THE internet can be a dangerous distraction. It is is designed to tempt us and this is a problem if you work online.
For the last few years, I’ve worked from home, unsupervised, with the weapon of mass distraction that is the internet at my fingertips. Many mornings (usually Mondays) I’ve allowed myself a strict, 15-minute time-limit to ‘check the internet’. All of a sudden, it’s lunch-time, there are 57 tabs open, and I’m 28 potatoes into a ‘33 potatoes that look a bit like Enda Kenny’ list, with no idea of how I’ve gotten there.
I’m self-employed, so the time I spend looking at Taoiseach-shaped potatoes doesn’t just cause me to question my sanity, it also costs me money.
Happily, also on the internet is a host of apps and add-ons that promise to save the easily-distracted from themselves.
I’m eager to decrease my distractions and increase my productivity, so I embark on a week-long quest to block out the more distracting parts of the internet.
I start my week by downloading an application called RescueTime (www.rescuetime.com). This program keeps track of every website you visit, and how long you spend on each one.
It claims to ‘help you understand your daily habits, so you can focus and be more productive.’ I have a lot of work to get through today, so I’m strict with myself in staying on track. Still, the RescueTime report at the end of the day makes for sobering reading.
Of the eight hours logged, three hours and 22 minutes were spent on what RescueTime defined as ‘highly distracting websites’.
Since I’ve been on my best behaviour all day, this is worrying. The free version of RescueTime gives you a report of your activity each day, but does not block access to any distracting websites.
To do that, you must upgrade to the premium version, which costs $7 a month.
(The ‘highly distracting websites were the likes of Facebook, Youtube and Reddit. If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article so far, and have somehow never heard of Reddit, please try everything in your power to forget that I ever mentioned it.)
Conclusion: RescueTime is a good way to make yourself aware of the websites that take up the most of your time.
However, it’s a little strange to be spying on your own internet habits. Isn’t that what the NSA is for?
First thing Tuesday morning, I download the free open-source application, SelfControl (www.selfcontrolapp.com).
The logo is an ominous-looking skull and crossbones. This app means business.
To begin, I must enter a list of the sites to which I want to deny myself access. This is called the Blacklist.
Next, I must set a time-limit for how long my self-imposed blackout should last.
I enter every website that caused me trouble the day before, and set my limit to four hours.
This action is impossible to reverse. There is no way my laptop will let me access my Twitter account, or go on Youtube, no matter how hard I try.
Most applications can be disabled simply by rebooting your computer, or fiddling around in your settings. Not SelfControl. Once you’ve set a time-limit, you must wait it out.
Once I confirm that there is no way of cheating the app, I get a lot of uninterrupted work done. I allow myself back on the blacklisted sites for an hour at lunchtime, but go back on SelfControl for the rest of the afternoon.
Conclusion: Extreme, but effective. Recommended.
SelfControl is only available for Mac, but ColdTurkey (getcoldturkey.com) is a good alternative for PC.
Buoyed by yesterday’s success, I put some real-life self-control to the test. Once I clear my email inbox, I go downstairs and yank the modem from the wall socket.
I come back upstairs to my desk, where the urge to go back downstairs and plug the modem back in kicks in immediately.
Since I’ve knocked off the wifi, I can’t even check emails on my phone and it’s all too easy to convince myself that I might be missing an email of grave importance, however unlikely.
The longer I sit at my desk, the more elaborate my worries become. What if something of worldwide importance has happened since I disconnected?
For all I know, Russia could have invaded south Tipperary in the last 40 minutes.
I stick it out till 11.30am and then I sheepishly slink downstairs and plug the modem back in.
I have two emails.
A newsletter from Topshop, and a message from a friend who wants to know how my zero-internet day is going.
Russia has not invaded south Tipperary. I use SelfControl for the rest of the day.
Conclusion: Suitable for those with more self-restraint and who do not need access to their emails.
AntiSocial (anti-social.cc) is an app designed for people whose biggest distraction is social media. Twitter and Facebook are automatically blacklisted, and AntiSocial enables you to restrict access to them for up to eight hours at a time. It’s also possible to add more website addresses to the list.
The main difference between AntiSocial and SelfControl is that the former is very easy to switch off. If you decide, three hours into an eight-hour day, that you desperately need a Facebook fix, you just reboot your computer.
Conclusion: Friendlier than SelfControl, but easier to reverse.
Available for Mac and PC. First five tries are free; then it’s $15 to buy.
Freedom (www.macfreedom.com) is probably the best-known app of these types. The idea is very simple. Freedom blocks all access to the internet for up to eight hours at a time.
It’s the final day of the test, so I decide to go big.
I set Freedom to go to work for 480 minutes.
I know, ahead of time, that it’s easy to turn Freedom off; all I need to do is reboot my laptop.
But I must have acquired some actual self-control this week, because I don’t bother.
I’ve set my phone up so that I’m notified whenever an email comes in. This means that I’m happy to not use the rest of the internet for an entire working-day.
Conclusion: If you need extended blocks of time away from the internet to concentrate on a project, Freedom is your app. Available for Mac and PC. First five tries are free; then it’s $10 to buy.
Please internet responsibly
I may not have transformed into a paragon of productivity (yet), but I end the week a lot closer to that ideal than I was at the start. For the very easily distracted, it is possible to stay focused on the internet, once you employ a little help.
And if this article has made you despair at your lack of self-restraint and ability to stay focused online, try not to worry. Writer Zadie Smith thanked Freedom and SelfControl in the acknowledgements of her novel, NW. So, if nothing else, at least we’re in very good company.
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