How to Be Less of a Distraction-Prone Mental Wreck, Part One: Taming the Everything Device25 July 2017
The thesis: distraction is bad, distraction is everywhere, and avoiding distraction takes work. Your digital devices are set up by default to be as attention-grabbing and focus-destroying as possible. Resistance to these distracting defaults is an essential ingredient of productivity - to say nothing of your mental health.
I argued these points in my last post; now it’s time to get practical. How can digital distraction be minimised in a world that seeks to maximise it?
This post will be part one of a series.
The Everything Device
Isn’t the personal computer amazing? With just one gadget, I can read, write, shop, communicate, play games, watch movies, listen to music, plan travel, manage photos, and occasionally even
watch porn work, all without even having to get out of bed.
This ‘everything device’ is mightily convenient. But on the other hand…
Where was I? Sorry, I got distracted by my email. I was only going to check it quickly, but then I saw a message that required an urgent (and long) reply.
Then one thing led to another and the next thing I knew I had 57 Wikipedia articles open in different tabs. I’m not sure how I got from Catalan personal pronouns to the Anglo-Zanzibar war, but at least I’ve learned a lot. Wait, wasn’t I supposed to be writing a blog post?
Yep, the problem with an Everything Device is that it all too easily becomes an “Anything Except The Thing You Were Meant To Be Doing” device. With an Internet-enabled MacBook Pro, distraction is just so easy. It’s hard to quit heroin when your heroin dealer is also your employer, secretary, research assistant, news anchor, radio host, travel agent, librarian, translator, telephone operator, and housemate.
Is there a better way?
In an interesting interview about productivity, blogger Sebastian Marshall says that he owns two laptops: one for “work” and one for “play”. While I’m yet to implement this precise strategy myself, I see its logic.
Recall the neuroscientist’s cliché: “cells that fire together, wire together”. If you use the same computer for everything, your brain will learn to associate it with, well, everything - so when it receives the stimulus “computer”, it responds by firing up all kinds of habitual circuity that isn’t relevant to the task at hand.
That’s why thoughts about YouTube and email and the news and next week’s deadline and last week’s drama and the guy in your ex-girlfriend’s Facebook picture keep popping into your head when you’re trying to get something important done. No wonder you can’t concentrate.
Depending on your job, you might already have some level of separation between your “work” and “play” devices, for example if you work on a company computer when you’re in the office. Or you might be self-employed, work from home, and use the same machine for every computerised task. If so, I feel your pain.
Whatever the case, you probably have less separation of computerised concerns than is healthy or necessary. The more I notice this in my own life, the more I realise just how destructive it is to my productivity and to everything else.
So the first step towards reclaiming my digital sanity has been to make my digital devices a little less infinite. How can I restrict the scope of my laptop, phone, etc, so the temptation to task-switch is lessened?
I have an idea for an invention. Someone should make a computer that comes with a big “mode” lever, like the gearstick in a car. The different positions of the lever would have labels like “work”, “writing”, or “communication”, one for each general category of task that you use the computer for. These settings would, of course, be fully customisable.
Within each “mode”, only certain apps and websites would be accessible. So for example in “writing” mode my computer would become fully disconnected from the Internet, and all applications would be blocked except a word processor. Distraction wouldn’t just be undesirable but impossible.
When I’m done writing, I could shift the lever to “publishing” mode, in which everything is still blocked except some specific websites that I need access to as a writer - like the blog where you’re reading this post.
In my other life I’m a programmer, so I could also do with a “coding” mode, in which I’m blocked from social media, YouTube, email etc., but can access everything that’s relevant to my job, like GitHub, StackOverflow and my Mac’s command line.
I could even install an “entertainment” mode that blocks me from everything that is relevant to my job. As a workaholic, that would come in very handy - sometimes I need to force myself to take a break.
(In fact, I’ve heard rumours that some computers already come with an in-built entertainment mode. Supposedly they call it “real life”, and to access it you need to hit the Off button.)
Crucially, my “one thing at a time” device would not only allow me to shift gears, but to lock the gearstick. For example, if I wanted to write for two hours, I’d tell the computer so, and it would lock me into “writing” mode with no possibility of switching back until the timer ran out. That would be fantastic.
Sadly, as far as I’m aware my “mode-shifting” computer isn’t a reality yet. But there are ways I can set up my current computer so it’s a bit closer to the ideal.
Strategies For Taming the Everything Device
Ironically, to make your computer do less, you must install more. I have a couple of key recommendations:
SelfControl. This is a free app that lets you temporarily block yourself from distracting sites. Just create your blocklist, start the timer, and voila - you can’t visit Reddit even if you wanted to.
By default, SelfControl can be set running for a maximum of 24 hours. I say, why limit yourself? With a quick (albeit slightly technical) tweak to the settings, you can make the timer run for as long you want. In the past I’ve used this trick to block myself from distracting sites for days or weeks at a time.
SelfControl isn’t the only app that does something like this, but it’s by far the best I’m aware of. I’ve found that browser extension alternatives like StayFocusd don’t work because they’re too easy to circumvent - when temptation strikes, I can just disable the extension, or open a different browser entirely. SelfControl is great because, short of digging around in the technical recesses of your operating system, there’s no way to disable it. You just have to suck it up until the timer runs out.
(SelfControl is a Mac app. Windows and Linux alternatives exist, but I can’t vouch for them personally.)
Cold Turkey Writer. I discovered this app recently, and it was love at first sight. I don’t know how I made it as far as I did without Cold Turkey Writer in my life.
The premise is simple. Remember the “writing” mode of the gear-shifting laptop idea? The future is here: this mode already exists, and it’s called Cold Turkey Writer.
Where SelfControl blocks you from distracting websites, CTW blocks you from everything except its simple writing interface. Until the timer runs out (or until you type a pre-defined number of words - it’s up to you), you can’t even view your computer’s clock, much less switch to another app or browse the Internet. (How do you think I wrote this post?)
At $29 CAD, Cold Turkey Writer is well worth the investment, as well as the first thing I’ve ever paid for online using Canadian Dollars. Buy it through my link and I’ll get a cut. Thanks!
Those are my principle software suggestions. Time for some hardware suggestions:
An alarm clock. Right now, your smartphone is probably the first thing you touch every morning and last thing you touch before going to sleep. If you’ve been paying any attention, by now I hope you understand why this might be a problem. If you haven’t been paying attention… well, thanks for proving my point.
Remember what I was saying about neurons that fire and wire together? If you use your phone in bed, you’re training your brain to stay warmed up and whirring even when the lights are off and you’re under the covers. Your sleep will suffer - and when you’re not sleeping right, everything else in your life will deteriorate.*
Get an alarm clock. You can buy a cheap one for the price of two beers. Your phone is a gateway to infinity, and you shouldn’t let yourself near it until you’re up, alert, and away from your bed.
I’d go further: keep all Internet-enabled devices out of the bedroom. I don’t always manage to follow this rule, but when I do, I’m much better for it.
A kitchen timer and a stopwatch. Here’s a trap I’ve fallen into. I’ll want to set a countdown timer for whatever reason, so I’ll reach for my phone, but when I turn on the screen I’ll see a new message. I can’t resist the temptation, so I immediately type a reply.
Then I’ll get into a conversation, and before I know it, I’ve completely forgotten the original reason why I picked the phone up. I wanted to set a timer for 15 minutes, but instead I’ve just poured 15 minutes into a black hole. The Everything Device strikes again.
Why stop at an alarm clock? My life is better when I minimise my need to touch or look at my smartphone for any reason. If I can buy a simple, cheap gadget that replaces the function of a smartphone app, I won’t hesitate.
That’s why I have both a kitchen timer and a stopwatch on my desk. I rarely need them, but when I do, I’m glad they’re there. (I suppose I could use something in the browser like e.ggtimer, but the advantage of a physical timer is that I still see it when something else is in the foreground of my laptop screen.)
I’m approaching 2,000 words and I haven’t nearly covered everything I have to say on this topic, so I’ll leave the rest for a future post. In the meantime, I direct you to a 5,000-word rant on the perils of Facebook which I wrote a few years ago.
I’m ashamed to say that, about a year after I wrote that post, I rejoined Facebook. It seems that, for all my vitriol, occasional visits to the antisocial network are a cost of living these days.
However, that doesn’t mean I’ve fallen completely back into my old habits. Stay tuned for the next installment…
*On the subject of sleep, I highly recommend the book Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stephenson. It will change your life.