My focus is all crocused
June 16, 2016 7:12 AM   Subscribe

I am having trouble getting work done and work, waking up, and going to bed because of distractions on my phone or on the internet. Lots of details inside, but what strategy has worked to "cut back" on distractions in your life? I know "stop doing all of these things" is the obvious answer, but how specifically would your recommend I try to stop?

Lately I have had trouble "buckling down" at work, and putting away distractions before bed/after waking. From being engaged in online communities, to keeping up with youtube subscriptions that engage and interest me, to refreshing snapchat stories, instagram feeds, and facebook feeds, to reading the top posts on metafilter and reddit /r/all, I have a lot of trouble going to bed (Gotta check all the notifications first!), Waking up (Gotta check all of the things that happened overnight!), and starting working at work. I wake at 6:30, I get to work by 8:30 and check my feeds until 10:30 or so, or if something especially dramatic or engaging happens, noon. When I go to bed I start "getting ready for bed" around 10, but don't end up putting my phone away until 11:15. Around 5 hours a day into social media, internet communities, youtube, etc.

Once I put away distractions, it's not a problem anymore. I'll put on my focusing music and I'll start to get real work done, working until I have nothing left to do. I'm well versed in things like the pomodoro technique, and blocking out all distractions. But, the main problem is actually STARTING the work, or actually not reading the latest thing in the feed.

1. It is probably some form of "fear of missing out".
2. I get a lot of reinforcement and reward from the stuff I look at, but I think I would get more happiness if I wasted less time (5 hours a day for a year is a LOT of time). The internet is just so interesting!
3. It has gotten in the way of my health and career goals.
4. It does feel absolutely habitual at this point.
5. I could trim out a lot of things (unfollow instagram people I don't know, unsubscribe from youtube videos that have daily 20 minute posts, etc), or I could try to give up entire mediums themselves (stop watching TV [just one episode a day isn't bad?])

Do you have any advice for me? Did you have a similar problem at some point, and what worked for you? Any ideas for what things I should "cut out" and what things I should keep?

...Thanks so much!
posted by bbqturtle to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Just want to emphasize that this will be a difficult process because I have learned so much and so much of who I am feels like it's things I've learned from reddit and youtube, and I get fun ideas from pinterest and instagram. Fashion, computer building, made gaming community friends, perfected skills, etc.
posted by bbqturtle at 7:13 AM on June 16, 2016

If you want to constrain time, alarms. Like, set on your phone for the week so you can't forget to set it one morning at work.

And think about where you're actually getting value and what you specifically want to do online. Find a few good focused feeds for each hobby. Avoid the kind of stuff where something "big" happens and you read all morning. That content will be there later if you want it. Knowing the hot takes on things becomes rapidly unimportant as you step back from the internet.

Also, make a list of other things you can do for breaks - make tea, short walk, sketch. Good luck!
posted by momus_window at 7:32 AM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just want to emphasize that this will be a difficult process because I have learned so much and so much of who I am feels like it's things I've learned from reddit and youtube, and I get fun ideas from pinterest and instagram. Fashion, computer building, made gaming community friends, perfected skills, etc.

Sometimes the internet feels compelling not because it is so interesting, but because it fills a need for us that we feel that we haven't gotten in real life. It is really hard, I think, to habituate those kinds of behaviors away, although perhaps not impossible. The best advice I've gotten is twofold:

1. Figure out if there are any hard emotional things that we are running from and whether we are trying to replace relational or relational deficiencies that exist in real life. If the internet is a replacement for those things, we can figure out (sometimes with the help of other professionals) how to recapture them in other places that aren't in cyberspace.

2. Regarding #1, that really is sometimes a tall order. (As I type right now, for example, I would rather engage with Metafilter than get myself to work.) The second piece of related advice is to see whether there is anything that we can do to replicate that feeling of belonging, excitement, sanctification, etc., in ways that are related to those other things we should be doing. E.g., job satisfcation, hobbies, other kinds of pursuits.

The hard part for #1 is that it's simply hard work to figure that stuff out, if it happens to be true. The hard part for #2 is that even when we find other good things, it doesn't always feel as compelling right away, due to what we are used to doing. (A whole night of reading a book and no computer?? That's torture. But then after awhile it isn't... and it can bring a pretty nice feeling with it.)

In a nutshell, new habit patterns and life hacks and tips for productivity can be useful as part of the big equation, but I think at the end of it all, it's a question of how to find real satisfaction in other kind of pursuits, with other kinds of external and internal rewards. That's a project worth pursuing, from my experience (although in full disclosure, I have only attained it in part and in piecemeal steps to get there.). This likely doesn't require a cold-turkey approach, but perhaps a "sharing of time" one with other kinds of external-world things you would like to cultivate. Some online life can be fine and rewarding in its own right, it's when it starts to infringe on those other things you mention that it can be problematic.

Good luck to you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:33 AM on June 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

I had this problem (still do a little bit but I'm improving) and the main thing which helped me was getting up in the morning and literally setting an alarm and no internet/phone/screens for 45 minutes. At all. So I make coffee and open my mail and watch birds and read books. I do the same thing before bed but without an alarm. Just read a book or my non-lit-up Kindle Keyboard before I go to sleep. And this sets the tone for my life not being an internet life. I mean the internet is part of my life. This is, of course, exacerbated by having a variety of online jobs and one of the reasons working at MeFi was so hard, because it just made a lot of this nominally "work" and ergo okay and yet there was too much of it that I was managing poorly which was not okay.

What people say is addicting about the internet stuff is the "seeking mechanism" the "What is going to happen next" feeling. Except nowadays instead of one soap opera you have 1000 mini soap operas and (sometimes) follow them to the exclusion of your real life not-quite-as-compelling personal soap opera of your friends, job, neighbors and family. I've been there, it's a problem.

So yes, unsubscribing or giving yourself an "internet diet" of things. And maybe turning off some of the notifications so that, for example, you go look at Snapchat when you have time but you don't see the little popups that say "A new thing just happened" and moving your phone a little bit away from you when you work. I also found that working at a standing desk makes it easier for me to focus, no idea why this is. Sitting is loafing to me now, which doesn't mean I don't do it but that I've gotten more fussy about health things and so I try to stand more which means i loaf less.

It might be helpful to know what your actual job is (is it online and so you get distracted with other web tabs or is it offline so you can't even check this stuff when you are at work?) and whether you are producing content or just consuming it, because maybe you could shift more from the latter to the former.
posted by jessamyn at 7:33 AM on June 16, 2016 [14 favorites]

FOMO: This Is The Best Way To Overcome Fear Of Missing Out

"Here’s where FOMO comes from and how to beat it:

FOMO starts with sadness. For the best way to feel better and stop the problem before it starts, click here.

Social media makes it worse, not better. Facebook isn’t evil — but relying on it for happiness is.

Happiness is about attention. Focus on the good and you will feel good.

Gratitude is essential. Imagine losing the things you’re lucky to have and you will appreciate them."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:36 AM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I talked about this in another thread recently as a form of compulsive "novelty-seeking" with the justification that one is "better informed" so it's a good thing, not bad. And I get it, because you do know more things, but it is entirely possible that you could still be a well-rounded (and be careful that you don't actually mean superior when you think that) person with a tenth of that input. I don't have any particular problem with being a dilettante, I'm one too, but at some point you ought to pick one or two things and drill down. Place some value on not being overstimulated.

To that end, take a hard look at what's actual high value. Nobody learns shit from snapchat, and pinterest is an aspiration catalog that makes people feel bad about themselves, which is pretty much what instagram has become so pick one. Just announcing yourself as a reddit user is enough to make other people take two steps back from you, on top of just being far more information than anybody needs in their daily rounds, so maybe choose a less garbagey life over the firehose of info stimulation you can get there. If you must use it, get off r/all. Pick one amazingly good single-topic sub and stop there.

Go find a role model. Just about anyone you can find who is exceptionally good at something - physical or mental work - does not have time to firehose the internet into their face every day, because they're actually working on the thing.

Clean up your Facebook and Twitter to essentials you can peek in on 2-3 times a day at most and learn to live with stale notifications. Give yourself one hour (maybe during or after dinner) for your daily youtube block and curate your programming more carefully.

Set a screen-time curfew. If things are so bad at first you need to charge your phone in the kitchen and use an actual alarm clock in the mornings, do that. Read a paper book or write in a paper journal.

The thing about all that novelty-seeking is that you're spending no time with your own thoughts. You're just bathing in information but not really thinking hard about it. Be more selective about what you bathe in, spend more time processing. It will be hard. Boo hoo. It will be less hard the more you practice.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:39 AM on June 16, 2016 [11 favorites]

The only practical advice I can give you--especially from a health/exercise/getting stuff done in the morning standpoint--is I have stopped turning on my computer when I get up until after I have exercised or done something I need or want to do that is not internet-related, and I have removed most social media apps from my devices. There is no need for me to check FB or whatevs during my day or before I get going. Everything happening on there will still be there when I do get time for it.
posted by Kitteh at 7:44 AM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have flirted with MMO addiction a few times in my life. It seems impossible to stop spending 8-12 hours a day on a game until I actually stop doing it. And then I wonder why it was so hard to stop because I don't miss it at all until I get the itch to start again, usually with years stretching out in between four or six months of intense play.

So the key was to figure out what itch I was scratching. I start playing MMOs when I feel especially lonely and depressed. It's an excellent distraction mechanism regardless of how maladaptive it is. Cheaper than drugs and food, too. And I am really fucking good at video games, so I always end up being the guild leader or raid leader of the number 2 or 3 guild on my server within a couple months of re-activating. It's awesome to feel competent at something when the rest of my life is garbage. So that's another piece of it.

Sometimes I don't care and re-activate anyway. Other times I resist the urge by consciously doing something more productive. Feeling lonely? Stop reflexively refusing all family invitations. Feeling incompetent and like a garbage person? Knit baby hats for the hospital. Feeling depressed? Not much I can do about that since I live in a mental health desert, but I can at least try to be better about food, sleep, and taking my thyroid medication.

So you should try to figure out what your own emptiness is all about and how social media fills that hole and what the reward for procrastination is. Then try to address those things with new behaviors that make sense for you and scratch the itch in a more productive way. In your situation I would consider starting with social media being the reward rather than the lead-in to your work day. Allow yourself to check your feeds after you complete some definable work block. Maybe at lunch.
posted by xyzzy at 7:55 AM on June 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate the "solve the underlying itch" advice, and I am ready to replace the time with healthier things. More time with people I like, etc. I don't think expounding on that will be particularly helpful, I'm more looking for ways I can break this bad habit.

I feel like I have to look at my phone frequently to talk to family and friends using messenger applications, and stay up to date on shifting work appointments. I find myself also checking the aforementioned social media platforms and getting sucked into a hole. Do you guys recommend checking my phone less frequently, or is there a way to use my phone as a messenger device and less as a social media device that you would recommend?

In addition, at work, like right now, I have this post which is super interesting, so naturally I check it instead of working every few minutes. Because I haven't "buckled down". I don't think I'm checking this post because of an underlying psychological need. I'm checking it because it seems interesting. My work is interesting too, but there is so much enjoyment to "riding the wave" of the developing process.
posted by bbqturtle at 8:01 AM on June 16, 2016

In addition, at work, like right now, I have this post which is super interesting, so naturally I check it instead of working every few minutes. Because I haven't "buckled down". I don't think I'm checking this post because of an underlying psychological need. I'm checking it because it seems interesting. My work is interesting too, but there is so much enjoyment to "riding the wave" of the developing process.

Not to press this too much, as you know yourself much better than anyone else, but the "more interesting thing" can have subtle underlying things that prompt it, as well. Some of the more successful people in life that I've bumped into have stressed contentment as a important underlying virtue, to the extent that they can attain it. What was interesting is that this rarely means "negotiating life details until I find the most interesting thing," it was "learning to be internally settled, despite what I am doing." This doesn't mean that we don't try to find things that are interesting, or that we are internally settled under horrible circumstances. It just means that we don't try to find excitement with an external life to the extent that if we don't have it, it causes us to be unsettled or doing things that disappoint us.

So, a good habit for me has been to ask "what makes me content with my life situation?" even when I'm doing something boring at work. It doesn't mean gamifying it (although it might), it means finding an internal constitution that allows me to stay with it and delay gratification. Again, for me, this has been in part finding techniques, distractions, replacements. But it's also been about asking what it is that develops a virtue of contentment such that I don't need to be finding replacements if my current scenario is less than ideal. As we learn to be content, we tend to look less for inappropriate or disproportionately weighted replacements.

My apologies if this doesn't match up to your current situation, so feel free to ignore it if not. It's something that has been super helpful to me, so I share it with you, just in case it makes any sense for you.

Again, good luck.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:13 AM on June 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Deinstall your social media apps. Put your phone in a locked drawer, your car, or a locker when you're at work-- check it on your lunch break and then put it away again. Put your phone in a drawer or a box when you're at home and check it once after dinner, then set it to charge in a box where you can't see its blinky lights. There is very little that is actually urgent-- I've let my friends and family know that if they need me urgently, they can call me at home, at work, or try my sister, or they can message me and wait until I have time to engage. (I don't put up with people who expect an instant answer.)

It sounds like your problem is largely scheduling work? Have you tried making a schedule in the morning of everything you need to accomplish and when you plan to do it? I'm on MeFi right now because my work at this time of day is largely "sitting at a desk and waiting for something to happen" but in an hour I have to actually do something. The hour after that is open for whatever. I don't really mind doing boring work since I know I have fun stuff coming up, and the satisfaction of getting everything done is nice. If you knew that you had a plan and that the plan included enjoyable fun things and social check-ins, would you be able to better stick to the plan? This is the "a place for everything, and everything in its place" method of doing work.

I used to be really wrapped up in reading blogs until I realized that 90% of my interests were theory, and 10% were practice, and that this made me hella boring. I decided to narrow down a list of what I wanted to actually accomplish in real life, then made a plan to do it. When I started doing this regularly, a lot of my online life dropped away. At first I got kind of panicky about missing out, but I refocused on what I actually value and how I wanted to accomplish that. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. So I could wish I were cool...or I could do something that makes me cool. The trick to doing anything is actually doing it, and it takes a firm decision to start and stick with it, even if at first you don't succeed fully.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:23 AM on June 16, 2016 [9 favorites]

Two things that help me:
(1) A habit of 'do work first' each time I login to my computer. When I felt like internet surfing was out-of-control it was in part because I would login to my computer and think, "ok, I'm going to check these websites really quickly, and then do some work." Reversing the order of that sequence to, "ok, I'm going to do some work and then check websites" really shifted daily momentum toward getting some work done.

(2) Sleep. I find that I drift into more 'self-stimulating' activities (i.e., websites, games) when I'm a little sleepy. At this stage, if it's 2:30 in the afternoon and I can't pull myself away from random web surfing, that's my key to take a 30 minute nap, which makes the rest of the day so much more productive.
posted by Doc_Sock at 8:50 AM on June 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

...I'm more looking for ways I can break this bad habit...

I'll share what I've been doing, and I focus on this aspect (ie, habits, breaking the bad ones, building the preferable ones). This will sound overly simplistic, but it works for me, and for the love of bejeebuz left to my own devices I can spend the entire day on the internet .

I went through and thought what habits do I want to build that are preferable to mindlessly clicking this and that. So a few things that I came up (and it sounds like it might overlap with you) were things like - a certain amount of exercise each day, working on learning and practicing activity Y each day, etc. So I got out the old spread sheet/excel, and put a few of those things on there and with certain categories (ie, walk 1 hour, walk 1 hour, edit or write 1 hour, whatever you get the idea). Now each time I do one of those activities, I get 1 point. Each day I add up the points. After so many points, I get a prize that I don't normally give myself (in myself, it is a game...on the internet (yes, I know), but in this case it is a sometimes thing and NOT the main activity). But seriously, every day, check off for doing your preferred things. I put more points to the things that are more or most important.

Once a week, I review the list and reassess and modify the plan accordingly (this is for a point, too) - but if you look at some of the (lab) research on habit building, this is an important criteria - not just doing it everyday, but checking why it is not happening and modifying a plan if need be to build a habit.

Also, if this helps, a few areas that you might modify on your list of distractions. I, too, can get sucked into the YT world. But here is the thing - if you subscribe - it is still there, a week later, a month later, etc. So why would you need to be there every hour checking? Use the features for what they offer and provide.

Ask yourself the "why" behind some things. I'm not going to go into all the theoretical emotions, but ...let's pretend you are trying to learn skill X. Okay. Give yourself permission to read a question/read an article, read a book, whatever. But make sure that part of the plan, a more significant part of the plan, is doing it (ie, don't read 100000 "how to write" articles/videos/watch movies because "research" - but then spend 1 hour actually practicing whatever it is.), because we can easily fool ourselves into "it's learning."

You mention TV - I would throw it out or cancel it because - isn't that what you get with YT and all the other 10000 apps - you can stream most of what is out there, selectively, commercial free (or throw out one of the other things). That is to say, if one or more are redundant, throw out one of the other ones.

Also, if it gets bad, and you need to work on breaking the habit, in addition to web blockers (ie, StayFocused or others), there are often "nuke" features that you can automatically start at any time (so no websites for X hours), or block your access to certain websites during certain times of the day, etc.

Good luck. As I sit here inside a website that distracts me.
posted by Wolfster at 9:04 AM on June 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

I feel like I have to look at my phone frequently to talk to family and friends using messenger applications,

Unless one of those people is in the hospital with you making their medical decisions, or possibly you are providing input to a childcare worker (who should not need your constant babysitting in order to babysit, get a better one), this is a want not a need. Talk to them on your own time, not your employer's.

Use Outlook [presumably, but if not Outlook then a dedicated competing product] for all work and let your computer tell you about meetings. I even use a separate mail app (Mail+, which works very well with Office365 servers) for work mail for those moments when I am not at a computer.

You might consider integrating a Pomodoro-style scheduling technique into your day, so that you get a 5-10 minute bathroom/snack/addiction break every cycle. I do that, and I keep in mind I'm not getting paid to be on Metafilter, and nothing here is so important it can't wait an hour. Even breaking news, unless it is happening outside your window and you are trying to get away unharmed, does not actually require you personally monitoring it. You are not participating, you are spectating.

And the less you do it, the less urgent it becomes. But but but yes, it all feels so important right now, but if you spent a week doing it less, next week it won't feel quite so important. You are going to have to feel a moment or two of discomfort along the way, though.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:43 AM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I intentionally DON'T finish all my work when I'm in a groove.

I leave one thing that is fairly easy to do incomplete. When I get to work the following day, instead of procrastinating because I have a new, hard task to do and avoiding getting started, I can get into the groove again by knocking out that one easy thing that's left over.
posted by festivus at 9:53 AM on June 16, 2016 [9 favorites]

There is a pretty popular productivity method dedicated to "eating the big frog first". The idea being that if you knew you had to eat at least one live frog today, best to get it over with first thing and let that be the worst thing you do all day. Everything else will look much better and easier by comparison.

I definitely struggle with actually DOING this thing that I'm mentioning, but I do find that when I actually can get started on something first thing, it really does affect how much I'm able to do the rest of the day, because I'm already on a roll. If you can make a deal with yourself that's even just like "Okay, check all the social profiles you want before work, but at 8:30 sharp, start the most important thing you have to do today." You may find that when you get into the groove, you end up checking your apps less frequency because you're already pretty deep into something else.

There are also some great free tools like RescueTime that you can install on your computer. Not only do you get a weekly email of your productivity score (based on what websites you're frequenting) but I believe it also has a function that will lock you out of any website that you specify after a certain amount of time if you find you're spending too much time on it. Granted, this doesn't do much for phone apps like Snapchat, but it could help with Reddit and YouTube, if you take the apps off your phone or just make a point to leave your phone in your bag during the work day and not check it except at lunch or something.

Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:19 AM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a hard time with this, too. I've not been entirely successful, but here are some things I've been doing for a while that help.

1--I only engage social media (like now) via my phone. It's less rewarding to type and poke around on my phone, so I do it less than if I used my laptop to explore.

2--I also usually spend my first hour or so of the workday with my phone in hand. This is the period when the work laptop is firing up, I'm opening programs and documents and setting the stage for the day. I don't think this time is better spent with full focus on work. It's a sort of grey area, a transition between personal and work times. After about an hour, I slip my phone into a desk drawer, with notifications silenced. This, more than anything, keeps my focus from being interrupted, and interrupted focus is really the root of the problem for me. All the notifications don't just keep me from starting things, they interrupt me--they mess with my flow. Since I like feeling flow, I don't fight against keeping those notifications out of sight and out of mind.

3--At lunch, I try not to peek at those notifications. I try to leave that time relatively free from work and play. This is when my brain rests. I aim to spend my lunch break outdoors as frequently as possible, and that helps put that personal agenda front and center: I'm mindful of the food I eat, I'm mindful of the sun on my face and the sounds of the birds and bees and cars and people around me. I look at things, out there, off in the distance, distance that's greater than from eyes to screen.

4--I have kids, so the return-to-home usually includes a couple hour period when people are on various devices. I'm usually the one making dinner, so I don't mind listening to podcasts or thumbing through metafilter while we have our collective alone time. Same happens after dinner, when people are just chilling out in their own ways.

5--My only exceptions to these rules are when I'm traveling between meeting A and B, building A and B, traveling for work (which is often), or otherwise breaking from routine. I get in a lot of my social media-type time in these already-disordered periods. They fit together naturally, since those aren't times when I am or need to be focused (like now, when I've got 25 minutes on public transit).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:57 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sometimes when I feel I'm on Twitter too much, I delete the app from my phone for a while. Extend this to whichever apps full of endless possibilities of New Content For Small Attention Spans you get stuck in.

Explore ways to make the phone ask for your attention when one of the people you're worried about missing something from talks to you, and be silent otherwise. For instance I mostly use Telegram for IMs nowadays; I have it set to not make any noise when most people talk to me, but to alert me when the ex-with-benefits says something.

Honestly though I kinda want to say go cold turkey on it for a few days. Just stop looking at all these endlessly-flowing streams of minutiae, the really important stuff will get to you anyway. I do stuff like that whenever I feel like my attention span has shrunk too much. Meditate, go for walks, think slow thoughts. Be bored. Embrace being bored. Really. When I find myself enjoying being bored, I know I've been hitting the social media too damn hard lately.
posted by egypturnash at 11:12 PM on June 16, 2016

I solved this by having three devices: a work computer, a smartphone without timewasters and a tablet with. I also have a rule that during work hours I can only check internet-y things on the tablet, not on my computer. For a long time I even had Whatsapp side-loaded onto the tablet, but now I just have it on my phone and turn notifications off. Even when the tablet is sitting next to me, just picking it up makes me feel guilty enough that I don't. Obviously you don't need three separate devices, but corralling off your timewasting as far as possible is helpful.
posted by tavegyl at 11:35 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Brother, I have found my Interest rises and falls. Follow your interest, and don't worry. Reading "war and piece" isn't actually better than reading about trolls on reddit. Just be good with who you are, and let go of the pressure to always be making a good use of your time.

Second, one thing I just started doing is tracking my daily activities with a chronodex. I fill in the chunks I feel I made a good use of time.

Feel free to send me articles you think are interesting - I want to spend more time talking about interesting things myself!
posted by rebent at 4:09 PM on June 24, 2016

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