Here’s Frank’s glorious poster (click for PDF); his paper is below.
Cutting the Cord: technology as the source of (and solution to?) procrastination
Procrastination is hardly a novel phenomenon, but in the digital era, it may have reached its apotheosis. Today’s Internet user is subject to a constant stream of e-mails, viral memes, addictive games, social media updates, and Wikipedia spelunking sessions. It’s raining lolcats and doges—and it would appear to be wreaking havoc with our productivity. “The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” a chart recently released by The Economist, tabulates the opportunity cost to humanity of the 140 million hours we spent watching the rapper PSY’s horse dance antics: twenty Empire State Buildings, or six Burj Khalifas, or an entire Wikipedia (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). No surprise, then, that many employers continue to block “time-wasting” websites such as Facebook or Twitter, or that studies have found that digital technologies are distracting to workers (R. Williams, 2014). Intriguingly, however, in combatting technological temptation, we are increasingly turning to technology itself. Some might grumble about the lack of character-building discipline this entails. But what is more interesting is what this behaviour tells us about life in the digital era.
The use of technology to prevent procrastination and encourage productivity is not new. In the 1920s, Science and Invention publisher Hugo Gernsback invented human blinders: “The Isolator”, a large helmet that restricted its user’s vision and hearing—and even supplied oxygen from an external tank to counteract drowsiness (Novak, 2013). For perhaps obvious reasons, The Isolator never quite took off. Some simpler technologies have been found more fruitful. The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, advocates the use of a kitchen timer (such as the common tomato-shaped variety which lent the technique its name) to break up time into blocks of twenty-five minutes of work, followed by breaks of three to five minutes (Cirillo, 2014a, 2014b). Among other techniques, David Allen’s productivity manual Getting Things Done (2002) suggests a system of forty-three folders—one for each day of the month and month of the year—to help organize physical artefacts and reminders. More unusually, Internet critic Evgeny Morozov locks his smartphone and router cable in a timer-controlled safe, allowing him to work without the distraction of the Internet (Tucker, 2013).
In the digital era, it’s not surprising that such physical approaches have been either replaced or augmented by technologies running on the very devices that seem to have exacerbated the problem of distraction. Both the Pomodoro Technique and Getting Things Done have their own mobile applications. Some word processors, such as Microsoft Word, iA Writer, and Byword, virtually mimic the narrow eye-slit of the Isolator by offering different kinds of “focus modes”—for instance, by making the application full-screen or highlighting only the line of text currently being edited. At the more extreme end of the spectrum are digital implementations of Morozov’s safe: applications such as Freedom (80Pct Solutions, 2014) and SelfControl (Stigler & Lambert, 2014) that can be used to block the Internet, entirely or in part according to customizable blacklists, for pre-specified lengths of time. Nothing short of a reboot (in the case of Freedom) or specific technical knowhow (in the case of SelfControl) can re-enable Internet access once the digital timer has been set. (Freedom features prominent authors such as Nick Hornby, Naomi Klein, and Zadie Smith amongst its admirers.)
Other technologies exist that are only possible in the digital age. The WiFi-enabled “SnūzNLūz” alarm clock threatens to punish lie-ins with automatic donations to ideologically repugnant causes via direct debit (ThinkGeek, 2014). Though the SnūzNLūz was an April Fool’s joke, the concept of pecuniary punishment of procrastination has found traction in at least two real web-based services, Beeminder (2014) and stickK (2014). These sites reward the diligent, but their very business models are essentially wagers on the fundamental idleness of their customers. A similar service, RescueTime (2014), somewhat more benignly tracks and reports on how users spend their time on their computers from day-to-day—but without the risk of penalty, except for crises of conscience.
The names and iconography of these technologies provide interesting clues to how we think of procrastination and unproductiveness. The icon for SelfControl is a skull and crossbones (“death to procrastination,” it seems to suggest); Freedom’s is a clock (“time’s running out”). When we are quite literally left to our own devices, we are incapable of focus, self control, or, ultimately, freedom: we are slaves to our appetites, thralls to unproductivity. The promise of these applications is emancipation. But, some might argue, what about the virtue of actually practicing discipline, restraint, or willpower? Rather than growing in virtue by struggling with our temptations, we are offered the easy route of clicking a button, of being constantly nudged by timers and focus modes, of fooling ourselves into work. Using extrinsic approaches to eliminate distractions altogether seems like a quick fix, a cheat. We have replaced our forty days in the wilderness, with the attendant risks (and character-building rewards), with life in a hermetically sealed room—safe and unchallenging.
I think this view is self-flagellating, for three reasons. First, it’s possible that we worry a little too much about procrastination to begin with, at least in the sense that we see it as a danger unique to the digital era. The word itself has been attested at least since the sixteenth century (“procrastination, n.,” 2014); the fable of the industrious ant and the lazy grasshopper dates to the classical era. Nor should we begrudge ourselves reasonable leisure. “[H]umanity has at least been entertained,” The Economist wryly comments on their Gangnam Style infographic (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). Though 16,000 human-years spent watching the video is an initially staggering statistic, it still means that, on average, each of the world’s seven billion inhabitants only spent 1.2 minutes of their time watching. This is hardly excessive entertainment. The Internet can be undeniably distracting; the claims it makes on our attention—possibly the last truly scarce good in the materially-wealthy West (see, for instance, Goldhaber, 1997)—can be profound; in the end, it is possibly even addictive (Young, 1998). But procrastination is not new. It is as old as work itself.
Second, the notion that we should be alarmed at using digital technology to combat distraction plays into the idea of what the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has termed “digital dualism”—that online life is somehow separate and distinct from “real” life (2011). Digital dualist narratives also tend to depict the “real” world as somehow purer or worthier than the digital one. The problem with digital dualism, however, is that there is not really any such thing as “cyberspace.” At a very concrete level, the Internet is physically grounded; though we feel as though we are peering through our computer screens into a separate digital world, it is as real as anything else we experience. It is more profitable to think of the Internet in terms of affordances: in other words, the modalities it permits and implicitly encourages, and those it denies or discourages. To return to the issue of attention, it may well be true that Internet technologies can be especially distracting; advertising, for instance, can be more intrusive than in traditional media, with full-page takeovers and auto-playing videos. And many (otherwise) intelligent people are spending a significant amount of time and effort designing ever more attention-grabbing distractions. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” lamented former Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher (Vance, 2011). There is an arms race for our attention; faced with the unique challenges of Internet-related distraction, then, we should not feel bad about mustering technological weapons against the abuse of technology. We should not assume that traditional, offline techniques are better or more valid than online ones. Indeed, the proliferation of applications designed to help us focus is more an indication of ingenuity and adaptability in response to the onslaught of hard-to-avoid distractions. “Our brains are so easy to fool that it’s borderline embarrassing; you might as well salvage some self-respect by exploiting that fact,” writes the technology journalist Oliver Burkeman (2010).
Finally, we should not unnecessarily elevate the virtue of struggle. To be sure, discipline and willpower in the face of unavoidable temptation are laudable. But there is nothing unseemly—indeed there is something prudent— about avoiding temptation altogether; and thankfully, we need not take such drastic measures as St Francis of Assisi did when he flung himself into a rose bush. When we can help ourselves focus with software, coping with technological temptation by eschewing technology seems unnecessarily scrupulous. Morozov said about his safe, “It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself. I just waste too much energy having the internal conversation. I’d rather delegate the control to my safe and use my remaining willpower to get something done” (Tucker, 2013). Replying to those who ridiculed the practice, even this deeply techno-skeptical thinker said, “I have no problem with the safe, frankly. It fits very well with my vision for technology. It’s okay to delegate certain things to technology” (C. Williams, 2013). Applications such as Freedom and SelfControl do not operate autonomously. The user must still have the willpower to click the button that blocks their Internet, after all. And though that is a simple act, and is likely to be easier than exerting the full effort of our will to avoid distraction, it is not without virtue (Millgram, 2010).
In sum, then, we shouldn’t castigate ourselves for marshalling what defences we can against distraction, when it does indeed transition from reasonable entertainment to compulsive procrastination. Instead, it is worth pondering what our use of technology contra technology tells us about life in the digital age. It suggests that though distraction and procrastination are nothing new, the affordances of Internet-enabled computing—the near-ubiquitous connectivity, the malleability of web content, the steady stream of notifications—can exacerbate the problem; but other affordances—“distraction-free” modes, the ability to cleanly, easily, and reversibly sever our Internet connections—can similarly help us fight it. Another factor is that we now find ourselves enjoying entertainment on the same device we use for work. This can be undeniably problematic when, for instance, we spend too much time on YouTube rather than programming, researching, writing, or performing other work that is temporarily painful but ultimately satisfying.
But this convergence of uses actually points to another idea. The era of always-on Internet encourages us to actually reassess the idea of procrastination itself. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham writes, “No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well” (2005). In fact, one study suggests that some kinds of “cyberloafing” might actually boost productivity (Academy of Management, 2014). Social media, Wikipedia, and online news are not necessarily “good” procrastination—but they should not automatically be considered bad, either. These activities can strengthen social ties, encourage learning, and invite serendipitous innovation just as much as they can distract us from the more important tasks at hand. Some work profits from long blocks of steady concentration, and for such times, we have applications such as Freedom and SelfControl—or safes. But having information readily available can also be a boon. The novelist Ned Beauman, though himself an avid user of Internet-blocking applications, nevertheless says the Internet is “Inextricably part of my method. […] I don’t consider Wikipedia a distraction; I find it really useful. Most of the time you’re learning something” (Wilkinson, 2012). What we should encourage is not a complete disconnection from technology to avoid procrastination, nor a condemnation of the Internet as an inherently procrastinatory medium, but rather a contextual approach—aided, when appropriate, by technology itself—that enables us to work when we need to, and surf when we don’t.
Frank Hangler is an MSc student at the Oxford Internet Institute, interested in big data, smart cities, and the rhetoric of technology. He has several years of professional experience in design and development. He holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science and a Bachelor of Computer Science, both from the University of British Columbia.
[Links active as of 13 June 2014]
80Pct Solutions. (2014). Freedom – Internet Blocking Productivity Software.
Academy of Management. (2014). Internet browsing at work? It’s a pause that refreshes workers and enhances their productivity, new research finds.
Allen, D. (2002). Getting Things Done. London: Piatkus.
Beeminder. (2014). Beeminder.
Burkeman, O. (2010). This column will change your life: Is self-discipline the key to success? The Guardian.
Cirillo, F. (2014a). Frequently Asked Questions. The Pomodoro Technique.
Cirillo, F. (2014b). Get Started. The Pomodoro Technique.
Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style. (2014). The Economist.
Goldhaber, M. H. (1997, April 7). The attention economy and the Net. First Monday.
Graham, P. (2005). Good and Bad Procrastination.
Jurgenson, N. (2011). Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality. Cyborgology.
Millgram, E. (2010). Virtue for Procrastinators. In The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford University Press.
Novak, M. (2013). Thinking Cap: A Helmet That Seals Out External Sounds and Sights. Pacific Standard.
procrastination, n. (2014). OED Online.
RescueTime. (2014). RescueTime: Time management software for staying productive and happy in the modern workplace.
StickK. (2014). stickK − Change Starts Now.
Stigler, C., & Lambert, S. (2014). SelfControl.
ThinkGeek. (2014). SnūzNLūz – Wifi Donation Alarm Clock.
Vance, A. (2011). This Tech Bubble Is Different. Businessweek.
Wilkinson, C. (2012). Shutting out a world of digital distraction. The Telegraph.
Williams, C. (2013). Google is run by adolescents, says Evgeny Morozov. The Telegraph.
Williams, R. (2014). Internet “fuels procrastination and lowers productivity.” The Telegraph.
Young, K. S. (1998). Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(3), 237–244. doi:10.1089/cpb.1998.1.237