How to Quit Mindlessly Surfing the Internet and Actually Get Stuff Done

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 17, 2011 · 145 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

9 pm. A college campus in the Midwest. Rob sits down to study. His inner monologue:

Okay, time to hit the books. I’m really going to get crap done tonight. Let me just sit down here and crack open my giant textbook. Mmmm, interesting, interesting. But I don’t understand this term here on pg. 307. I should look it up on Wikipedia. Okay, got it. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to check my gmail tab before I get back to the book. Oh, Amanda sent me a Facebook message, let me just get on Facebook really quick and write her back. Hey, the Art of Manliness put another article up. And I love pirates! I’ve got to check that out–I’ll just skim it really fast. That was good. I wonder if anything has happened on Facebook since I read the article, let me check that real quick. And I guess it wouldn’t hurt to give the front page of Reddit a fast little scan, and then I’ll get back to studying. Wow, this thread has links to a lot of interesting sites, I’m just going to click on a few…

12:00 am. Textbook is still open to page 307. Rob’s inner monologue:

Arrrrghhh! What happened?

Why Is the Internet So #$!# Distracting!?

Distractions have existed since the beginning of time, but the internet represents an entirely new level of itch. The desire to read Treasure Island and or listen to a radio show exerts a certain pull, but not like the force that keeps you surfing from page to page to page on the internet. Why is this?

Researchers speculate that evolution has wired our brains to be constantly scanning for changes in our environment; if a change is sensed, our minds direct our attention towards that thing. For our primitive ancestors this ability was a safeguard against dangers and predators. In the modern age, that sense has been hijacked by the constant stream of incoming stimuli. “Look, I see a bear!” has become “Look a funny video on Youtube! An interesting article on this news site! A photo of my friend on Facebook….”

So that may be part of it, although it doesn’t quite explain why when you’re siting on the couch reading a book, your mind feels an itch to check your phone or your computer. Indeed, there’s a bigger issue at play here. It used to be thought that the reward centers of our brains only lit up when dealing with basic needs, “primary reinforcers” like food and water…and, of course, those dopamine hard-hitters, drugs. But then experiments found that not only did money, food, and sex also activate these reward centers, even pictures of these things had the same effect. And most recently, an experiment done with monkeys showed that even a little bit of information stimulates our brains’ reward centers. And what is the internet besides a collection of millions of bits of information–hit after dopamine-releasing hit. The internet is really like a giant information slot machine. Every time you surf to a new page, you pull that lever, and wait to see what pops up. Pull the lever. Pull the lever. Pull the lever. Ding-ding-ding-ding. It’s easy to get entranced and lose track of time.

So what’s a man to do? Despite its sort of addicting quality, the internet is an amazing tool that most people absolutely do not want to give up. So you probably don’t want to chuck your laptop out the window, even if you sometimes feel like you do.

You can try to limit your penchant for mindless surfing through sheer willpower alone. But as we’ve discussed, your willpower is a finite resource which is depleted by every choice you have to make. Do you really want to use up your willpower trying to stay off of Reddit, when you really need it to work or study effectively? Instead, simply eliminate the decision of whether or not to screw around on the web from your available choices altogether, without taking a sledge hammer to your computer. Here’s how.

First: Perform an Audit of Your Online Time-Wasters

The first step in stopping the scourge of mindless surfing is to make a list of which sites you’re wasting the most time on. You probably already know what they are. Write those down.

If you want a more thorough audit, you might consider signing up for one of the many online services that show you how you spend your time online. Such as:

RescueTime. RescueTime is a paid service that allows you track how much time you spend on certain websites and even how long you use certain apps on your computer. You simply create an account with RescueTime, install the RescueTime program on your computer, and RescueTime takes care of the rest. At the end of each week, RescueTime will send you an email report that gives you a breakdown of how and where you spent your time while sitting (or standing!) at your computer. It also has some other nifty features like the ability to block distracting websites and create goals for how you want to spend your time online.

Time Tracker. Time Tracker is a free browser extension for both Firefox and Chrome browsers. Pretty simple.

There used to be a whole slew of free time-tracking plugins for Firefox, but it looks like most of them are dead. Such a shame. They were good ones, too. Support your developers, folks.

Quit Screwing Around Online Method 1: Block Time-Wasting Sites Entirely (AKA The Nuclear Option)

If you want to completely banish time-wasting sites from your computer, you’ll needed to get into your computer’s host files and do some hacking. Don’t worry. You won’t break your computer in the process. What we’ll be doing is simply telling your computer that these time-wasting sites live on your computer’s hard drive. Because these websites don’t really live on your hard drive, you’ll get a “server not found” message when you try to surf to those addresses.

What’s great about this method is that it blocks these sites across all browsers. It doesn’t matter if you’re on Firefox, Chrome, or Explorer, if you try to visit sites on your blocked list, you’ll get a message saying your browser couldn’t connect with the site.

Another benefit to this method is that it provides a pretty strong firewall to prevent backsliding into mindless surfing. While this method is reversible, it’s kind of a pain in the butt to change. Any time you want to visit your blocked sites, you’ll have to go through the rigamarole below and “comment out” your added lines (add a # to the beginning of the lines) in your host file.

Obviously, using this method is best for sites that you really think are pointless but still find yourself addicted to reading–sites where you’d rather do without the temptation entirely. If you’re going to use this method to block sites that you still want to read occasionally, I recommend having a set-up such as the one I use myself and outline at the end of the post.

Here’s how it works, using Facebook.com as an example:

Mac

  1. Open up Terminal
  2. Type  sudo nano /etc/hosts
  3. Enter your computer’s password
  4. To block your time-wasting sites, type in the following: 127.0.0.1   facebook.com
  5. Repeat step 4 until you’ve entered all your time-wasting sites
  6. Save the host file by hitting ctrl+o and then the return key
  7. Flush your computer’s cache by entering the following line: sudo dscacheutil -flushcache

Windows (Windows 7/Vista/XP)

  1. Open Notepad and click File –> Open
  2. Open up the following file:  C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC\HOST
  3. To block your time-wasting sites, type in the following: 127.0.0.1 facebook.com  www.facebook.com
  4. Repeat step 3 until you’ve entered all your time-wasting sites
  5. Save the file and close

Linux

If you’re using Linux, you’re probably a geek and don’t need some guy who blogs about manliness to tell you how to edit your host file.

Quit Screwing Around Online Method 2: Block Time-Wasting Sites for Certain Periods of Time

Another, less drastic way to avoid the pull of time-sucking websites is by using various browser plugins that allow you to block sites for certain periods of time. This option gives you the flexibility to plan periods where you want to work distraction-free and periods where you want to be able to surf at will.

This is also a good method if you want to limit how much you check your web-based email. You probably want to be able to access your email during the day, but maybe you only want to be able to check it at certain times. This method will allow you to do that.

Firefox

Leechblock. Leechblock is a super robust plugin for Firefox that allows you to block time-wasting sites in several ways. First, you enter which sites you want to block. Next, you tell Leechblock when you want them blocked. For example, you can set Leechblock to block your designated sites until 5PM on weekdays, but keep them available to you all day on the weekends. Another way you can set up Leechblock is to block certain sites after you visit them for a certain amount of time. So if you want to limit your Facebook browsing to just 30 minutes a day, you can have Leechblock block Facebook after you’ve reached your 30 minute time limit.

This is a fantastic plugin. It helped me stay focused while I was in law school.

But keep in mind that Leechblock only works for when you’re using Firefox as your browser. You can still switch over to Chrome and surf freely. So if that’s going to be a temptation for you, you’ll need to put blocker plugins on your other browsers too.

Download LeechBlock

Chrome

StayFocused. StayFocused is a super simple site-blocker for Chrome. You simply enter in your time-wasting sites and then allot yourself an amount of time you want to be able to screw around on these sites each day. When you’ve used up all your time, the sites you have blocked will be inaccessible for the rest of the day.

To prevent you from changing how much time you’ve allotted yourself to surf freely, StayFocused gives you a highly annoying challenge. You have to type this long paragraph, letter for letter, without making a single typo. If you make a typo, everything will be cleared from the text box, and you’ll have to start all over again. And no, you can’t just copy and paste the challenge text. I tried that. It knows when you’re trying to cheat.

Download StayFocused

Concentrate. Concentrate allows you to set how long you want to block specific sites. Add your time-wasting sites, set the timer, and get to work. While the timer is going, you can’t access your time-wasting sites.

Download Concentrate

Chrome Nanny. Chrome Nanny is the Chrome version of Leechblock for Firefox. It works pretty much the same way. Unfortunately, the developer of this extension recently took it down from the Google Chrome Web Store without any explanation. Hopefully he’ll bring it back or someone will develop something similar.

My Personal Set-Up

I currently have a screwing around firewall system that incorporates both methods.

I’ve edited the host file on my Macbook so that it blocks my biggest time sink offenders. These include news sites and web forums I enjoy browsing, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Google Reader. I can’t access these sites at all on my work computer. Yeah, I could change the host file back to what it was, but like I said, it’s kind of a pain to do that, so I don’t even bother. My laziness is actually a boon here. Huzzah!

If I want to check these sites out, I use my iPad. When I need to get work done, I’ll just keep the iPad in another room or drive to a coffee shop and leave the iPad at home. Also, by having a computer just for work, I find myself getting into a work frame of mind much faster than before.

I use the second, less restrictive site blocking method to limit my time spent on gmail and a few sites that monitor web traffic on AoM. These sites are important for work, and I still want to be able to access them on my work computer, but they can distract me from actually getting work done. I use Chrome Nanny (got it before the developer took it down) to grant me access to my gmail account and my web analytics during short time windows throughout the day.

By implementing these methods to curb my mindless surfing, I suddenly found myself with a ton of free time I didn’t know existed. It was amazing. Give it a try if you’re looking to be a more productive, industrious, and successful man.

What tactics do you use to reduce the amount of time you waste online? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 145 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Ivan October 29, 2011 at 11:41 am

Self Control for the Mac is another option. Sort of works like the terminal hosts hack.

102 Rod Waynick October 29, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Bless you, McKay. Bless you. :)

103 Kashka October 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm

1 Open Notepad and click File –> Open
2 Open up the following file: C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC\HOST
3 Type in the following: 127.0.0.1 artofmanliness.com
4 Save the file and close
lol. Just kidding

104 Florian Nimxus October 30, 2011 at 6:27 am

In linux (in ubuntu) you simply edit the hostfile with a similar command as in OS X:
“sudo gedit /etc/hosts” gedit is the text editor installed by default in ubuntu, write the name of your text editor if you use another one. Example: sudo mousepad /etc/hosts.

105 Chuck Tomlinson November 1, 2011 at 2:04 pm

correction: the Win file is the HOSTS file, not the HOST file
i.e. Start | Run | notepad C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC\HOSTS

106 Austin Gilchrist November 1, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Most likely the same command line for Mac is also the command line for Linux. Both Linux and Mac are Unix based kernels. Mac having the same commands is one reason why I bought a Mac. I can have the easy to use interface, but I also have the free range of doing things in the terminal which is basically linux. Many of the same commands I used in Linux were easily transferred over into Mac OSX.

107 J November 2, 2011 at 1:10 am

Great stuff. I’m using BlockSite for Firefox but of course that leaves the option open to visit your timeleechers through another browser. Also disabling is just a Firefox restart away. I like the idea of certain sites like facebook not being accessible on a work computer at all. One q though: can you use *.domainname.com in terminal to catch both www and without?
thx

108 John November 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Am reading this with a project due in 3 hours. Oh, the irony.

109 Sander November 3, 2011 at 7:32 am

Thanks. I desparately needed this info. I’m going “nucleair” on several sites right now…

110 Josh November 5, 2011 at 9:46 pm

To edit the HOSTS file in Windows Vista I had to right click Notepad and click run as administrator.

111 Daniel November 7, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Maybe I have weird surfing habits, but what I do is I create folders for bookmarks that contain all the sites I visit. Then I just select “open in all tabs” to get my daily update on webcomics, news, blogs, whatever. It works for me.

112 Hannah November 16, 2011 at 3:28 am

Hey, GREAT post! I keep referring back to it for the excellent links. Thanks for sharing all this!

I actually have a question though… I really wanna try this:

Windows (Windows 7/Vista/XP):
Open Notepad and click File –> Open
Open up the following file: C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC\HOST
To block your time-wasting sites, type in the following: 127.0.0.1 facebook.com http://www.facebook.com
Repeat step 3 until you’ve entered all your time-wasting sites
Save the file and close

But when I got to the ETC file there was no HOST or even HOSTS file to click on. I was kind bummed out that it’s missing; my silly computer! Is there a way someone could help with this? I should probably just Google it, lol! But I’m honestly sure Google won’t know what I’m wanting to know… heh. Thanks in advance for any advice!

113 Oscar October 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

Pomodoro Technique. It should work with *any* distractions:

http://www.pomodorotechnique.com

114 Steve October 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Great article! Is there anything like this for the iPhone? App blockers, or website blockers, etc?

115 Sam October 24, 2012 at 8:54 am

Great article!
If you don’t want to block sites but have an essay or something like that due soon, I’d recommend using Write or Die to get good chunks of text done at once. You choose how many words you have to write and how long you want to write for, start typing in their text box, and if you stop for too long it makes horrible noises until you start again. Maybe not great for essays that need lots of references but brilliant for getting a good first draft out. http://writeordie.com/#Web+App

116 Chris Hughes October 24, 2012 at 9:16 am

I’ve found RescueTime to be pure gold for me. It showed me EXACTLY where I was spending time. I then started using StayFocused. You can also use the Pomodoro technique to set different “work times” and “break times” so I could work at my optimal levels.

117 Paul The Man December 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I use Freedom (for Mac), which lets you set how long you want to be internet-free. It’s stunning how conditioned my mind is to randomly surf in the middle of work.

Right now I’m experimenting with using a desktop computer (a Mac Pro) which does not have a wireless card. So I just don’t plug an ethernet cable into it. I’m thinking of designating it as my “work only” machine and reserving the laptops for net surfing.

118 Matt December 20, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Another method is to have a user account on your computer that is restricted to work programs (turn off multiple users first!)

119 Vickerson January 29, 2013 at 9:44 pm

A combination of mind the time and leechblock is working great.

Set up leechblock to go into effect during worktime.

Use the mind the time summary to see which sites are wasting your time.

Incorporate into your leechblock.

I like to set leechblock so that I can’t access the options page when the blocking time is incorporated.

Its really good at killing the internet dopamine addiction.

120 Momo January 30, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Just set up StayFocusd. Thanks for the tip and wish me luck!

121 Novalis February 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Great. Now I have to block this site.

122 Roshan February 16, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Thanks. This is great. Am about to share on Leech #1, name starts with “f”. Just for your information, Rescuetime is a paid service but does offer the basic tracking system for free.

123 Veganbeast February 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Time Tracker & StayFocusd are enough for me!

124 Journey April 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Good article.

125 Kodiyak June 6, 2013 at 3:58 pm

One thing I do is evaluate the pros vs. the cons of a site I find myself visiting with excess regularity. *chan sites are a good example. They have a diverse array of sub-boards and topics, but they also have a large population of people that just love to spew vitriol and argue. Ultimately I find myself asking, “Am I any better off for checking this board… or am I actually worse?” Sure, I may have gotten a laugh or two and learned something new, but generally I’ve read more irritating posts than entertaining ones, and that new information is ultimately pretty inconsequential.

So I have to stop and assess if I’m actually better off in any way – even in terms of simple entertainment – or maybe worse off for wading through some places (like 4chan – their outdoor board being a modest exception) that are really just entertaining cesspools. Often I conclude I’m actually worse off for exposure to the kinds of people on those sites and that provides inspiration to break the habit of including those sites in my “daily circuit.”

126 Reena June 13, 2013 at 6:41 pm

I must be a really hopeless case because I have tried all this and nothing works for me. What usually happens is: I block everything, then in the middle of work, I get a terrible urge to look at something that I cannot overcome. Then, I spend time figuring out how to unblock that site and end up wasting more time than before. I feel so bad about myself but I just cannot help it. I think ultimately it does come down to willpower, sigh!!

127 david callan June 16, 2013 at 6:26 am

Just need a system that blocks everything but email account – which I need for my real work – is there such a system?

Regards, David

128 Román August 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm

LOL with the Linux comment.

129 John August 28, 2013 at 9:53 am

Hello,

I am horrible with computers and am unsure how to do it for my mac. Is the 127:0:0:1 only for Facebook or do I add that and then my sites?

Also, after I entered in the sites and did Control+o and Enter, it asked for my password and didn’t give me the option for “sudo dscacheutil -flushcache”

I waste the most time on ebaumsworld.com, thechive.com, and break.com

Thans for the help!

130 Caleb Walker September 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Apparently Chrome Nanny changed its name, it’s now called, “Nanny for Google Chrome.” I was able to download it, and the user claimed that he made leechblock for Firefox, maybe all it needed was a name change. Regardless, I hope this helps.

131 Jim October 3, 2013 at 11:41 am

Great stuff. Thank you. How do you undo the “nuclear option” should the need arise?

132 Sunit Prasad October 15, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Awesome article. I have personally seen productivity go down when professionals waste their valuable time by surfing unwanted things on the Internet. But the best part is when the author says “If you are using Linux, you probably know how to edit the host file”

133 Derrik Ollar October 15, 2013 at 12:48 pm

I work in 90 minute blocks with a 10 minute break between them. I time everything with the Timer on my iPhone Clock. When a work block starts, I turn off my email program and the internet (unless I’m working on the internet). When the alarm goes off, I reset it for 10 minutes and I turn my emails on, surf the web if I feel like it, etc. When that alarm goes off, I close everything again and go back to work. Whoops! The break alarm just went off…see ya :)

134 Pawan October 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Damn….I was mindlessly surfing the internet and clicked on this link………

135 Jakob October 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm

somehow using the mac host file thingy i was not able to block facebook or a few other german files, i checked it a couple of times i did not make any mistakes. it worked for 9gag and so on but not for facebook

136 Chris AtLee October 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I’ve configured my wireless router to block all internet traffic after 10pm every night. I found I was wasting a lot of time at night mindlessly surfing around, or doing “one last thing” for work.

Having no internet means I get to spend more time reading books, and also means I generally get to bed earlier than before!

137 David October 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Just switch the computer off and leave it off!

138 E. Jason McGhee October 15, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Step 1: turn on PC/laptop/tablet
Step 2: read current article on Aom or Huckberry
Step 3: turn off PC/laptop/tablet
Step 4: pick up a good book and keep reading

139 David October 16, 2013 at 9:04 am

Chrome nanny is back under a new name – it’s now called Nanny for Chrome (TM)

I have no idea why the author changed the name but in the description he says it’s the same plugin with a new name.

140 David L. October 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm

My wife would love me to limit my mindless web surfing…It is like a drug, which I admit, I learn something new and indulge in my favorite interests everytime I surf. Boy, I really need to get something done soon…ugggg

141 Nick October 17, 2013 at 10:34 am

I view the internet as a large library, the kind of place where I would wander the aisles, picking up books along the way to take back to my study table. I would eventually get to my studying, but during my venture, I would learn about things I really cared about but might not otherwise have read.

It is all about self control, knowing when to eat, sleep, study, work, and play. It is about life, not about establishing artificial barriers to protect us from ourselves. This article seems to try to establish a type of socialism of the mind, with nanny state control put in place to compel us to do what we are told to do.

Think of this. That article about heart disease you read while surfing the web just may save your life one day and you would have never read it but for your surfing expeditions. Yes, budget time, but no, in my world, do not compel me to guided behaviors. Establish self control, men. That’s it.

142 Charles October 17, 2013 at 11:26 pm

I looked into the “hacking” my files option. I have a Windows 7 OS and after I open notepad and all that, I get to the “etc” folder, and nothing is in it, so there’s nowhere for me to type anything. Where do I go from there?

143 JK October 21, 2013 at 10:24 am

@Charles: I was able to right-click on Notepad and choose “run as administrator.” Then, when I got to that “ETC” folder, there was nothing showing. On the pull down menu for file type, change it from “.txt files” (the default file for Notepad) to “All Files”.

This allowed me to see the “HOSTS” file, but once I added the sites I wanted to block, I couldn’t save it with the same file type/name. Saving it as a .txt file would save the file, but it didn’t block the sites. When I try to save it as the same file name/type as the original hosts file (in other words, just save it as the same file, with my changes), it will not let me save it.

Anybody know how to fix that?

144 JK October 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Just wanted to post a follow-up: I fixed the problem.

The HOSTS file is a read-only file. In order to edit it, before you open it, right-click on the file and select “Properties.”

Then, unclick the box labeled “Read-Only.”

Now, you can make changes (add the sites you want to block as per the instructions in the article) and save it. Just did it and tested it, worked like a charm!

145 Sidney February 24, 2014 at 1:21 am

Hey all, Chrome Nanny is now called Nanny for Google Chrome.
Here is the link
https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/nanny-for-google-chrome-t/cljcgchbnolheggdgaeclffeagnnmhno

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