Will reading this story hurt your productivity?
Sonja Puzic, CTVNews.ca
Published Sunday, January 22, 2012 1:20PM EST
Matthew Harris used to think turning off the TV and focusing on his computer was a smart idea.
But the Toronto writer quickly realized that surfing the Internet was no better than surfing channels. Work-related research would turn into page after page of random Wikipedia articles; an email check would inevitably lead to hours wasted on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.
Faced with a lack of self-discipline and the need to get some work done, Harris downloaded LeechBlock, an Internet browser add-on that allows the user to block specified websites.
Now, if Harris spends more than five minutes each hour on certain sites -- including the notoriously time-wasting YouTube -- LeechBlock cuts him off.
The add-on allows users to customize their time limits and change them as needed.
"It gives you a kick … and makes you really think about how much time you're wasting online every day," the creative writing student at the University of Guelph-Humber said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
Internet-blocking software and apps have been gaining popularity as more people realize they can't resist online diversions, no matter how hard they try.
Most are either free or relatively cheap and downloadable with a couple of clicks of the mouse. LeechBlock is just one of several options.
Janna Radin began using Freedom software last year in a "desperate" attempt to curb chronic procrastination. A stay-at-home mom working on her first novel, Radin said she would often write "a couple of graphs," then spend the rest of the day clicking through her friends' Facebook photos and Googling whatever obscure movie, event or word came to mind.
"I really am terrible at time management and easily sidetracked," the Halifax native said. "So when I started using Freedom, I thought it was great."
For $10, Mac or Windows users can download Freedom, which blocks Internet access for up to eight hours at a time. It has been reported that many well-known writers, including Naomi Klein and Nora Ephron, use it to stay on track.
Fred Stutzman came up with the concept after an Internet-free coffee shop he used to frequent caved and started offering Wi-Fi to customers.
"Everything changed," Stutzman remembered in an interview with CTVNews.ca. "It wasn't just that there were now more distractions, but the clientele changed as well. Everyone was on their laptops and online.
"That's when I started thinking about the concept of locking yourself away from these distractions."
Stutzman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in Pittsburg, Pa., where he researches social media and online privacy, developed Freedom in 2008.
Since then, the software has been downloaded more than 300,000 times.
Stutzman's company, Eighty Percent Solutions, followed up with AntiSocial, a Mac-only program, in 2010. Much like LeechBlock, AntiSocial allows the user to block specific sites – mainly social media. So far, it has been downloaded about 75,000 times, Stutzman said.
"I think a lot of people are frustrated with the amount of time they spend on social media sites," he said. "It would be totally odd for you to spend 10 hours watching TV. But, yet, people don't seem to notice when that much time is lost online."
Ironically, people are finding out about this kind of software through the very sites it's designed to block, Stutzman said with a laugh.
Some have pointed out that a simple computer reboot will allow Freedom users to go back online if they can't handle the blackout, but Stutzman said he purposely designed the software that way.
"It's partially up to the technology and partially up to you to make it work," he said, noting that "social and behavioral problems can't be solved by computers alone. "
"It's not about just clicking a button," he said.
Harris said he's reached the same conclusion
"(LeechBlock) is only as good as you," he said. "No matter what sites you block, there will be other sites to look at. Plus, there are always other distractions, like your phone."
Stutzman said he's now looking into developing software that would turn productivity into a game, in which users would score points and reap virtual rewards for sticking to the task at hand.