Tools for keeping focused

post by benkuhn · 2020-08-05T02:10:08.707Z · LW · GW · 28 comments

Once I realized that my attention was even scarcer than my time, I became an anti-distraction fanatic. During my weekly reviews I methodically went through my past week, figured out what had been distracting me, and tried to eliminate it or replace it with something less distracting.

Over time, this has led me to find lots of tools (and ways of using my tools) that help me stay more focused. Here are some of the things I’ve started doing:

Anxious yet?

Each of these is small on their own, but like many of the things I work on during weekly reviews, they’ve added up and compounded to make it much easier for me to spend my attention in ways I want.

  1. If your workplace culture doesn’t allow you to keep Slack closed, because it requires quick Slack responses, this is a bad sign. ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by mingyuan · 2020-09-01T20:12:50.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

UBlock Origin's element blocker is truly bae. It replaces so many more-specialized extensions, like Newsfeed Eradicator and DFTube. Behold:

My Facebook:

My Facebook

My Youtube:

My Youtube

comment by Mark Xu (mark-xu) · 2020-08-05T06:03:00.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of my similar tools is trying to avoid keeping my phone in my pocket. Using my phone is a fine thing to do, but having my default state be "can use my phone within 5 seconds" is generally distracting and causes more phone use than necessary. For this reason, I own an ipod touch because I needed access to my calendar/todo-list at all times, but didn't want to keep my phone on me.

Replies from: aaronb50
comment by aaronb50 · 2020-08-14T03:41:54.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Strongly seconded. Keeping my phone out of reach, out of sight, and on silent is both trivially easy and amazingly effective at reducing distraction. I think that all of those three things (sight, sound, reach) are necessary for me, and I suspect others as well.

comment by jimrandomh · 2020-08-13T22:56:52.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Curated. Technology-driven distraction is a serious problem; I don't think this is news to very many people, but it's important to be periodically reminded, to notice any gaps in our current attention-drain defenses, and to deploy good tools for our attention. This is a pretty good list of tools, and I think the comments will probably surface a few more.

LessWrong itself has the potential to be an attention drain, but we do our best to mitigate that and be net positive, eg by delivering notifications in configurable batches rather than instantly. Since we are a nonprofit, we don't have to optimize for maximum engagement; I'd encourage everyone to make deliberate decisions about their reading habits, including an explicit evaluation of whether LessWrong (and other sites) are net-positive for them.

comment by MalcolmOcean (malcolmocean) · 2020-08-05T20:05:31.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow yeah this is a great list. Haven't seen many people besides me who are this aggressive about some of these things.

The whole thing about being able to compose emails without seeing your inbox is vital. You can also do that by setting up mailto:%s as a "custom search engine" (eg at chrome://settings/searchEngines) with a keyword like mto and then you just open a browser window and type "mto" and either the person's email address or just their name. if it's their name, obviously you'll have to fill in the email later, but the point is it takes you straight to the compose view, with no inbox in sight.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-08-20T02:09:33.095Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The main problem for me with Slack, is that I much more regularly need to communicate with an individual than do I need to check a whole channel, and yet if I open it for the former I get the latter.

It has just occurred to me to just mute all the channels, which I've now done. We have one 'time-sensitive' channel I haven't muted, and I'll still see if I get directly @-mentioned, but otherwise I'll find out if discussion has happened when I choose to check and not randomly when I need to share a file with a colleague.

I'm pretty relived, this might now make Slack not painful to use.

Replies from: Benito
comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-08-31T17:56:24.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Update after 2 weeks: this has worked out as intended. I now am happy to open Slack to ping individuals, I don't expect to get hijacked by recent channel convo. At the same time, it's no problem to click through all the channels once per day to see what's been going on. We have one time-sensitive channel that I haven't muted, and that's not been abused.

Am way happier with Slack than I've ever been.

Replies from: benkuhn
comment by benkuhn · 2020-08-31T22:29:21.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yay, happy to hear it was helpful!

Replies from: Benito
comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-10-26T20:36:04.214Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Update after 2 months: this continues to be what makes Slack good for me, and to stop hurting me. I have 100% of channels muted except for DM's and a channel called "team-time-sensitive" that we use for immediate things (like if someone is late for a meeting or there's an urgent problem on the site). I regularly scroll through all the channels with option-down, but only when I actually have the time to deal with things. Otherwise, I just open Slack to talk with who I need to talk with at that time.

Replies from: Benito
comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2021-03-25T21:14:05.711Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Update after 7 months: This is just how I use my Work Slack now. Life improved.

Btw, I don't do this on my House Slack, and I wouldn't be overly surprised if I had stopped doing this 2 years from now, as my relationship to my devices continues to change. 

But it's definitely been a major improvement for me for 7 months and counting.

comment by Korz · 2020-08-05T07:07:43.715Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing!

There seems to be a typo ('k4rss' compared to 'krss') in the link to your blog-post introducing kindle4rss

Replies from: benkuhn
comment by benkuhn · 2020-08-05T14:00:13.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, fixed!

comment by freefaler · 2020-08-31T23:56:04.637Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I use a simpler system with /etc/hosts files on my Linux and Mac machines.

I have a hosts_work file, with all distracting sites pointing to

For example:

A cron job runs every morning and replaces my /etc/hosts file with hosts_work file. After 22:00 another cron job returns the original one. In that way I don't need any 3rd party software.

comment by Khalid C (khalid-c) · 2020-08-14T08:18:56.590Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great article, thanks for sharing.

Complice & Focus looks great, I was thinking of trying them.

However, I have a couple of concerns :

- They can have access to a fair amount of personal data and are closed source. How much faith do you put on these companies ?
- What if they stop their business or pricing go south, how do you get out?

comment by Liron · 2020-08-06T13:32:48.477Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great list, thanks. I like the tip about disabling Slack notifications and will probably make heavier use of the “do not disturb” feature to batch notifications. My OS X dock is auto-hidden so I don’t see the red circle with the notification count.

I think the #1 highest impact thing for most people is making sure incoming emails don’t interrupt or distract them in realtime. Like seeing your Gmail tab saying “(1) Inbox”. My solution for this is to right click and do “Pin Tab” so then it only shows the Gmail logo and I can’t tell if a new message has come in.

(And obviously never enable or any website’s push notifications)

Replies from: benkuhn
comment by benkuhn · 2020-08-07T02:01:13.252Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FYI, you can also disable the red circle from within the Slack preferences (maybe you already knew this, but if not, sorry the post wasn't more explicit!)

Replies from: habryka4
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-08-07T20:31:02.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note: I was confused about this at first, but you have to change your notification preference to not show you the small red circle for every single workspace you are part of. I didn't realize this at first and thought the feature was just broken.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-08-05T19:38:43.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

SelfControl is by far my favorite productivity tool. You can block a website for a period of time in such a way that is irreversible, even if you uninstall the SelfControl app itself. I use it in tandem with auto-selfcontrol, which is used to schedule and run blocks automatically. I'd also recommend extending the max block length to like a week or something rather than 24 hours. I like having longer periods of time like a few days at least without internet. 

comment by Pattern · 2020-08-05T15:25:00.433Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Links that don't work:

Found here:

I found Witch slightly unintuitive to configure, so if you’re curious, here are screenshots of my configs: “actions” tab [LW · GW], “advanced” tab [LW · GW].

Replies from: jimrandomh
comment by jimrandomh · 2020-08-05T17:11:44.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Mod note: Fixed)

comment by Osson4 · 2020-08-15T12:52:56.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can someone provide some "Windows-friendly" software for schedules/automatic website blockers?

Also if someone knows for some "positive feedback" app (instead of "negative avoiding" apps) I would be glad to try new productivity apps.

Replies from: aram-baghdassarian-1
comment by MarcelloV (aram-baghdassarian-1) · 2020-08-18T21:57:20.664Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For your first question, Cold Turkey is my favorite for Windows! Freedom is also a popular one, but I prefer Cold Turkey since it has more robust settings and doesn't allow you to uninstall it during an active session.

If you want something lighter you could use browser extensions like LeechBlock but it's far too easy just to switch browsers with those.

Replies from: PPaul
comment by PPaul · 2020-09-01T11:31:32.735Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have LeechBlock for both Chrome and Firefox and don't experience any desire to use Edge instead

comment by apricotSwarm · 2020-08-14T17:27:17.189Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Replies from: rockthecasbah
comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-08-15T18:18:12.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Firstly this is a really well written post, and I congratulate you for it.\

But I do disagree with the sentiment. Usually things that seem good are good and things that seem bad are bad. We shouldn't confuse tail outcomes with the expected utility.

comment by Periergo · 2020-08-11T04:38:53.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wish we could reason our way into being focused. This was a great post btw don't get me wrong, but we seem to still resort to the proverbial putting the cookie jar at the very top so it is hard to reach.

comment by Sherrinford · 2020-08-05T18:10:09.871Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I recommend using - whenever I find something interesting to read in the web, I (try to remind myself of doing the following: I) click the "save to pocket" button to read it later. Then in pocket (in the web version or in the smartphone app), the reading environment is with much less distraction and you can stop and continue easily.