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 Chrome. Pretty simple.
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:
- Open up Terminal
- Type sudo nano /etc/hosts
- Enter your computer’s password
- To block your time-wasting sites, type in the following: 127.0.0.1 facebook.com
- Repeat step 4 until you’ve entered all your time-wasting sites
- Save the host file by hitting ctrl+o and then the return key
- Flush your computer’s cache by entering the following line: sudo dscacheutil -flushcache
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 www.facebook.com
- Repeat step 3 until you’ve entered all your time-wasting sites
- Save the file and close
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Strict Workflow. If you’re into the Pomodoro work method, this super simple app is for you. It blocks all your time-wasting sites for 25 minutes, then gives you a 5-minute break to surf whatever you want (you can change the work/break lengths to your personal preferences). Then you reset the cycle and do it again and again. Kate will tell you this app’s changed her life and significantly upped her productivity.
Self Control. (Mac). SelfControl is a free and open-source application for Mac OS X that lets you block your own access to distracting websites, your mail servers, or anything else on the Internet. Just set a period of time to block for, add sites to your blacklist, and click “Start.” Until that timer expires, you will be unable to access those sites–even if you restart your computer or delete the application.
Focus (Mac). Focus not only blocks distracting websites, you can also set it up to block distracting apps like IM, video games, and email. Very robust. You can create schedules of focus periods that will automatically turn on and you can’t turn off the app until the focus period is over.
Smartphones can also be just as distracting as sites and programs on your laptop. We got you covered on how to manage that with our detailed article on breaking the smartphone habit.
My Personal Set-Up (As of October 15, 2015)
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 Android tablet. When I need to get work done, I’ll just keep the tablet in another room or drive to a coffee shop and leave the tablet 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 Focus app, 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.
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.
Last updated: May 17, 2017