Motivation and “Lifehacking”

We have already hinted at some of the reasons why people feel compelled to create and use distraction-free writing environments, but now we would like to turn to the question of motivation more directly. It may be clear already that the people who design and use these applications place a great deal of value on personal productivity. It is worth noting that many of the blogs and websites that track and review distraction-free writing tools are connected in some way to a set of self-help practices sometimes called “lifehacks.” These are tips and tools aimed at being more productive or, in the words of productivity guru David Allen, “Getting Things Done”. Allen’s (2001) system for “stress-free productivity” basically has two components: first, it has a method for capturing and organizing any information competing for one’s attention, with the goal of removing distractions that hinder productivity. The second part is identifying, and then either doing, delegating, or deferring the very next action that needs to be taken on any given project. The quick-and-dirty nature of this system, which doesn’t require the kinds of deep soul-searching or lofty goal-defining of many self-help regimes, may be what appeals to the sort of person drawn to lifehacking. That is, it is both simple and non-obvious. Allen characterizes his system as “advanced common sense” (Williams, 2007)

This focus on productivity is certainly a primary motivation among lifehackers and users of distraction-free software alike. The developer of the application Write or Die (which we will discuss in more detail below) claims that his program is “aimed at anyone who wants to get writing done.” Dustin Wax (2008), blogger at, claims that “getting rid of distractions is essential if you’re going to get your work done.” Lifehackers and users of distraction-free software also share a dissatisfaction with mainstream word processors like Microsoft Word. The reasons for this distaste have less to do with MS Word’s ubiquity or dominant market share than with features of the software itself. As Rick Broida (2007), one of the bloggers at, puts it, “Microsoft Word can drive you nuts. It piles on features few people need, plagues you with annoying auto-corrections and just generally acts like a pain in the ass.” On lifehacking blogs one can find disparaging remarks about “Microsoft’s awful, awful track changes” (Wax, 2009), the “tedium of creating an outline in Microsoft Word,” (Leddy, 2006), and the “strange diction” that MS Word’s thesaurus encourages (Leddy, 2007).

One suggestion among lifehackers is to modify or tweak MS Word to make it function more like distraction-free writing environments. In a post titled “Make Microsoft Word Less Annoying,” Rick Broida (2007) advises readers to “turn off unnecessary toolbars,” “streamline the toolbars you keep,” “add a word-count button,” “expand the recently used document list,” and turn off such features as smart quotes, entire-word selection, automatic numbered lists, superscripting and fractions. While a few of these suggestions, like “add a word-count button,” involve foregrounding previously buried features, most of them involve cutting back or streamlining Word’s interface to minimize distractions.

Another suggestion, made in several posts is to “ditch Word altogether.” They recommend alternatives to Word like Google Docs, Zoho Writer, ThinkFree, Abiword, Adobe’s Buzzword, and Windows Live Writer. Some are recommended because they are simple or free, while others have features that Word lacks, like blogging-specific tools or tools for online collaboration. One writer–a fan of Adobe’s Buzzword–points to the effects a writing environment can have:

It seems foolish to point to the way an app looks as an advantage, but I’d argue it’s a very real factor. Tools matter–ask any carpenter. Buzzword to me is like I imagine a finely forged chisel is to a woodworker–my fingers just itch to get to work. Google Docs is like a set of sturdy wrenches–nothing too fancy, but I know it gets the job done. While there are desktop-based apps that also feel quite good to use, the stripped-down interfaces of online apps seems especially well-suited to this kind of inspiration (Wax, 2009).

What is being valued here is not just the ease or simplicity of using software, but also what we might call aesthetics, or more precisely, design. The imagined effect of a tool’s design lies not in whatever it produces–in this case a piece of writing–but in its effects on the writing process. This writer posits that it is the look or design of Buzzword that makes him “itch to get to work.” It is, as he puts it, a source of “inspiration.” Under this view, writing tools do not just mediate how something gets written, but also whether it gets written at all. As we have already suggested, one way that users of distraction-free writing software overlap with the concerns of lifehackers is their focus on productivity. But what does it mean, in this context, to be “productive”? One of the most striking similarities among developers and users of distraction-free writing tools is that they almost uniformly frame productivity in terms of getting “words on the page” or “screen.” Merlin Mann, whose blog 43folders helped popularize the idea of lifehacking, suggested at one point that the application WriteRoom “may be just what the doctor ordered if you need to get your head out of your butt and put some words on the page” (2006). Likewise, Jesse Grosjean, the developer of WriteRoom, claims that the “focus is just to help you get words on the page.” Oliver Reichenstein (2011), who developed a competing application called iA Writer, argues that the “hardest thing” for writers “is just getting the words out.” Out of what, we might ask? Strohmeyer (2011), a columnist at PC World, writes about the need to “just get those thoughts out of your head and onto the screen.” There is an implied theory of writing processes operating here, one that narrows the activity of writing down to the moment of inscription, the externalization of words onto page or screen. A distraction, then, is anything that gets in the way of that process. As blogger James Kelly (2012) writes in his review of WriteRoom, “When I need to type, I need to type. I need words to flow fast and I need them to hit the screen with as little distraction as possible.” When most people write about distraction-free writing tools, the mere fact of producing words seems to be enough. However, a few make an interesting distinction, at least from a writing studies point of view, between writing and “editing.” The developer of the web app Write or Die (now with desktop and iPad versions), who goes by the name “Dr. Wicked” (2013), explicitly states that the “idea is to separate the writing process and the editing process as much as possible.” And in his review of WriteRoom, James Kelly (2012) explains that he used WriteRoom to compose his review, and then writes

Of course, looking back I can see numerous spelling errors or phrasing that I want to change, but I’ll deal with that in the blog editor screen.

This is an interesting glimpse into the workflow of a professional writer, one who is presumably constrained by deadlines and might therefore be expected to seek the most efficient means of producing text as possible. It seems as though the distraction-free writing tool not only removes obvious distractors, like system trays and browser windows, but also somehow removes the distracting temptation to revise and edit on-the-fly. Since there is nothing inherent in WriteRoom that prevents a user from backtracking and editing while composing, it might be supposed that, at least for this one user, the process of writing in a distraction-free environment shapes the flow of activity in ways not necessarily built into it.

We have mentioned Write or Die already, but it is worth exploring in more detail. On its surface, it might seem like the polar opposite of an application like OmmWriter. It, too, is billed as a distraction-free writing tool, but where OmmWriter is framed as a calm and relaxing environment, Write or Die employs a graduated system of potential negative reinforcement to prevent users from not writing. The original web app ostensibly has four possible modes: gentle, normal, kamikaze, and “electric shock.” Users can also set a word goal, a time goal, and the level of “grace period” given before negative consequences begin. Once the user determines the settings, a text window appears, and a countdown timer begins. Writing continuously will prevent the application from taking any further action. However, once a user stops writing, one of three things will happen. In gentle mode, a window will appear and remind the user to keep writing. In normal mode, the user is subjected to an unpleasant sound file. And in kamikaze mode, the application begins to delete whatever words the user has already produced.

Clearly the tone of Write or Die is very different from OmmWriter, but we believe there are also similarities worth noting. Just as OmmWriter is an attempt to create an “immersive experience” for its users by introducing audio-visual effects, so too does Write or Die provide a kind of experience, though one marked by anxiety rather than relaxation. The point we are trying to make is that both introduce elements that posit the activity of writing as something other than the writing itself. They both encourage a kind of imaginative leap, on the part of users, to associate writing with, for example, the production of rain drops, or as protection against potentially dire consequences. They are both a way of playing with the process of writing, of maybe even making a game out of it, in the sense that it produces an imaginative overlay onto the activity.

Through all these examples, we find software developers and writers showing a keen interest in tools that can motivate them, inspire them, or focus their attention. In other words, they care about process. Procrastination and writer’s block, in particular, are popular topics. Many suggestions for dealing with these problems involve tweaking or tinkering with some aspect of the writing process, such as keeping a scheduled writing time, ending a writing session in mid-sentence, drawing topic clusters, outlining, and freewriting. A key assumption here is that aspects of process can hinder productivity, and altering the process can help identify potential problems. Here is a prime example of this kind of diagnostic thinking:

Answer this question: When I stopped writing, what activity did I then do? Maybe you stopped writing to check email, telephone a friend, or to do yet more research. That is your Writing Interruptor, and you should quarantine it for later. Prevent yourself from checking email (or whatever) until you’re finished (“Help for Writer’s Block,” 2006).

There are two things worth noting here. First is an apparent awareness of the idiosyncratic nature of writing, and there is no assumption that there is one single writing process that is likely to work for all writers. Instead, causes for writer’s block vary from person to person. What is required, then, is a certain amount of reflection and diagnosis by individual writers to determine what is working and what is not in their own writing processes.

The other thing worth noting is that there is a kind of binary quality to this view of writing–a strict distinction between writing and not writing. As we noted above, the activity of writing is often figured as “putting words on the page” or “screen”. Checking email, or fiddling with the font, or doing more research, do not count as “writing” because they are not producing text. This perception is, in some way, reminiscent of the “stages” view of writing process that pre-dated more cognitive approaches in composition. That is, lifehackers and users of distraction-free writing environments tend to frame textual production–the actual moment of inscription–as separable from various other activities that may surround writing. Moreover, since they are not “writing” as such, those other activities constitute distractions that divert attention away from the task at hand.

We do not mean to suggest that this view of writing is naive or wrongheaded; after all, it reflects the lived experiences of writers who seek and use the tools as we have been describing. The motivation to employ distraction-free writing environments is bound up with the perception of writing as a bounded activity that requires little more than a cursor and a blank screen. And the development and inclusion of immersive or interactive features, such as OmmWriter’s bamboo chimes or Write or Die’s automated deletion, play a potential role in focusing attention on that bounded activity. This software, we have been arguing, provides a way to tune one’s consciousness by structuring the environment within which one writes.