How to stop procratinating on the internet
October 20, 2011 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Help me break my internet addiction and stop procrastinating.

I've always gotten away with starting papers/studying/projects no more than a day in advance and usually not until late the date before. I have pretty much accepted for years that if I have something due, I will be up really, really late the night before. If it's something short, that just means I can go on the internet more, not that I can finish it earlier. I feel like I literally can't not go on the internet unless I reach the point where I'm not sure if I have enough time to finish the project.

This works well enough that I get close to straight As in college but I'm sick of being exhausted and stressed out at least one night a week. This semester is much harder than the previous year and I know I'm reaching the point where projects literally cannot be finished in a single day. Recently I've gotten completely furious at myself for nearly screwing up projects that I really care about and actually enjoy doing once I start.

My main problem is that I use the internet as a way to relax and when I get stressed about a paper, I just go online. I've tried things like setting timers to do work for a specific amount of time and I just ignore it. Or the first time I give myself a break, it gets extended.

I've lately realized that while all college students procrastinate and go online, not everyone does it to my extreme. It's actually possible to start stuff ahead of time and finish papers before 3 in the morning. I want to do that. I managed to do better last semester when my friends' dorm room didn't have internet, but that's not an option now and for a lot (but not as much as I pretend) of my work, I need the internet.

I'm looking for a few specific suggestions along with any advice.
1. What are good internet blockers that prevent me from reaching specific sites and are really hard or complicated to get rid of? It has to be something I pretty much can't turn off because I know I will try. At this point, I'm willing to cut off practically all extraneous online activities to stop doing this.

2. I know part of the reason I get so distracted by the internet is that I know I can find something that will interest me and hit the reward button in my brain. This will make me forget about the stress over the paper and I feel much better. What are other ways to distract myself that aren't such time wasters? My other ways to destress are activities like running which also is timeconsuming and it's hard to transition from physical activity to brainwork.

3. How do I get myself to work on long range projects that either don't have an outside deadline or have one deadline for work that will take much, much longer to do?

4. I know I have this habit of using the internet as a way of transitioning into doing work, it just takes forever. How can I break that?

posted by raeka to Education (20 answers total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
It's as if you're describing my life.

I find that the problem is simple, addiction leads to rigid thinking.

You get to a point where you find yourself rationalising behaviours that are a simple manifestation of elements of your addiction. Like the belief you can't control your internet usage, for one. The truth is you can, it's just not really on the table right now because right now you equate feeling good with messing around on the internet. You probably have watching the internet as a kind of default, if you're anything like me. Checking it as soon as you awake, leaving it on when you go to sleep. It's an addiction. But it's a mental one, and that means it can be overcome if you give yourself the right structure. What you need to do is train your brain to feel like it's in control, you're not addicted to the internet, you just have a mental habit.

I used apps like Freedom for like, two days, before I just turned Netflix back on. There are no apps that fundamentally remove temptation and even if there were, you wouldn't be addressing the real problem. The problem is a lack of willpower and even worse, the lack of recognition of the importance of exercising willpower on a regular basis. The key thing is, if all you can think about is the safe little world of the net where everything is controllable, then you'll never get over it because the sad thing is, being addicted to the Internet isn't rare and is actually a totally socially acceptable habit to have. You don't have people thinking you're an addict, even if, like me, you regularily spent over 12 hours a day not doing very much. You can lose years to the internet before you realise it.

So, you need to start taking control of your life. Start really small. Go for a walk. Don't bring an iPod. Just go for a long walk on your own. Breath slowly and deeply. Don't think like you should be thinking about anything in particular. Just try to relax. Dont' worry about coursework. Try to do something like that every day, go for longer walks, cook healthier meals, read a book, listen to music, something that you can say you want to do and did it. Make plans just for yourself of stuff you really want to do. A great thing to do is to get involved with projects with other people so you can set your own deadlines. You need to retrain your brain to find the real world interesting. You also need to re-orient your brain to seeing your computer as a tool. Something you use when you need to do something, not something you just stare at.

I've gotten a hell of a lot better. I still use the net, even for hours and hours a day, but I make myself earn it. It's impractical to say you'll stop using computers or the internet all together, the trick is to figure out a way of keeeping in it's place. I've gotten to the point where I manage to consistently work and have a great life, while using the net a lot, but I can turn it off when I like.

You can too. You just have to realise it.
posted by rudhraigh at 3:38 PM on October 20, 2011 [24 favorites]

If I knew, I wouldn't be here. That said, I use the Stayfocusd Chrome extension.

From Paul Graham's article The Acceleration of Addictiveness:
"People commonly use the word "procrastination" to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working."

The XKCD guy uses a 30-second delay by restarting his computer.
posted by sninctown at 3:39 PM on October 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Freedom is the recommended Internet blocker I've seen. I am trialing it right now and it works well... I actually studied for the two tests I had yesterday :)
posted by DoubleLune at 4:03 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, there's really two problems here:

1. You lack the self-control to not click on the little icon and open up the internet when you should be working instead.

2. Once you're screwing around on the internet, it's easy to lose hours doing nothing really at all, and the only thing that helps you snap out of it is the panic you get when you realize it's 3am and you HAVE TO START NOW OR YOU WILL NOT GET DONE.

I've also struggled with these things. I found it easier to take on the issues separately; I have nearly conquered #1 but still sometimes have problems with #2. I can tell you for sure that dealing with #1 will get you 90% of the way there in terms of feeling like you're in control rather than the other way 'round.

Here's the thing: when you do brain-work, it's all about the momentum. If you rationalize starting out the day or the work session by checking email or looking at your RSS feed, you've started the momentum towards brainless web surfing and it's really hard to snap back over to other tasks. However I bet you'd be surprised how easy it is to NOT open that browser window once you've gotten some momentum going for your work. So step one is creating a habit of delayed gratification every time you sit at the computer to do work. In other words, make a rule that you absolutely, positively have to do 10 minutes of work before you can check email or open the internet. If you feel like you honestly can't--you're just so unmotivated to do the work that you can't even do 10 minutes of it before popping open your browser--then you need to go out running or get something to eat or anything, really, other than sit down at the computer and open up the browser. Sure, okay, going for a run is time-consuming, but honestly once you start screwing around on the internet we both know it's going to be a few hours time suck anyway, so you might as well run. (Note that you can do this IN ADDITION to using something like Leech Block to ban particular sites that you find impossible to leave once you start reading.) After you've fed/watered/exercised yourself, try again.

Step two (after mastering step 1) is learning how to cope with stress and other uncomfortable feelings around your work without attempting to distract yourself. Trying to find better ways to distract yourself (hey, I once asked this question too!) is ultimately a loser's game; you need to learn that being stressed or anxious WILL NOT KILL YOU and you can indeed just sit/work through it without a crutch. As a bonus, this skill will serve you so, so, so well in many aspects of life; using shiny distractions to avoid things we'd rather not deal with is a habit that tends to end badly in so many spheres both personal and professional.

In the end, learning the habits of delayed gratification and non-avoidance in the face of stress is like exercising; you're really crap at it now but every time you exercise those muscles you make yourself better at resisting time-sucks in the future.
posted by iminurmefi at 4:13 PM on October 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

i always find the word "addiction" in reference to things that aren't actually physically addictive or harmful by themselves a bit much. And comparing surfing the web to alcoholism is just silly.

That said, my typical approach is to physically move away from the temptations. I write in a coffee shop where there is no TV, books, bed to lie down, etc. This may be a little harder because you may need the internet to do your paper, but it still helps to get away from temptation I think.

Also, I always recommend the thing that has fancy names that i forget but it's this: start a timer, work for 10-15 minutes, take a break, repeat. Once you see the seconds actually flying by, trust me, you will work.

You really just need to develop a few strategies to "hack" yourself into working more efficiently. Everyone has to do this. You're not an "addict."
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:21 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or think of it this way:

You got straight A's! You don't actually have a problem! You want to de-stress and stop procrastinating, I get that, and that's a good goal.

But it might help to not think in negative terms like "I'm an addict!" but more like, "I'm already really good at this stuff, but maybe I can be even more efficient with a few tricks."
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:28 PM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

In response to 1: if you use a Mac, try SelfControl. Blocks your email and internet access for a period of time that you determine, and you can also add websites to it beforehand in case there are sites you need access to for your schoolwork. There are also a couple of similar applications linked on that page if you don't have a Mac.

Also, here's one I just found out about: Write or Die. Access the online version of it at the right of the page. Set a word goal, a time goal and a consequence, and then start writing. If you aren't meeting your predetermined criteria, your work is slowly deleted.
posted by illenion at 4:32 PM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In college, I partially addressed this problem by writing drafts of papers in longhand at the library using just my course books and printed PDFs of handouts or readings, etc. If I "needed" to look something up, I would write, "But before the Flemish Revolution in YEAR, most bakers were restricted by the assize..." and keep going.

Once I had a draft, I was allowed to go on the Internet and look up years, dates, specific names or quotes from the readings I hadn't printed out, whatever.

I often had to do without my laptop, lest I jump on the network JUST FOR A SECOND JUST TO SEE HOW IT FEELS.

On the other hand, I felt much much calmer at all times. And I felt that my papers got stronger, once I was engaging with the material without the distraction of my laptop. It was nice.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:22 PM on October 20, 2011 [11 favorites]

i always find the word "addiction" in reference to things that aren't actually physically addictive or harmful by themselves a bit much. And comparing surfing the web to alcoholism is just silly.

I would just like to point out that this is an awful thing to say. Internet addiction is incredibly devastating to your health -- physically, emotionally, socially. Like drugs and alcohol, it's just a tool to hide deeper traumas and help facilitate other self-harming habits.

Worse yet, the internet can grossly [mis]educate (blogs, status updates, forums, trolls) and stimulate (triggers, thinspiration, trolls, etc.) in just a matter of seconds, making it even more dangerous to those prone to it.
posted by june made him a gemini at 5:50 PM on October 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I use leechblock for Firefox. It is pretty foolproof in terms of getting around it if you use the strongest settings. And it is nicely flexible so you can block some sites and not others, or all sites except a couple (e.g. still retain access to your university's library website).

BUT you need to (a) when you do have free internet access, do NOT google for how to get around it. There is a way, but you would never figure it out yourself.
(b) uninstall all other browsers from your computer - otherwise you could just use a non-Firefox browser.

Alternatively, if you don't need access to ANY sites while working, go to a coffee shop that does not have wireless with your laptop or a pen and paper(!)

Another alternative if you don't have a laptop - give your ethernet cord/router to a friend and tell them only to give it back to you after 5pm.
posted by lollusc at 6:14 PM on October 20, 2011

I was in college way before the internet. Before personal computers, actually. And I still stayed up till 3:00 a.m to do papers. Sometimes on speed (Black Beauties, actually, diet pills). Before that, in high school, I just delayed and stayed up all night to write papers. Still got an A.

So I propose to you that your problem is not the internet. The internet is just a way of procrastinating. Another delaying tool, if you will. And you are worrying a lot about this. And yes, it gives you a dopamine reaction. It calms you down. Otherwise you wouldn't be here.

But you are not stupid. You are smart, and you can figure out how to shut off the internet and get your work done without someone telling you how to do it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:16 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and in answer to your number (3) question, something that has worked really well for me is to build a habit of working for 25 minutes (one pomodoro) first thing in the morning. I shower, I make a cup of coffee, I sit down on my beanbag, open my laptop, turn on Gregorian chant background music, do NOT check email, click "start" on this timer and work. When the timer stops, I can have breakfast, check my email, and go to university. Or I can keep working. Surprisingly I often choose to keep working. But there's no pressure.

The best thing is that the whole rest of the day I feel amazing, because I started by being productive, and I've got one thing done, no matter what else happens. And then because I feel less stressed by my work, I find it easier to go back to it later in the day. Even if you are terrified by how hard the thing you are working on right now is, you can spend 25 minutes on it. And then you see it wasn't so hard after all. Or it was, but you survived anyway (and made progress!)

I did this EVERY DAY (including weekends) for four months at the start of this year, and it was the most productive I have ever been. Now I don't do weekends, but it still sets a nice tone for the day and I'm still getting more long-term projects finished than ever before.
posted by lollusc at 6:21 PM on October 20, 2011 [26 favorites]

Leechblock is awesome. I use Firefox only for personal browsing, and IE for all work related stuff - and oddly, once I do that, even though I could disable the add on or use IE.. I don't.

It's just a matter of finding the best way of retraining yourself into a new habit.
posted by canine epigram at 6:26 PM on October 20, 2011

I agree with Marie Mon Dieu, I had procrastination problems in college (before the internets), stayed up til dawn and still got As. I still have procrastination problems. Now, I'm writing for a living, from home. I like the flexibility of it but sometimes I feel like I need the structure of being in an office with a boss. Although, certainly I know how to be a slacker in the office too.

For me, when it's not the internet, it's TV. What's been working for me with TV is that I allow myself to watch certain shows during the day but I can't watch at other times. Otherwise, I'll watch every flavor of CSI and Law and Order plus Animal Planet or Say Yes to the Dress (when I have no interest in weddings, wedding dresses or the strangers who try them on). Anyway, you get my drift. So, my rule is no TV except for the couple of specific shows I want to see. I have to work at all other times. I also cannot open any browser unless it's for research related to my work. Otherwise, I will research how to get a job in France. Or how to make beurre blanc sauce or bhindi masala. So, I keep the browser closed and set time limits, 3 hours of writing and I get 30 minutes of internet.

At least that's what I'm going to do as soon as this episode of Law and Order SVU goes off and I finish reading Le Figaro to practice my French...
posted by shoesietart at 7:19 PM on October 20, 2011

One thing that really helped me was changing my frame of reference. Don't think about studying or reading a chapter or writing five pages. Just think about starting. Make starting your goal everyday. Instead of "I'm going to write five pages of that paper" try "I'm going to start writing my paper." It doesn't matter how long you keep going, just as long as you start. I've found that once I start, I get sucked in and keep going. But if you think about this big massive thing you have to do, it can be hard to motivate yourself to start.
posted by unannihilated at 7:28 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get up at a decent hour, shower and get dressed immediately. This is the most important part. Now get out of your dorm/apartment, without your laptop, and eat breakfast somewhere else, or take a banana with you to the park. If you sincerely can't start on your project yet, take a paper book on whatever topic. The point is to increase your attention span. Get rid of your TV and game console or they will just become another distraction.

Make plans with other people that don't involve computers. Movies, museum, whatever. The more social I am, the less I (mis)use the internet.

Keep your environment clean. When I'm overwhelmed by the amount of housework, I distract myself with the internet.

I am terrible with this now that I work a 9-5 and don't have homework, but this worked for me in college/grad school. Blockers did not work; either I'd circumvent them or I'd just waste time on "allowed" sites. Addiction is about avoidance, and the brain will find other ways to avoid what you are avoiding. If you avoid your project in more productive ways (e.g., vacuuming, reading) you will build up the momentum and confidence needed to tackle your project.
posted by desjardins at 8:05 AM on October 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I could easily have written this question when I was at university. I think it's worth mentioning that several years later I finally got treatment for my depression. I still have a little bit of an internet problem, but it's nothing like as bad. I really wish I had had the self-insight to get this sorted out sooner.

The chances are that that isn't your problem; I have no other reason to think it might be. In general, however, I think it would be a good idea to think about the root causes of your behaviour. It sounds like you need to integrate a sense of relaxation and reward into your life more, so that you don't try to get your 'fix' of it from internet use. I agree with desjardins about making sure that your environment is pleasant and about spending time with people. You might think about meditation as a way to increase your tolerance for anxiety and discomfort. If there's something that's obviously making your day-to-day life worse, do something about it. And if the problem is simply that every day feels like a struggle, one you'd rather forget, then for god's sake do something about it. Believe me, you don't get extra points for struggling on without fixing the obvious problems in your life.

One additional thing I'd recommend is doing your work in a really nice cafe, without internet access: somewhere where you feel relaxed and can drink coffee and eat snacks. This always seemed like a waste of money to me when I was at university, but when compared to the cost of my education it would have been negligible.
posted by Acheman at 9:10 AM on October 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

One additional thing I'd recommend is doing your work in a really nice cafe, without internet access

This is a good point. Can you actually remove the wireless card from your laptop?
posted by desjardins at 10:01 AM on October 21, 2011

Here's a thought re: desjardins: Make a guest account with permission to run productivity software for your work and access the right documents, etc. Lock down it's internet (pretty sure Windows Vista and 7 do this with "Parental Controls", and I'm sure there's a way to do it in Mac and Linux). Temporarily (or permanently, depending on how much inconvenience you can stand) give your main and/or admin account a 25 character long string of alphanumerical soup as its password. Write it on a card, lock it up/hide it wherever you keep your valuables at home, and then leave for the cafe. If you can remember a 25 character long string with no rhyme nor reason, you are a certified genius and I am jealous of your success.

Otherwise, there's other tricks. For example, if you're so addicted you are at the point that wifi makes it too easy to cave, you can disable it on the hardware end by opening up your laptop and disconnecting the antenna cables with a service manual you can likely find online (fun fact: The antenna wire usually goes behind the monitor on laptops, which is why built-in wifi gets a better signal than wifi cards/dongles). The card itself is probably removable. I'd say uninstall the drivers, but Windows seems to have everything baked in these days.

But the biggest thing is finding a way to turn down the internet. A dedicated geek can pretty much squeeze internet from a stone, or easier yet, a locked down computer, which is a problem. And anyway you disable the internet that doesn't permanently disable it can be reversed. You need less willpower to turn down using a convoluted method to get internet as compared to just double click Chrome, but you still need some willpower.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:59 PM on October 23, 2011

Something I just tried that's working great: the MotivAider app for Android. I set it to make my phone vibrate once a minute, and if my phone vibrates and I'm wasting time online, I leave the internet and start doing what I want to do. The app keeps "do work, don't procrastinate" on my mind without making me feel guilty, and stops me from happily slipping into the Internet for hours. The app costs a few dollars, but the company that sells it also makes a pager-like device that they sell for 10x as much that I used for a few months many years ago on a therapist's recommendation, so I think the app's a good value. Now, watch as I turn off MetaFilter and get back to work!
posted by sninctown at 3:30 PM on November 5, 2011

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