Becoming aware of and minimizing distractions

27 Jul 2009

Spending a great deal of time in front of my computer, I often get carried away by instant messaging, mail, RSS, Twitter, Facebook, etc. For the most part, these activities aren’t the reason I turned on the computer. Nevertheless they end up being where a lot of time is spent.

Like with any habit, every so often you should take the time to review it. I find TimeSnapper (the free edition) to be an invaluable tool for reviewing computer habits. It captures an image of the desktop every few seconds and is able to create a movie from the images. That way, a partial life log (mine is currently 393 days) is automatically created to help you remember what you did yesterday and the day before.

There’s nothing like reviewing a few of weeks of captured images to make habits stand out. I found that I’ve a tendency to re-visit the same maybe ten sites all too often. I also have difficulty single-tasking. Listening to a podcast or watching a movie, I’m often browsing the web instead of paying attention to the podcast or skipping it altogether. I may even have several media players launched at once, although only one playing.

Most of my distractions can be attributed to me always being online. I need Internet access for work, so turning it off altogether isn’t an alternative. So, not unlike Paul Graham, on several occasions, I’ve made myself adhere to a set of rules for using the Internet. And every time they’ve worked — for a short while.

In Disconnecting Distraction, Paul takes these rules one step further and argues that using two computers may be a better solution: one computer with Internet access and one without for doing real work. Ideally, the computers should be placed some distance apart to make you psychically get up to go on the Internet.

For a week I’ve given the two-computer approach a try. It was hard initially, but I’ve come to appreciate it. Forming permanent habits takes time. Thus, I’ll continue the experiment for a couple of weeks. Perhaps in time I’ll even learn to turn off instant messaging and only do mail once or twice a day. Or I may end up spending most of the time in front of the connected computer.

Then again, there’s more to life than work.