There is a vignette near the beginning of Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” which relates the story of a data entry specialist who, fed up with the unrewarding nature of his work, decides instead to learn how to program.
His efforts begin earnestly enough, but he soon finds that he is spending nearly all of his time checking his email, browsing social media, and otherwise throwing vast chunks of his life into the gaping maw of the most spectacularly effective time-wasting device to have ever been built: the internet.
Our intrepid programmer eventually discovers a straightforward solution to this problem: simply shut the computer off and learn from textbooks, taking notes on paper and flashcards with a good ‘ol fashioned pen. As time goes on and his attentional muscle begin to get stronger, he is able to spend five or six hours throughout the day programming, leading eventually to his being hired at a startup.
Turning your computer off or severing its connection to the internet are blunt, effective means of stemming the tide of stimuli competing for the limited resources of time and attention. I call this family of techniques “Distraction Levees” because they work in the same manner as standard levees which hold back reservoir water and lakes.
Disconnecting is a sound strategy, and I recommend you follow it any time you can. But it doesn’t work well when the required resources are inherently internet-based. For example, how should you proceed if:
- you’re taking an online programming course which doesn’t offer the option of downloading the videos or text?
- you’d like to post the occasional question on StackOverflow, which doesn’t carry as much danger of pulling you in as Twitter or Reddit?
- you’re trying to blog about, say, The MIT Project and you want to watch the relevant Youtube videos?
Luckily tools exist which allow the construction of more nuanced, selective distraction levees. These offer the benefits of preserving your attention while also allowing you to accomplish whatever it is that you need to accomplish.
Two pieces of software that are often discussed in the productivity space are Leechblock for Firefox and StayFocusd for Google Chrome. As far as I can tell the two are nearly identical, but since I’m on Chrome I’m going to use StayFocusd as my example.
StayFocusd can be configured to bar access to all websites, bar access to all websites except for a select few ‘allowed websites’, or to allow access to all websites except a select few ‘blocked websites’. It’s possible to set certain days and certain hours during which StayFocusd is active, in case you’d like to leave time open for restriction-free browsing. It can block just certain kinds of content, like videos, while otherwise allowing access. It can even has a setting which requires the completion of a difficult challenge before any settings can be changed, thus leveraging a trivial inconvenience to boost productivity.
This flexibility is powerful. If you struggle to get down to business early in the morning, and your mantras don’t seem to be helping much, let me recommend that you try the following exercise:
- Sit down first thing in the morning and decide what it is that you’d like to accomplish.
- Make a list of the websites to which you’ll need access.
- Using StayFocusd, add all those websites to the Allowed Sites list.
- Use the “Nuclear Option” to block access to all websites except those on your Allowed Sites list.
- Under “For how long?” select a number of hours. Choose a reasonably large block of time and increase as you get better at focusing.
- Under “Starting when?” select “at a specific time” and choose a starting point.
Figuring out appropriate starting points and time spans requires a little basic math. Say you wake up at 7:00 a.m. and start writing an hour later. Since you’re just starting your efforts at being more focused and productive you don’t want to restrict access to the internet for more than two hours. That means you’ll need to tell StayFocusd to activate at 7 a.m. and remain active for three hours, not two, to prevent yourself from pointless browsing before work and falling victim to the Zeigarnik Effect.
Planning and setting up the blocks the night before would probably be better, but I haven’t found a way to get StayFocusd to do this correctly. If I do, I’ll update this post.
Repeated use of this kind of distraction levee will eventually make productive work your default setting in the morning, and you’ll be amazed at how much more you get done.