  • It keeps my phone near by, so I don’t get nervous, but occupied, which for some reason makes me feel better.

Here's how I use Insight Timer for writing.

If you want to try it yourself, here’s how to create a reusable writing session:

  1. Download the app and set up an account.

    You can check out all the meditations and social features later; for now, just stay focused. This is about your writing timer.

  2. On the home screen, click the Timer icon.

    It’s that little clock icon along the bottom of the screen.
    Insight timer start screen.

  3. Set a duration for your first session.

    You’ll save this session later as a preset, so even if you’re not planning to write right now, create your preset so it’s all ready for you.
    Choosing a duration

  4. Choose an ambient sound.

    Click through the sounds to find one you like. You’ll want to keep your volume fairly low, so that the repetitiveness of the sound creates a white-noise effect, but loud enough that you’ll hear the interval bells.

  5. Choose your interval bells.

    You need to specify a few things: The time from start (like 5 minutes), the Repeat (add a checkmark), the duration between intervals (like 5 minutes), and the number of repeating bells (click the infinity symbol so the app fills the time with as many intervals as needed for your duration).

  6. Name your preset.

    The process differs depending on whether you run the session first, or are just creating it to use later. If you don’t see a red Save command shown in the screen above, click the 3 gray dots in the same location.
    Saving the preset

  7. To start a session, choose it from your Presets tab.

    There are all sorts of ways to copy and modify presets, but this should get you started.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

3 thoughts on “Creating an attention paperweight

  1. Love. Will look into this! I have a hard time turning off all the distractions, particularly when I need quiet time to focus on one thing while working from home. Thanks for the breakdown!

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