I recently came to the realization that I was using the internet as a tool of procrastination far more than I was using it as a tool of production.
I have gotten myself into the nasty habit of coming home, having every intention of working on something, but first, I will do a quick check of some fun sites. I tell myself, “it’s not a big deal, I’ll only be spending 5 or 6 minutes doing this, then I will get to work.” Then I start loading up various social media and link-sharing websites. I quickly skim over the headlines, looking for something that sounds interesting. When I find something interesting (which I always do) I open it in a new tab. Then I keep reading, going down the page, looking for the next link to open up in the background. Then the next link. Usually by the end of all this, I have something in the range of 20 to 30 tabs open on my browser.
Now, I can’t get to work with all this interesting stuff loaded up in front of me. What if I find something interesting, or a new idea to get my work done faster? I’d better read these articles first, then I will get to work. The wordcount on these isn’t that high, how long can it take?
I start with the photos, since they take seconds a piece. Getting through a good 5-10 tabs feels good. Then I move on to blog posts that are written in accessible everyday language. They are usually fairly quick to read through. I end with the longer, more academic articles, which often stay open in the background for several days before I get around to reading them.
Occasionally I do come across a great new idea that merits taking down notes, but normally what I read is close enough to my existing body of knowledge that I can trust myself to remember it after a single reading. All this info will come in handy…someday…right?
When I have finished reading everything, my eyes drift to the corner of my computer screen towards the clock, and I am stunned by just how much time has gone by since I booted up my computer.
“I’ve wasted how much time on this stupid thing? Oh, man I need to stop doing this! From now on, no more….hmmm…I wonder if anything new has been posted on reddit”
Frank Schirrmacher might call me an informavore, someone who mindlessly consumes knowledge as a form of passive entertainment. Seth Godin might say that I’ve fallen into the trap of believing everything I do on my computer is work because the same physical device is used for work and play. I end up reading a ton of light-but ultimately pointless information because it feels like work, so I don’t realize just how unproductive I have become.
I knew this was something I had to change, so I installed a browser extension called ‘Stay Focused” (there is a similar tool available to FireFox users, but I’ve forgotten the name.) Stay Focused is a completely free extension for Chrome (and Chromium, which I use).
At first, I had a bit of a moral opposition to this type of software; I should be using my own willpower to change this behaviour, not relying on a digital babysitter to make sure I follow the rules. I should do it on my own…but I’m far too lazy.
As I was setting up the plug-in, it reminded me of a certain extremely religious friend of mine who installed some net-nanny internet-filtering software on his computer to prevent him from watching porn. I argued with him that the net nanny entirely defeats the purpose of abstaining for porn viewing; morality comes from overcoming temptation, from being given an option and choosing the right course of action. When the wrong choice is made impossible, the alternate stops being the right choice because it’s now the only choice. I had that argument with him many times, and yet here I am doing something similar myself, only with social media sites.
The first thing I did was click on the little timer icon to check out the new gadget. I immediately noticed the 10-minute time limit.
“Ten minutes?! That’s it?”
I bumped it up to 90. The program tired really hard to discourage me from doing that. Then I began adding the big time-sinks; the websites that eat away at the most of my productivity.
Everything was now in place. I’m ready to begin my new, slightly more productive lifestyle. The first thing I’m going to do with my new-found unwasted time is…configure Gwibber so I can pull facebook and twitter updates directly to my desktop, so it doesn’t go against my timer.
You know, I think I might just be missing the point…
The next thing I did was set up pidgin to work with facebook chat, so messaging people wont go against my timer.
Yep; I’ve definitely missed the point…
I went on to some of my timed websites. The Stay Focused icon turns red to warn me about my limited time on this page. The 90 minutes is not per page, but a running total of allowed time across all the websites on the list. And if I open a link from within one of these pages, the destination also counts against my total time.
Almost immediately, I noticed a dramatic change in my online behaviour. Up until now, information has been ‘free’. By that I mean there was no penalty for reading a semi-interesting article, or getting sucked into a pointless discussion thread. I would load up a page and click on everything that looked remotely interesting, and if it wasn’t, what did I lose? Just a few minutes of my day. No big deal.
Now, that time limit was on my mind, I see a link, and think about it for a split second; is this really worth my time? If I waste time reading too many semi-interesting articles, then I will miss out on the truly great ones. It’s a very small change, but I find it keeps my mind more active as I skim over the information.
The first few days were tough, I almost reached my limit. But quickly, I found myself ending the day with a fair amount of time left over; I was spending more time working, and less time procrastinating. Those extra few seconds of thought had caused the overly dramatic headlines to lose some of their appeal.
So, despite having the digital babysitter looking over my shoulder, the real difference in my behaviour came from within; from knowing that my time is limited, and I had better focus on what matters and ignore all that empty filler.
Now I’d better see if I can get any more actual work done…