Discretionary Distraction

I saw the best minds of my generation / destroyed by blog posts with “Howl” quotes

OK, I have actually seen the best young legal minds of my generation in North Carolina destroyed by distractions. Er, maybe just distracted by distractions.

I’m now nearing the end of my third year of four as a dual J.D. and master’s of information science student, and until a few weeks ago, I had never opened a laptop in a law class. Too dangerous, too distracting–especially since I’d seen virtually everyone who used a laptop cruising Facebook or gchat continuously during lecture. (One advantage, I hear, is the ability to crowd-source answers after being cold-called.)

But I am not writing in judgment, but rather in understanding. It is very, very easy to be distracted by constant connection to a ridiculously large, powerful, fascinating, socially addictive internet. The research is out there and I believe it. What’s to be done?

The Discretionary Distraction Idea

It’s taken many months of theorizing and study, and a few weeks of refining, to reach this point: I am ready to share and advocate for a way to use a laptop to take notes during class. Yep, that’s the big reveal… I can now do something that everyone else already does. But perhaps the way I do it will be of help to the perplexed, those dragging themselves through digital streets during lecture. I’m going to talk about a few tools and ideas that have allowed me to be more mindful of the way I use the general purpose computer I have–it’s a 2009 13″ MacBook Pro running OS X Mavericks, by the by–during law school.

Free at First

Fred Stutzman is now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where I am a student) and the creator of Freedom, an app ($10) that is the first link in my discretionary distraction chain. Freedom disables the computer’s network connection and makes it pretty damn difficult to “cheat” and reconnect. It’s simple and effective. When class starts, I flip Freedom on and set it to run for approximately the length of the class period. I just don’t think there are too many legitimate reasons to keep an internet connection open during lecture. If I do choose to keep the internet connected, I have a failsafe: LeechBlock, a Firefox add-on that allows me to limit the time I spend on distracting websites.

Take Note

I will just say it now and get it out of the way–I don’t like Microsoft Word. I also did not like that, until a week or so ago, it wasn’t possible to use Microsoft OneNote on Mac. The dislike goes beyond PTSD from exposure to Clippy. It is about the nasty, proprietary markup that is applied to every .doc or .docx document.

I first learned about Markdown from David Sparks, aka MacSparky, an attorney and productivity guru. It’s a way of writing that is designed to be distraction-less; it minimized the amount of “formatting” one needs to do and focuses instead on putting words on the page. It also handles ordered and unordered lists or outlines both well and easily, which makes it especially convenient for law-school note-taking. You can learn all about Markdown in the Markdown Field Guide, by Sparks and Eddie Smith, which comes with a ton of explanatory screencasts integrated into the iBooks version. It is not difficult to get a hang of and is really a joy to use for other things, as well, like writing for the Web. And the files you create with Markdown are .txt files, meaning no nasty markup or possible “bit rot” headaches down the road. It’s also quite easy to move chunks of text around, combine them into large documents–like course outlines–or publish them into applications like Evernote.

I use Byword ($9.99) as my Markdown composer. After I’ve enabled Freedom, I will usually then just have the Byword app open, ready to take notes. Byword also supports some MultiMarkdown features, like metadata tags (I have a simple header for each class) and footnotes, which I use occasionally. Lots of things in Markdown can be automated on the Mac using the pricey but essential TextExpander app ($34.95). I’ve also created some snippets that are particularly useful, like common notations for plaintiff (π) and defendant (Δ), cases (I use ‡ Smith v. Jones, for no particular reason) and statutory sections (§)… whatever your little shorthand conventions are, they can probably be automated with TextExander after you spend a little time getting up to speed with it.

Watch What You’re Doing

Finally, I like to see how successful I was over a particular day or week at keeping distractions to a minimum. RescueTime is a great service for doing this, and is multi-platform, so I’m able to monitor how I’m using my Android tablet–a “vintage” Google Nexus 7–as well. I don’t know what subscriptions are going for these days, but whatever I’m spending on it is not enough, especially with the new updates they’ve made to the UI. Again, there’s a slight learning curve to using the application, but once you’re rolling, you’ll be able to get a very good sense of how you’re using your time with your assortment of screens. I noticed last fall that I spent a shockingly large amount of time using Twitter. In a word, it was sobering. So now I can make better decisions about when, and how much, I’d like to be distracted from my work.

Some Final Thoughts

I’m not a productivity evangelist, despite what you may think after reading (or more likely, skimming) this post. There is no one way to “get organized” or to “live without distractions.” This is a summary of the high points of my personal system for being productive when I need to be and distracted when I want to be. Tools are just tools (and tautologies are just tautologies); it’s how you use them that matters. It’s about the ability to make an informed choice about how you can take advantage of certain technologies. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, play around with some of the tools and concepts I’ve put down here, and let me know how it’s working out for you. I’m easy to find on Twitter @kirschsubjudice, where I like to be distracted.