How to stay focused when the Internet is trying to distract you

Oh, Internet. Love of my life. Bane of my existence. One of the great paradoxes of the digital age is that the same tools that have unlocked unlimited creative/collaborative/productive potential are also incredibly effective at enabling us to flush all our potential down the drain.

You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all let ourselves get distracted by the Internet, twiddling away an entire afternoon on Facebook when we have more important things to do.

But I think I have it worse than some: I’m completely capable of sitting at my computer for 18 straights hours without doing a single ounce of work outside of checking email. For the past two years, I’ve made a serious effort to curb this tendency, by testing a combination of technology changes and habit changes.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Data is king.

I’ve tested out dozens of productivity apps and browser plugins, from powerful task management tools to simple distraction blockers, and in the end I’ve discarded most of them. The most common reason I drop a tool is the user interface – I like to keep my Macbook interface clean and beautiful – but a close second is that the tool treats symptoms instead of curing the disease.

One of the most helpful apps I’ve found for at least understanding my illness is RescueTime. While the Premium version has a richer set of features, including the ability to block distracting websites, the Lite version contains RescueTime’s bread and butter: an activity logger that monitors your web and application usage and gives you real-time reporting (and a weekly email report) on your productivity. It does a great job of proactively tagging activities as productive or unproductive, but you can always refine how it grades your time to reflect the nature of your work.

I’ve got a 30 minute recurring appointment on my calendar each week, during which I review my RescueTime report, tweak my settings, and think hard about behavioral changes I want to make in the upcoming week.

RescueTime also gets bonus points for doing a better job, relative to its competitors, at handling my constant juggling of two computers, as well as my idle time when I’m away from either computer.

Singletasking is the new multitasking.

There is a growing consensus that multitasking is a myth, that our brains aren’t actually wired for multitasking, and that true productivity arises from focusing on a single task and limiting “context switching.”

There are apps to help you singletask. I often write in Ommwriter, a beautiful and distraction-free text editor. Ommwriter is a Mac-only app, but there are a number of cross-platform alternatives, such as FocusWriter.

There are similar tools to help you focus on ANY single app, for tasks other than writing. I haven’t tried any, but have heard good things about Focus Mask and Quiet, both for Mac.

Personally, though, I’m usually happy to just close down all my other apps when I need to focus. Sometimes I use Pocket (formerly ReadItLater) to get rid of all those extra browser tabs I’ve opened, if I specifically need to keep my browser open. But I prefer to shut my browser down entirely when I can, and have configured it to reopen my closed tabs when it restarts.

Browser apps can help . . . to a point.

Which app or plugin will help you focus on a task depends greatly on the nature of the task, and your own tendencies.

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If you don’t need Internet access at all, Freedom is a fantastic choice. It brutally disables your wifi connection for a specified time, up to 8 hours, and can only be stopped by rebooting.

If you just want to limit which sites you can access, StayFocusd for Chrome or LeechBlock for Firefox are popular options. Both of these tools allow you to place sites on blacklists and whitelists, and to limit access by either blocking them for a specific time period or limiting daily access to a certain amount of time. For Chrome users, LeechBlock has been cloned as Nanny for Chrome.

Personally, though, I’ve stopped using StayFocusd and Nanny for the same reason: I have valid work reasons to circumvent them sometimes, so I got really good at circumventing them all the time, without giving it much thought. Again, they treat the symptom, not the disease.

Notifications are the devil.

Ever notice how hard it is to focus when there are young children around? A serious conversation about socioeconomics just isn’t the same when set against the backdrop of “Hey dad! Dad . . . dad. Dad. Dad. DAD! Dad dad dad dad. Dad.”

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So why would anyone in their right mind allow their phone or their email to do the exact same thing? Nobody actually expects an email or a Tweet to reach you immediately, or to be responded to immediately – and if they do they’ll follow up soon enough.

So turn off email notifications on your phone. Turn off Facebook audio notifications. Turn off Facebook and Twitter email alerts, or set up a filter to file them anywhere except your Inbox. Log out of chat when you need to focus.

In other words, use these platforms on your own terms, not the always-on terms they want you to use.

Focus is a habit. So is distraction.

A recurring theme in this post is that technology can help cultivate better productivity habits, but it isn’t a magic bullet – it needs to be paired with conscious behavioral changes.

So make a habit of singletasking. Make a habit of closing applications you don’t need. Make a habit of asking “is this notification helpful or distracting?” If you’re trying out any of the apps above, or any other productivity app, make a habit of reviewing weekly how it’s working out for you, and if it isn’t doing the trick then tweak it or ditch it and try something new.

Do you struggle with starting habits? Then put a weekly productivity review on your calendar. Try the Lift app, focusing on the specific productivity habits you struggle with.

Make a habit of making habits. Focus on focusing. And remember that all these apps and plugins aren’t a quick fix – they’re tools to help you chip away at the problem, to relearn how to focus after years of distracted living.