Some days, it can be really hard to concentrate on the task in hand. The Internet is always calling to us, enticing us with cat pictures, breaking news stories, the latest memes, or “important research.” Even if we have the discipline to stay away from the addictive sites we shouldn’t be visiting, we get interrupted by work emails. SelfControl is a free Mac tool that helps you take all those distractions away.
As we pointed out a little while ago: “You’re probably spending a lot more time on distractions than you admit. More accurately, you’re spending a lot more time on them than you realize. Most of us massively underestimate the length of time we actually spend on things we’re not supposed to be doing. Those five minutes on Facebook were probably more like ten or fifteen. That quick two-minute Skype chat was five minutes. And that essential research because you couldn’t remember the name of Johnny Depp’s character in 21 Jump Street and just had to find out? By the time you’d also checked out every movie he’s ever been in and read the latest movie news – twenty minutes. And the ten minutes replying to an email from your sister – you’d forgotten all about that, hadn’t you, because it was sandwiched in between replying to two customers. All in all, it’s perfectly normal to find that we’re wasting several hours a day without knowing it.”
SelfControl is simplicity itself. You set up a list of sites and mail servers that you want to block. A look at your browser history can tell you which sites to block. (Alternatively, use a tool like RescueTime to identify where your typical day goes.) In my case, I’ve decided to shut out my four biggest distractions: Facebook, the BBC news, and my two mail accounts, one for business, one personal.
Then choose how long you want to block them for and click start. You’ll have to enter your password before SelfControl activates, so your co-workers can’t simply lock you out of your favorite sites as a prank. (Although we do recommend locking your computer even if you’re away for just a few minutes.)
Once you’ve activated SelfControl you cannot access those sites you’ve selected, no matter what you do. You can’t switch it off. Even if you switch your computer off and on again, you still can’t get to those sites until the time expires.
I’ve found it a highly effective way of improving my productivity. Like most of us, I spent many years believing that I could multi-task and still work to the best of my ability. In reality, I’ve just been doing a lot of things with only half my brain and wasting time. These days I’ve got into the habit of allotting myself a time to complete a task and I switch off all the distractions for that time period. Then I just get on with it.
I still allow myself scheduled breaks for checking news and email, but they’re becoming more and more infrequent. Gradually, after a little over a week, I’m becoming no longer even tempted to check Facebook or email until it’s appropriate, because subconsciously I’ve learned that they’re not going to be available. Even better, because I can see the timer telling me how long it is until SelfControl expires, it feels like I have something reminding me of my self-imposed deadline. It keeps me on track throughout the day, I finish work sooner, and I get more done each day.
SelfControl also has potential as a tool to keep kids focused on homework, although the disadvantage it’s not automated and has to be activated each time by the user. However, for older children trying to study, once they have a bit of responsibility, it could be extremely effective.
Or, as a counter-intuitive way of using it, you could block all your work emails and sites during the evenings and weekends so you’re not tempted to check in when you’re supposed to be relaxing. Take the opportunity to regain your personal life!
Highly recommended for anyone who wants to make better use of their time.