help me reverse my cravings for distracting information
November 8, 2013 8:53 PM   Subscribe

Over the past year, I noticed some pretty frustrating behavior in myself (it wasn't always like this). It seems like I'm always craving a distraction and so these distractions have become highly interspersed with my work -- a huge time sucker.

For example, if I find myself opening my browser to check a fact, I just meander over to Facebook, my email, backer news, reddit in hopes that there's new, "interesting" content. If I find myself frustrated with a math problem, I think "time to take a break, maybe just a peek at YouTube for something fun." Of course, like any distraction, even though I plan for "just a minute", it can end up being 15 to 30 minute chunks of my time -- gone.

It's almost like an addiction. I wouldn't say it fully is, because if I can get lost in my work. It's just that I rarely find myself in this position. Believe me, I take more than enough normal breaks, these distraction breaks aren't overcompensation for overworking.

Here's what I've tried so far:
- I disabled my Facebook cold turkey for about 4 or 5 months. I noticed that instead of checking Facebook, I began refreshing my gmail inbox significantly more.
- I've tried using programs like LeechBlock, and StayFocusd which put a limit on time wasting sites. The problem is I struggle to adhere to the policies and I end up disabling the block. I tried programs like SelfControl which completely (and irreversibly) block time wasting sites, and it works quite well. But my inner enjoyment for these mini-distractions prevent me from always wanting to pull the trigger.
- On my phone, I deleted my email and Facebook app. Then I noticed myself checking the New York Times app significantly more frequently.

So, in conclusion, the thing is: I kind of like these little distractions, but I don't really like the results and so I want to work against it. Also, when I close off portals to distraction, I find myself creating loopholes. I'm a bit "scared" to pull the trigger on really drastic measures, like completely disabling these sites (is this advisable?)

I imagine that this problem is only going to become worse for people of my generation and future generations; I've certainly noticed similar behavior in friends and younger relatives they show no desire to change. I'd appreciate any advice others have to give.
posted by ptsampras14 to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 135 users marked this as a favorite
In his book The Procrastination Equation, Piers Steel describes a very useful technique: reserve your workspace for working. If you need a break and you want to check xkcd, for example, don't check it from your desk--instead, get up and go somewhere else. (Most useful if you have a laptop or a smartphone.)

Apparently physical location is a very strong trigger for habits. (Also see The Power of Habit, a recent book by NYT reporter Charles Duhigg.)

Steel has lots of other good suggestions, but I thought this was the most powerful one. He writes:
Most usefully, you can make your place of work itself a cue, so that focus comes automatically as soon as you sit down.

This strategy requires dedicating your environment exclusively to labor. To do this, work in your office until your motivation leaves you and goofing off becomes irresistible. At this point, do your web surfing, your social networking, your game playing somewhere else.

... If you keep work and play in discrete domains, associations will build and attention will become effortless--your environment will be doing all the heavy motivational lifting. Three studies have investigated the effectiveness of this technique with students, and found that the use of dedicated work areas decreased procrastination significantly within weeks.

... Without this segregation between work and play, you get conflicting cues every time you sit down at your desk, one indicating that you should research your report and the other egging you on to check your Facebook page.
posted by russilwvong at 9:32 PM on November 8, 2013 [32 favorites]

I am going to recommend a video on YouTube which is just a short interview with Professor Clifford Nass from Stanford, who made digital distraction something of a specialty - even wrote a decent book on the topic.

I would have recommended this interview anyway, but it's ironic, as Professor Nass died last Saturday of a sudden heart attack after a hike near Lake Tahoe at age 55. A real tragedy. A huge loss.

You'll see other videos from him on YouTube (including a rather renowned address that runs over an hour), but start with this video!

Ignore the "tweenage" in the YouTube title. He spends all of twenty seconds on that. It's a fascinating introduction to the thought of Professor Nass on this topic.

See if you don't relate. Nass offers many ideas on how to tackle this problem in other videos, writings, his book, etc. But along with the tools that you mentioned, it's important to recognize it as an emotional tech/life imbalance - as you said, it's like an addiction.

I also recommend The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers.

This is a problem that is incredibly common, but too easily brushed off. There are serious ramifications to what I call, "link chasing," and the new challenges of digital distraction(s).

Here's the Nass interview (Godspeed, Professor Nass - you will be missed!)

Good luck, friend and have a great weekend!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 9:40 PM on November 8, 2013 [15 favorites]

I have had luck with the "Unfuck Your Habitat" method of planning my breaks. Generally I set a timer for 45 minutes of work followed by a 15 minute break. 45 minutes is a short enough time for me to keep working, knowing that I have a break coming up. And a lot of times I'll keep going after 45 minutes or cut the break short because I was making good progress.
posted by sacrifix at 9:54 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Suggest figuring out what you don't want to think or feel that causes this--a negative emotion or thought you're avoiding. This is at the core of procrastination.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:03 PM on November 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

You are me, or you were me. I have also tried all the things you have tried and had the same issues with them. I still have this tendency, but it was worst for me when I was trying to write up my PhD. It still affects me, I've accepted that because I am "curious" I am also "distractible".

There are a few things that have helped me though.

1. Timeboxing - I can motivate myself to work on something for 30 minutes without distraction. If I commit myself to doing this then I often find that I get into a "flow" and I can get much more done than originally planned, for hours sometimes without distraction.

2. Game-ification - Giving myself little challenges and rewards really does make a difference. As a small example I have made a huge amount more progress in the last year on a long-term very stagnant goal of improving my French language skills because I've started using duolingo and memrise which are both highly game-ified.

3. Habituation - Tying things I want to turn into habits (e.g. writing) to other habits (my morning coffee) gradually means that I automatically begin to do them. You develop this urge, once something becomes routine, to move from one activity to another automatically. As it gets hardwired you actually get a sense of unease if you don't. In terms of keeping going I've found that Jerry Seinfeld's productivity technique of "don't break the chain" helps me motivate myself to keep going (and the website helps me track it).

I'm still a procrastinator, but using these tricks means that I am now a much more productive procrastinator.
posted by inbetweener at 10:47 PM on November 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

If I find myself frustrated with a math problem, I think "time to take a break, maybe just a peek at YouTube for something fun." Of course, like any distraction, even though I plan for "just a minute", it can end up being 15 to 30 minute chunks of my time -- gone.
I'm (ahem) familiar with this phenomenon. I while ago, I read The Now Habit, which I'd recommend to you. It wasn't a silver bullet, but it did help me to recognize my procrastinating habits and partially deal with them. If I remember rightly, The Now Habit deals specifically with the "time to take a break" problem: the advice, I think, was that you give yourself the break -- but only after you've given some more effort to the problem. This has two advantages:

1. The promised reward motivates you to keep working.

2. It reduces the reluctance to return to work. Because if you take a break every time you get to a hard bit, you know that when you return to work the first thing you'll see is that same hard bit. If you take the break after (or at least part-way into) the hard bit, you at least know that there isn't a sheer cliff-face in front of you when you turn back to your work.

I've had some luck with this in programming work: one of my easiest regular tasks is checking in my work to a revision control system. Often I'll solve a problem and give myself a break, knowing that the first thing I have to do on the next session is to check in my previous work. This is both easy and satisfying (because I have to look through the problem I solved and write down what I achieved), and eases me neatly into the next work session.

Another technique I occasionally use is to use other (more appealing) work as procrastination. (There's a website on this somewhere which I don't have time to hunt down now.) I got a lot of useful stuff done while trying to avoid filling out my tax return this year.
posted by pont at 3:12 AM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

To add to the great suggestions above for separate "work time" and "break time," I've found Yast helpful. It's for time-tracking—a complimentary timing approach, if you will, a stopwatch rather than a timer. When I have it running, it feels a bit easier to fend off distractions, because Yast is for measuring work time, and if I want to look at not-work-stuff, then I need to click the button and turn off the timer. I prefer to get focused in and work until a task is done, rather than interrupting my work at arbitrary intervals when a timer goes off, so this method works better for me than a Pomodoro timer.

Side bonus: you get a record of how much you've worked during the day. I am great at beating myself up at the end of the day because I was distracted all day and didn't work enough, which amps up my stress and makes it harder to work done the next day. Yast gives me objective information to evaluate, and it's helped my find a balance of work time and break time that lets me be productive.
posted by BrashTech at 8:45 AM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Download and install "Stay Focusd" for Chrome. I'm sure there are other browser equivalents. It's WONDERFUL. You put in every site that normally distracts you (youtube, reddit etc), and set a time limit per day (within whatever hours you like) that you can use them. I get to procrastinate for 30 minutes per day between the time of 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Yes, you can uninstall the extension at any time. And you can use a different browser. But it actually takes a step to cheat the system, which will stop your idle browsing of rubbish. It stopped mine.

The one other awesome feature is that if you want to make the app more strict, you can do it. If you want it to be less strict, it takes 24 hours for the changes to take effect. In other words, no quick changing of the rules to get onto Facebook.

When I need to procrastinate, I now read a book. Bonus. :)
posted by omnigut at 10:30 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Damnit. Sorry, I missed that you had tried Stay Focusd before. I have no improvements on what the others have said. But I do find watching people in the industries I work in, who are insanely successful, and asking myself "would they be doing what I'm doing?" normally works for me.
posted by omnigut at 10:32 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could make LeechBlock permanent. You'd just want to make sure the settings were correct. The truth is, I suffer from the same thing. Why do I want to know who designed the dollar bill or where fish tacos were invented or how sinkholes form? I don't know. Anything that pops into my head, I have a real compulsion to look it up.

For me, I uninstalled things like Tumblr off my phone. I stopped keeping my laptop in my bedroom so that I couldn't continue googling stuff when I should really be trying to fall asleep. And even though I didn't do LeechBlock's irreversible option, setting a time limit and having it display did help. I think I set a group of time wasting sites for like an hour, maybe two, and mostly I'd stick to it. Just knowing how much time I was spending on the sites helped make me realize it was enough and I didn't need more. It also made me be more efficient when I was on those sites.

But it's not as if I don't have this problem still. And anytime I want, I can still just waste all the time in the world.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:18 AM on November 9, 2013

Write a script to turn SelfControl on and off every x hours with a y minute break?

You don't need to think about it then.......
posted by lalochezia at 9:38 AM on November 10, 2013

I don't know if this Quora thread on procrastination will help, but it might be worth a look.

FWIW, I've tried all the browser plugins and an app or two, but none of them work on corporate networks. I don't know what voodoo makes that happen, but I wish I could stop it. I've even tried editing my hosts file, which worked well at several previous employers, but not my current one.
posted by TheDonF at 7:26 PM on November 11, 2013

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