How do I keep myself from zoning out and letting hours slip by doing nothing when I'm online?
August 7, 2006 8:09 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep myself from zoning out and letting hours slip by doing nothing when I'm online?

(Apologies if this has been asked before, but none of the keywords I've thought of have yielded anything similar.)

I'm a smart (I love to read and have been told I'm a pretty thoughtful writer and conversationalist), athletic (I'm in the middle of training for a marathon), spontaneous (my past is littered with rather random travels, often booked mere hours to days in advance) guy. But I'm going nowhere, really: a year after completing a rather prestigious master's program in international relations and economics, I'm still temping at an organization wholly outside my field of interest.

In my eyes, the biggest reason I haven't gotten my act together is that I spend so much time online looking at stupid crap (present company excluded). The thing is, it seems rather infeasible to me to conduct a job search/life realignment completely offline. I've done a lot of the exercises in What Color Is Your Parachute? with pen and paper, which has been helpful, but even that staid advisor suggests doing a ton of online research.

Numerous times, I've attempted to make a list of the things I need to do online (pay bills, fill out a form for work, look up job announcements, read an interesting news article,* write a lengthy email or order a gift for a friend, etc.), but as soon as I open the browser my eyes glaze over and I check my mail...go to TWoP...go to Pajiba...check my mail...go to GFY.... After a couple of hours, I force myself to turn away, but I usually haven't managed to do the things I had originally planned to do. I have very little oversight at work and when I go home I do pretty much the same thing there.

The overall question: How do I stay alert while online and impose discipline on myself? (The secondary issue--that of the job search--leads me to believe the best job for me would be one where I'm not staring at a screen all day.)

*The same article I would have no trouble reading in the print edition of the Washington Post or the Economist ends up being "too much effort" when it's on-screen and I nagivate over to the AV Club. I also end up skipping the longer responses in most MeFi threads I read too.
posted by kittyprecious to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
You may have undiagnosed ADHD. You might want to look into getting screened. It's typical to be able to hyperfocus on something you're very interested in, but not be able to do anything about things that you need to do.

How did you cope while you were in school? You may need to modify your habits and study skills to help you with life outside of school.

I tend to have the same problem, and I find that Getting Things Done and productivity hacks tend to help me with getting things done.
posted by gregschoen at 8:29 AM on August 7, 2006

Don't go for your daily run until the evening hours?

When I was training for a marathon, a long morning run would waste my productivity for the entire day. Zoning-outsville till supertime.

A change in your running schedule might fix that.
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:41 AM on August 7, 2006

well, obviously advice is hard to give without knowing more about you, but, assuming its not really a "medical" -type brain issue like ADHD, I'd say you have to just try and make little dents. Baby steps. Try the old reward method, where you do something you need to do, then do some of your browsing, then something else off your list. Use lists. Then reward yourself when you get something done. I think if you can start rewarding yourself approriately, you may find your balance starting to change, as you really start feeling better about this. If you can change the way you think about chores/tasks, as something there's actually a reward for doing, you may be able to change things. Its a constant battle...
posted by alkupe at 8:42 AM on August 7, 2006

I kinda skimmed your post, so forgive me if I missed something-jk-, but let me tell you that I know exactly what you're talking about. You know you need to make a decision, it's a hard one, so you avoid it by finding diversions online. If you're not motivated to work on your to-do list, you'll find ways to waste time, whether it be websites or making paper-clip sculptures. I don't let myself read certain sites or feeds when I'm at work or supposed to be doing something else, but if I'm genuinely not motivated, I've realized I have two options. Either do something on my list anyways, or give myself permission to screw around. If I try to tell myself I should be working, but I haven't made either of the two decisions above, I end up screwing around for hours and hating myself for wasting time. Usually if I give myself permission to waste time, I skip the self-loathing part and end up getting back to work sooner. Other things that work are to get up and take a walk, go get a coke or some coffee, go chat with someone.

Go through your bookmarks and delete the strictly entertainment-related ones from your work computer, or if you use a laptop, create a work and a home firefox profile. If you use a feed reader, delete or file away the strictly entertainment related feeds in similar fashion.

When you get right down to it, you're either going to get some work done, or you're not, and you just have to make the decision one way or the other. Just don't fall into the trap of saying, I'm working, but I just want to check this out first. Be honest with yourself about whether you're working or screwing off, and own that decision.

OK, I'm off to check out those sites you mentioned...

on preview, I find that GTD and Lifehacker are some of the best ways to fool yourself into thinking you're getting something done(like organizing your desk drawers), but ymmv. Also, expect about every other person who replies to this during North American working hours to suggest you've got ADD. Consider the source.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:45 AM on August 7, 2006

Mr Gunn, you're absolutely right about alot of the GTD and (especially) Lifehacker. Every now and then there's something good. Personally I find the HipsterPDA the most valuable tool in the entire world. It's gotten me more organized then I could have ever imaged I could be.

Blast, now I'm checking those links too.. more bookmarks... ack.
posted by gregschoen at 8:52 AM on August 7, 2006

The question doesn't call for a diagnosis of ADHD or a medical screening. The question is, how can kittyprecious stop goofing off on the computer?

I have the same problem, and for me the easiest solution (though it's an ongoing struggle) was to admit that, on my home computer, I'm going to goof off anyway. You win, computer. When I need to actually get something important, I leave the house and go somewhere else with a computer and internet access. When I was a grad student, I'd let myself into my building during off hours and use the computer labs, now I use my office, or a nearby coffeeshop.

I think it's a similar issue to what they say about not being able to get to sleep in a bed if you also read or watch television in it. Your brain doesn't associate it entirely with sleep anymore.

There's also the whole Getting Things Done movement, which has a lot of tools and resources on the internet. I've never tried it myself.
posted by Hildago at 8:55 AM on August 7, 2006

Here are a few suggestions for how to limit time on the computer:

1. Set an alarm. When you first sit down at the computer, set a 30min alarm. In that 30 min, you can do whatever you want on the computer, productive or not. When the alarm goes off, you MUST stop using the computer altogether. Set another 30min alarm for yourself, and STEP AWAY. Read a book, wash dishes, whatever. When THAT 30min is up, you can go back to the computer for another 30. You might decide to be a little productive this time and pay the bills first before going back to that 14-page TWoP Gilmore Girls recap.
The idea here is that by interrupting yourself and getting away from the computer, you get more opportunities to start fresh on the computer, and to limit it to equal time with non-computer things.

2. Use an exercise ball for a chair. I decided to do this a few months ago, and it took a while to find the right ball. Also, at 5'4", the ball that works (65cm) is a little big for me, but so much the better. My theory is that I would be less likely to "ensconce" myself in front of the computer if I didn't feel ensconced at my desk. The ball is comfortable, but with no back or armrests, it's not a couch, and it helps remind me I'm there for a reason. A purpose. To pay the bills.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 11:24 AM on August 7, 2006

I have this problem. In spades. I'll be watching this thread.

One thing I've found that works (to an extent) is to set up a specific period of time (say, one or two weeks) during which I'm not allowed to use the Internet for anything that isn't directly related to some activity in Real Life. The activity has to be something I'm actually planning to do, too--no researching theoretical trips to Kenya, exciting new gadgets, or new productivity tools unless I'm serious about implementing the results. The focus on "doing things in Real Life" keeps me thinking about interesting activities I could be pursuing that don't involve staring at a screen.

I've found this works pretty well insofar as it leaves little room for loopholes while still allowing me the freedom to keep up my social contacts, use Google Maps, and research jobs/purchases/whatever. The main drawback is that after the set time period I tend to lapse back into undirected surfing--I haven't found a workable way to set limits on my "pleasure surfing" of blogs and newsgroups. It always ends up being all or nothing.
posted by fermion at 11:50 AM on August 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

2 things that helped me :

1) Use RSS feeds to help you keep up with sites you're interested in without visiting them. You can do this by using Bloglines. However make sure that you don't subscribe to too many websites. Combined with this, I use The Bloglines Notifier, set to only check once an hour.

2) Time how long you spend browsing time-wasting sites. You could use something like this firefox extension to help you do it. Then you use this to only allow yourself x minutes of time-wasting browsing.
posted by spark at 12:01 PM on August 7, 2006

I have this problem, in spades.

I do have ADD — I had this problem for years before I knew that. A major blossoming of this problem played no small part in the stuff that led me to finally get diagnosed. ADD is certainly something to consider, but it is not by any means a certainty: you can have the character traits you mention without it.

Simply strategies like Getting Things Done and such can be helpful, so check those out.

I have the exercise ball thing, hoping it would both help by back not atrophy so much at the computer, and that I'd move around more, and maybe get something done.

I have a limited privilege user on my Mac that is only allowed to do certain things, so that I can use that when I need to get things done.

Lists and structure are extremely helpful. If you have a short attention span, the work/break time frame must be changed. Work for 10 or 20 minutes, and take a very short break. Repeat. Use a timer of some kind, either a kitchen timer or wrist watch or your computer, so that you don't just wing it on the times. That last bit is very important: the 2 minute break at the 15 minutes of work can really urge you on, and make work easier. But if you have tendency to drift off on the computer (or whatever your break is), you must implement a fairly rigid structure for something like this to work for you. It will almost have to involve a mechanical timer of some kind.

Break everything you want to do into smaller tasks, especially if it seems daunting (and seems is the important word there: sometimes emptying the dishwasher seems daunting). Do things one task at a time, and mark things of of your list when you do them (that seems so trivial, but just the little ritual of putting a check-mark by an item on a list gives me a sense of accomplishment).

Try to build structure into your time: from 5 to 6, I'm going to try chores, from 7 to 8, fun on the computer, etc.

But to be completely honest, I've tried all of this stuff (in addition to medication to treat ADD), and it's still a major bitch for me to not twiddle away hours at a time on my computer, doing nothing. For people with naturally short attention spans and low tolerances for boredom, and people with ADD, the Internet is an amazing thing. It's almost as if it was tailor made for us. It makes me feel at ease, because I don't have to focus any longer than I want to. I can spend minutes on one thing, or days on one thing. I can jump from subject to subject as often as I like. It distracts my mind from the usual chatter of stress and boredom. I can always find something interesting online.

In short, for certain personalities, and certain medical conditions, the Internet can be something almost as potent as crack is to a junkie. So you have to learn to understand that, and treat it with the caution you need.

Since you are asking this question, I suspect this is at least, a very deeply ingrained habit on your part (and at worst, a symptom of a medical condition like ADD). So any fix is not going to be at all easy.

Spend some real time thinking about stuff you have gotten done in your life, like your masters degree. Try and understand what is different about that and now, and fix that.

One thing I know is this: I (stressing this is about me) need someone to report to. I'd love to be my own boss, I'd love to have a completely unstructured schedule. I've tried that now for over a year — it's been a complete and utter failure. So I need to figure out some way to bring those things back in.

I need goals. When I'm showing up to work every day, just doing what I need to do, I hate it. I don't get shit done, I procrastinate. When I have goals (finish project X, work to get position Y, move toward life goal Z), and more importantly, deadlines, I can get things done. And when I say goals, I'm talking big picture stuff, not little stuff. Getting those TPS reports filed is, of course, a goal. I have a hell of a time sticking to a goal like that. In some ways, academia is the most natural for me, because it's chock full of long term goals: get the BS, get the MS, write the thesis, get the Ph.D, get part-time professorship, get associate professorship, get tenure, get published, etc., but any job can have that stuff. But a mundane job will not work at all for me — I have to be working toward something bigger, or I just don't care. On the other hand, academia can be extremely painful for me, because most of the structure has to be self-imposed, when it comes to getting shit done in that environment. You have fairly clear goals, but it's almost entirely up to you on how to get to them, and that can be really stressful for someone with my personality. Be aware of pitfalls like that, and understand the trade offs.

It's much more important for me, than it is for other people, it seems, to be really and deeply engaged in something I'm doing. I've had lots of work roles where nobody was passionate about the mundane work we were doing, but almost everybody else seemed to have a much easier time showing up and doing it, and being reasonably happy doing it.

So think about big picture things like that, as it can certainly play a key role in your screwing off. It can be tricky. I hate structure, lists, deadlines, bosses/peers. But I really need them, so how did I grow to hate that stuff? The answer for me seems to be a combination of bad habits and ADD. Over the years, I needed those things to really get shit done. I also developed really bad habits of avoidance and procrastination. Since I only felt really strongly about things for which there were deadlines and structure, I was also only really bothered by those situations, in which I knew my mental defects and bad habits weren't letting me do my best. I'd get super stressed and unhappy.

Now I realize, at least, that structure, et al. is not what I hated — it was the stress associated with it. Now I'm trying to work better on that, so that I don't sit down and waste the day at the computer, doing nothing. The structure helps, and the stress was almost all self-inflicted, so I can see a way out.

But it's no easy road for me, and I suspect it won't be for you, since you are asking this question. Good luck.

Many people will just see this and say "suck it up," as if the answer were that easy. I strongly suspect that it will not be for you. If it was just about "sucking it up," you would have done that already. For whatever reason, sucking it up is very problematic for you. You're going to want to spend some real mental effort trying to figure out why.
posted by teece at 12:31 PM on August 7, 2006

I do this too. I have a timer in the kitchen that I set sometimes, giving myself an audible time limit, of when to stop. I've been meaning to pick up a small timer to put by the computer.
posted by dog food sugar at 1:24 PM on August 7, 2006

I don't really have anything useful to add, but I have the exact same problem, and it has frustrated me for years. I can't describe how many times I screwed myself over in college because I would just waste away days doing nothing.

A little thing that sometimes helps me: If there are other things I need to do, instead of just making a vague list of "go to the grocery store, find some new pants, rabbit food," I make it as detailed and structured as possible. If there are several errands I need to run, I'll organize them by the most efficient way to drive to all of the places, and put lists of what I need at each place under its header. Then, instead of seeing errands as a daunting and endless task, I know exactly what I need to get done and how I can go about it, making little checkmarks along the way.

Also, during my entire senior year of college I ended up writing papers in the computer lab, instead of on my own computer. I found that being in the lab, where I wasn't surrounded by all of my bookmarks and buddy lists and other room distractions, helped tremendously with my productivity.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 6:42 AM on August 8, 2006

Teece raises a good point "Many people will just see this and say "suck it up," as if the answer were that easy. I strongly suspect that it will not be for you."

Sigh. I WISH I could suck it up.

Some tools that may or may not help you:

Temptation Blocker is software that will lock out programs for a given time, requiring you to enter a 30 character random key to unlock it.

extension for Firefox keeps a daily total of the amount of time Firefox has been open. You can exclude sites from the timer. So far, I've used FF for 3:50:28 today. Sigh.

Minimize to Tray Firefox extension puts firefox out of sight and hopefully out of mind.

Finally, if you're on windows, there's your Hosts file.
posted by Brando_T. at 1:06 PM on August 8, 2006

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