Author’s Long-Winded Pontification:
I’m a dreamer. I’ve spent my life dreaming of someday having a very comfortable life. Of being able to do the things that only people who don’t worry about money get to do. I’ve been working my ass off building apps and starting businesses for 20 years. I still haven’t made it, but I’ve never given up and I never will.
I used to fantasize about what my life would be like once I’d “arrived”. But I’ve always struggled with my impulses and escapes like gaming, watching Netflix, neurotically checking Facebook and email, noodling with my phone, and on and on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself closing Facebook just to open my email, then closing my email just to open Facebook. I’ve always fallen short of my productive goals and failed to finish my projects because of this. At some point, I stopped fantasizing. I never stopped chasing my dreams, but on some level, I’d lost hope.
Last night I started fantasizing again. The reason was that I’d found an appthat will help me control my digital addictions, make sure I turn off my computer and get a good night’s sleep, and limit what I can do on my phone.
I recently read an excellent book called ‘The Willpower Instinct’, by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. One of my main takeaways from the book was that willpower works like a muscle. We have a finite amount and it can be drained. That’s why they put candy at the checkout line of grocery stores. After walking around the store trying to make good decisions, our willpower is exhausted and we’re more likely to make a bad decision.
We can do things to build our willpower, but every time we have to resist something, it drains us a bit. And the people and businesses that are aware of this are constantly chipping away at our willpower. If we’re running late to work and skipped breakfast, fast food is going to look awfully tempting. When we hear that chime on our phone, we pull it out like Pavlov’s dog and look for the red numbers. If we see an attractive person, we’re going to want to take action to see more of that person. Or we may want to take action to becomethat person. If we’re playing a game on our phone, it’s going to use all kinds of psychology to chip away at our willpower so we’ll buy that next upgrade, and the next, and the next…
Another takeaway I got from ‘The Willpower Instinct’ was regarding dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical our brain releases so that we’ll seek out rewards. It’s both a carrot and a stick. It gives us a satisfying bit of pleasure when we get it. And it causes us stress when we can’t get it.
There were dopamine experiments done on rats where they were wired up to be able to receive a dopamine hit electronically. Then they were put in a cage with 2 levers. One lever would give them food, the other would give them a dopamine hit. The rats would hit the dopamine lever over and over again without eating or sleeping. They would keep doing it until they passed out from exhaustion or died.
People aren’t that much different than the rats. Because of our cognitive abilities, we can resist temptations a little here and there so direct access to dopamine won’t kill us. But it will make us less likely to seek food, shelter, real social interaction, and other needs and forms of gratification. I personally have had days go by where I’ll play computer games from the time I wake until the time I sleep. I may only stop for a quick bite sometime in the late afternoon and I’ll “hold it” as long as I can until I really have to go. Computer and video games are my dopamine lever. But we all walk around with a dopamine lever in our pocket.
About Digital Addiction:
Over the years I’ve heard the addiction label plastered on everything from games to the internet to Facebook to porn. All these things have one thing in common — they’re digital. Digital addiction isn’t a real thing, just a label I created to blanket all the other addictions. But it fits because they all addict us in the same way. The fact is, we’re not actually addicted to games or Facebook or porn, we’re addicted to dopamine.
Every time we check our email, our Facebook notifications, our Instagram hearts and follows and we see that little red number, we get a small dopamine hit. Games give us tons of rewards, flooding us with dopamine. Orgasm gives us a rush of dopamine as well. Know what else gives us a hit of dopamine? Cocaine. When it comes to the digital world, we’re all crackheads.
It’s even worse if, like me, you work in the digital realm as a designer, developer, researcher, student, etc. You can’t just turn off your computer or put away your phone if you’re dependent on them to earn a living or education.
Building up our willpower is an excellent thing to do. But we are so completely bombarded with temptations every day. And those dopamine releasing temptations are super hard to resist. I read somewhere the average person touches their phone more than 2,000 times a day. That’s more than 2,000 times we have to exercise our willpower just from having a physical device in our pocket. Then we spend time scrolling through our favorite social media platform hoping for another hit of dopamine from a cat video or a compilation of guys getting hit in the crotch or a touching statement from a friend or a titillating image. Meanwhile, we have other responsibilities and have to exercise a lot of willpower to break out of that behavior.
Our modern lives provide far more temptations than we are biologically able to handle. Some people don’t have a problem with this. They just naturally aren’t that into social media. Or maybe they get enough of a natural hit from the joy they get from day to day successes.
But many, or most of us struggle with one form of digital addiction or another. And we haven’t evolved to be able to handle it. It’s just all too much. And if we struggle with anxiety or depression, it can greatly amplify the need to feel good or feel better, making those addictions all the more powerful.
There’s a story going around about Steve Jobs’ turtleneck. They say that he wore the same turtleneck every day so that he’d have one less decision to make. So he’d have one less thing to drain his willpower every day, allowing him to be more productive. It’s probably not true and actually has more to do with branding. But it’s still a good story!
The solution is to take away our decisions. We need to eliminate as many of those willpower struggles we fight every day as we can. We need to make it more manageable!
I’ve spent years looking for an app to help me block temptations. Usually, when I google it I’ll find parental control apps. They don’t help you control yourself, just others. I’ve seen website blocking browser plugins, but they don’t help with apps and can be easily disabled. I used to use admin tools on my PC to stop certain activities, but I always found a way to override them. Apps that block social media don’t work because I need it to promote my businesses.
I’ve seen tools that simply disconnect the internet. As a digital worker, that’s not even an option. As a life long learner, I rely on Google constantly. As a nomad, I require Google Maps daily. Turning off my devices simply isn’t an option either.
FocusMe does it all!
Then yesterday, I found it! An awesome little app called FocusMe. Other similar apps are too simple. They provide all or nothing solutions. I need to be able to enable and disable different things based on how I want to use them. It also lets me limit my access to apps like Steam and Minecraft just as well as websites. They also have an Android app that works almost as well as the PC version. It’s still better than anything else out there and definitely meets my needs. FocusMe does it all!
How I Use It:
I love gaming! But it consumes my life as I mentioned earlier. With FocusMe, I’m able to restrict the time I spend gaming on a daily basis to say, an hour or two. I could even go weekly or monthly if I just wanted an occasional marathon.
I need to have access to my email and social media accounts, but I want to stop the cycle of checking over and over or mindlessly scrolling away. With FocusMe I can limit my sessions to 10 minutes at a time (or less) and then not again for an hour (or longer).
It’s vitally important to get 8 hours of sleep a night. And sleeping at a regular time is also important to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm. But I often stay up late gaming, watching Netflix or finding one of 1,000 other ways to distract myself. Then I take a break and, well crap, it’s 2 AM again. FocusMecan lock my computer down completely at night. I set it to lock down from 9 PM to 6 AM. A more regular sleep schedule can also help ensure a more regular work schedule, which is good for my freelance business.
I watch a lot, and I mean A LOT of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and TV from other sources. I can use FocusMe to limit the time I spend on video sites and apps like VLC, just like I do with games.
I came up with a thing I call “analog time” where I’m allowed to listen to music and audiobooks, and maybe watch TV, but nothing else. No google, no games, no social media, no nothing, except for something I can run in the background while I do something artistic or craftsy or physical.
I can set it up to prohibit certain activities like gaming while I’m in work mode. It even has Pomodoro tracking baked right in so I can completely block distractions while I’m doing a Pom.
I can also lock down everything but one app or page to do work I don’t want to. For example, I clip tons of interesting articles and useful information to OneNote every day. In the years of using it though, I’ve only actually tried to organize it maybe 3 times. With FocusMe I can block everything BUT OneNote for say an hour a day. I can even whitelist other apps that hold data that needs to be organized like my Google Drive.
When I first installed FocusMe, I had some issues with it not recognizing what browser tab I had open. That was a deal breaker for me. The dev responded to my support ticket with an update to the app that fixed the issue in 15 minutes on a Saturday! Holy cow! This is now an app that I trust completely.
I have a couple of notes on usage. I recommend going all in with FocusMe but do so incrementally. DO NOT use “forced” until you have a lot of experience. Stick with short random passwords, say 3 characters. Once you’ve streamlined your system a bit, make the passwords a little harder, like 20–50 characters or so. After you’ve been using it without thinking much about it for a week or more, go for 100–200. If you find that level isn’t stopping you, you can go all the way up to 2,000! Or you can use “forced” as an absolute last resort.
Also, there’s a trend when someone wants to make a big change they tend to go overboard. I’m going to stop eating all the carbs! I’m going to exercise two hours a day everyday! These extreme attempts only set us up for failure as they’re unattainable. Please don’t cut everything you enjoy out of your life. Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with the people you love. Games are a great distraction, loads of fun and a soothing escape at the end of a hard day. Be loving to yourself first, and use this to cut down and control the things that take over your life. With great power comes great responsibility.
I finished this article in 2 days, instead of 2 weeks thanks to FocusMe.