One of the best things that happened to me as a grad student was receiving the gift of a laptop from my brother-in-law. What was great about it was that what was a new computer to me was not, in fact, a new computer at all. In fact, it was quite old: five or six years old. What was so great about this? It didn’t have a wireless card in it, so I couldn’t get on the Internet. That meant that when I needed to find something online, I had to leave my dissertation study, lock the door, go down several floors in the library, find a computer to jump on, locate what I was looking for, and then go all the way back upstairs. Doing this was such a pain, that I typically found myself staying put and writing for several hours at a time.
It’s no longer convenient for me to work with that computer, but there are plenty of times when I miss the freedom that old computer gave me from the temptations of email, Twitter, and the rest of the Internet. Figuring out how to free yourself from distractions so you can do your best work (pace Merlin Mann ) is something that all academics—and all writers—need to learn how to do.
This subject—how to maintain attention—isn’t new for ProfHacker to tackle, and since the Internet doesn’t appear to be going anytime soon, it probably won’t be the last. Amy wrote a fabulous post in March about being productive and attentive by regulating media use. Kathleen finds that she is helped by having a particular routine for her first half-hour of the morning. In today’s post, I want to talk about a few tools that I have found to help me tune out or turn off.
Two caveats: First, I received no trial copies of software or consideration from any of the tools’ creators in preparing to write this post. Second, it’s worth noting, as Ethan does in his post last week on the five applications he can’t live without, that I am currently a Mac user. Unfortunately, not all of the following tools are cross platform, but I hope we can start a dialog in the comments for other similar tools.
- Freedom (Mac or Windows): Perhaps the most intense of all the tools I’m going to mention is Freedom. Freedom is a simple tool that locks you out of all networking (Internet browsing, email, etc.) for anywhere from 15 minutes to 8 hours. And once you invoke it, there’s no way to quit out of it, short of rebooting your computer. It’s a simple program with no bells and whistles. It’s even smart enough to pause its timer if your computer goes to sleep (no getting out of your commitment to write by going out to lunch). If your heart rate shoots up when you click “OK” on it, then you know that need it (or the Great ProfHacker Offline Challenge). Freedom is free to try (5 uses) and then $10 for a license.
- SelfControl (Mac): Much like Freedom, SelfControl blocks email and Internet traffic for a set amount of time. Unlike Freedom, SelfControl allows you to customize the email servers and websites that you will block. This means that it takes a bit more work to set up. But it’s also useful for those whose writing and research requires the use of some portion of the Internet but do not want to be distracted by YouTube. You can set the time anywhere from 1 minute to 12 hours. Unlike Freedom, there is no way to undo SelfControl’s blocks once they’ve been imposed. Even deleting the program won’t undo the block. And unlike Freedom, SelfControl is free. But it is only for Macs.
- Anti-Social (Mac): Anti-Social is made by the same company that makes Freedom. Its aim is not to disable your Internet access completely so much as it is to block what it has identified as the top social websites. And it works not only on websites, but will block, for example, Twitter applications from updating. In addition to these sites, you can add your own to the list, so you can stop reading ProfHacker and do more writing. In other words, Anti-Social is like SelfControl in that it offers more granular control over what you block. But it is easier to get started with than SelfControl because it comes with a list of blocked sites already incorporated. Anti-Social is Mac-only and costs $15 after a 5-use trial period.
- Spaces (Mac): Apple introduced Spaces with its Leopard operating system. Essentially it lets you create a number of virtual desktops where you can compartmentalize different applications. You can create up to 16 desktops and then assign an application to either one of these desktops or all of them. To help me focus on my writing, I have created a space where only my word processor shows up. When I’m writing there, there are no other applications to distract me from what I’m doing. Hot keys let me quickly switch between spaces, but once I’m in my writing space, I try to avoid moving.
- Time Out (Mac): In response to Ethan’s post on his five applications he can’t live without, micahvandegrift mentioned how much he loves Time Out: “Simply, it is a timer that reminds me to take breaks throughout the day. It can be set to whatever interval you choose, and has micro-breaks and regular breaks.” I followed his advice and downloaded this Mac-only application, and I’m really enjoying it. I use the micro breaks for some deep breathing and focusing my eyes on something besides the screen. I’ve been using the longer breaks to move away from my desk and to go talk to a colleague rather than sending an email. In some ways, this application might not belong on the list since it prevents you from doing anything on your computer while it’s running. But I’ve found even in a short amount of time that it helps me stay focused on what’s at hand since I have regular, scheduled breaks. And since these breaks cannot be with email or Twitter, I’m that much more likely to get back to work after its over.
- Pull the plug: Quite simply, I sometimes find that I get more done when I put the computer to sleep and get out a magic pencil and paper. I might not write as quickly by hand as I do with a keyboard, but I find that it’s a whole lot easier to keep my thoughts in a line when I’m not in front of a screen. This is why I tend to take all my initial research notes by hand and then transcribe them into the computer. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s one that helps me better remember what I’ve written, something that Kathleen also mentions in her post about converting to Evernote. A bonus is that this approach works equally well for Linux, Mac, or Windows computers.
I haven’t mentioned what could be the nuclear option for managing distractions: unsubscribing from different services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or myspace. And if you want to go about that process as quickly and as painlessly as possible, you could try the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, which promises to delete a Facebook account in one-tenth of the time of a manual delete.
Saving our attention for our most important tasks is perhaps one of our most important tasks. How do you keep from getting distracted? Please share your strategies in the comments.
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