Friday, June 17, 2011

The Internet and Procrastination

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I spend too much time online.

There, I've said it.

Much of my Internet time is work-related--research for my writing, stuff for Writer Beware. As for the personal stuff--Facebook, YouTube, reading the news, emailing friends, following interesting links--there's nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn't completely take over your life, or interfere with other activities.

Where the problem arises, for me, is in the procrastination factor. It's much too easy to use the Internet as a way of putting off difficult tasks (that chapter where I've gotten stuck), or things I don't feel like doing (that trip to the gym), or even things I do feel like doing but can't somehow drag myself out of my chair to undertake (walking in my garden on a sunny spring day).

I'm also much too prone to succumb to the urge to do online research while I'm writing, rather than just making a note and moving on--which as often as not leads to a protracted Web session and a lower word count for the day. And even when I'm not procrastinating, I fear that the multi-tasking behavior I tend to fall into online--composing a Writer Beware email, checking personal email, looking at my Twitterfeed, surfing Facebook, all at more or less the same time--is not good for my brain. The split-second focus, the grashopperlike jumping from item to item, and the intolerance of slowness encouraged by the Web is detrimental, I think, to the sustained, intense, singleminded concentration that's so important for writing.

I've tried a variety of strategies to keep myself on track (simple willpower, unfortunately, isn't enough). I concentrate on email, blogging, etc. in the morning, and reserve the afternoon and evening for working on my fiction. I keep email and nonfiction writing on my desktop, and use my laptop just for fiction writing. To make even more of a mental and physical break, I move to a different location to work on a book--I usually sit downstairs in the dining room.

These strategies help. But they can be circumvented, so they don't always help enough. I've often wished there was a way simply to turn off my web access for several hours at a stretch, and eliminate all temptation (although I'm well aware that a procrastinator can always find a way to procrastinate--the moments just before I sit down for my daily writing session are the only ones where housework seems appealing).

I also know I'm not alone in struggling with this problem--which is why I was doubly pleased to discover this blog post by ShelfTalker's Elizabeth Bluemle. She spoke with a number of writers about their distraction-circumventing techniques, and got some fascinating responses (it's really interesting how many writers move to a different spot, or use a different computer). She also links to a program called Freedom, which lets you block the Internet for up to eight hours at a time. You can disable it once you've set it--but you have to re-boot, and, theoretically at least, "the hassle of rebooting means you're less likely to cheat."

We'll see. I've downloaded Freedom to my laptop, and intend to give it a try.

Do you struggle with distraction and/or procrastination? How do you cope with it? Please share!

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EDITED TO ADD: Some great suggestions have been made in the comments for other programs to block various aspects of the Internet:

RescueTime is a time management tool that includes a Focus Mode "to voluntarily block the distracting parts of the internet for a period of time you specify."

LeechBlock is a Firefox add-on "designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day. All you need to do is specify which sites to block and when to block them."

For Mac users, there's SelfControl, which "blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and websites for a predetermined period of time." You can't get round it by re-booting or re-setting the system clock--you have to wait for the timer to run out.

I'll add to this list as additional resources are suggested.

36 comments:

Glynis said...

While building my platform I spent hours on the Internet. I considered it an important part of my writing life. Now I am gradually decreasing my blog posts, time on FB and Twitter. The result has been a rewrite of one novel and more edits on another. I am trying to find the middle ground.

The Freedom link might be useful, thanks.

Glynis Smy (writer)

Porter Anderson said...

Victoria, another excellent online approach to the problem is RescueTime -- it has a "FocusTime" feature that lets you just turn off the sites & apps you want, but stay online with legit ones (research, etc.) for precisely the minutes you need. Also monitors exactly how much time you spend on everything. You can try it free on my referral link, if you like: http://ow.ly/4ZYGY)

I'm not a rep, just a really happy customer -- RescueTime has been a huge help to me.

Thanks for the good write -
Porter

Suze said...

An affliction of post-modern life that is here to stay. The best tip I can give you is just to go to sleep at the end of the day without regret. Life is both brief and full, and the less seriously we take ourselves the more likely we are to do what needs to be done, and address what needs to be addressed.

A bit guruesque but I think the best 'guides to life' are the ones that turn the initial question on its head.

Btw, resisting a temptation only gives power to the temptation, so don't waste time feeling badly when you lose another round to your impulses. In fact, if you tell yourself, my work is on the Internet, this is time well-spent. All of a sudden, it's not such an epic inner battle.

Victoria Strauss said...

Porter, thanks for the link--I'll check it out.

Suze, you're so right. If only I weren't genetically hardwired for guilt!

Anna said...

I quit facebook, which helped for a while ... until I started a blog. Now I tell myself that I'm "networking" and that it will eventually pay off in book sales. The little lies we tell ourselves.

LJCohen said...

I left a comment on the article you linked to, before I realized that freedom is also available for PC. The last time I had looked into it,it was mac only.

I use a firefox addon called leechblock, which lets me selectively limit specific websites. So I can turn off FB/Twitter (my big time sucks) without losing net capability all together. That works better for me than simply turning off my wifi.

Jeannie said...

Separate office space (read shed) with no telephone, no Internet, no nothing except me and my little computer. Transfer files via flash drive. Also, use a very out-of-date computer, so you can't do anything fun out there--just word processing.

Lehcarjt said...

For me procrastination is always about fear. I get stressed about my book really, really easily (Fear of failure. Fear of risk. Fear of facing the truth that I'm not as good as I think I am.)

When I start spending too much time on the FB or AW, I try to pay attention to what exact fears I am trying to avoid. Writing the fears down works well too (I'm a fan of Julia Cameron's methods). If I can articulate my fears, they go away, and my desire to avoid the book disappears.

Really, I don't enjoy FB or AW or surfing around nearly as much when I am actively engaged (meaning unafraid) in my own story.

I love the management tools. I'll definitely look them up.

HL said...

I'm a big fan of (and need to download again) LeechBlock for firefox. I used to have it set for the first 90 minutes of my work day. I found I could get a lot more hammered out in that time and was less inclined to leisurely move into the day. Granted, I knew how to override it, turn it off, use another browser--but just the "you're supposed to not look at this right now" was enough to keep me going.

G said...

Sometimes what helps me with my writing, is simply moving outside from my hovel with a pen, paper, copy of my current novel (I print out the pages as I write them) and a clipboard.

I found this method to work the best, simply because the type of muscular dystrophy that I have in my hands usually limits my time on the computer.

Plus with having a ready made copy of my book, I have no problems doing edits or writing notes for problems that can and do crop up.

Mandy C. said...

I sometimes have to take drastic measures to get focused and quit getting distracted. Things like unplugging my Internet wire or simply going in a quiet room and writing on a notebook by hand and then typing it later.

Kay Theodoratus said...

I time how long I do the social networking thing. So far, it mostly works.

Gerald Hornsby said...

This is a bit like losing weight, or giving up smoking. You need to [b]want[/b] to do it.

I've tried various methods of cutting myself off, but I then spend too much time thinking of what I'm missing out on, and I then become focussed on why I'm forcing myself to stay off the internet.

I flit between Facebook, several forums, my emails and blog feed aggregator. But then I decide it's time to write, so I write. I do think going somewhere different to write helps, and I find putting in earphones with music puts me in my writing zone.

The internet is still there if I need to look something up quickly - this afternoon, I needed a new character name, so looked up suitable Ukrainian names. This is much better than leaving it until later. But at that time, I was writing, and the internet stayed connected, the browser open, but all I wanted to do was write. (1700 words in that session)

I wonder whether the losing weight analogy works. It is much better to educate yourself into behaving better with your computer (portion control) than to starve yourself of internet access.

Harmony said...

I'm definitely suffering from the bug of procrastination. I'm trying to figure out a formula that will work for me and the various writing projects that I am working on - 2 blogs and a novel. Maybe reading the comments to this post will help some and I'll be able come up with a formula that works.

Siri Paulson said...

I've also had success with the different location/different computer strategy. Even when I know the computer has Internet or the cafe has WiFi, the intention is enough to keep me offline. (It has to be a complete break, though. Open the Internet once and you're lost.)

At the risk of sounding like a complete addict, what's been working for me lately is doing half-hour wars on Twitter at #wordmongering (for writing) and #editmongering (for editing).

It works best if you're using TweetDeck or HootSuite or something else that lets you follow a particular hashtag, so you can easily see what others are posting on it. You post your intention to participate in the next war, using the hashtag; start at :00 (if writing) or :30 (if editing); write or edit furiously; then come back in half an hour and report how much you wrote/edited.

You could succumb to distraction during that time, but it would show in your results and you'd have to admit it. Surprisingly effective, and in between wars, you get to slack off (or take care of housework or other business, or plan your next scene).

Jenni Wiltz said...

I try to keep all marketing/brand-building tasks limited to the first two hours of my workday. Then I'll take a break for housework or errands or whatever--this helps get rid of the feelings of insecurity, envy, etc. I get when I read published authors' blogs. :)

Then, when it's time to write, I sit at my desk and freaking write until I can't anymore. If I start slowly or feel like I suck, my husband makes me take a shot of whiskey or vodka, and I can usually get past those feelings with a little Dutch courage. Perhaps not the ideal way to get the words flowing, but it seems to work!

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks so much for all the great strategies and suggestions...please keep them coming!

Callie Kingston said...

It's definitely a challenge, like Glynis said, to work on platform building, writing, researching agents, revising, tweeting . . . oh, my, I'm exhausted now and must go lie down.

Lisa said...

Ha, yes - even procrastinating about taking a walk in the sunny garden.

I can procrastinate about anything. The sole condition is that I tell myself that calling my mother in law, writing a letter, or taking a walk in the garden, is something I should do. At that precise moment, all joy falls away and bleak duty remains.

Writer Beware! It is possible, I have found, to procrastinate an entire life away.

Gary Taylor said...

Drats! I've been caught. I coulda written that piece, but I was procrastinating. Woke up at 0430, thought I'd catch up so's I could trudge ahead in this non-fiction I am passionate about.

Can you tell it's 0600 and I'm posting a comment? My procrastination is busyness about everything and cataloging everything but my writing is "urgent" and, well, "important-ish." Writing is IMPORTANT. So, clear the decks so's I can write. Decks always seem cluttered.

SO: I instituted a two-week Internet fast. It worked. The JOY of writing has returned, the irritation of the interlopers has increased. I now no longer do T or FB, and I've reduced blog posting to once a week. I've determined that neither my heart, my soul, nor my mind are that much enriched, not really.Entertained, maybe. Time for me to write to enrich others.

That took ten minutes. It was a tactical diversion. Sun's up now and I'm inspired to write. Not opening T or FB to do it.

jphbr said...

I stick to dialup. Immediacy is gone, which prevents endless wanderings. Having to dial up makes it a session, rather than an impulse.
When doing research online it's a bear to download files, but while it's doing it you go back to your writing because the limited bandwidth prevents you from surfing further.

Anonymous said...

Victoria, I am surprised you haven't learned anything from living with cats. "Guilt? I don't have no stinkin' guilt" is their motto. (They are not big on grammar, but on honesty.)

Seriously, I read. The shorter attention spans we develop and the "need" to multi-focus that Internet usage teaches us needs to be confronted head-on. So I make myself sit down every day and read for a minimum of one hour, usually two, and sometimes three. I notice that if I concentrate on a book with no distractions that my concentration level is strengthened, much like my muscles are after a hard walk. It's a matter of conditioning. We have to fight to not sit on our brain's ass (so to speak) and to make it work as it was meant to--on one effort. My sense is that the less I do that the more quickly it becomes out of shape and is likely to follow the speed-and-distractions lifestyle that is becoming the norm.

Look at most workplaces. Every time an ad is put up for hire, they want people who can multi-task rather than do a job well. On popular blogs--one book one in particular that I am thinking of--there can be nearly as many links as there are original words from the blogger. And while I do have a Facebook and Twitter account for my website, the FB one is automatically updated and the Twitter one, I am sorry to say, is ignored. I don't "do" either, nor do I care in the slightest what anyone on either of them is saying. Not everyone can do that, especially authors with promotional needs, but why this constant need to check in? Isn't once a day enough?

As for housework, I had to laugh. Yes, a deadline is the only time housework becomes anything but hateful. In fact, it becomes almost a mad craving. I don't know what to do about that. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

A great (free!) app for Mac users is Self Control, found here: http://visitsteve.com/made/selfcontrol

Like the RescueTime program that Porter linked to, it lets you set up a blacklist of sites that you want to block while it's turned on. You can set the block time up to 24 hours.

Another option I've tried has been LeechBlock (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/leechblock), a Firefox add on. You can set up different sets of sites to block, and you can actually schedule it to turn on by itself at a given time and day (a specific day, every Monday, every evening, etc.).

Hope these help someone out!

D.G. Hudson said...

To counter procrastination: I use willpower and a hubby who tells me to focus on the book I'm working on. Also helpful is a crit partner from the other side of the continent who helps keep me on track by frequently asking how it's going.

I keep JS Bell's book Revision and Self Editing by WD) beside my desk. He suggests writing 350 mininum words a day, usually early in the morning, then adding on more words as the day goes by. Once a week, one entire day goes to writing.

By not making the goal so high initially, I'm not as daunted. Usually I write more than this, but keeping the goal manageable is a motivator for me. I also am not on FB or Twitter currently, but I maintain two blogs. Paring down is sometimes a necessity.

Victoria Strauss said...

I've edited this post to add several additional Internet-blocking programs that commenters have suggested. I'll add to it as additional suggestions surface! Thanks, everyone.

Victoria Strauss said...

One thing that makes it tough for writers is the need to self-promote. It's hard to take a Facebook or Twitter or blogging vacation when you're pressured from all sides to build and maintain your fan base.

Eileen said...

Lisa, thanks for pointing out the mind-set of making enriching activities into SHOULDS that derail the prospect of joy and break from negative self-talk.

I'm going to monitor myself.

Thanks Victoria for plunging into the subject and everyone for the followw-up posts!

Claude Nougat said...

Great post as always! Yes, this multitasking on Internet is driving me nuts and I don't get all the writing I want done.

I keep telling myself it's good for my "platform building", BUT how do I know it's good? Who buys my book because I eructed a funny tweet, I made a growlingly bizarre post on my blog?

Deep down, I doubt all these things are related. And I'm really happy with myself when Google is turned off and I'm writing on my computer as if it were an old-fashioned typewriter of yore...

Aaah, old times! Why don't you just take a walk in the countryside and breathe in the fresh air? That's real FREEDOM!

Catherine Gayle said...

I'm bad at using the internet for procrastination, too. I've taken to using a software program called Freedom. It disables my computer's internet access for a specified amount of time (I am the one to specify), whether from ten minutes up to eight hours at a stretch. So I'll set it for an amount of time, and then get to work. During the amount of time allotted, you try to disable Freedom, it is simply non-responsive. The only way to get around it is to completely restart your computer. Because it annoys me to restart my computer (shutting everything down, waiting for it to reboot, opening everything up again, etc.), I tend to rarely do this--usually only if I've accomplished as much as I'd hoped for during my Freedom time already and am ready to allow myself an internet break. You can download and try it for free, and when you run out of trial uses, it is only $10 to purchase the full version. Not bad, for the ability it gives me to thwart my procrastination.

fantasydreamer12 said...

I have the same problem. I am addicted to the internet. Thanks for the app recommendations.

scriptlarva said...

I have written about how I solved this problem in my blog here. Also check two updates on these strategies later on. http://scriptlarva.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/strategies-for-2011/

Ulysses said...

Is anyone else savoring the irony of searching the internet to find software that will discourage you from surfing?

Anonymous said...

He who lives by the internet shall die by the internet. Bye Bye Victoria and Writer Beware

Victoria Strauss said...

Don't hold your breath, Anonymous.

SherwinJTB said...

I don't really like the idea of blocking the internet. Might as well just turn off the power.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Victoria,

I love your post! I suffer from the procrastination bug too. I noticed that I was most productive when my computer was down as I was forced to work without distractions.

I also discovered that it helps to write outside your home. At home,my cats demand attention and I can become a little lazy or unfocused as a matter of course. However, if I were to plant myself at Starbucks, the presence of people and actual distractions actually forces me to focus on the task at hand drown out the environment.

I also think it helps to read books. I can no longer scan the web for news articles, or rather it's harder for me since they are presented in such a disjointed fashion.

Intead, I prefer the focus of researching, reading, and thinking about on topic at a time. In turn, I learn and focus more by reading about those topics which interest me while not paying attention to having to keep with the Internet Jones to the point of information overload.

Whatever we need to know is a click away. In the meantime, we should focus on what we need to progress towards our goals.

Good luck with your writing!