I’m very easily distracted when doing work on the computer. The constant temptation of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest of the social web intensifies when I’m trying to solve a frustrating problem, or doing something which requires particular concentration. From what I gather, I’m far from alone.
There’s an evolutionary precedent to our digital distraction. In the wild, being focused creates a natural disadvantage — if our attention weren’t flitting from place to place, we wouldn’t be able to detect predators at a distance. The ability to focus came later, after our relative safety and security had been established.
Social media in particular conspires against the higher functions of our brains — it’s catnip for the digital age, targeting the exact parts of our brain most defenseless against it. In classical conditioning, the most powerful reward schedule is the variable ratio. Put simply: if you play the slots and hit the jackpot every time, eventually you’ll become numb to winning. If you only win occasionally, however, you’ll want to keep playing as you keep telling yourself, “I’ll hit the jackpot on this next round!” This perfectly describes our (or at least my) relationship with Facebook notifications. Getting a notification feels good, but we’d become desensitized to the sensation if we got a notification every single time we logged in. Since we cannot predict if we’ve received a notification or not, checking becomes a compulsion.
Of course, every social service has its equivalent of the Facebook notification — its own addictive quality. I check Twitter to see if there are new tweets. I check Sparrow to see if I’ve got mail. I check Tumblr for new posts; likewise with Pinterest and Instagram. My new poison, predictably, is App.net. The list is ever-growing.
There’s been enough written on the social ramifications of distraction, and I’m not here to write a polemic. Instead, here’s a list of tools and techniques I’ve used to try corralling digital distractions in my own life:
SelfControl is a nifty open-source OS X app blocks you from accessing certain websites for a set amount of time. You can choose the websites and the timeframe, but be careful — this is heavy-duty blocking software. Once you’ve started the timer, you can’t undo the block through the application itself, or by deleting the application, or by restarting your computer. Once you’ve started, you’re committed.
Focus Booster is a free implementation of the Pomodoro Technique, which alternates 25 minutes of work with a 5 minute break. Used in conjunction with SelfControl, I’ve found this to be very effective for keeping me on track.
Ditch the Phone
Simply removing the temptation to check for new texts is helpful. It’s harder for me to stay away from my email, of course, which is usually just a hotkey away. But the amount of time it takes my phone to start up is usually adequate to dissuade me from dawdling when I should be working.
Turn Off the Music
For the record, I love music — Rdio stays open pretty much all the time my computer is on. If it’s crunch time on a project, though, I tend to turn off my music to focus. Music is a rich medium, and even a soft instrumental piece requires some mental energy to process when it’s on in the background. If you need to concentrate, try turning the music off for a while.
Turn On the Music
Okay, corollary to that last point. The right kind of music gets me into the zone almost immediately. When I’m neck-deep in code, sometimes I’ll turn on Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a minimalist composition rooted heavily in mathematical patterns. Maybe it’s a placebo or maybe it’s the real deal, but it seems like I think more logically when that’s on.
Separate Production from Consumption
Producing content on the same device that you use to consume content is just a bad idea. If I’m programming on my Macbook Air, the thought is always in the back of my mind that Netflix is just a click away. If the medium is indeed the message, then it doesn’t matter what’s on a screen, it’s the screen itself that alters our mindset. The lower parts of our brain won’t differentiate between Netflix and XCode, so when you’re working with one, you’re susceptible to distraction by the other.
I’ve become a fan of splitting my production and consumption into two separate devices. You could use an iPad to read and watch things and a laptop to make things, for instance. It’s worked for me — maybe it’ll work for you too.
You don’t need any more distractions in your life — you have too much awesome stuff to do and make. These are some of the methods that have helped me; if you’re in a rut, maybe they can help you too.
Do you have any other ways of overcoming distraction? Post them in the comments!