Productivity. Healthy office. Making mobile apps.

Cure your internet ADD – my guest post on Zen Habits

Once upon a time I owned/wrote a pretty popular website/blog on productivity and lifehacking, which was called Hack The Day  (don’t look for it, it’s been closed down for years and the domain is now owned by scammers). While starting up, I reached out to popular bloggers. That’s how I succeeded in being the first small blogger published by the hottest blog on habit change, productivity and mindfulness of the decade : “Zen Habits” of Leo Babauta.

I wanted to link to it, but Leo has removed all guest posts from those days. So I managed to recover my article from some long-forgotten archive. I’m posting it here, for your enjoyment : the software-related tips might be obsolete, but the general advice retained its value.

Tips to cure your internet ADD

You know you have it – every nerd does – the tickling sensation in the left hand to press Alt+Tab or Cmd+Tab to switch apps, internet browser tabs or windows, to go from your email to Firefox, Instant Messenger, Twitter, your current work and back to Firefox. No matter what you do, it seems like nothing is important enough to prevent you from writing a brief IM message to your best bud about what the latest joke your office mates have just sent you by email.

Nothing is too important that can’t wait till after you play a quick online flash game or read another blog post while your boss is out of the room…

Internet Attention Deficit Disorder is the productivity killer affecting most office workers today – the stringent urge to “browse just a little more” the web in between your daily work tasks; to peek at the Digg homepage, check out the hottest YouTube video of the day, skim through your blog feeds reading what happened in the last hour, to jump eagerly whenever Outlook or Mail.app alert you of new mail and interrupt all activity when you get via IM a link to a funny picture.

Sure, GTD, Zen GTD and most other productivity methods try to help you manage your priorities better and ignore the insignificant. But how could you ever do this if there’s always “one more” blog post to read, “one more” IM to answer, “one more” twitter status to check out?

Enter our brief list of tips to detect, manage, contain and even cure the Internet ADD. Here on Zen Habits you’ve read plenty of tips on how to focus on the most important tasks of the day and ignore the trivial things. But we come now with a couple of fresh one, aimed specifically on the Internet ADD:

Detect your timewasters!
Time online is spent in many ways you are probably not aware of. You need to monitor your browsing habits and discover your time wasters – know thy enemy.

  • Track your software usage – there are quite a few shareware programs, but the best tool I found so far the job is time snapper for Windows – the pro version is a bit expensive but gives you nice reports on what apps you use most, saves screenshots of your desktop, and even comes with a “productivity calculator”. It is available for free in a trial version so you can track your computer-usage habits without paying anything. The freeware version is extremely useful as well, though it doesn’t have the nice reports. I don’t know of anything similar for Apple, so give us a sign if you do…
  • If the previous app doesn’t do much for you, you can still learn for free how much time of the day you use Firefox. Track it with this nifty extension – as seen on Lifehacker.com. It doesn’t do much, just counts the seconds the Firefox window has the focus. Simple yet scary once you see the results.
  • For a more detailed view of your main Internet time wasters, a Firefox extension developed by two neuroscientists with an interest in compulsive internet behavior comes to the rescue – Page Addict [update 2017: site and extension no longer to be found, sorry] records your visited websites and displays online reports & charts. You can also group the sites by tags/the domain of interest – blogs, email, news, work, search, to get a more broad view of where your daily time goes.

Let’s say we discovered what the main online time wasters are. You were shocked, just like me, of the amount of involuntary time you spend daily, just browsing around. What can you do?
First of all, remember, the Internet is a tool. A useful one, but a tool nonetheless. Whenever you feel crowded by the new blog posts alerts, the instant messages or email in your inbox, do what you’d do with any other annoying tool. Take control. Ignore it. Let it wait:

  1. Offline Day
    Try to cure your Internet Addiction by having, at least once a month, a “completely offline” day. From the time you wake up till the time you go to sleep, avoid any contact with the Internet. No PDA, no email, no IM, no blogs.
  2. Offline Hours
    During work, institute an “offline hour” habit, the time when you Get Work Done. Just go to Control Panel / Network (on Windows) or System Preferences / Network and click “Disable/Disconnect”. Warning, the first time it might feel weird. This is the time you do your offline work – write memos, write code, etc. If you really NEED to get stuff from the Internet, write it down and move to the next item on your TODO list. No matter what, only go back online after the hour has passed. You’ll be surprised how much stuff you can get done with a bit of volunteer offline time.
  3. Internet Browsing
    The Firefox extension mentioned above, Page Addict, offers the perfect solution to limit the time you waste browsing the web – for each group of websites you defined using tags, you can specify the number of minutes you allow yourself to spend daily. Once you reach the daily limit on the group, you’ll be met with the message get back to work! page access blocked by pageaddict. What else can we say, but… brilliant!
  4. No Twitter @ work
    Nothing is as annoying than a SMS cutting out your flow. While it’s nice to learn that your friend’s cat has just been washed, it’s nothing you want to learn while doing your job. Go to your Twitter settings page and tell it not to notify you during your work hours.
  5. Discreet Instant Messaging
    IM gets more and more used in your job, whether you are a freelancer or a corporate employee. If you can’t live without it, try to at least contain the damage:

    • Separate accounts for home/work
      It seems so hard to have separate IM accounts, but it’s worth it: no more “wazzaa dude, we got soo wasted last night” messages coming from your college buddy in the exact moment your boss was looking over your shoulder, and no more “did you finish the TPS reports?” messages coming in the middle of a peaceful Saturday family dinner.
    • Go invisible!
      Hate the time you waste chatting with your IM buddies? Most IM programs allow you to go “invisible” – you’ll still be online and can receive messages from people who really want to contact you.
    • Disable sound alerts and popups
      You’re much too familiar with it – you were just getting “in the flow”, really focusing on the job and starting to get things done, when an IM window pops up with a buzz and interrupts you. First thing you should do when installing an IM program is to disable the alert notifications – sure they seem useful, but they aren’t. No popups, no Growl notifications. Instant Messaging should be called this way because it ALLOWS you to answer immediately, not because it FORCES you to.
  6. Reduce email interruption
    I’m stating the obvious here – just like for IM, try to have two separate email accounts – one for your personal and one for your professional life. Get better anti-spam filtering, so that your Inbox only contains real messages. Define filters, labels and rules, and (on Gmail) Archive anything that matches them – move as much stuff out of your Inbox as possible.
  7. Check out stuff only on predefined schedules
    Looking at the Dock/Taskbar to see if any new mail has landed in your Outlook / Mail.app can become a bad habit really quickly. Instead, set your Taskbar/Dock to auto-hide, and try learning to check them at predetermined fixed times only. You can define recurring alerts on your phone, calendar or even with Quicksilver to remind you of the moments you allow yourself to check email, go online for a bit of browsing or IM your friends.

There are certainly many more tips you can do to cure your Internet ADD – for instance, when doing hard work, setting your browser preferences to block images, Flash or Java applications can avoid a lot of distractions. For instance, when I was in college, during exams season we used to unplug the computer altogether to remove temptation, and only allow ourselves a quick browsing or gaming session for an hour or so, as a reward after the exam. It surprisingly worked pretty well.

What about you? What are your tips to cure Internet ADD?

  • #neverforget the good old blog days 🙂

  • alexbrie

    I miss those – so maybe I can make them return 🙂