Are you suffering from social media addiction? Or just procrastination in general? Do you have trouble being productive when working by yourself? Then this guide is for you. I wrote this guide because problems with procrastination always makes me unhappy. When I find myself productive on the other hand, I always find great happiness in it – not only from the pride of getting sh*t done, but also from the flow you can get into when you are working focused on something.
This guide summarizes my own system that solves these problems. This system has made me more efficient and happy with work, and it has helped me kill my social media and news addiction. The system works best if you have a job where you work by yourself and need to focus for extended periods of time, like in programming or in writing. But even if your job isn't like that, I think you can still take away a lot from this text.
The allure of social media and news sites
What if you had a button in front of you at all times, that triggers an instant rush of pleasure every time you push it. What would happen? How would you relate to that button? When would you push it? In the 1950s, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner set out to explore this question. They had found a way to actually build a contraption where lab rats had access to such a button. It was wired directly into the rodents' brains, into a part of the brain where the implanted electrode would trigger an intense rush of pleasure.
The rats ended up pressing that button up to 7000 times per hour. They prioritized button pushing over eating, over drinking, and over taking care of their newborn babies. The researchers had to stop the experiment when they discovered that the rats would starve to death because they preferred pushing the button to eating. Pressing the button became everything the rats cared about.
I won't try to equate smartphones and social media with the pleasure-button. But Old's and Milner's rat experiments tell us something about how strong an addiction can be. And how powerless we are against the habit, unless we can find ways to outsmart it. As I wrote about in my guide to a digital mini-detox (which by the way is a great starting point for you if you think you have a severe case of social media addiction), 42% of Americans check their phone "constantly" and 86% check it "often." Maybe not 7000 times per hour, but I think many of us should admit to ourselves that we are addicted to social media. And it hurts us. Being addicted to checking your phone raises your stress levels, and it steals a lot of time and mental energy every day.
Why do we get addicted to social media? What is it that draws us in? We are social animals at the core. Humans have always lived in tribes: small communities of around 150 people or so. Our relationships with other members of our tribe have always been crucial to our reproductive success. We have an innate need to keep up with other people's social standing, so that we can always position ourselves strategically in the best way possible. A popular theory of why we have evolved such big brains is because they are required to handle the social "games" and roles we all play with each other. We need big brains so that we can cooperate with, gossip, and even manipulate other people. Modern social media sites like Instagram and Facebook provide a shortcut to get our small fix of updates on people we have some kind of relation to. Our brains are hardwired to prioritize consuming information about our tribe whenever there is new such information available. Only problem is, our tribe today is the whole world, and new information on that tribe is constantly available.
A problem I did find myself in a lot when I was younger, was that when I would sit down at my computer to work, I would often feel some kind of resistance towards starting to do the actual work. That resistence pushed me to do something else, and that something would usually be browsing news sites, social media or link aggregators like Reddit. That avoidance behaviour easily becomes a strong habit in itself, which means that it becomes harder and harder to break out of it and get into work mode instead. I will now describe the four steps I have taken to free myself from social media addiction and develop a habit of high productivity and focus (and enjoyment of work).
Step 1: Get rid of the drug
Step 1 of stopping your social media addiction is to pry the drug out of your own hands. I say pry, because you will face some resistance from yourself when doing this. You will have to understand and accept that it is uncomfortable to quit something you are addicted to.
Now, what is the best way to get rid of any addiction, like an addiction to sugar for example? For me, it was to realise that every time I had sugar or candy in the house, I would eat from it. So the simple but effective solution to stop my sugar addiction was to make a rule to never have sugar at home. Dead simple, but also dead effective.
In the same way, you must get rid of easy access to social media, at least while you are trying to work. The simplest solution would be to block all social media sites on your computer, for example using SelfControl, which is a great application if you are using a Mac. I'm sure there are a bunch of similar applications for PC and other platforms. Just google "block url productivity" or similar. SelfControl lets you to make a list of domains that you want to stop yourself from visiting. Then you set a timer for a number of hours, and once you start that timer it will be impossible for you to reach the domains in the list. It doesn't even help if you uninstall the app and restart your computer – the domains will still be blocked until the time is up.
You could uninstall all the social media apps on your smartphone as well. This approach, to totally quit using social media altogether, is probably the most effective one – because when you have gotten out of the habit, you will stay away from tempting yourself into it again.
When you block all the social media sites from your computer and uninstall all the social media apps from your smartphone, you will likely feel annoyed and frustrated at first. You will find yourself trying to visit Facebook and news sites without even having made a conscious decision to do so, just to realize that "Damn, I blocked that site!" This will pass pretty quickly. When the initial frustration with not being able to access these sites dwindles, you will find that it gets replaced by a wonderful feeling of calm and focus. Once you escape your social media addiction, and the period of withdrawal symptoms is over, it feels wonderful! You get your mind back. So focus on breaking free from social media, which is a bit painful, and I promise that you will not feel many withdrawal symptoms when you have arrived "on the other side."
The one big problem I find with completely quitting social media and news sites, is that I want to use them from time to time. Like, a couple of times a day or so. I need to stay in touch with friends and relatives. I want to browse Instagram or Reddit from time to time, for entertainment and inspiration. To use a drug that you know you get easily addicted to, but in moderation – this is trickier than staying away from the drug altogether. I have however deviced a system for "moderate" consumption of social media and news. I think it works pretty well, and I will now describe it in the next step.
Step 2: Set up a familiar environment for focused work
I read an essay by Silicon Valley investor Paul Graham almost ten years ago, in which he explains his system for being productive despite the temptations of the internet. This has been an inspiration for me ever since. What he does (or rather, did) is he simply has two different computers (this was the era before the internet had found its way into our pockets), one for work and one for internet browsing. Whenever you want to look stuff up on the web or check e-mail, you move to another physical location, and you use a different computer. Our subconscious minds are very good at making associations between physical locations and environments and certain "moods," and I think it is a great idea to have a work computer dedicated only for work, and an internet computer that you only use for browsing the web and leisure activities. In Paul's case, his work computer did not even have an internet connection. In my case, I need the internet to be able to do my work, so my work computer is connected, but with social media sites and news sites blocked.
When you have separate devices for work and leisure, it also becomes much more obvious for you when you are doing work, and when you are just procrastinating. If you are sitting by the internet computer all day long, and your work tasks for the day don't really require internet connectivity – then it is very obvious that you are cheating yourself. You are cheating yourself in the sense that your subconscious mind, which is lazy and wants to do activities that require as little energy as possible, tends to be drawn towards browsing the internet and social media, while your conscious mind wants to get work done.
This concept, with a physical location and a special computer for work and only work, is also something the legendary author Stephen King brings up as one of his foremost keys to productivity. I wrote a blog post earlier about his book on writing, in which he describes his productivity method:
The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with. No more; you’ll lose the urgency and immediacy of your story if you do. With that goal set, resolve to yourself that the door stays closed until that goal is met. Get busy putting those thousand words on paper or on a floppy disk.
Stephen King is an advocate of having a special room where you work, a room with no distractions whatsoever. When you walk into that room, you should have a goal, and you are not leaving until that goal is met. This is how Stephen King has become one of the most productive and successful writers of our times.
If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shade unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.
So this is my core principle for creating an environment in which work can get done: have a special computer on which you do work, and only work. In my case I have a laptop which is my work computer. As I only do work on it, and never use it to watch Youtube or browse Reddit, my subconscious mind quickly creates a strong association between this laptop and the nice feeling of flow I am often in when I am working. That means that whenever I sit down and flip up my laptop, I instantly get into work mode. This detail, to have a dedicated device for work, can seem small, but it makes a huge difference in fighting procrastination and social media addiction.
Since I don't own two computers, the device I have chosen for entertainment and social media is my smartphone. So whenever I want to browse Reddit or see what my friends are up to on social media, I use my smartphone. And obviously I put it away when it is time to get some work done. I put it in a drawer in another room and pick it back up when work is done. This works beautifully for me. I personally don't think I need a special room for work, for me is enough to have a dedicated laptop: the laptop forms the environment that I can associate with work. But as Stephen King suggests, a room dedicated for work is of course even better – a stronger cue to your subconscious mind to enter work mode.
Step 3: The best todo-list system
So now that you have your social media addiction by the balls, and you have established a familiar environment in which to do work, and only work, you have laid the groundwork for productivity and focus: you have gotten rid of all distractions. This is great. Now it is time for the final, but very crucial steps in our system for productivity, and these are to focus on the right things, and to measure how much we get done.
As a way of handling your todos, and to pick the right things to work on, I love and continue to use Ivy Lee's simple system for prioritization, which I have written a short blog post about, so please follow the link and read about it. In summary, it is about only working on one thing at a time, and to only prepare one short todo-list for each day, with a maximum of 6 tasks for that day. One of the greatest powers of this system is that with a small and neat todo-list with only 5-6 tasks on it, you will never feel intimidated or frustrated with your large, bulky, 100+ items and growing todo-list, which tends to become the norm for most of us. The psychological effect of facing a small todo-list instead of a huge one, and the feeling that you are actually working your way down the todo-list every day, and that it actually shrinks instead of grows, is also not to be underestimated. Seemingly small details like these make for all the power in the Ivy Lee productivity system. Try it!
Step 4: A system for measuring and forcing productivity
Okay! Now we have a great way of prioritizing our work every day. We also have a familiar space that we associate with focused work. Truly great! Time for the last peace of the productivity puzzle: actually getting stuff done.
For this, I am a true fan of the Pomodoro technique, which I have also described in detail in its own blog post. So please follow the link. This method is great, because it is the bridge from procrastination towards actually beginning to work and getting into flow. If you have trouble getting started on your tasks for the day, and you tend to procrastinate, just promise yourself to do one pomodoro, which is 25 minutes of focused work on your number one task for the day. After that it will be easier to do the next pomodoro. And the next one. And so on.
Another great benefit of the Pomodoro technique is that it is also a perfect way of measuring how much effective work we actually get done. When you work a normal nine to five job, you tend to have a pretty significant variation in your productivity levels throughout the day and the week. Often we are distracted or unfocused when we are working on a task, and even if we spend a whole "working day" on something, it is not necessarily equivalent to another, more focused, working day on the same task. So counting hours you were working on something doesn't correlate that well with output. But I feel like I can count and compare pomodoros with greater confidence than other units of work, because they are by definition 25 minutes of focused, undisturbed, work.
So there you have it! My current productivity system. For someone like me, who works independently at the moment, this system ensures that I get stuff done in an efficient manner. Before I had this system I spent far too much time just procrastinating, browsing social media and doing other things that would result in a great frustration of never getting stuff done. This system works great, because it gives me space to concentrate on my work without distractions, and it actually makes me enjoy work that much more.
As with everything, it is not a perfect system. I would be lying if I said this works perfectly every day. But most days it does. But I am obviously constantly looking for ways to make my work even more efficient and enjoyable, and I will likely be using an evolved version of this system a year from now. Thanks for reading this rather lengthy post. And please let me know how these tactics work for you!