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Some examples of such activity:

  • browsing this site without a particular goal
  • browsing your friends' profiles on social networks
  • reading news
  • hugging with you spouse (endlessly)
  • watching TV

You can begin with a reasonable goal (post a question, write a message, check the result of a particular football match etc.) but then your attention is getting caught by some related content or something, you lose the sense of time and simply can't stop. You wake up after an hour or more and become very disappointed about the time you've lost. And you fall into this trap again and again. Another problem is that even after you (partially) wake up and realize that you're doing unimportant things, you continue doing that for some time, unable to make yourself stop.

So the question is: what habits, rules and tips can I use to:

  • not to fall in a trap like this;
  • after realizing that you've got into this state, quickly make yourself get out of it?
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28  
I'd remove "hugging with your spouse endlessly", because this is not unimportant but something that might make sense for your relationship and can be a good investment in your future together, while all the other activities tend to take time which you could invest in your work or more important things. –  Martin Jan 16 '12 at 11:37
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@Martin, thanks, I see your point. If fact, I added the item about spouse deliberately to emphasize that the problem is not doing 'bad'/unimportant activity, but when tasks that are important or at least acceptable (ask a question on this site, read a particular interesting news article, write a message to a friend via social network, hug you spouse for some time) turn into addictive activity that you can't stop. Hugging can be important, but hugging too much is not better than watching TV too much. The problem is in amount of time devoted and unclear goals. –  Denis Golomazov Jan 17 '12 at 12:59
    
    
You have to question yourself if these addictive things are really bad for you? Reading news for example is not a bad thing per see, maybe it you spend an unreasonable amount of time doing it. Just reading news can be relaxing and giving you the energy to boost other things. –  Johan Karlsson Jul 16 at 9:22

18 Answers 18

A few techniques that I find useful are:

  1. Keep a journal and write your goals every morning. The act of writing is often enough to keep the intent in the front of my mind and I am less prone to falling into a behavior I'm trying to modify.
  2. Use a timer and only do 45 minutes of work. The time pressure helps focus you and if you fail you've only lost 45 minutes when the timer goes off.
  3. Involve others in your work. It will also focus you, if you can somehow pair-program or otherwise collaborate.
  4. Put a postit on your computer.
  5. Schedule a pop-up notice on your computer to "Stop reading stackexchange.com and get back to work. The timer is running!"
  6. Also, put in that journal the list of things you want to accomplish. That should draw you toward a goal.
  7. Break up your tasks into smaller and smaller bits until you can easily visualize one being completed. Once you see a task being done, it typically starts to fall into place.
  8. Finally, shave a yak once in a while. Meaning, tackle the easy, somewhat meaningless task that is easy. Sometimes that has a way of pulling you into your work and you find some flow and can continue on to more important items.

Hope that helps some.

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Big thanks for that. I'll try to use your tips and report if they work for me or not. –  Denis Golomazov Jan 17 '12 at 13:17
    
@sam Kindly tell me exactly how to schedule pop-up notice on a computer to "Stop reading Stackexchange....", I mean technical know-how. Do you have any desktop based software or something like that? –  user221287 May 25 '12 at 5:51
    
@myselfpoddar Mac or Windows ? –  Max Aug 3 '12 at 13:37
    
@Max Windows. Thanks in advance. –  user221287 Aug 3 '12 at 17:37
    
@user221287 www.manictime.com –  articlestack Jul 27 '13 at 2:12

If you're into crazy lifehacks, I highly recommend using commitment devices on yourself. Here's a list of tools for doing so: http://blog.beeminder.com/competitors

[disclosure: I'm part of Beeminder, one of those tools]

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Thanks, @dreeves. CDs are a way to try, and I've tried this approach. It works perfectly, though has a number of drawbacks, wisely mentioned in this TED talk:Daniel Goldstein: The battle between your present and future self. First is that you become weak if you don't have commitment devices in some area. Without them you don't have self-discipline. Second problem is that you can justify violation of your rules. You were sick or you had a force majeure and you physically could not do that. –  Denis Golomazov Jan 22 '12 at 3:22
    
Still thanks for reminding of this efficient technique and for the links. I'll check your project and the competitors. –  Denis Golomazov Jan 22 '12 at 3:24
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Thanks Denis! Great points, though I disagree with the otherwise sage Dr Goldstein on both those reasons for shunning commitment devices. A crutch? Please. If it works, it works! And as for weaseling, that just means you didn't set up a very good commitment device. In my biased opinion, Beeminder will be your salvation there! :) The stronger argument against commitment devices is the inherent cost of limiting your future flexibility. Here again I think Beeminder shines, cutting the inflexibility to the bare minimum with a one week "akrasia horizon". –  dreeves Jan 22 '12 at 16:59
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Btw, I can tell you that in practice, abuse of a Force Majeure clause (the "SOS clause", as we more commonly call it) just never happens. –  dreeves Jan 22 '12 at 23:19
    
Kindly see this question: webapps.stackexchange.com/questions/27270/… –  user221287 May 25 '12 at 7:08

I also used to get in "trap"s like these...

The best way (IMHO) that I follow is to keep yourself busy i.e. give yourself short term and easy goals regularly. As these short term golss are easy enough and do not take significant time, you will not get demotivated and you'll also save time. Now those short term activities should be in sync with your long term goals and it varies from person to person.

And in order to get yourself out of the trap when you've got into the state... I would suggest to keep track of your daily activity i.e. write your daily activities in a diary or something similar... first few days won't be productive but later you'll be able to control yourself more and more. Actually this has a psychological aspect behind it... by writing your daily activities, you'll become more responsible to yourself.

Hope that helps.

Thanks.

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2  
Thanks for a good answer. I'm afraid the first suggestion will not work for me. Suppose I want to check my inbox on StackExchange (easy goal). I do it in 1 min, check comments to my posts, but then I see some interesting related questions to the right and start browsing the site for 1 hour, getting into the trap. How can your advice help in this situation? Am I missing something? –  Denis Golomazov Jan 17 '12 at 13:11
    
As to the second part, I hope time tracking will work. Actually I started tracking time of my entire life a week ago, using new smartphone and a good software. So far it didn't increase my productivity, but at least drew my attention to this big problem. And sometimes, yes, I'm looking at the phone and see that I've been doing unimportant things for 2 hours...should stop that now. Your advice is great, thanks. –  Denis Golomazov Jan 17 '12 at 13:14
    
Hi Denis... regarding the first query, I would like to know why do you think that surfing a site to know something is bad? I believe you get interested to browse the site because you get something informational about a new thing or similar... and you may even discover some really interesting know-hows. But as I mentioned in my post that "those short term activities should be in sync with your long term goals", you have to decide whether that surfing is really going to help you or is it just wasting time. –  gurudeb Jan 17 '12 at 16:41
    
Surfing a site for 15 min is ok, but for two hours is not good :-) –  Denis Golomazov Jan 20 '12 at 13:04
    
Similar thing happens to me when I watch a video on youtube. The related videos on the sidebar catch ones attention and you find yourself jumping from one video to the next for hours. –  BlueM May 9 at 14:31

Get rid of your TV.

I did it 10 years ago and never looked back.

UPDATE: To complete my answer, I would like to generalize my rule.

Whenever I want to remove a bad habit, I make it hard to indulge in the habit.

  • If I don't want to watch TV so much, I throw the TV away.
  • If I want to stop playing video games so much, I uninstall the games from my computer.
  • If I want to stop eating junk food, I remove them from my kitchen.
  • If I want to stop reading online news, I get a simpler phone rather than one with great internet browser.
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I strongly disagree here, what if your job requires a high need for online connectivity e.g blogger, stock broker, journalist etc. How do you stay focused then? E.g, I'm an indie programmer who's just starting out and needs the internet to collaborate, look up solutions on stack overflow (we al do it :) ) and test websites and such. How do I stay focused on my tasks for long periods without constantly deviating from my goal? –  Joshua Areogun Jul 25 '13 at 11:58
    
Joshua, although my specific examples might not work for your specific situation, I believe the rule "Make it hard to indulge in your bad habit" still holds true. In your case, it may mean using a Google Chrome extension that blocks certain websites during certain time ranges. But your question seems a bit different: "how do I stay focused on my tasks for long periods of time". Look at Pomodoro maybe? –  Aymeric Gaurat-Apelli Jul 29 '13 at 2:21
    
That makes sense. –  Joshua Areogun Jul 30 '13 at 13:24

I've tried a lot of book techniques, like keeping time sheets, banning internet domains in /etc/hosts, going on an internet and videogame diet etc etc, but none of those worked for me. A few years ago I came up with this method: I watchdog myself and whenever I find myself doing something dubious while I should really be doing things that have to be done, I ask myself this question: «Will anything that matters change if I continue or stop doing it? Will doing it benefit me now or in long term?»

Unsurprisingly, the answer is «no» most of the time, and that alone makes me feel disgusted with the unproductive activity, and I just stop doing it immediately. The «addictive» activity suddenly loses its appeal and stops bothering me for a few hours.

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This technique is good because it's self-contained, i.e does not rely on any external things, but on the self-consciousness only. This kind of advice seems really true and not artificial, as many others. But it's extremely hard to implement. First, you have to develop a habit to watchdog yourself permanently. Second, after you realize you're doing unimportant things you have to stop yourself. It's not easy since the activity is addictive:-) Could you share any hints to make it easier to implement your technique? –  Denis Golomazov Jan 24 '12 at 12:33
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@DenisGolomazov: (again, it is my personal experience) I didn't have this habit back then, it just kind of developed naturally. I would suggest stopping an unproductive activity abruptly a few times and seeing if you start getting the «alarm signal» automatically. I also suspect that the key element here is abruptness, i. e. if you wait until you finish the level or TV show episode (instead of hitting Quit the moment you got the thought), it won't be effective. Of course it won't work with hugging, but that's another matter. –  Mischa Arefiev Jan 24 '12 at 13:13

Going on a media diet helps. I came across that tip in Tim Ferriss's book 4-hour week. I tried that tip and it has been almost 2 years since I have gone back to reading news, mindlessly. Here is my blog post "Productivity Tip #12: Following news is a waste"

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I liked the book too :) And your blog post is interesting. Personally, I don't read news almost at all, except occasionally reading football news and watching matches every once in a while. The problem with those is that I'm not 100% sure I should stop tracking what's going on in football world, because I really find it interesting. Maybe I should limit time devoted to that or try some other tip. –  Denis Golomazov Jan 17 '12 at 13:22

Close every single window/app not related to what you want to focus on. Same way your computer has to store those running processes in your computer memory your brain does the same thing.

Put on some creative/productive music. I've recently been having a lot of success with the Flamenco channel on Pandora. You want rythmic, uplifting and positive music that add flavor to the task you are trying to accomplish.

Make sure to meet all your physical needs before trying to get a lot of work done. This means proper hydration, nutrition, activity, hygiene etc. Mood, focus and energy levels are grounded in a lot of physiological factors such as blood sugar levels, nutrient deficiencies, electrolyte balance etc.

Sleep is the most important thing you can do to improve focus, productivity, and learning. Here's an answer I wrote to a question about sleep and how to improve it.

Finally, make sure you balance your work with good breaks. Whenever I'm working long hours doing sedentary work the most effective break is one that involves physical activity such as walking, stretching or doing a short workout.

Just remember, focus and productivity is a skill. The more you practice it, the better you become at it.

Good luck.

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Physical grounds of psychological states is an interesting idea. I think that this connection is underestimated and often not taken into account enough. Could you provide any references to scientific studies on this connection? –  Denis Golomazov Jan 24 '12 at 12:40

Find something that is even more addictive and beneficial. People only have an issue with seemingly addictive activities when they are perceived as undesirable, and they tend to do them for lack of better (more inclination) things to do. That said, I'm not sure if the activities you described are addictive or are just regular distractions that should be managed as such. Watching TV and reading news is something I do when I am bored or just need a break, so the solution for me is to find more engaging activity and ration the amount of break time I take while engaging in those activities.

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Yes, yes, yes! This is what I've thought about recently, and this seems to be The Solution. Do not fight against darkness, just bring the light. In other words, to stop doing addictive activity, find something that it's even more addictive, but seems to be a right thing to do. Humans have limited capacity of attention,so this new "good" activity will naturally replace the old "bad" one. I think that if you find yourself doing addictive and destructive (or non-productive) activity, this simply means that you have nothing more interesting and positive in life to do now. So go and find something! –  Denis Golomazov Feb 20 '12 at 8:49
    
What I also like about this idea of "light" is that shifting your focus in this way makes you feel creative ("I need to find something better") rather than sad and guilty ("oh, I did it again"). –  Denis Golomazov Feb 20 '12 at 8:50

I read the excellent book Your Brain At Work. It explains how these types of behaviors are addictive and they become harder to shake loose from the longer you wait.

So the way to stop doing them is twofold:

  1. Train your conductor (the part of your brain that does the conscious thinking, or rider if you prefer the rider-elephant analogy) to recognize these situations.
  2. As soon as you recognize the situation as procrastination, loudly think "STOP" and stop your activity immediately.

The more you do this, the easier it gets. You really have to train yourself and it really is a struggle. The sooner you can stop a situation, the easier it is.

Just remember this: Recognize - STOP.

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Simple and can be effective. Will try this. –  Denis Golomazov Aug 8 '12 at 6:16

I found this good article on instant gratification vs long term satisfaction

Addictive activity always gives us instant gratification therefore it is very appealing. Work on the other hand only gives us long term satisfaction and no immediate rewards. Discipline is the art of resisting temptation, tolerating pain and keeping track on long term goals.

I don't think there's an easy fix for this, other than willpower and knowing what you need to do. It is always your choice.

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I think about this question virtually all my life. Can life be meaningful in the long term and not painful in the short term? Do we have to sacrifice anything to get something? –  Denis Golomazov Feb 20 '12 at 8:51
    
One type of philosophy basically says "no pain, no gain", develop self-discipline, which basically means "get used to making yourself do what you don't want to do, to achieve something good in the end". I believe that there should be another way to go: set your goals and then find a way to achieve them by doing things you like. This requires creativity and this is an absolutely positive thing, it shouldn't be painful to find new, happy path to get where you want! –  Denis Golomazov Feb 20 '12 at 8:51

I disconnected my television after realizing that there is only shit on TV. Also, for social networks I've chosen a radical approach, I blocked the site be adapting my host file. http://bit.ly/yjoupY

Pointless browsing and reading news are harder because you simply can't block the whole internet (only particular periods). I blocked certain news sites that I tend to goto to easily but the real issue is that you need to learn a new attitude towards this behaviour.

As soon as you realize that it is unwanted behaviour, you should stop browsing, reading or social networking and do something that you consider usefull.

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Thanks for the reply. I've tried blocking too, and it worked. But the problem is, as you pointed out, with sites that can be useful if you do not spend too much time on them (this site, for example). So the big question is: how to learn a new attitude to this unwanted behaviour? How to make yourself 1) realize and 2) actually stop doing that? –  Denis Golomazov Jan 17 '12 at 13:26
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@DenisGolomazov by posting the question you already realized it. Stop doing is, i think, an incremental process in which you gradually improve your wanted behaviour. Make the goal easier to commit to. i.e. don't go cold turkey on social media, instead lock it out for 8 hours. –  Roel Jan 18 '12 at 9:39
    
Making the goal easier to commit to by posing low limits and eventually raise them is an interesting idea, thanks. –  Denis Golomazov Jan 24 '12 at 6:30

First, and as a general approach, I'd pick ONE "habit" and try to break it. Then I'd look at the next habit. This point is separate from how you actually do that.

They (who ever they are) have said that it takes about 21 days to create a new habit. What they mean is something like working out or what ever -- force yourself to do it for 21 days and that might be sufficient to then not have to "force" your self much to keep it up. My experience is that a habit can be broken in a similar way.

Also, I think the number of days is arbitrary and very individual. For example, I went through a period of time where I often had an urge to play a "quick game" of Spider Solitaire when I was supposed to be working. It turned out that after a week-long vacation without computer access I no longer was interested in the game at all.

Second, as far as the best techniques to break habits go, it will depend on you and your habits. But I can offer something that has worked for me. Often tangents would start when I came out of "flow" to answer email. The thought process was that I was out of "flow" anyway I might as well do something else before I try to get back into it. The result was that I often stayed out of "flow", and on the tangent, for a LONG time.

Long story short, I tried turning off my mail client for the day, or turning it on at scheduled times as often as was needed. For me morning, mid-day and end of work-day checks kept others from being upset about slow responses. For several of the other sites that became problematic I used the Firefox plug-in called LeechBlock. That plug-in allows you to define a fine-grained site blocking schedule (e.g., no ebay or cnn from 9 to 5). In a question I have posted I describe how I handle my daily web-reading now.

Keep in mind that you ought to work on ONE habit and stay at it for as long as you need to before going on to the next one. I give a lot of credence to the idea that willpower is a limited resource that needs to be used wisely and sparingly. See this article on [ Ego Depletion ] for more on this theory,

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I find meditation helps with this. The more mindful you can become, the more likely you are to stay focussed on things that matter and avoid things that don't. All in all though, don't worry too much, just sounds like you have a serious case of being human.

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There are lots of thing you can do in order to get rid of addictive activities. One of it is to avoid distractions and airplane mode is a great way to avoid distractions. This mode needs you to turn off all your gadgets and stuff that can distract you like mobile phone. This will help you prevent getting distracted by text messages and phone calls. In order to get more things done you need to fight procrastination and books like Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy (21 great ways to stop procrastinating) is a good help. The key that you can effectively do all things you must do in order to stay productive and get more things done is with self discipline.

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I will look on it from another way that it doesn't matter if you keep doing the addicting activities but not let your day pass without making it worthwhile which you have to plan beforehand.

Start by setting only one smart goal at a time say for 15 days(which could be the part of much bigger goal).

if you set a goal of reading a book of 200 pages, it becomes about 15 pages per day. set a specific time of the day like say 6:00 am to work on your goal when you feel that the distractions are very limited. practice not getting up unless you finish reading those 15 pages. if you got distracted then don't worry there are only some pages left which you can do it sometimes in the day but don't let the day pass over without finishing the pages. you can practice it with 2 or 3 goals as well afterwards. i assure you feeling of accomplishment after 15 days will give you more power to work on goals and will decrease distractions but the thing is that you have to make it a same routine like eating or going to work which will come slowly and you have to be patient here.

one more advice i can think off for not getting distracted is to buy a white board and place it somewhere very visual and at the start of the day write your goal on it. even if you get distracted reading it will help you remember that you have gotten in the trap and you ought to get back to what you were doing.

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It's all about discipline. It can come from internal desire to change or from the existence of external tools/help. For the first three addictions you mentioned (basically web browsing) why don't you try Skim.Me to make your daily browsing routines more productive and less addictive. Signup at http://skim.me.

We do all setup, organization and management work for your favorite site and app sources so you can browse no-reply emails, weather, news, social media, ecommerce, finance and more without leaving our web app in timed batches throughout the day.

As you browse we manage a “done” list for you that can be toggled to a “to-do” list for browsing that’s algorithmically controlled. It’s a great user experience that shows you what you’ve accomplished and never how many unread you have.

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For first three points You might try web filter/blocker. It counts time You spent on websites and block them if You spent too much time there. You can adjust counters to reset and add time based rules, for example: news and social sites 1h maximum before evening and without limit since evening. Tricky thing is that You should decide how to build rules, and then You should obey them. There are extensions for Firefox - LeechBlock and Chrome - StayFocused.

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I'd rather return some questions to the person spending time procrastinating:

  1. What are you avoiding?
  2. Are you afraid of what will happen if you do the things you ought to do?
  3. What do you want to achieve?

These questions should help clarify what's blocking you. Instead of deploying tactics and technics on the symptoms, working on the cause might cause the procrastination to go away. At least part of it.

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Great comment. I agree that we might focus on the symptoms too much, while actually it's the cause that should be fixed. And questions are a good technique to study the cause. Will you add more information? Maybe more questions, other techniques, books/links on the topic? –  Denis Golomazov Sep 20 '13 at 7:28
    
Yes, I will definitively expand on the subject –  Pierre-Yves Genot Sep 20 '13 at 8:47

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