How to Prevent Compulsive Browsing

Guess what happened to me the other day? I had a big project to work on. Before I started, I figured, I would just check my email and my Facebook account “really quickly.” So I did. I still didn’t really want to start, so I checked my Google Reader feed. Then I read some things linked to that, and some things linked to that. Then I looked at the clock and noticed that I’d just wasted a whole hour.

Everybody has a different weakness; maybe yours is Reddit, or Memebase, or Google News. I have a huge problem with Wikipedia; I love learning about random stuff so much that I click any links that look interesting, and then I click some links in those articles, and eventually I notice that I’ve moved ridiculously far from my original topic.

Ironically, it was several levels of links out from my Google Reader feed that I learned of the program that has worked wonders for me. It was an article called “How to Quit Wasting Time on the Internet” that showed up in the related articles section of a website I’d reached after clicking a link on one of the pages I reached by clicking a link on Reader. Given that I was undeniably wasting time on the Internet at the time, I immediately clicked the link.

The article has a large number of suggestions, so if you’re interested in more options and tools, take a look at it. But what worked for me was a Chrome extension called StayFocusd. It has two modes:

  • A daily limit on browsing time for particular sites. You make a list of sites you often waste time on (I have Facebook, Google Reader, Lifehacker, The Onion, YouTube, Wikipedia, and for good measure even though I don’t often visit them, Reddit and StumbleUpon). You can also check a box that will count sites you access by clicking links on time-wasting sites as time-wasting sites as well (very important for sites that are primarily lists of links to others, such as Google News or Reader). Then you choose how long you want to give yourself to browse these sites per day (right now I have 20 minutes, but I’m still trying to find the best amount). After you’ve used up that time, you can’t visit those sites for the rest of the day, and you can’t increase the time either.
  • A complete block for a given amount of time. This is called the “nuclear option.” You choose the length of time you need to be distraction-free and whether you want to block just your blacklisted sites or the entire Internet, and after you click the button there’s no going back.

It’s quite possible to cheat if you want to; for instance, you can simply open a different browser in which the extension is not installed. But unless you have really serious self-control problems, you don’t really need to block things entirely, you just need to give yourself a reminder. As soon as the extension informs me that I’m not supposed to be visiting a website, I immediately realize what I’m doing and lose the desire to try. Having a timer also works wonders to remind me to scan lists of articles quickly rather than waste time reading unimportant ones.

I had no idea how much time I was wasting this way until I installed the extension. Since installing it, I find myself wondering what I should do much more frequently; though I wasn’t aware of it, apparently I had a tendency to just start browsing the Web and then get drawn into something that way.

If you’ve ever had a problem with compulsive browsing, this extension could give you time you didn’t even know you had.

Download StayFocusd for Chrome

(Note: There are similar extensions for Firefox; see the original article that I linked earlier for some of these.)