Linux/FOSS | Technology | Writing

Creating a distraction-free writing machine

July 14, 2016

Hi. My name’s Martin, and I procrastinate.

[Muted applause]

Look, I’m even doing it now, while trying to communicate with you about a technique I’ve employed to try to curb my procrastination!

[Uncertain, slow clapping]

But to jump in to the meat of the topic, I’m finding that procrastination is not the same problem it was many years ago. Back then, staring out of the window was my worst enemy, or making a cup of tea, or having to go to school.

Now, things are different. There is the Internet, and there are computers. Since I started writing in my teens, the Internet has appeared and grown to become an always-on firehose of information. If there’s something you want to know, its likely to be online for you to find.

But even worse, if it’s not something that is to be found, the bottomless pit of the Net will make extremely hard to convince you that you should stop looking now, and get back to work. And when your work is so research-oriented, like writing is, you can be constantly opening a browser looking for a spelling, a synonym, or a date. And then before long you’re scrolling through Twitter taking insulting pot-shots at right-wing ‘commentators’ and giving virtual hugs to friends in need.

Quick things are never quick on the Internet.

The other problem is that I’m too interested in computers. When you spend your whole day using a computer to work, it must be like a car mechanic who collects spanners. Is this the right spanner? Could I get a better spanner? When’s that fancy new spanner coming out and can I afford it yet? I used to end up forever tweaking and adjusting my working environment, like the exam sitter rearranging their pens and pencils for 20 minutes after the clock has started ticking.

So: the solution seems to lie in removing the internet as a distraction, and using a device that does not really allow much ‘tweaking’ – i.e. you get what you’re given. And this is where my love of computers actually helped!

The Raspberry Pi Writing Tool

A couple of years ago the Raspberry Pi was unleashed on the world. I say ‘unleashed’, but from what I remember it was gently presented to the world in a very British manner.

The Raspberry Pi is a small computer. It’s the size of a credit card, costs about £25, and was designed by a Cambridge (UK) firm to encourage children to get into computer programming. It was a disposable mini PC for schools to give out for free.

But I’ve never really done anything with it. I set it up to run iPlayer, and act as a media server, but it seemed to crash if you didn’t use it for a couple of days. The problem with it is that if you plug anything in which draws power – such as a USB stick or a CD writer – then you can quickly overload it, and it turns off. My Pi crashed because I had a USB hard drive connected to it.

Writing simple software programs on the Pi is no problem, but opening a web browser? Be ready for a long wait while it loads, and then while the page loads. You can use a light-weight browser, but then no web pages would load if they had anything like videos or maps on them. Also, the Pi has no wireless capability built in, so though you can plug in a USB wifi adapter, that means you’re already into into your power allocation. The only other option is to plug in an ethernet cable, and that’s not always convenient.

So, I’m sure you can see where this is going! A non-Internet enabled computer that can only really be used reliably for typing text! I plugged in my lovely Das Keyboard, which is great to type on, and away I went!

I’ve now turned my Raspberry Pi into a dedicated writing device, and even if I wanted to let myself get distracted, it would be really difficult on the Pi. It handles the keyboard and monitor beautifully, and also can run a distraction-free program called FocusWriter. So I’m set up!


Although I love this set-up, there are a few things which still need to be ironed out. For one thing: how do you get your documents off the Raspberry Pi writing device when you’re finished? Secondly, how do you back up? I’m used to letting Dropbox or SpiderOak constantly back up my data in the background, but these programs don’t run on the Raspberry Pi.

To get my files off the Raspberry Pi, I’ve had to install a program on my Mac which reads the SD Card which is the storage device that the Pi uses. So I just turn the Pi off and take out the card, then put it in my Mac and copy and paste. It’s a little clunky, but I waste less time doing that than I do idly browsing the Internet for no reason.

Raspberry Pi + comfortable keyboard + FocusWriter = distraction and Internet free writing!