how to focus in the age of distraction

In an effort to focus my attention in a semester with a full schedule of travel, work, and job applications, I’ve taken two measures that I’m liking so far: I’m using RescueTime to track my work, and StayFocusd to restrict my daily time on my two really dangerous fixations, Facebook and the Amherst online community. Right now my ration is 10 minutes, which may be a little low for more relaxed days, but there’s probably not a good reason for it to go above 30 even in the best of times. A real scientist would, of course, have collected a couple weeks of time-wasting baseline data. I’m so behind in basically all my endeavors that I don’t feel like I have time for a baseline. Maybe I’ll release myself for a week after a bit and see what happens.

Bearing in mind the lack of baseline, I’m mainly surprised by two things. One, when I’m on the computer, I’m relatively productive—a large proportion of my time is spent in text editors and software environments (e.g., writing and running R scripts). Two, I’m not working that many hours. This is the opposite of what it feels like my problem is—I feel like I spend too many hours at “work,” but then end up diluting those hours with social media and news. Instead I’m working less, but more efficiently, than I thought. (But, without a baseline of ad-lib social media consumption, it’s hard to be sure that my current state is representative of how I was when I decided to make these changes. And, of course, the act of tracking likely has its own Heisenbergian effect. I did go in and adjust RescueTime’s productivity estimate for itself—its own default setting is “Very Productive,” so if I spent all my time poking around my RescueTime analytics, I’d give the appearance of great productivity.)

There are also a couple of minor surprises. RescueTime is surprisingly good at estimating the productivity of different sites and applications—it knows that Memrise is moderately productive, which is exactly right, and that John Scalzi’s blog is very unproductive (for me—I think it’s been very good for Scalzi). More to the point, it also knows that I have spent twice as much time on Scalzi’s blog as Memrise since Tuesday, which is pretty sad. Especially since I unsubscribed from Scalzi’s blog precisely so I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on it. (To be fair, we’re talking about 36 vs. 18 minutes here. The real surprise is that I’ve spent so little time on Memrise.) It did designate Wikipedia as “Very Productive,” which I reduced to “Moderately Productive,” since I don’t fall prey to The Problem With Wikipedia all that often (my Problem is with TVTropes) and I do use it for good a lot of the time.

It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes me to develop substitute vices. I still have unrestricted access to Google Reader, Twitter, this blog, and all news sites—I wanted to see whether I could do a lot of good by restricting just the things that feel like big offenders. I think evidence points to yes. But it’s possible my midbrain dopamine neurons just haven’t thought their way around the problem yet. One promising thing is that having the restriction in just one browser seems to work. I can go anywhere I want on Firefox, but I don’t. It seems like the inconvenience is enough to deter me, maybe because it’s a reminder that I’ve told myself I want to restrict my time on these sites.

Now I’m sort of wondering how you might classify vices by how much work you’ll do to do them. How can I tell whether my sugar addiction (using the word “addiction” loosely) is worse than my Facebook addiction? Maybe it’s a stupid question, since you can’t convert sugar and Facebook into a common currency, other than maybe microliters of dopamine. Even their harmful effects are hard to compare.

Another useful piece of productivity-tracking data: The word count feature on this blog entry. Which is showing more words than I set out to write. So I’m going to stop, and maybe go figure out how to start sleeping, eating, and exercising properly again.

… well, just one more thing. Lest we forget.

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