THE BLOG
04/10/2013 11:40 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

Stopping by Woods on a Busy Day

"In this world, there are things you can only do alone, and things you can only do with somebody else. It's important to combine the two in just the right amount." - Haruki Murakami

This is yesterday:

I'm sitting at my computer, poised to create something. Then my phone tells me I've received an email and now I'm itching to check, pull it out, and behold, it's a newsletter from a site I signed up for two years ago. I also know I've just checked Facebook but open the app and refresh just one more time. But now someone has shared a funny 9GAG link and I spend 20 minutes binge eating 100 more memes.

This is today:

I leave my phone in my apartment, pack my backpack with my computer and one book, and ride the elevator down. A girl walks in and doesn't say hi. She's wearing earphones and I don't know if she's intentionally sharing the music with me because I hear it great. She's checking her Facebook stream and then answers a text.

I walk to Lovers and Madmen, and have a seat in the back corner. I like that I can just barely hear Leonard Cohen's rich, low voice that reminds me of a chimney fire. I like that it's a small café, dimly lit, with only a few couches and tables, and that no one's talking very much. It seems there's an unspoken rule encouraging you to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.

We're two blocks away from the busiest part of campus, but here all I see outside are empty streets with trees that are pretty enough, but not so pretty that they are distracting. I'm drinking tea, because coffee makes me too jerky. The tea is good, without having a particular flavor. It feels warm in my paunch.

I write. When I take a break, I either sit and stare out the windows, or open my book. I'm tempted to open my web browser for no pressing reason. Thankfully, I don't do it. Over the next two hours, I regularly feel the same urge. It's strong. Sometimes I even open Chrome but before I type anything in I manage to close it. I'm concerned about these urges, but think that time will make them go away.

Who cares?

I do, and by the looks of the other people around me, others do too. Regardless of what you do and how well you do it, every day is an opportunity to work at your craft and maybe even push something out into the world.

Wherever you usually work, it's likely there will be people speaking loudly, eating food while they watch TV shows on their computer, listening to music, or checking messages.
I think it's good to notice that, and to decide whether you want that for yourself.

I'm surrounded by very talented people, and very few have the discipline to truly do one thing at a time. I don't have it either, but wonder what would happen if we were all more respectful or our minds. Even as you walk down the street, are you conscious of your thoughts?

Maybe we'll realize that it's okay to check email "only" three times a day, even for the busy and popular ones. Maybe before opening up our favorite study playlist we'll ask ourselves whether we need someone singing or some bass beating right into our ears when we're trying to do something we care about.

The main reason I see for this behavior is that work is tiring, and that sometimes Facebook is a needed break and music keeps us going into the night. My view is that if you fully dive into what you're doing, that's enough of a stimulus to keep you going. As for breaks, how about spending time with friends?

What ends up happening when I and others fail to find focus, is that the work and leisure parts of our days merge into one gooey 24-hour chunk. When you come out of it, you're exhausted, you boast among your friends that you've been working from one sunrise to the next, but when you look at what you've done, it's either not much or not your best.

Shakespeare and Tolstoy, in some sense, were lucky not to have the distractions we have. Can you imagine writing the sonnets and thousand-page masterpieces they worked on with all the other fun options we have today?

In truth -- yes, I can imagine it. And I actually think we're luckier than those guys, even with the plague aside. We've never been more connected to others and to all the intellectual wealth the world has to offer. All we need to do is to use these powerful tools with restraint, just like Midas and his touch.

So what I hope and strive for is a day-to-day philosophy. It's too hard to make long-term commitments especially if they drastically change your behavior. So every day, when I wake up, I'll quickly break up my time into two or three chunks. And in those chunks one will be for two or three hours of lonely but peaceful focus.

Find a secret little spot where you live. A park, a café, a hidden corner in a library or bookstore, and do yourself the favor of doing one thing at a time. When you write, write, when you listen to music, listen to music.

And next time you step into an elevator with other people, try not pulling out your phone and maybe even saying hi. It'll be uncomfortable. And, doux Jesus, you might even end up meeting someone.