The sweet spot of productivity

This is a bit of a response to Tynan’s post on Removing Options, where he’s recently installed Nanny for Chrome and has blocked every single website on the internet except about ten that he needs for work so that he can focus on getting work done.

While he’s raving about this now having only done it for a few days, personal experience suggests that this is unsustainable. Inevitably, something will come up where you’ll need to use another website for something - say, watching a really compelling and informative TED video, learning something on Khan Academy, checking out a great dissection of a startup/entrepreneurial lesson on some random dude’s blog - whatever, something will come up.

And once something so compelling comes up that it’s necessary to visit the site to peruse the content, the only option left is to disable Nanny across the board to visit that one site. That first time, we’ll probably put Nanny right back to work and everything will be alright again, but sooner or later the situation will resurface, we’ll rinse and repeat, and before long it becomes a regular occurrence, and perhaps later at some point we simply don’t bother to put Nanny back on, since it’s such a damn hassle and clearly isn’t working.

I give Tynan longer than most people because he’s fucking crazy and also really good at being productive, but I bet he caves in within three months at the most as this just isn’t sustainable (I’d give the average person less than two weeks so this speaks pretty highly of Tynan).

I tried this myself with StayFocusd for Chrome, and at first was just as gungho about it and put up the nuclear option which pretty much disabled everything, but before long I caved in and then forgot about it for years.

About two years ago, driven by insane loss of productivity by reading sites like Hacker News and Facebook, I was compelled to revisit StayFocusd, but this time wiser with a compromise in mind. I’d play the Pareto principle and just block the 20% of sites that were doing 80% of the damage. And even then, since those sites are inevitably necessary and compelling every now and then, I wouldn’t block them completely - I gave myself a 25 minute daily allowance on the sites across the board, meaning that every day, I’d have 25 minutes total to devote to checking Hacker News, Facebook, Reddit, Slickdeals, Flyertalk, etc.

This proved to work incredibly well for me and I’ve kept it up without fail for the entire two years (there are certain occasions where I do need to use the sites for a longer period of time - say, to send a very long FB message, and then I’ll generally open up a new web browser like Firefox to do the deed, but that’s enough of a hassle to preclude me from always resorting to that option without real need) and I now view my time on those sites with extreme awareness of my limited time and am much less likely to get sidetracked/waste time endlessly following hyperlinks into oblivion. It’s focused, in and out, and I cut out all the crap I don’t really need to see while still managing to see the most intriguing articles/etc. on places like HN.

Over time, I’ve developed a much reduced reliance/need for sites like Facebook and HN in my life. I’m much more focused, and I haven’t been up to date on recent news in about two years now. It was literally a surprise when the election happened last year. I think I actually realized there was an election going on sometime in October. And guess what? My life isn’t negatively impacted by this ignorance at all - in fact, I’m infinitely more content with my quality of life now than before.

And this is all, interestingly enough, thanks to my limited allowance of freedom to explore such diversions, as I’m inevitably compelled to engage in one of these diversions every now and then. Were I to block the sites outright, I’m fairly certain this wouldn’t work for me (although it works for some - Leo from zenhabits has been off Facebook for quite some time now, though he still engages in G+ ;).

This isn’t to say going cold turkey on something isn’t the right decision in any situation - I decided to cut games and TV shows out of my life forever and I’m still going easily strong on that after 114 days (despite being a rampant rabid avid gamer in my past - I’ve devoured entire summers doing nothing but sitting in my underwear and playing Total Annihilation and Baldur’s Gate). This is to say that perhaps everyone has a different limit of compulsion on certain things - and while some people can go cold turkey on some things, others might find slight compromise to be a much more productive option.

Though my money’s still on Tynan failing this. Fifty dollars to be exact, if he takes my bet.


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