How To Actually Stop Wasting Time On The Internet

How much time have you wasted online today?

I can give you a rough estimate of my minutes frittered away just this morning:

  • 20 minutes spent reading about Ford’s data tracking on Hacker News
  • 30 minutes spent reading about all the actors who have played Sherlock Holmes
  • 15 minutes on Reddit looking a stupid pictures of dogs (while eating breakfast, so this one isn’t as bad I suppose)

65 minutes, totally gone. And that’s just this morning.

Why do we waste so much time online? We know we should be studying, or writing a paper, or coding, or whatever – but instead we hit up Reddit. Or we scroll through Facebook with glazed-over eyes.

Sometimes we even waste time by reading articles about productivity. That wouldn’t be you right now, would it?

Anyway, let’s not waste any more time venting our frustrations. We’re here to eliminate all those hours you waste online, and I’ve got several effective solutions.

Sure, I’m not perfect. I still procrastinate. However, that 65 minutes I wasted this morning was followed by more than a few hours of solid work – and these techniques helped.

Down to brass tacks, padawan.

Lock Down Your Familiar Haunts

The best way to prevent yourself from wasting time online is to block your access to the places where you waste it. Plain and simple.

While blocking specific sites won’t prevent you from finding new ones to waste time at, it’s still effective. The idea is to make procrastination more effort than it’s worth.

If your brain is used to jetting over to Reddit or Facebook when you don’t want to work, block those two sites. It’ll take more mental effort to Google for something specific to waste time looking at than it will for you to just lazily scroll through your news feed.

Here are some apps you can use to block familiar time-wasting sites when you’re working:

  • StayFocusd (Chrome extension) – this is what I use personally
  • FocalFilter (Windows) – blocks access in all browsers
  • ColdTurkey (Windows) – like FocalFilter, but can block other programs too. Paid, but you set the price and proceeds go to charity.
  • SelfControl (Mac) – same as FocalFilter

If you don’t want to use an app, you can also permenantly block websites by editing the HOSTS file on Windows or etc/hosts on OS X.

To get really nuclear, make these changes on an Administrator account on your computer. Set a really complex password for that account, and store it somewhere safe on paper.

Do all your work on a non-admin account, and you’ll have no way to change your block settings unless you go get the password. This is way more intense than most people will need, but desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.

Hold Yourself Accountable

In my article on how you can learn anything on your own, I talk about a tool I use for making progress on my goals called Pick Four.

Pick Four is simply a notebook that helps me track what I’ve done each day on each of my goals. The idea is that seeing all the progress I’ve made on previous days will deter me from being lazy, as I won’t want to have a page that says “NOTHING” for my progress.

Even if you don’t want to track progress on specific goals, you can still use the idea underneath this practice, which is holding yourself accountable.

In the case of wasting less time online, the solution is time-tracking.

If you’re able to look at how much time you spend each day doing certain things, you’re less likely to waste a bunch of time on the internet because you know you’re going to feel guilty later when you review it.

This is the reason that keeping a food diary is so effective for people trying to lose weight. It’s why apps like Streaks are so popular. If you know you’re going to be held accountable – even just to yourself – you’re more likely to do what you need to do.

The easiest way to track your time is to use an extension like RescueTime to automatically track the amount of time you spend on each site.

"What gets measured gets managed." I'm not perfect, but I'm getting better.

“What gets measured gets managed.” I’m not perfect, but I’m getting better.

If you’d like to be even more proactive, use an app like toggl to manually plan out your day and track the time you spend on each task.

It does create more work (or work about work, as Chase Reeves would say), but if the time spent is outweighed by the time you spend not surfing distracting websites, then it’s a net positive effect.

Have a Work-Only Computer

If you’re one of those students with more than one computer (as an IT major, I always was), you can further remove the temptation to waste time by dedicating one of your computers solely to work.

Don’t install stuff like Steam, social media clients, or chat clients (unless they’re work-related). You can use the blocking techniques above to completely lock the computer down if needed as well.

If you use Chrome and have Chrome sync enabled for your account, consider using a different Google account on this computer so your time-wasting bookmarks don’t sync over. If you don’t want to do that, at least hide the bookmarks bar.

It’s even more effective if you use this computer in a different location than where you use your leisure computer.

Find a specific spot on campus, in a coffee shop, or somewhere else you like and think of it as your “office”. (Here are some more study spot ideas) Or pick new locations whenever you like – but don’t use the same room you game in.

Don’t have a second computer? You don’t need to go buy a new one just to use this technique. Just use computer labs on campus to do your work.

I actually did this quite often in school, and the lack of access to all of my time-wasting programs and bookmarks really helped me. It’s hard to slack off when you’re using a computer with nothing but IE (blegh) and Word, especially if you left your phone back in your dorm.

Tame Your Email Addiction

This is one of my worst habits.

Instead of focusing on one specific task, I’ll often stare futility at my email inbox and try to clear it out.

The problem is that email keeps coming in all day. And some of it requires careful thought to reply to. Other messages require me to go and do something – schedule a meeting, do some research, etc.

By constantly checking on my email throughout the day, I’m just switching my focus from one thing to another erratically, never giving myself enough time to truly focus on anything.

The solution is to simply block out time for email during the day. One block of time to focus on nothing but the inbox.

All other hours of the day are to be spent doing something else, with the email tab closed entirely.

While I’m not perfect at doing this, it certainly is effective when I do force myself to do it.

Related: Here are some more ways you can conquer your email.

Eliminate Notifications

Even when you’ve blocked access to your biggest timesinks, you’re often bombarded by notifications that keep pulling your focus away from your work and, occassionally, send you down new time-wasting rabbit holes.

Solution: eliminate ’em.

  • Turn off all but the essential notications in Notification Center on OS X
  • Get rid of notications on your phone
  • Put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode when you’re working (you can set it up so you can still receive calls, either from everyone or just specific people)
  • Don’t keep social media apps and sites open during the day – check them at specific times instead

Remember that changing your focus from one thing to another always carries a switch cost, and those costs add up to many minutes of productive time lost. Each notification you disable gets rid of one more of those switch costs.

Get a Boss

While holding yourself accountable to your future self through time-tracking and self-review can be effective, being accountable to someone else is much, much better.

I sometimes miss the internship and part-time jobs I used to have. I much prefer being an entrepreneur, but one thing I had with those jobs was a boss.

Bosses get a bad rap in movies and Dilbert comics, but in reality, having a boss can be a boon to your productivity.

When I had a boss, I had no trouble getting my work done because knew there was someone who would put a boot up my ass if I didn’t get it done.

Now that I work for myself, there’s nobody that can do that. I can justify procrastination much more easily if I want.

When you’re a student, you’re in pretty much the same situation. You do at least have due dates on homework, but it’s not like the professor is going to yell at you if you don’t do it – you’ll just fail the assignment.

The situation is even worse when it comes to non-school things – making yourself more hirable, looking for scholarships, going to the gym, etc. There are lots of things you know you should do, but there’s nobody there to make you do it.

However, there are ways you can essentially manufacture a boss for yourself:

  • Become part of a mastermind group, and have a weekly meeting (Google Hangouts work well) to review what everyone’s gotten done since the last one
  • Tell a friend you want to finish something by a certain date, and you’ll give them $50 or do their laundry for a month if you don’t finish it
  • Get a productivity buddy, and report the day’s progress to each other each night

These are just a few ideas – you can come up with others yourself. I remember one of my friends had a huge programming assignment due at midnight one night, so he streamed his computer screen to UStream and told us to make sure he did it.

Now, Get Your Ass Back to Work

Remember, reading articles on how to be more productive is yet another form of wasting time – unless you put what you’ve learned into practice.

So here’s my challenge to you: Take just one of the techniques that you’ve learned here and implement it. Install one of the apps I mentioned. Or hit up a buddy and start building a mastermind group.

Here’s to a more productive – and less distracted – semester!

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Facebook

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15 Comments:
  1. Really great tips! Just discovered this site today and I just spent over an hour reading through articles!..lol..But it doesn’t feel like wasted time at all :-)

  2. You are getting fat Thomas. Can you tell me how to get rid of sleeping too late or even not sleeping?

    • Is that supposed to be a figure of speech or are you actually calling me fat? The small rodents living in my rolls take offense to that.

      Anyway, the best way to get up early is to give yourself a reason to. Take an early-morning lifting class, or, if you have no real reason, do what I do: set a really offensive tweet to go out tomorrow morning in Buffer so you’re forced to get up early to delete it before it actually gets posted.

      • :( I’m down. You can delete or moderate my comment. By the way, yes! I called you fat becasue in the right side bar photo you look a little fat so I was worried that you do not get fat more because it is not healthy. We have one similarity “the impossible list” that’s why I came to your blog and commented.

  3. I started using Stayfocusd yesterday, and already there’s been a HUGE improvement! :D I love how it makes procrastinating such a pain in the butt that you actually don’t WANT to do it!

  4. I like the Pick Four concept but I think there’s a cool way to make it even more effective.

    When you write NOTHING, you have to explain WHY you didn’t work on whatever it is you needed to work on. This is great because you’ll realize how dumb your reason is which will hopefully force to stop procrastinating!

  5. Yep, needed this thanks Thomas. Somehow yesterday I came across ebaumsworld.com.. (ever heard of it?) and suddenly hours felt like minutes. I try to avoid reddit like the black plague. Youtube and Reddit are by far the biggest time evaporating worm holes in my case. Just internet surfing in general is lethal to productivity. I try to go to the library where one needs a security key password for the internet, but then my phone has internet so then I just resort to simple discipline. These are some great ideas I will definitely take into serious consideration. Alright I’m done procrastinating/ranting now.. Thanks again!

    • Oh man, Ebaumsworld. I haven’t been to that site in years, but it was a huge time-waster back in junior high. Reddit and YouTube are my biggest general distractions now, though I also tend to get caught up in whatever hobby I have as well – books I’m reading, MtG, whatever.

      Going to the library is a great technique since the computers there don’t have all my programs and typical distractions; plus, the environment is just better suited for working.

  6. Love the tip about time tracking – hadn’t thought about that before! I think I’ll try that time stats extension you mentioned this semester and see if it helps my productivity :)

    • That’s awesome, David! Personally, I’m testing out toggl – so far, I’m finding that manual time-tracking is a pretty great tactic for staying on-task.

      I’m going to experiment with daily time goals – e.g. tracking 6 hours of work a day or so – and see how that works out.

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