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Dedicated writing machine

Posted on 5 October 2013

Why I stopped writing at fancy new computers and bought an elementary-school reject instead.

Alphasmart Neo

This is a Neo Alphasmart. It is exactly what it looks like: a keyboard with a tiny screen. It holds only eight files, can display five lines of text at a time, and the only thing it can be used for is writing.

I  love it.

I have a laptop, I have a smartphone, and I have the money for a tablet if I need one. So what possible use could I have for something that only writes? Well, that’s pretty much it. It ONLY writes.

Jack Cheng has an excellent essay on habit fields, where he explores how our spaces and the tools we use affect the sort of work we do:

“When we sit down at the desk in our office to work, we shape its habit field into a productive one. When we sit down in a lounge chair to watch our favorite TV program, we nudge the chair’s habit field toward relaxation and consumption. The more we repeat the same activity around an object, the stronger its habit field gets. And the stronger its habit field gets, the easier it is for us to effortlessly fall into that mode of behavior the next time we’re around the object.”

He goes on to explore the nature of computers. They are machines we use for work and productivity, but also incredible tools for consumption: of videos, of news articles, of social networks. Over time it’s possible for the computer to become a de facto distraction device, rather than a production one.

Similarly, Matt Gemmell had this post called Working in the Shed. He discovered that one day when he was unable to connect to the internet, he was much more productive. So much so that he went and bought old non-internet capable computers for future writing projects.




After reading those posts, I started thinking about my own habits. If I sit down at a computer, for any reason, I subconsciously open Facebook, Twitter, and email. And then I start clicking around on them. I don’t think Facebook, Twitter and email are a complete waste of time, but they can definitely be time sucks when used improperly. This is especially true when you’re attempting to do something semi-open-ended like writing. It can be tempting to just start clicking around until “inspiration strikes” or “you are ready” or you “check this one thing.” This is also known as procrastination and is basically the biggest scourge I have to face in my life (I live a pretty good life).

In contrast, here’s what I can do if I sit down at the Neo AlphaSmart: write. And that’s it. There is no internet. There are no games. There are no photos or calendars or widgets or apps to goof around on.

In other words, there are no excuses.

Filed under: Best Of, technology, writing

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