Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Social Dark

productivity & tech 2 min read

As someone who has worked from a home office for the last eight years, I’ve learned that the primary enemy of productivity isn’t lack of motivation, or shortage of creativity, but rather dealing with distractions.

I often find it difficult to get started, and then I find it very difficult to remain focused. There are times when I’m sufficiently engrossed in a task that hours seem to vanish – for me, that’s usually when I’m writing new material – but there are also many times when even staying in work mode for half an hour is a challenge (usually when editing).

Social media is the biggest problem for me, followed closely by web distractions like shopping and reading. After considering it for a while, I’ve taken the perhaps extreme step of going social dark on my laptop.

My computer of choice is a 12” MacBook, and my phone is an iPhone. To help me focus, for most of each working day, I now block all social media access from my MacBook, as well as a few web sites that I regularly visit for leisure and procrastination. I don’t fully block my internet connection because I constantly need to look things up on Wikipedia, but making it difficult to access Twitter, Facebook, Slack, and so forth has an immediately chastening effect. It’s like someone shouting get back to work.

I use a free and open-source utility called Self Control to block access to social media, shopping sites, news and RSS feeds for appropriate amounts of time, and my productivity skyrockets. I’d advise setting it for two hours, and seeing what you can accomplish.

I’ve crafted my own blacklist of domains to block, and so should you, based on your own habits. If you’d like to use my SelfControl blacklist as a starting point, you can download it below.

Download SelfControl blacklist

I’ve made a few exclusions to suit my needs too. Emails and iMessages still come into the laptop, because they’re for either business (which is work), or family (which is important) communication, and it’s a lot faster to type my replies on a real keyboard. I can defer those responses when I need to, but in practice I only get a handful of actionable emails per day; literally fewer than five messages. Likewise for texts from anyone but my wife – and she naturally gets an immediate reply no matter what else is happening.

You may want to add your mailserver’s domain to your blacklist, and whichever domains iMessage uses for message relay (I’m not sure what they are offhand because I’ve never tried to block them, but I do highly recommend Little Snitch if you’d like to monitor and selectively allow or deny network access on a per-app basis).

The point of SelfControl isn’t to make it impossible to access your blacklisted domains; just to introduce enough friction that you notice you’re trying to skive again, giving you a chance to get back on track. My own experience is that I check social media almost without conscious thought – particularly since I can launch my Twitter app, or Slack, or Facebook with just a keystroke. I pause work for a moment to think, and boom: I’m looking at Twitter before I’m aware that my fingers have moved.

SelfControl introduces a roadblock into that process. I still see the Twitter app suddenly appear, but the connection fails, I see the error message, and I think Oops. I’m losing focus again. Back to work.

With those sites inaccessible, I find that I do my chatting and social media checking in batches, often at lunchtime or when I’m taking a mid-afternoon coffee break. That makes a big difference, but the main benefit is that I get a nudge back towards what I’m meant to be doing when my mind starts to wander, and my treacherous fingers readily supply a potential distraction.

I’m going to keep non-essential communication, chat, Twitter and such on my phone, and reserve the laptop for work. If you have similar issues with getting started and staying focused, maybe it’s something that could help you too.