How to Eliminate Compulsive Internet Fiddling


537104_helpI’m a compulsive digital fiddler.

Not often, but it happens. Sometimes I get so intimidated by work that I end up procrastinating online. I started my workday at 6 a.m. last Monday hoping to get the week off to a good start, but I found myself reading a Wikipedia entry on the many versions of “Blade Runner” three hours later.

While these incidents are few and far between, I’d rather avoid them altogether. Every time I catch myself returning to bad habits, I take the following steps to get right back on the wagon:

Step One: Identify where your attention goes. The best way to identify time sucks is to track what you do with your time. For many people, there’s a gap between what they think are their time wasters and what their actual time wasters are. Having accurate data on your hands bridges this gap and gives you the facts.

We’ve covered several applications that do this, but there’s nothing wrong with auditing your time using pen and paper. The disadvantage to this analog approach, though, is that you might not remember to do it the entire day. It might be helpful to keep the pen and writing pad always in plain sight.

Step Two: Block them. While there are paid apps you can download to make site-blocking easier, I prefer free methods because you spend less time worrying about the pros and cons of each app. It’s better to just install the first free option you can find and see if it works for you. After all, you just need something that blocks URLs. It doesn’t have to be feature-rich.

If you’re often using Firefox, you can automatically block certain domains using add-ons such as Leechblock and Invisibility Cloak. For advanced users, there’s also a manual way to do this.

But what if your time suck isn’t a web site? It could be a game or an instant-messaging app. If it’s something you can live without, take the plunge and uninstall it. Alternatively, you can remove easily accessible shortcuts to the program, blocking impulsive access.

Step Three: Know why you’re doing this.
For any of this to work, you need to know why you’re taking such drastic measures to eliminate time sucks. This will be your primary motivation. Are you trimming your schedule so you can spend more time with your family? Or do you want to use it to work on personal projects?

Also, apart from simply knowing the reason, you need to have a visible reminder. I like to keep a sticky note near my monitor. On the note is an arrow pointing to the screen, with the words “Is this really what you want to be doing right now?”, which is based on an undistraction created by Merlin Mann.

Step Four: Set goals.
It’s hard to quit aimless Internet surfing all at once, so start with modest goals to avoid feeling frustrated. I started with a goal of spending one work hour each day avoiding Internet fiddling. After I found this acceptable and easy, I raised the bar a bit and went on two hours. Whatever your goals are, write them down to get your commitment on paper.

It also helps to schedule these blocks during times when you’re performing high-attention tasks such as writing, rather than low-attention tasks like checking email or scheduling your week. This gives you a better chance of focusing on the task at hand rather than letting your attention drift.

Step Five: Reward yourself. You should have something to look forward to after you’ve reached a milestone or goal. This can be a special home cooked meal, an extra hour of sleep, or going out with friends. As for me, I prefer to keep things simple. Spending more time working on my fiction and comics is enough.

Once you’ve taken control of your compulsive web fiddling, it doesn’t mean that the process is over and you’re completely cured. As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to fall back on bad habits, particularly if you’re scared or if you lack the motivation to do the things you have to do.

Do you find yourself compulsively surfing the web no matter how productive you usually are? What do you do to avoid it?

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