It’s fashionable to write about how the Internet is “rewiring our brains” and sapping our ability to concentrate for long periods on difficult things, and I don’t have anything new to say on the topic.[1] I’ll just write concisely about my own experiences of the phenomenon. There are two issues. The first is the ability of the Internet to fuel procrastination that might otherwise be avoided, and the seconds is the issue of the Internet damaging the ability to concentrate hard for long periods of time on making something that’s hard to make or reading something hard. I intend to talk only about the former.[2]

Over the past couple of years I’ve done a good job about cutting out forms of modern entertainment that are adept at using far more of my time than just a period of relaxation. It’s my fault that I can’t watch just one episode of a TV series and end up watching five, but it’s also true that a lot of these forms of entertainment are designed with making this happen in mind. So nowadays I hardly ever read online news, I only read my Facebook news feed when I open Facebook for some other purpose and get distracted (more on this below), I don’t watch any TV, I don’t play any video games except with friends and I hardly watch any YouTube videos.

Unfortunately, getting distracted online and spending a long time reading up on things that are only barely relevant to my task at hand at best, and barely relevant to my life at worst, remains a huge time sink. Classic ones for me is adding stuff to my Emacs configuration, and searching up life pro tips. I tried blocking sites and imposing a daily time limit for other sites with browser addons like Leechblock, but what I realised was that in my case at least, such punitive techniques do a good job of highlighting the problems and making me aware of how my time slips away, while failing to do anything about the underlying psychology powering the time-wasting. It was good to spend time under such regimes, but they’re not a longterm solution.

Two things go wrong when open my web browser. I believe I’ve got a solution that handles both. The first is that the fear of challenging myself with my various projects induces me to distract myself from those projects by wandering off online away from what I originally intended to do. The problem with the Internet, as is not hard to discern, is that it’s so very useful for so very many of my projects, so I can’t just shut it off. The second issue is far more innocent. Often I open Facebook to respond to a message, and then I find myself having spent fifteen minutes processing notifications and even, incredibly, scrolling through my news feed—something I experience absolutely zero desire to do when Facebook is not already open in my browser. And I still haven’t sent the message.

The first issue is a lack of awareness of the present moment that I’m aware of. When I’m procrastinating like that, I know that if I stopped and thought about it for a moment, I’d stop. So I don’t let myself think about it and just keep clicking links, shutting that part of myself up by making up some excuse about how what I’m doing it useful. The second issue is more difficult to get a grasp on because afterwards I don’t feel at all guilty for the time wasted, just annoyed and amazed that the Internet manages to be just so distracting that it happens quite without me knowing. There is of course a massive industry around persuading people to keep clicking links and opening new tabs.

The solution to both of these issues is more mindfulness. I’ve come up with something similar to the xkcd solution. When I want to use the Internet for anything at all, I must wait for a countdown to tick down two minutes. I have this timer on a page on my website set to my home page. During this time I think to myself what information I want to get, what possible distractions I might face and how I’ll catch myself, and I set myself a rough time limit for the search: if I don’t find what I want within twenty minutes I’ll close my browser for example. Once I’ve found what I want, I close my browser so that I’ll get the two minutes timer again next time I want to browse.

This contemplation seems to make a difference, though it’s not foolproof. Sometimes I realise that I’m just seeking distraction and I close my browser before the two minutes are up. Other times, I fail to find what I’m looking for, but I don’t keep searching on and on for it because I’ve set that time limit. I’m able to deal better with both kinds of distraction described above. When I feel the fear of my work swelling within me I don’t run away to the Emacs wiki. And I’m far less prone to getting distracted by new notifications on Facebook.


[1] Here are two articles that disagree with the brain rewiring thesis. It seems to me that we’re certainly getting bad habits that get in the way of doing important work, even if there’s no serious brain rewiring going on as judged by neuroscientists, and that psychological effect is bad enough.

[2] A relevant thread on… reddit and HN…