Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Powerful medicine against distraction

If you have followed my advise from the previous post, and have quit Farmville, you are probably still faced with distractions you just cannot erase from your life (you can quit smoking, but you can't quit eating).
David Neal recently gave a talk in Groningen in which he asked the audience to choose between two "self-help" books, one titled "Take control of your life!", and the other "Modify your environment to improve your life!" His prediction was that people typically prefer the former over the latter, because they overestimate the extent to which they can control their habits.

When we are faced with a potentially distracting multitasking situation, we have to ask ourselves the same question: are we going to be mentally strong, or are we going to modify our environment to avoid distraction?
Sometimes this choice is obvious. For example, the Dutch railways have special "Silence" compartments, so if I want get work done on the train I prefer them over compartments where everyone is chatting. Why make that choice? Because I know that talking by others will distract me in an unpleasant way, and there is no way I can overcome this by force of will.

But the situation is different when working on a computer, and temptations for distraction are attractive, like email, Facebook, Twitter, Farmville, et al.? Here typical advice focusses on mental discipline: only do your email once a day, focus on your task, etc. And even though this may help some, an alternative is to make sure we cannot be tempted at all. There are several solutions available for this. A mild medicine is a program called Focusbar. You type into focusbar what you are supposed to be doing, and it will periodically pop up to remind you of what it is you are supposed to do. So while you are reading the status of your friends, it will remind you that what you are really supposed to do is work on your thesis. As if you didn't know that. Now, some research suggests that people interact with their computers as if they are people (see Clifford Nass' The man who lied to his laptop), and might be intimidated to follow stern advise by a machine, but it doesn't work for me.

No, my favorite program is called Freedom. Freedom's brilliance is its simplicity. You start it up, and it will ask you for a number of minutes. It will then block your access to the internet for that amount of time. No cheating by killing the application, only rebooting your computer works (and I am not even sure that that really works). To go back to David Neal's self-help choices: while Focusbar appeals to you to take control yourself, Freedom modifies your environment by bluntly blocking you from whatever distraction. Of course you can still cheat if you have a Smartphone or iPad lying around, but they are still more than just a click away, and if you keep them out of sight you might be safe.

Sometimes you do need Internet for your productive work (like writing a blog), and for that purpose there are more sophisticated programs around, like Concentrate. Concentrate lets you specify which sites you are allowed to go to, and which not, and also blocks applications for you that are not part of your task. My former graduate student Jelmer Borst is an enthusiastic user, but I prefer the simplicity of Freedom.

What I find surprising is how efficient it is to change your environment instead of relying on the force of will. There are interesting analogs, apart from the train, for example in controlling bad food habits. Instead of having to be strong a hundred times to stay away from the cookie jar each time the temptation rises, you only have to be strong once in the supermarket if you decide to not buy them.


  1. Good analogy (with the cookie jar)!

    I usually have no problems focusing if work (in my case writing) is going well, but it seems you only arrive at these brief moments of joy if you're able to slog through days of pure, hard work. (As you pointed out in response to the UK's "science is fun, because..." question: No, it's not fun. It's hard work, but sometimes you do something neat, and that makes it worthwhile). So indeed, the best way to be productive is to work through the required tough days as fast as possible, and Freedom is perfect for that.

  2. So, were can we download this new and improved clippy :)?

  3. Hi Trudy,
    If you are still looking for a project in the second semester, maybe you can take on Clippy?

  4. Very tempting... But I wouldn't want to disappoint Hedderik and Marieke by not doing their project.

  5. Hi Niels,
    I landed at your blog while reading about the PhD position at Groningen University. I'm studying a master in Developmental Psychology in Maastricht so despite my interest I'm afraid I don't fulfill the requirements.
    Still, I found your blog really interesting. While investigating about Freedom I saw Anti-Social (, which seems to be similar to Concentrate but with a funnier name :)

  6. Raquel,
    Anti-Social is also pretty cool, but I need Freedom for total blockage.

  7. Dear Niels,

    Thank you for this article, I showed it to all of my students.

    They pointed me towards Cold Turkey (for Windows users) and Self Control (for Mac users) which allows you to block specific websites, such as Facebook, Twitter, popular blogs, etc. These two applications are not to be reset in any way, and if you try, they extend the period of blocking.

    Kinge Siljee (Studiemeesters)

  8. I've tried Cold Turkey (as it's the only one for free). I like the fact that you can block websites and software (games). The only problem I see is that when you try to enter to a blocked site, for example Facebook, a warning window appears. You can close that window and it will not appear anymore for that website unless you restart(at least that's what happened in my computer).