Friday, October 21, 2011

How to improve your productivity? Dump Farmville!

Is our brain addicted to internet distractions? Some people think human intelligence is going downhill because we can no longer focus on the things that are important too us. For example, Nicholas Carr claims that the internet is permanently rewiring our brains, gradually transforming us into internet junkies who can no longer get anything done.
Now, you may not fully agree with Carr's doomsday scenario, but it is nevertheless undeniable that many people feel their productivity is hurt by unproductive interruptions and distractions. Indeed, studies have shown that people are interrupted quite often (depending on how you count every 20 minutes or so), and that half of these interruptions is self-initiated. The devious thing is that after the interruption is over, people often don't go back to their main task, but switch to other minor interrupting tasks.

We probably all know the drill: you are working on a paper, but you see that your email inbox flag goes up. So, we are tempted away from our paper (we deserve a little break, right?), and check our email (email needs to be checked, right?). But instead of going back to writing, we post a tweet, check Facebook, check the news, until we feel guilty enough to go back to writing. At that point we have lost our mental context, and need to invest time to get back into it.
And before you know it the day is over and all you did was write half a page.

So what are all these devious distracting tasks? They are things that "need" periodic checking. Interruptions and distractions can be functional, and being flexible in attending these items can be productive. Answering emails is definitely productive. Checking the news? Maybe. Twitter and Facebook? Dubious. But there is one kind of task that need periodic checking that is utterly worthless. I'm referring to games that require periodic maintenance.
I have nothing against games, and do in fact like them a lot, but games are for leisure. They are not work. Periodic maintenance games don't respect the border between work and leisure.

So take Farmville, probably the most successful example. In Farmville you have to maintain crops, but it is not a game you can play continuously. You tend your crops, do some weeding and sowing, and then you have to wait, and return to the game later for some harvesting. If you wait too long, your crops will die and your score will diminish. In other words, this game is nestling itself among the other lingering goals in your mind, and will intrude each time your mind is looking for an excuse to interrupt itself from the important things you are doing. But Farmville and its ilk can't even claim the excuse of usefulness, as opposed to email and news. And it gets even worse! Because they are "social" games, you are supposed to bug your friends into participating in the game as well. So if you don't remind yourself to tend your crops, your friends will, so there is even social pressure to do your virtual chores.

To conclude, if there is one way to improve your productivity without any costs at all, quit Farmville! Burn down the virtual house and let the zero-calory crops die! It will clean your mind.


  1. But... then I won't earn my next achievement which I have been working on for weeks!

  2. Trudy: ok, one more achievement, but then you should definitely quit!

  3. I wonder what's in it for the makers of Farmville. This sounds like a conspiracy for luring people into unproductive behavior, but who is profiting from this? Are "they" targeting scientists/ writers/ people-who-work-with-computers specifically, and why?

  4. It's all about the money:

    Where people used to make small games like this just for fun, all those facebook games are just quickly put together to make as much money as possible. And people just spend their money easier on the internet ( If you can get your farm in pink for just 2 dollar, who wouldn't do that? (I really don't know this game, but judging from the other facebook games I do know it must be something like this..)

    And for the targeting, I don't think scientists/writers/computerpeople aren't really targeted. At least up till now I've never heard of anyone I know to spend money on these games. They just add to the 'bulk' of people which makes it interesting for advertisers, I guess..