Reclaiming Focus

After 180+ days of quarantine, several weeks of wildfires on the West Coast, the occasional heat wave, constant social justice protests and riots, and a controversial presidential election on the horizon, my ability to focus on one task for any meaningful length of time has plummeted. If I’m not doomscrolling on Twitter or monitoring headlines for my latest dose of outrage, I’m concerned I’m missing something important.

Last week I decided to take some drastic steps to detox my social media and digital channels. I already use Pomodoro and bullet journaling for productivity. My new challenge is avoiding the guise of multi-tasking and social media distraction.

I’d heard about distraction-blocking tools for applications and websites. Before the challenges of the last six months, I never thought I’d need one. Personal discipline should be enough, right? Wrong. I needed help regaining my ability to focus.

Luckily, I picked up Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per Hour about becoming a more productive writer (I’m focusing on fiction for the first time in years). One of his pieces of advice is to use distraction-blocking software to eliminate interruptions. Or, if you’re like me, compensate for waning self-discipline.

I downloaded Freedom, a simple application that works as a VPN (virtual private network) to block distractions on macOS and iOS. (It also works on Windows, Android and Chrome, but I don’t use those platforms.) Setup is web-based for all devices and you can sync your changes between them. Each device can have its own settings and pre-defined schedule, which I’ve found valuable for establishing a routine. You can also drop into an ad hoc focus session anytime by setting the number of minutes it should last.

The app also features a locked mode, which stops you from ending a session. I haven’t needed to use that yet, but it’s there if I do. Another interesting Freedom feature is ambient noise to aid focus. The app features background noises from cafes, libraries, offices or nature. It won’t replace my Deep Focus Spotify playlist, but it’s another thoughtful feature.

I paid around $64 for a lifetime subscription, which was apparently 50% off for September.

Using Freedom

Installed the app on my iPhone and MacBook Pro and I configured my automated sessions. Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Instagram, news sites – every time-waster I could find went into the list. Pre-configured categories make setup simple.

One bad habit I’ve fallen into is checking my phone as soon as I wake up, keeping me in bed for another 30-45 minutes. That’s time I could spend writing. Waking up the first day with a Freedom session already running was disconcerting. Twitter didn’t load. Couldn’t fetch tweets. Same for IG. When you’re using applications on your phone, you only see that the apps can’t get data. You don’t get the type of message you see in the featured image above, which is browser-based. That part is less than ideal, but I can’t imagine how the developers could improve it.

Once I remembered the app was running, I got on with my day. Time saved: 45 minutes.

I have a scheduled gap between 8-9am, when I usually clear email and check everything else. Then the Freedom sessions run from 9am-12pm, then from 1-4pm. Who doesn’t like a little current events-induced misery over lunch?

The first day was great. I knew I couldn’t get to the distractions and plowed through work. The next two days were more challenging. I’d finish something and want to take mental break on social media but couldn’t. I was locked out. Instead, I’d read an Economist article, or something on MIT Tech Review, or I’d run through some yoga in my office. Then I’d get back to work.

It’s still early days for me and Freedom. So far, the results have been positive.

If you’re struggling with distractions and a raging doomscrolling addiction, check out Freedom for a month and see if it helps. And let me know if you’ve found other methods that help. I’m always interested in new tools and techniques.

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