Beware -- and Cure -- Internet Distraction Disorder

The digital revolution has created an unexpected challenge: How do you get work done when a world of amusements is always just a click away?

Illustration: Jeffrey Pelo
I'll tell you how later. But first, let's understand the problem.

Our primary work tools -- PCs, laptops, cell phones and tablets, plus the software and websites that we access through those devices -- are the same tools that can instantly conjure up distracting, fun and entertaining content.

Hmm. Which to choose? Finish those TPS reports, or check your Facebook page? Get started on next week's presentation, or watch a few videos on YouTube? Proofread Bill's 12-page spreadsheet, or check the standings of the office March Madness pool?

People can easily waste an entire afternoon struggling with online distractions. It's a growing problem that keeps getting worse. Here's why:

• The human mind is hardwired to pursue curiosity, play and social interaction. Fighting online distractions is really a battle against human nature.

• When we mix professional activities with online distractions, it's easy to believe that we're combining a lot of work with a little play, when in fact we're really engaging in a little work and a lot of play. If we intend to work, if we are stressed about work, then we feel like we've been working even if we haven't actually accomplished much. People tend to evaluate their own performance by asking themselves: "How much work did I do today?" That's the wrong question. Ask yourself: "What did I accomplish?" For many, the honest answer is: "Not very much."

• Distractions are constantly evolving, and we aren't. In all spheres of online entertainment -- games, blogs, social networking -- creators are inventing new ways to make their content more addictive. Sites like Facebook are taking over the Internet because they're better at compelling people to engage.

The worst part of all of this is that as Internet distractions gobble up more of our time and attention, we feel like we're working harder while our real work keeps piling up. So we force ourselves to work more and longer hours and bring more of our work home.

The more we work, the more our minds rebel and gravitate to the amusements. It's a self-reinforcing phenomenon that results in not really enjoying fun, and not getting our work done.

Both at work and at home, we're never fully working and never fully enjoying our time off.

How to Overcome Internet Distraction Disorder

The problem is that we use the same tools for work and amusement. The solution is to use separate tools. It's as simple as that.

You probably already have a desktop PC or a laptop as your main "work" device. What you need is a separate "play" machine. A touch tablet, such as an Apple iPad, is ideal for that purpose. But a second laptop would do just as well.

Now tease apart the software and services. Set up separate Work and Play email accounts, RSS feeds, Twitter accounts, and so on. Uninstall the games and other fun stuff from your work machine.

Never use Facebook or other fun sites on your work machine. Never check work email or do anything productive on your play device. Never use both at the same time. Multitasking is a myth.

Go ahead and bring your play gadget to work. When you need a break, switch to that system. The important thing is to be very clear in your mind about when you're really working, and when you're really not. By doing that, you'll achieve undisrupted "flow" in your work, and you'll enjoy guilt-free fun when you choose to take a break.

You can automate the task of keeping yourself focused by taking advantage of tools like these:

Instapaper

If you haven't tried Instapaper, I highly recommend it. It's the single most powerful productivity and educational tool I know of.

Here's how Instapaper works: You sign up for an account. Click on the "Extras" link at the top right, and drag the "Read Later" button to your browser's Bookmarks bar. Add the custom Instapaper email address they give you to the contacts list in your work email system.

Now, whenever you're on the job and you run across an interesting but non-work-related article, blog post or other content, just click "Read Later" or forward it to your Instapaper email address. Instapaper will save it all for when you're in play mode.

Best of all, Instapaper gives you a clear, clean interface to read everything with focus, complete with picture thumbnails and live links.

If you have an iPhone or an iPad, I highly recommend the Instapaper apps; they're worth every penny of the $4.99 you pay for them (pay once for the apps on both platforms).

Unsubscribe

With all of the new social distractions out there, it's easy to forget what a colossal time sink email can be. Unless you take action, the number of various "lists" you're on -- spam, email newsletters, alumni panhandling organizations, chain letters -- will grow and grow. But who has time to slog through the confusing unsubscribe processes that emailers set up?

Unsubscribe does. Just install the app, and when you're looking at an email sent via any kind of list, Unsubscribe will automagically figure out how to get you off the list and delete the message.

Note that even though I'm an email list publisher myself (gratuitous self promotion: Mike's List), I'm happy to tell my subscribers about Unsubscribe. Why? Because people often unsubscribe from quality content out of frustration with the overall quantity of junk. But the ability to easily get rid of the junk makes room in people's lives for the good stuff. But I digress.

Unsubscribe will help you purge your work email in-box of a lot of distracting garbage, and it will give you more time for the important emails that help your career.

FocusWriter

Sometimes you need to write without the distracting stuff on your screen. Several tools exist to help you do that. One of the best is FocusWriter, and it's among the few with both PC and Mac versions.

Just download the zip file, drop the files into a folder and launch the executable. All the menus and buttons are accessed by sliding the mouse pointer up to the top of the screen. You can change the colors, fonts, sounds and so on, and also add spell check and other goodies.

If you use these tools and keep your work and play systems completely separate, you'll be able to purge distractions from your work life.

Bottom line: The cure for Internet distraction disorder is to never play on your work machine and never work on your play machine.

You'll accomplish a lot more in less time. And you'll enjoy your leisure more.

(Author's note: I've been thinking about writing this column for a long time, but was goaded into action this week by this post by Seth Godin.)

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List.

Read more about Web 2.0 and Web Apps in Computerworld's Web 2.0 and Web Apps Topic Center.

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter

Comments