I arrive at my favorite coffee shop to write. Americano in hand, I sit down to work, telling myself this is going to be a productive day. The next thing I know it’s been two hours—I’ve managed to stalk friends of friends on Facebook, tweet about how much work I’m doing, tag my friends in funny memes, scroll through endless celebrity posts on Instagram, and read up on the latest Kardashian scandal. I’ve done everything except actually work.
Why is it that we can’t focus when the internet is there to help us lose our concentration? I know I’m not the only one who struggles with digital distraction.
Natural distractions such as people, noises, or familial disturbances, come up throughout our workday. They are usually, by and large, out of our control.
However, since the creation of the internet and social media, we willingly allow digital distractions into our workspaces, which makes it hard to see these distractions as a problem at all. We tell ourselves—just one email, one text, or one notification on social media. We lie to ourselves that we are still able to be productive.
I was in denial that these digital distractions were breaking my focus, which is necessary for productivity. I convinced myself I was smart enough to be productive with writing while taking a few harmless social media breaks.
The reality is that humans are, by nature, easily distracted. This awareness of our surroundings is instilled in us for the purpose of survival. In this modern world, we have notifications, those flashing lights and vibrations, that we still instinctively cannot ignore.
Along with that, we are also inherently social beings. There is nothing more interesting to humans than social information, which is why social media and celebrity gossip activate part of our brain’s reward system. Every time we are on social media, we get a little dopamine hit. We can’t get enough of it.
So when you combine those three components—the buzzing of the phone, the promise that there is some kind of social information being shared, and the dopamine that is rewarding us for it—social media is the perfect recipe for distraction. That explains why it’s so hard to ignore.
Studies show that the average adult in the U.S. spends half of their waking hours interacting with media. In comparison, a more mentally strenuous task such as writing becomes more difficult and less appealing.
There are always distractions, if you allow them.— Tony La Russa, professional baseball player
Studies say we lose track of our attention anywhere from six to 10 times a minute. That is anywhere from 360 to 600 distractions per one working hour. Since social media changes so rapidly, it is able to hold our attention for longer periods of time.
When I am actually trying to work, it becomes obvious how many urges I get to check my phone. Social media is after all designed to be addictive. When you look at the infographic below, you can see how much time we are actually losing.
What Distractions Do to Our Brains
In order to have true deep focus, we need a distraction-free environment. Deep thinking is where the true insights come from.
According to a study from the University of California-Irvine, it takes the average person 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to deep focus after a distraction. Whether it is a natural distraction or a quick Facebook break, the brain still needs the time to get back to a state of focus. So not only is there wasted time in the rabbit hole that is social media, but afterward, it takes that additional 23 minutes to refocus.
In other words, if you have one distraction every 23 minutes, you will never be able to get into a state of total focus. That is what researchers call switch-cost, which is known to happen when we switch from one project to the next or from Facebook back to work. Our brains need time to adjust.
If that isn’t enough, according to Stanford neuroscientist Russ Poldrack, when we try to multitask, information can get sent to the wrong parts of the brain.
Which means when we try to bounce from one mental task to another, it creates cognitive clutter, meaning your brain is taking in too much stimuli to focus, which is why the switch-cost is so high when switching back and forth between social media and writing.
Our brains are not built to focus when we have an overload of information.
I feel like I’ve tried everything to stop the digital distractions: turning off my phone, locking myself in my room to write with just my laptop, even turning off the internet out of desperation.
It seems like the very tool that I am using to write, my computer, is my biggest source of distraction.
If you’re anything like me, in order to work, internet access is a must. I’ve tried disconnecting my Wi-Fi while I write, but I find that I end up needing it either for music or research, and I find I am actually wasting more time turning it on and off. Instead of cutting out the internet completely, we can try to use it to our advantage by using technology to block disruptions while still having it available to us.
Building Discipline Through Technology
Discipline is a habit. It is something we must build and train ourselves to have.
Sometimes we aren’t strong enough to not purposefully distract ourselves; we need someone to tell us no, and that’s exactly what these technological tools are for.
One way to boost our willpower and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us.—Daniel Goleman, author and science journalist
This is where technology comes in—internet blockers and managers, downloadable versions of willpower, made to control unwanted distractions from the digital world.
These technological tools force you to have willpower through managing distractions, which eventually will become a habit.
Be careful not to let the process of blocking the internet become a distraction. You want a simple interface that doesn’t distract or take too much time away from the task at hand.
Here are some helpful internet tools I have found or personally used in order to stop the pull of internet distraction, each with their own special features.
Made for Mac users, SelfControl is a simple and free downloadable app, which is compatible with most versions of OS X. It allows you to work on the internet while completely blocking you from distracting websites. I use this app for its simple and effective interface. There is no way to turn off the app and regain access to the internet once it is in place, which means even if you try to delete the app, restart your computer, or be tricky with a VPN, it will change nothing; the block will stay there until the time is up.
The PC alternative to SelfControl, SelfRestraint is also free and just as effective, requiring a simple internet download.
StayFocused is a free extension for Chrome users, with the only downside being you can easily disable it, which has caused some users to complain that this gave them too much control. This extension allows you to set up schedules for when the block will turn on automatically.
Focus is a popular and widely used internet-blocking and tracking app. You can get a free trial for seven days or you can buy it as a one-time purchase for Mac for $19. Unfortunately, they don’t have a PC version of this app available yet. This app allows you to do most everything that the above sites can do. You have the ability to manage the numbers of breaks you may take within a specific amount of time. They do have “hardcore mode,” where you are unable to turn it off, similar to SelfControl. This app also has a setting to schedule blocked-out times throughout the day. If you try to go to a blocked website, you will be hit with a blank screen with an inspirational quote about productivity instead.
This app is perfect for Mac, PC, Android, and ISO (iPhone, iPad) users. It has all the functions we would expect from a good internet-blocking app—blacklist editing, scheduled blocking sessions, and even a hardcore mode to remove the temptation to quit the app during a block. In addition to all of that, it connects your phone too. So if you are still being distracted by your phone, you are able to sync your devices to block the same things at the same time. The mobile app runs around $10 for premium, but the computer download is free.
With these easy-to-download apps, you have three options for blocking:
- The personalized “blacklist” or block-list is the specific and tempting websites that will only be unavailable for the duration of time you choose with the timer.
- The “whitelist” block allows only websites you have put on your whitelist while it blacks out the rest of the internet.
- Total blackout from the internet.
Benefits of Using an Internet-Blocking App
Although there are plenty of reasons to regain your time and productivity, here are just a few perks I have noticed while using these blocking apps.
One of my favorite aspects of these apps is the fact that they are timed, and you have the freedom to choose the duration of time. I find this is a very helpful tool to begin to build up your work ethic by slowly adding more and more uninterrupted time.
This is also a great way to force yourself to take breaks. Some of the apps like StayFocused and Focus allow spaced-out breaks for the user, which is beneficial for the workaholics who need a nudge to take a break from work.
A recent study proves that a brief break from a task can radically improve the ability to focus on a task.
It Rewires Your Brain
While working on this article, I put a blacklist block on Facebook and other social media sites, the irony being that within this single hour, I have already tried to open Facebook twice. I didn’t realize how automatic and natural the reaction is for me to open social media. It is wired into my brain.
In trying to pull up Facebook, the Focus app not only blocked me from the site but redirected me to a blank page with an inspirational quote to get me pumped up and ready to get back to work.
The redirection to a quote feels like a gentle scolding and a nudge in the right direction.
It seems like after the second time trying to open the page, your brain figures out it isn’t going to work.
This helps to retrain your brain from unproductive patterns and changes the way you think about uninterrupted working time.
There Is No Going Back
The first time I pressed start on an internet-blocking app, I actually felt scared—scared of not being able to connect or of missing out on posts on social media. Eventually, the feeling passed, and the huge benefit of having complete uninterrupted work time seemed so much more precious than seeing what someone had to say on Facebook.
It Builds Up Your Own Self-Control
Pushing the button to block out those distracting websites takes a bit of self-control in the first place. Once the block is set in place, you become more aware of how many urges you have to go to those social websites unconsciously.
After days of building up your own willpower with the training wheels of these apps, you will realize you no longer need them in order to be productive.
Your Distraction-Free Mind Will Thank You
Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.—Adam Hochschild, author, journalist, historian, and lecturer
These blocking apps have helped me immensely to build discipline and have proved to me that one distraction can ruin my train of thought and my focus. Blocking the internet has helped me to understand that work time means work time. It has removed all the temptations of social media while working and has urged me to stay focused longer.
Of course, there is no real replacement for good old-fashioned self-control, but in this modern world, utilizing these tools can enable us to control ourselves and learn to manage our impulsivity when it comes to digital distraction.