Last year I announced that I was going on a Distraction Diet.
For the month of August, I am going to stay off Facebook and Twitter*, as I believe those are the two sites that are doing the most damage to my thinking. The design, whether conscious or not, exploits our primitive neural pathways to value current data above all else. Anyone that has spent anytime on these sites knows that the latest status update or Tweet is what our brains crave, but are almost always worthless bits of information. Instead of recognizing this, we keep pressing links and buttons like mice in a laboratory.
How did my Distraction Diet work out? I failed.
I can give up bread for two years, but I couldn’t make it a full week away from the social networks. I still have the same concerns about the distracting nature of social networking and email, so I’ve decided to take a more realistic approach to this problem. Shunning social networking for weeks or a month doesn’t solve the problem. It just pushes it to the future.
I decided to frame this problem like I did when I made the transition from 5-6 meals a day to embracing Intermittent Fasting. In early 2008, I would eat my first meal at 6 AM and my last snack close to 10 PM. My eating window was 18 hours. These days my eating window is usually between 8 and 12 hours. The result is food is no longer on my mind all the time. Now to apply that strategy to online behavior.
Early Morning Reading
For a few years now, when I wake up I do not turn on my computer. Instead I take time to read a book, usually about 60 to 90 minutes. Back when I was really into finance, I would jump out of bed, pop on the computer and read financial news and blogs before the opening bell (6:30 AM PT). Slamming coffee and consuming massive amounts of financial news before the sun rose eventually became too stressful.
Reading a book is a more peaceful way to start my morning than following the exploits about these two clowns. Photo by The IMF.
I also realized that once the computer was on, it was too difficult to read books. Pixels had a stronger pull than print. So I front-loaded my reading to take place before I even turned on my PC. This technique has been phenomenally successful for me. I’ve read more books in the past 3 years than the rest of my life combined.
No Stock Quotes During Trading Hours
I’m about 75% cured of my addiction to financial news. Unless you are actively trading, there really is no reason to drown yourself in endless financial media. For a few months now, I came up with a rule to help me further cure this addiction. I will not check any of the financial websites during trading hours. I used to check the indexes throughout the day. Now, I wait for trading to end and then peek at the closing numbers. So far this strategy is working great.
Several months ago I installed a freeware program for my PC called VirtuaWin. With it I am able to create 2 desktops, although you could create more. For me, Desktop 1 is my FUN desktop. It is where my email, Netflix, Facebook and regular surfing take place. The wallpaper is a Seattle background. Desktop 2 has a desert background. It is my WORK desktop. Here is where I use SQL Server, Visual Studio and graphics programs.
After I catch up on my email and social networking on my FUN Desktop, I’ll “go to work” by switching over to my WORK desktop. Two different worlds. Even though I am just a hotkey away from the FUN desktop, it has worked. This program provides a mental separation that is helping me minimize distractions. I’m getting far more work done using this tool.
Using the above strategies I would do fine until around 6 PM. Then I’d be mentally vulnerable to the distracting nature of email and social networking. Like a bug to the light, I’d keep peeking around for an update of some kind. The updates were rarely valuable, but occasionally I’d get drawn into responding to stressful email or discussion thread. Two weeks ago, I had a terrible night sleep because I got riled up over an email that I received minutes before heading to sleep.
The new strategy that I am now testing is that I turn off my email and disconnect from all social networking and discussion forums before 7 PM. Checking email right up until bedtime was making me too anxious. The last two weeks have been calm evenings and I am fighting the urge to check something, but it is working so far.
Do you have novel techniques for handling distractions that are working for you? Please share in the comments.
Sep 20, 2011 — 11:43 pm
I like the idea of limiting tech to certain times of the day. Our ancestors surely weren’t checking email at 1130PM and they did alright.
Ever hear of the Pomodoro Technique?
I used Pomodoro regularly for a while but it did not become a permanent habit. There are various Chrome extensions that can help you enforce the Pomodoro Technique, some of which can go so far as to block non productive web surfing. I personally do not have the discipline to use Pomodoro daily but I do use it when I feel buried with important tasks.
Pomodoro may complement your multiple desktops nicely and it gives you burstable timeframes for complete concentration.
Sep 21, 2011 — 4:50 am
I think you said it yourself. You just need more non-tech activities in your life. Reading is great and cooking does the trick too. I have a friend that started making doll houses (miniature stuff) to wind down after work. It sounds silly, I know, but I was able to go to sleep the night before graduate school exams (many, many years ago) by doing macramé. Anyway, simple manual hobbies can be personally rewarding as well as soothing activities.
Sep 21, 2011 — 8:14 am
@Stuart – I just read the Pomodoro Technique WIKI page. Seems like it would compliment my 2 Desktop method. When I really want more work done, I restrict myself to my FUN Desktop from the top of the hour and then for just 5 minutes.
@Txomin – Not silly at all. Cooking has done wonders for me – not just for the nutritional advantage, but it really does let me relax and recharge.
Sep 21, 2011 — 8:20 am
I find that doing the “FUN” stuff as a reward for good behavior works… since I am working on my dissertation (writing a book) I tell myself to put in an hour, and then heck Facebook. Usually I end up getting involved in my work for longer. OR I’ll set a time frame, as if I’m going to work: write from 9 to 12noon, then lunch, “fun” then back to work for another couple hours.
Not really a different idea that what you’re doing, but for me, framing it as a reward in my mind helps.
Sep 21, 2011 — 5:18 pm
I *try* to take a weekly technology fast on Sundays. When I do this successfully I feel recharged, reconnected with the people in my life, and excited to use the computer on Monday.
Sep 23, 2011 — 5:35 am
I have zero drug addictions, no food addictions, and I don’t own a TV, but internet is my last remaining vice. In the big picture that’s probably still better than 95% of the population, but there’s always room for improvement!
I second Greg with the weekly technology fast. 1-2 days a week, no computer/TV (or any other tech you own). After a few weeks of this you’ll be amazed with what happens with your time; you might be inspired to do it more often. It’s no surprise that so much amazing art came out of the 60’s and 70’s – when there are no computers around (or modern TV) you can either read, spend time with people, do work, do something creative, or go crazy. Really makes you a better human.
I also tried a “no tech after dark” rule that was initially to help me get to sleep (computers turn my brain on too much). It’s a great way to cut down on your usage and makes your evenings much more relaxed.
Sep 23, 2011 — 8:06 am
@Greg & @Dan – I like the 1 day a week technology fast idea. I’m going to *try* and figure out a way to gradually apply it.
Oct 2, 2011 — 8:01 pm
Michael here’s where I see this going:
Oct 3, 2011 — 7:06 am
@Matthew – Nice!
@All – It has been 2 weeks since this post. So far everything is going well with Distraction Diet 2. However I don’t think it is strict enough. I believe I set the bar too low. I’m probably going to incorporate some more ideas from the comments this week.
May 20, 2012 — 2:24 am
This is an extremely good post – almost philisophical! When you have the chance, it would be great if you could post an update.
May 20, 2012 — 9:44 am
@Glenn – Great idea. I will have a new post out this week on Distraction Diet 3.
May 20, 2012 — 10:51 am
Great – here’s some food for thought:
May 20, 2012 — 11:12 am
@Glenn – All valid reasons, but leaving FB isn’t the solution, because for an ever growing number of people this is their social portal. I know people that quit FB and now don’t get invited to events any more, because it requires extra effort on the part of the organizer.
May 20, 2012 — 12:43 pm
I agree. The best approach for me is to deal with social correspondence on most days for only about an hour – two slots of 30 minutes. One around 1030 a.m. and the other around 730 p.m. That’s enough to keep up with the vast majority of my issues and conerns…
And the hour that it takes is probably and hour that I have saved from speaking on the phone less. My time on the phone over the past couple of years has reduced by at least 60 minutes a day on average, maybe more.
May 20, 2012 — 1:29 pm
@Glenn – That is a great strategy. I may try it myself.