In Search of a Greater Barrier

I have always had great trouble starting to write. I seldom found the actual act of writing difficult, only getting started. The same goes for programming: once I had successfully implemented the main functionality I set out to imbue First Crack with, I ceased iterating on the project not for lack of new ideas — with the underlying code functional and working, I wanted to design an accompanying GUI, for example — but instead because I lacked the drive to approach such a monumental task. I was burned out, I suppose, tired after working on the same project for months and months, and stuck in a linkblog rut when it came to writing.

I tried things like allowing myself to write a poor first draft and dealing with First Crack’s low-hanging fruit first, but to no avail: I invariably found something else — something significantly less important — to spend my time on. Recognizing this as the serious problem it was, I took countermeasures: I wrote and pushed out articles despite feeling neither empathy nor enthusiasm for any one of them in an attempt at kick starting my writing, I tweaked my regular expressions, and I uninstalled every game on my computer. In the end, after the dust settled, I was left with a bunch of half-baked articles and a great deal of wasted time reinstalling those games. I did improve those regular expressions though. That was a well-spent half hour, at least.

I needed something more, something to supplement my lacking willpower. Pragmatically, in the purest sense of the idea, I needed a distraction-free work environment, a place where nothing was allowed to interrupt me, and I was not allowed to spend my time working on less worthy projects. Working on my iPad instead of my computer was a step towards this, although apparently not a long enough one: I still lacked both the faculty and facilities to work productively.

I have always regarded distraction-free writing environments with a certain degree of skepticism, bordering on disdain: the idea of using such a crutch to bolster my writing never appealed to me; it felt like cheating, in a way. I used to be of the opinion that if you really wanted to write, you could do so on the corner of a napkin at a restaurant, and then ask the waitress for another napkin. I believe Merlin Mann said something to this effect in the past. More informative of my opinions on the topic than my dislike of assistance though, taking Sublime Text full screen never made me a better writer, and writing on the iPad — the epitome of distraction-free writing environments — only forced me to draw a fine line between the devices I could and could not create content on. The concept was not flawed though, merely my implementation of it. So went the epiphany preceding my decision to uninstall all the games on my computer. As I said earlier though, that wasn’t enough: they were just a quick executable away, after all, and an easily-overcome barrier is really no barrier at all. I needed a bigger, more formidable barrier, I decided: I needed to switch operating systems.

Ubuntu Linux has interested me for quite some time now, ever since I partitioned my hard drive and installed it at the tender age of twelve. In my mind, Ubuntu is Linux. As the only easily-implemented, major alternative to Windows, I downloaded the ISO over dinner and spent the next two days partitioning my drive and installing both operating systems more times than I care to remember. And then, finally, everything just worked, and I booted in to Ubuntu 12.04 for the first time. Soon afterwards, I began writing once again.

Ask any fourth grade science fair presenter about finding conclusive results in a scientific experiment and he will describe the importance of maintaining a single variable throughout the process: in order to measure the effect different reactants have on the outcome of an experiment, the circumstances in which it is run must remain constant. In my own experiment, however, I violated this simple rule virtually at the onset: by Tuesday when my computer finally functioned properly, I had a job lined up for the rest of the week, and spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday out of the house and away from my writing. With what little time I had available to write on those days, however, I wrote profusely. The question, though, is whether the prolificness with which I wrote can be attributed to my platform switch or rather as an inverse relation with the amount of time spent writing, where as my available time decreases I become an increasingly productive writer. In all honesty, it’s too early to say quite yet. If I had to lean one way or another though, I would say that although changing platforms did help a great deal, sitting down at the end of the day knowing that I had one solid hour to write, and one solid hour only, has been the greatest motivator of all.