Download an ounce of Self Control

Time saving apps News Review

I had a short piece in the News Review section of The Sunday Times last weekend, reviewing apps aimed at reducing time wasted on the internet.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have spent countless panicked afternoons spent desperately catching up on the time lost earlier in the day to directionless internet meandering. It’s the scourge of the millennial generation.

I found an app called SelfControl to be very effective – stopping me in my tracks every time I automatically clicked on my Facebook, Twitter or email bookmarks. Zadie Smith reportedly uses it while writing her novels. Others – like TimeOut and FocusBooster – I found completely infuriating.

Full text is on The Sunday Times’ website here, or after the fold.

Argh! I can’t knuckle down. Maybe this productivity app will help

By Cal Flyn
Published in News Review: 10 November 2013

In the quest for concentration I’ve gone further than most. With a freelance career to juggle and a book to magic up by May, I decided to move to the country to escape distractions.

With social life curtailed and daily commute cut to zero I thought I’d develop the discipline of a monk. But everywhere I go there is the constant lure of the internet.

It’s always interesting. Like a choose-your-own adventure book, every link leads to a new page, a new surprise, and many, many more new links to follow next.

Scrolling back through my browser history is an education in distraction technique. The initial Google search is to the point. I get my answer, sort of, though I’ve a niggling doubt so I try again with altered wording. The next set of results includes a link that catches my eye – not directly relevant, sure, but it’s interesting and perhaps I’ll be able to incorporate this new information somehow…

Before you know it I’m in full internet spiral, clicking link after link, swirling down the internet plughole. The next time I look up it’s dark, I’m watching a video on YouTube called “America’s Next Top Hedgehog” and I’ve only written three paragraphs in the last three hours. Or maybe that’s just me.

I don’t think it is. A study published earlier this year by researchers at the University of Kansas, which monitored computer use by both office workers and university students, found that between 60 and 80 per cent of time spent online had nothing to do with work (they dubbed it ‘cyberloafing’).

While it’s reassuring to learn there are others with internet habits at least as bad as my own, it doesn’t help me. If I don’t take action soon I’ll have lost my best years to the web, gobbled whole to feed its unstoppable craving for clicks and page views.

I appeal for help online, of course. How else?

“What’s that the name of that program that stops you browsing the internet when you’re working?” I tweet. “I need it.”

“Self Control,” someone tweets back. Very funny. I’m about to make a smart-alec retort when he adds: “(That’s actually its name)”

So it is. It takes two minutes to locate and download (, free), then to create a ‘blacklist’ of websites to block for a set period of time. And it means business: once the timer is set, there’s no getting round the block – even if you restart the computer.

I set the timer for an hour and a half, and am shocked to find how often it catches me out – stopped short by an error page, I realise I’ve clicked through to Facebook or Gmail, without thinking. It’s a highly effective way of correcting bad browsing habits – a smart wrap on the knuckles every time you slip up.

Buoyed by the success of Self Control (ha ha), I cast around for more concentration aids to save me from myself.

Focus Booster (, free), is intended to be used as part of the Pomodoro time management technique, wherein the user works in 25 minute bursts, before noting progress of the task and taking a break.

But I find the timer, which ticks audibly, horribly distracting. The little clock floats in my eye-line, counting the seconds as though I live an episode of 24. Even when I turn the sound off I’m stressed, because when my time’s up I’ve little to record. “Still not finished,” I write, several times. Then: “I may be some time.”

I switch to the less regimented Time Out (, free), which divides the day into 50 minute sessions, peppered with ten-second ‘micro breaks’ – pauses to remind you to relax or look away from the screen.

The micro-breaks are infuriating. Every time I hit my stride the whole screen fades to grey. TIME OUT, it says, like an American soccer mom. I click ‘skip break’, then skip the next break too. I’m not sure I see the point of enforced rests – my goal is to avoid taking tea breaks, not prompt them. Deleted.

Next I try Rescue Time (, £5.50/month), an app that quietly monitors computer use minute-by-minute. When the day is over, there’s a multitude of data to peruse: how long was spent using each program or website, how many minutes were wasted, how many spent productively.

It’s fascinating, of course, but going through my results I notice that it’s classed an hour’s research on Companies House as “neutral” rather than productive, that’s not right. Newspaper articles read for work are “very distracting” – so I fiddle with the settings for a while. When I’m done, the stats are far more accurate, but I’ve lost another 30 minutes.

It’s the high tech equivalent of colour coding revision notes: ostensibly useful, ultimately unproductive. It’s for the recycle bin too.

In the end, there’s no replacement for a good old-fashioned to do list and an imminent deadline. Oh, and an ounce of Self Control (free to download, for those born lacking).

While working on this article:

Minutes spent on Facebook: 22
Attempts to access Facebook blocked: 10
Time saving apps downloaded: 8
Minutes spent fiddling around with time saving apps: 112

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