Farhad Manjoo’s recommended focus-saving apps are useless. Try these instead


Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Manjoo — his book about living in a “post-fact society” should be required reading in schools — but his tech tips often leave me cold. In his latest “Killer Apps” installment for SlateV, Manjoo laments how easy it is to get distracted online and recommends two tools to nip this in the bud: Freedom, which completely cuts off your internet connection for a specified period of time; and RescueTime, which silently monitors your web/app usage in the background and generates reports to prod you into being more productive.

I’ve used both; they suck. Why? Because in the grand tradition of “lifehacking” apps, they offer the illusion of “enhancing productivity” while doing little to help you change your habits. I’ve got two (and a half) recommendations for better tools to help you maintain focus online.

…aaaaand here’s where you’d expect to see a bulleted list of those tools so you can get right to the point. But I’m not going to do that. Tools are only as important as the goals you’re applying them to, so first consider your goal:

I want to get more done online, and waste less of my attention on pointless distractions.

Let’s break the goal into its two parts, so that the right tool for each part makes itself clear. It makes for longer reading, but the tradeoff (I hope) is that you’ll waste less time afterward because you’ll have learned something of substance.

“I want to get more done online”

OK, great! But what does that really mean? In my experience, it means “I want to have real, concrete answers to the question ‘what did I do today?'” If someone asks you that about the weekend, you have no trouble answering in concrete terms (went to a movie, rode my bike in the park, etc.). Weekdays shouldn’t be any different. And if you want to know what you did today, you have to start by actually deciding what to do. So what tool is going to help you decide what to do?

Why Farhad’s app doesn’t work: RescueTime doesn’t ask you “what do you want to do?” It just silently keeps track of what you do do, which, if you’re installing it in the first place, probably boils down to “a whole lotta nothin’.” What RescueTime really does is generate interesting little reports telling you what you already knew (“hm, I don’t seem to know where my time goes”), so that you can review those reports and feel like you are “auditing your productivity” (or something similarly bullshitty and lifehacky) without actually changing anything. In the best case scenario, these reports will just make you feel guilty. And guilt is not very helpful for changing behavior. (I was raised Catholic; I know this from experience.)

What does work (for me): Punching a clock. I know, that sounds horrible. But in practice it actually becomes very empowering, because it encourages you to repeatedly ask and answer the real question at hand: what do I want to do right now? It’s active, not passive. Instead of going through your workday on autopilot, you own what happens to you by making choices — and not about what tool you used (a la RescueTime), but about what you’re actually doing. E.g.: “OK, now I’m going to work on revising this article draft.” Or, “I’m not making any headway here; I’m going to work on filing some invoices instead.” And at the end of the day, you can see those choices clearly and concretely — which makes it much easier to make new/different choices next time, if you want to. Just like you do at the end of a weekend: “Hm, that movie was a waste of time. Next weekend let’s go out to a new restaurant instead.” Or, “Wow, that movie was great — next weekend let’s Netflix everything by that director!”

Tool recommendation #1: Harvest. This webapp gives you a really easy, powerful clock to punch at work. I like it because it lives in a Dashboard widget that I can call up with a quick keystroke, but you can also use it on your iPhone, in a web browser, or make a separate “desktop app” out of it using Fluid. It auto-syncs itself across whatever platform(s) you use, so you don’t have to worry about keeping things straight. You can start the clock and let it run, or you can enter stuff after the fact along with how much time you spent. But the best part is how customizable it is. I even put in an entry for “messing around on the internet”:

I figure, if I’m going to “waste time,” I might was well make that choice actively and own it. (Actually, I consider “messing around” to be an invaluable part of doing creative work — all the more reason to “punch in” when doing it.) Harvest generates reports, too, but what you get is a simple list of things you actually chose to do.

Obviously, this only works if you remember to punch in and punch out — which takes some self-discipline. But isn’t that what you need and want more of anyway?

Tool recommendation #1.5: Undistraction by Merlin Mann. You want help building self-discipline? Just install Merlin’s “Undistraction” as your browser homepage, or the page that comes up when you open a new tab. It’ll remind you to consider your options.

“I want to waste less of my attention on pointless distractions”

Another noble sentiment. It really means: “I get distracted often, because distractions feel good and are easy to access.” This isn’t a character flaw — it’s an unavoidable consequence of your mind coming into contact with the internet. But you know what else the human mind is hardwired to find pleasurable? Flow — fully immersed, focused concentration on a challenging activity. The only trouble is that flow is just plain harder to get to. So how do you make “flow” easier to attain than pleasurable distraction?

Why Farhad’s app doesn’t work: Freedom.app doesn’t address this question. It simply assumes that you are too dumb to enjoy actual freedom, and provides a dumb solution: completely turning off the internet. This is like throwing a drug addict in jail when what he really needs is rehab. Throw your attention in jail and all you’ll do is fiend while you’re locked up and O.D. as soon as you get out. And unless you’re writing The Great American Novel, guess what: you’ll probably need the internet, to some degree, in order to get any fulfilling work done. But Freedom.app actually inhibits finding flow: as soon as your powerful-but-fragile flow state wants to go on the internet for something important, it hits a roadblock and dies.

What does work (for me): “smart” blacklists and whitelists. The internet isn’t the problem, it’s what you’re doing (or not doing) there. To avoid throwing the digital baby out with the bathwater, I just temporarily quarantine my pleasurable distractions (Gizmodo, Techmeme, Twitter, etc) by adding their URLs to a blacklist. A blacklist blocks access to the sites on it, but leaves everything else that I might need available. Again, this takes discipline, but not that much — you already know what sites you treat like crack and which ones you don’t. However, sometimes I do need a stronger guard dog for my flow, which is when I use a whitelist. It works the opposite way: the list allows access to whatever is on it, but blocks everything else by default. That forces me to only include the minimum number of sites that I deem essential to what I’m doing.

Tool recommendation #2: Self-Control.app. The difference is right there in the name. This app lets you create customized black- or whitelists for the internet, and then activate them for a set amount of time. It’s smarter than Freedom.app and more powerful — once activated, even rebooting your machine will not unlock the list. You have to choose, choose wisely, and then commit — for realz. (There’s a reason why its logo has a skull and crossbones in it!) Plus, it’s free. Here’s my blacklist:

I’m sure you see some stuff on there that you recognize. All of those sites are really great and fun — that’s why I like them, after all. They just don’t help me find and keep my flow.

Tool recommendation #2.5: scheduling time into “cells.” You’ll notice in the above screenshot that I set Self-Control to run for three hours. I didn’t pull that number out of a hat — I chose it based on a concept called “cells,” which says that uninterrupted blocks of 3-4 hours are the ideal “shipping containers” for creative work. They’re long enough to encourage flow, but short enough to be practical (ie, you’ve gotta take a lunch break and answer emails sometime).

Once again, I know this was a really long article, but I hope it helped you more than a quick list of apps that’ll just spin your wheels.

6 Responses to “Farhad Manjoo’s recommended focus-saving apps are useless. Try these instead”

  1. 1 Eric R. Olson

    Leechblock is a nice add-on for Firefox that utilizes white and black list concept.

    • 2 Me

      thanks for the tip! Semi-related: I never thought I’d wean myself off of extensions, but my post-FF experience using Chrome has been pretty great.

  2. 3 Danny

    John, thanks for the shout-out to Harvest! We’re productivity nerds here, and to add to the mix of tools that help you focus, check out Isolator for Mac: http://willmore.eu/software/isolator/

  3. 4 Me

    @Danny: Harvest kicks ass. RE Isolator – I just maximize the window I’m working in instead (which blocks out the desktop and other windows). No extra app necessary.🙂

  4. Thanks for the shoutout, John! Now I’m going to have to finish the rest of the model.

    I’ve noticed a few things since I wrote the piece on the cell. For starters I should mention I came up with the idea initially to ensure that I could account for the setup and teardown overhead of a thought-intensive/problem-solving task (and make sure I could do things like estimate delivery times and get paid for it). I came up with it because I found myself saying “Sure, XYZ will be about a day and a half (12 hours)”, which a project manager would happily write down as being due after noon the day after tomorrow. What I really meant was 12 hours on the brain, not on the calendar. So if I couldn’t get 12 contiguous, uninterrupted hours in which I could concentrate (which is arbitrarily difficult), I didn’t have a hope of matching expectations.

    I began to look at the structure of a typical work day and my own physiological needs. I was actually surprised when I found that basic biological maintenance and routine logistical overhead really does take up half the day, which leaves about twelve hours at the absolute outside in which to reasonably accomplish anything else (though keep The Shining in mind).

    I figured at that point that I would be able to fit three four-hour floating blocks of time into every day for discretionary allocation; four hours being long enough to start something and finish it but short enough to remember to do things like eat. Within the four-hour block there would also be up to an hour of padding for occasional interruptions, so the actual effective time would be three hours.

    Note as well that any interruption that can’t be contained in 10-15 minutes is probably going to blow the whole cell, at which point you should probably switch to something else and push back what you were planning to accomplish. Moreover, if the interruption happens in the afternoon, it is probably unwise to plan to pick up the work in the evening. Just like accountants/financial planners say, “pay yourself first”, except with time.

    Now, at this point some might argue that I’m wasting 25% time off the top, and/or not providing for finishing early, but I submit that the overhead of figuring out what task to switch to is so significant that unless you have some way of seriously hedging the candidates for new tasks, you’re just burning that time anyway. So if you go into a four-hour cell (already preordained with one hour of padding), and you finish early, you might as well polish and clean up some known uglies that were inevitably created along the way. All that does is add value.

    To me the thing to really recognize is that efficiency and productivity are only useful if you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Shaving a few minutes or seconds here or there off a task is great but only if the net result is more efficient than the effort it took to get that result. Plus, with respect to ill-defined tasks and objectives, a mind of efficiency is a torpedo to effectiveness.

    Recall as well that my original goal was to reconcile workload/billing estimates with actual delivery dates on hard synthetic/problem-solving work. The original reason was so that you wouldn’t trick yourself into thinking you could cram that kind of work on either side of an appointment and expect to get it done. There is still all other kinds of work to consider and I can attest that it is much easier to break large tasks down into a cell than to pack a partially-full cell with bits and bobs. The latter really should be instrumented, cause that’s something computers are way better at than people. Another consideration is that it doesn’t really work very well as a billing unit, because I’ve found that when I run out of big tasks to carve up, I almost certainly never have four (three?) full hours of flotsam that I can bill for.

    One other footnote about padding/billing/etc: I say a cell is four hours because that’s what it costs me attentionwise, even though the effective time within will be less. The whole point of containerizing time is to account for context switches and enable just-in-time substitution. Context switches are expensive, and I have no qualms about charging for the whole four hours even if I don’t use it all. Plus, as I mentioned above, there are tons of value-adding odds and ends to address while in the same context (contrast with attempting to pile together disparate small tasks).

    The one-hour pad is also really just a rule of thumb. I’ve found the likelihood of interruption (and the value of a given cell) as well to vary heavily based on the time of day/week/month/quarter/year in which it happens to be placed. For instance, it might be ludicrous to try to plan some serious hunker-down time on the last Monday morning of March, and you might trade a Thursday afternoon in August for an evening so you can siesta and/or get some time in the sun.

    I should note that I’m still not quite satisfied with a model of billing that simultaneously ensures I get compensated while not looking too alien or arbitrary to the people cutting the cheques. I regard clients as either the object of my attention or a distraction, even if I’m busy working on their stuff. If they interrupt me (e.g. email, phone, IM), they pay for it. Right now I just tack interruptions onto the invoice in ten-minute slivers if they happen outside a pre-allocated cell, and bill the cells themselves in terms of hours. I don’t surprise them though, I have the conversation at the outset about how I allocate the time, lest it appear suspiciously chunky.

    What I should really do is finish writing the damn thing that manages all of this.

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