Thursday, September 18, 2014

Avoiding unproductive web-surfing

For me, it's always been a challenge to avoid unproductive, time-consuming web surfing - reading news sites, social media sites, online forums, etc. The problem is not with a little bit of web surfing. It's with going to a site that frequently has great content - for instance the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, certain online forums - and getting interested in things.  Then clicking on links, and finally getting sucked down a rabbit hole, coming up for air a few hours later, fully informed but with hours gone from my life that could have been used more productively. Or at least, not staring at a computer.

The problem is that often, I glean some information that's actually interesting and relevant. For instance, the name of a company that sounds like a great potential employer. It's this pattern of intermittent reinforcements that's so addictive - it's the same force that propels people towards gambling problems as well.

In the past I've installed Chrome extensions (such as StayFocused, etc) that give you a whole framework to make sets of allowed and restricted websites, and set up time ranges of "free time" and "restricted time". And that can work. But it's such a complicated structure that it takes up too much mental space.  I also experimented with ideas like, "only go to the time-wasting websites while standing at the kitchen counter". Or, "only while walking on the treadmill". These can be useful as well, but still - there were just too many rules and thus loopholes.

So finally, I came up with a rule that's drastic, but extremely simple. My rule is this:
No time-wasting web surfing anytime before 9:45 PM. 
And that's it.  No combinations of  various Chrome extensions to limit web surfing, "only while standing" web surfing, no surfing while walking on the treadmill, etc. These were various rules that I tried to combine to limit time-wasting web surfing. Too complex, too many loopholes.

So far it's worked very well. I've been keeping it up for about 3 weeks now. It's a very simple system, and not hard to comply with. I found Gretchin Rubin's blog post Are You an Abstainer or a Moderator? very helpful. She said this insight, this division between Abstainers and Moderators, came to her after reading a quote from Samuel Johnson, "Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.”

In this case, I'm not a complete abstainer, but this satisfies my need for a "bright line" rule - a rule for myself that's very clear, that doesn't require any interpretation.

I found another essay by Paul Graham fascinating. It's called The Acceleration of Addictiveness, and is about how things are becoming more and more addictive (i.e. food, the internet), and the ways in which we as individuals and as a society combat this. Interesting stuff.


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