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.
Filed under: This Digital Life | 6 Comments