The dangers of multiple digital distractions
Set daily limits, even force yourself off your device when you’re over your limit
I have retired from a full-time job, and have a reasonable amount of free time on my hands. I’m looking forward to reading the books I have collected over the years. There are shelves full of them. The Japanese have a lovely word for this book obsession: tsundoku, meaning “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books”.
A good part of my day is spent writing or reading on my computer. I prefer to read on my Mac or iPad because I can enlarge the font size. The problem is, I open an e-book, a few minutes into it I bookmark the page and switch to Twitter or some other website, and from there drift in various directions. As a result, the book moves very slowly; often, I forget the plot and start all over. I am a diehard John le Carré fan, and I am embarrassed to admit I still haven’t finished A Legacy Of Spies, which came out last year.
As I write this column, I have several websites open on the browser: “Crows sometimes have sex with their dead”; “You should actually send that Thank You note you’ve been meaning to write”; “Why we forget most of the books we read”, and an old Monty Python video recommended by a friend. As if that wasn’t enough, I’m also searching simultaneously for the soundtrack of this brilliant British TV detective series called Endeavour, a prequel to Inspector Morse, which I’ve been watching lately. The soundtrack is mostly classical music that I am not familiar with, but I like the sound of it. The good news is that the music is available online.
If I don’t read the pages that are open on the browser, there’ll be even more stories to read tomorrow. And the books will stay on the unfinished list. It’s possible to do both if I organize my digital life.
Best-selling author Zadie Smith once said she works on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. Dave Eggers, author of The Circle, said, “Trying to write with my email open is like writing at a circus.” We know the dangers of digital distraction, yet we are too weak or too addicted to resist.
One way to tackle this is to take the help of technology: Use an app or an internet blocker. Just google “apps to fight digital distraction” and there are any number, such as AppDetox and BreakFree. An iOS app called Moment “automatically tracks how much you use your iPhone and iPad each day. You can set daily limits on yourself and even force yourself off your device when you’re over your limit”. Around for some years, it seems to be quite popular—it has been downloaded a few million times.
There’s even a book, How To Break Up With Your Phone, by Catherine Price that I stumbled upon. But I’m not a phone addict; it’s only when I sit down to read on my computer that I tend to drift from my book to Twitter and the websites on the browser.
A few months ago, I came across a Chrome extension called HabitLab that Wired magazine called “an extension we can’t live without”. Its developers, Stanford’s Human Computer Interaction group, say it “helps you regain control of your browsing”.
You add the extension to your Chrome browser, and choose how “aggressive” you want it to be in helping you reduce the time you spend online. It asks you to name the sites you want to spend less time on, and then tracks the time.
There’s a list: Reddit, Facebook, etc. I clicked Twitter, and got a few options: “Feed Eater,” one called “Scroll Freezer” and “1 Minute Assassin” that closes the tab after 60 seconds. You can choose from “don’t do anything” (just track time) to “heavy handed” (close the site after 60 seconds).
I added it to a few sites I frequent just to find out how much time I was spending there, and at the end of the day the numbers were a bit of a shock. I was clearly wasting time. As for Twitter, the villain of the piece considering that I seldom tweet, there’s really no reason for me to visit the site so frequently.
HabitLab has made me aware of the time I spend on the sites I visit frequently. But I don’t like the idea of using a piece of technology to end a bad tech habit. I have uninstalled the extension; I would rather take a deep breath and go cold turkey. If I don’t, the sight of those books lying unread is going to nag me forever.
Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.