As I wrote about last week, the internet age has given us countless devices and apps designed to distract. It still is sometimes hard to distinguish where exactly an activity transforms itself from useful, or harmlessly entertaining, to full on distracting. However, what seems clear to me, is that for most people using modern technology, this line is often crossed. Given this, I thought that it might be useful to write about what I do to prevent distraction and increase productivity in my life.
I remember when I first started realizing that technology was going to be a serious problem for my academic prospects. In middle school, I often would procrastinate writing papers until the middle of the night before they were due. At this time I did not have a computer of my own, so in some sense I thought it a treat that I was able to use the family computer on a weeknight. I would usually end up watching Netflix until my monkey brain finally ceded control sometime in the wee hours of the morning and I began writing.
Reflecting upon those experiences at the time, I knew it was a problem. I knew it was going to make it more difficult to succeed come high-school, but I didn’t have a ready blue-print to deal with the problem. I was also too confident in my own capacity for self-restraint to seriously ask for help.
Since then, I have gone through numerous strategies to help curtail the negative influence of technology in my life. Today, I rely on a combination of certain habits and certain restrictions on sites. The following are, I believe, the most important features of my current system.
I have a set-up where I keep my computer in the place where I do most of my work. I, with almost no exceptions, keep this laptop there and do not bring it to where I sleep and do much of my reading. I bring my phone with me, but try to keep it apart from where I am sleeping (or at least on the opposite side of the room if I need it for an alarm). I am still working on improving my phone habit, however.
In terms of technical steps to prevent distraction, I found a few important apps and features in iOS 14.3 that are particularly useful. For my computer running Windows 10, I use an app called Cold Turkey to block every website on a list across every browser. It works by forcing you to install the Cold Turkey extension on each of your browsers in order for them to launch. You can then make schedules both for when websites on this list are blocked, and when you are able to edit this list. I have found this to be very effective at preventing me from accessing certain sites (eg. Youtube, Reddit, and News sites) that I would gravitate to when bored and get sucked into.
On my phone I have a rather draconian system. The first thing I use is the inbuilt Content Restrictions settings in the iPhone settings. Here I only allow access to sites that I have whitelisted. These are Wikipedia, Google, and a handful of others. I have purposefully forgotten the content restrictions passcode so that I would need to reset it with my AppleID to change these settings.
This doesn’t work by itself for me because this doesn’t prevent you from installing apps that you can use to easily evade the content restrictions. In response I have deleted all apps that are somewhat distracting and purposefully forgotten my AppleID password so it is more difficult to reinstall them. Hopefully, in the future Apple makes it easier to self regulate your usage and harder to bypass your restrictions. I know my complicated setup isn’t for everyone, but you can still use the productivity features offered in iOS in less extreme forms.
Here is a summary of my productivity tips:
Habits and Home Setup Tips
- Separate your workspace from your sleeping and resting space.
- Keep your computer in a different room from where you sleep.
- Charge your phone in a different room (or at least the opposite side of the room) from where you sleep and where you work.
- When reading, keep devices in a different room or put them where you can’t hear them.
- Set time in your day when you can’t use the internet, particularly at night
- Use Cold Turkey (or Self-Control for Mac) to block sites or apps that you think are distracting on your PC. Or, only allow yourself to use certain apps at specific times.
- Use Content Restrictions on iOS to either block all non-whitelisted sites, or block specific sites you find distracting.
- Turn off notifications from apps that you use too much.
- Delete apps that you can’t stop using or can’t stop from distracting yourself.
- If you need a draconian measure, forget your passcodes and passwords that allow you to change these settings or download distracting apps.
Most importantly, I’ve found that this is a continuous process. You will not find the perfect setup for yourself immediately. The most important thing is that you don’t give up. Instead, accept incremental progress as you learn more about yourself and your habits.