Since lots of people are currently stuck at home because of the corona virus, and I really wanted to contribute to notGDC this year, I’ve decided to write about something that I wanted to share for a while now: tools to prevent yourself from getting distracted while using a computer.
When using any internet-connected device, the line between exertion and relaxation can blur very quickly—and I can relate. In my case, one time during an internship , I got side tracked and started watching… a Tetris competition. Of course I got caught: that was the moment where it dawned on me that the freedom to get distracted was too much responsibility for me. So I decided to take away some of that freedom, and opted to add measures on my computer to achieve that. I’ve used a lot of productivity tools over the years, so I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned and what worked for me.
Some context, though. I’m 22 years old, lived in a student house for around the past four years, and for the last months I’ve lived in an apartment by myself, working remotely. Most of the recommendations here will be Windows applications or browser extensions. I also have as few apps on my phone as possible to minimize distraction there (a “dumbphone” of sorts).
Some of the methods I’m using might be a little extreme, because I need it to stay sharp and motivated. So you might not be able to use very single tip here, but I still hope these pieces of software and other tips will suit your use cases!
LeechBlock is a Firefox extension that blocks off access to sites during scheduled blocks of time. I like this program because there are tons of settings you can tweak. Which means that it might take a while to find a combination of settings that work for you, though!
In my case, it’s pretty strict. I can override it, but the method I’ve set (typing over a random 32-character string before overriding 10 minutes) is annoying enough that I only do it if I really want! I use it to block social media an news sites during work from 9 to 12 and 13 to 17, then lock those again at around 21.
This is the only tool I’ve used that allows me to set it up in such a way that I will play along with the restrictions I’ve set up, yet is just not strict enough that I’ll attempt to bypass those restrictions. That reason alone is why I’ve placed it on top of this list. I recommend it a bunch! (It also has a Chrome version.)
Ads can be pretty distracting, and making yourself invisible on the net might be just what you need to keep focus, especially if your work involves surfing to a whole lot of random sites (like game dev!).
uBlock Origin is the one I recommend, because it will also allow you to manually filter site elements that aren’t ads, if you don’t like those for some reason. For example, I use it to filter cookie permission banners, buttons in menus that I never use, and for some distracting sites I’ve even used it to sabotage site functionality, so that using the site becomes a very annoying.
Max Tabs is a Firefox extension that limits the amount of tabs you can have opened in a single window at the same time. I use this to make sure I close tabs I don’t need, since mess is usually a main source of distraction for me.
You can set the maximum of tabs yourself. This causes my tabs to be spread out across multiple windows (usually private windows in my case), each window carrying related subjects, which can be closed quickly when I’m done with them. (You could also look at something like Tab Groups if you’re primarily looking to organize your tabs.)
You can use these tricks mostly without installing additional apps on your PC.
I use this on every device that supports it. On most Android devices, you can indicate a time period in which your phone automatically jumps into a “Do not Disturb” mode. If that doesn’t give you enough control, there are also apps that allow you to automatically toggle things like WiFi or Airplane Mode on and off at certain times, like Timeriffic (although its interface is a bit dated).
When I have a really cool idea, but I can’t act to it right away, it remains in the back of my mind until it’s documented. For solve this, I usually use a Trello board if it’s related to one of my projects, or a physical noteblock if I need to draw out new ideas.
I really like noteblocks, because they allow me to record idea’s when all my devices are off, and make drawings or diagrams that are difficult to create (quickly) on devices. My notebook also has a sleeve which allows me to carry it with one hand and draw with the other, and has a slot to stick a pencil inside, so I have everything I need to make annotations anywhere quickly.
I have a really bad habit of staying up too late behind the computer. The Nightlight feature in Windows 10 helps with this: it filters out the blue light that tells your body you’re looking at the sun. The blue light prevents your body from producing the oxytocin you need to fall asleep, because it makes your brain think the sun is still up. (Twilight on Android serves a similar purpose.)
Similarly, some devices have other options for screen coloring, including a greyscale mode. It looks cool (I sometimes use this option on my Nintendo Switch to turn it into an enormous Game Boy), but it also filters out colors that would normally be eye-catching and thus distracting. Look into the accessibility options on your device to learn more.
The previous night light tip only soothes the problem of late computer work: it doesn’t prevent it. There’s also a setting in Windows 10 that prevent users from logging in during certain periods of time. So if you’re still using your computer when the period goes in, you’ll be able to continue using it, but if you lock it or are otherwise logged out, you can’t get in until the period has passed.
This is the most extreme measure I’m currently using, but it’s also the most difficult one to set up because you’ll need to do it in the Command Prompt. Additionally, you can set up one user account with only your productive stuff installed, and put the rest in another account with a really long password.
Or you can look into T‑Clock, with which you can set alarms and hourly chimes to remind you to take a break.
For me, if I can stay in the flow of the work I’m doing, then the chance that I’ll trail off becomes much smaller. I’ll assume you’re already familiar with shortcuts like Ctrl+V and Alt+Tab, so here are some of the lesser known ones that are equally as useful (especially for game devs):
Here’s a pretty complete list of shortcuts on Windows. One extra tip: in Windows Explorer, typing “cmd” in the navigation bar will open the command prompt in the current folder. Super useful to get commands running quickly!
Here are some things I’ve used previously but didn’t work for me, but might for you:
RescueTime tracks what kinds of software you use throughout the day. It already knows of most programs which ones are distracting and which ones are productive, and you can adjust this yourself too.
While this tool is great for tracking your behavior, there’s little incentive provided to actually improve this behavior. Still, if you are in the early phases of figuring out which things cost you the most time, RescueTime might be just what you need to analyze it!
Habatica is a Trello board combined with an RPG. I didn’t like it because it Habatica doesn’t actually track anything: it trusts the user to set all their tasks and habits and report accurately, and you need to play it with multiple people to make any meaningful progression in the RPG bit. There are more gamified tasks lists out there, if that sorta thing motivates you, try out some and see which one works best for you!
Cold Turkey has none of the edge cases that other app blockers might have that will allow you to use blocked stuff while you actually should not be able to. It’s feature set is very similar to LeechBlock, but it runs on your desktop instead It didn’t click with me because their free version is pretty basic. However, it might be just what you need if you often want to manually lock down your computer to get a couple hours of complete focus on work for a nearby deadline or deliverable.
I have used a lot of productivity tools because I know myself all too well, and recognize that I need them to use a computer properly. Hopefully I’ve convinced you to try some of these tools to keep your own distractions at bay! If anything, try out LeechBlock, since it’s generally the most effective tool for me. Thanks for reading, and good luck!
You might also be interested in: