How to Focus While Doing Online Work

The Internet is an amazing tool, but it can also be a major time-suck. Get-It-Done Guy has 5 tips to stay focused while working.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #202

How to Focus While Doing Online Work

Online is the greatest place ever! We no longer have to do stupid stuff like move our bodies or think. We just stare at a screen and mindlessly follow our friends' recommendations on books to read (who can get through more than 2 pages at a time, anyway?), music to listen to, and major life decisions to make. Thinking is so… so… 20th century..

Yet we have to do it. We have to write, research, and do our jobs, often on the very same machine that's trying to lull us into a mindless vegetative state where we become nothing but a feeder system for the gaping advertising maw that is the internet.

Here are some Quick and Dirty Tips to be focused and productive, even at your computer:

Tip #1: Ads Can Lead You Astray

The holy grail of the internet world is supposed to be "targeted ads." These are ads that appeal to exactly what you want at the moment. So of course, it makes great sense to give you the ad alongside a news story you're reading for research, or alongside the email you're using to communicate with your co-workers. After all, it's in context and you're thinking about the topic.

Yeah, you're thinking about the topic. Until you see the rats-n-fratzin targeted ad. Then it finds the target, square in the middle of your frontal lobes. Rather than finishing your research or concentrating on your work problem, you zip off to follow the ad. Seven purchases, four review sites, and nineteen articles later, you finally remember you were trying to do something productive. If you're lucky, you'll actually get back to it sometime today.

Remove the temptation to follow ads! If you use Firefox or Chrome, get the free AdBlock Plus plug-in. AdBlock Plus figures out where there are ads on your current web page and quietly blocks them. I've been using it for several years and swear by it. It cuts way, way down on the ad level.

Right now, though, you're specifically in learning mode.

Tip #2: The Social Media Loop

Don't do social media while you're working. Just don't do it. I know that you yearn deep, down, inside to post a picture of a cute little Zoo Baby on your Google+ page. Or pontificate about how much you enjoyed that bottle of Coke that was made with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Just don't.

You can use the program Anti-Social for Mac and Windows to block your access to social media sites. Tell it how many hours of anti-social you want, and >poof!< you're a curmudgeon. 

Tip #3: Don't Linger on Links

The power of the web came from hyperlinks. Links let us follow related concepts so we can learn and explore more. The problem is that when you're online doing focus work—research on a specific topic, writing a document, or creating a spreadsheet—exploring more isn't a good thing.

In the olden days, if you happened across a concept you wanted to read more about, you had to find a reference librarian (a quiet, wise person who often wore their hair in a bun), whisper your request, and wait patiently while they glided into "the stacks" to find the related materials. You only did that if you really cared, either about the concept or about the reference librarian, who's actually kind of cute. 

Now links are so easy to follow that we follow them without thought. Stop that! If you can't stop it, check out Freedom for Mac and Windows, by the same people who created Anti-Social. Freedom will disable your entire internet connection for as long as you tell it. Then you can't be distracted by enticing, glittering hyperlinks. And, you can't re-enable the net before time is up without rebooting your computer! (I'm giving away 5 copies of Freedom for free. Visit this episode's transcript for details.)

Tip #4: Use Desktop Software

I know the cloud is all the rage, but it's one thing to store your files in the cloud, it's another to do your work in a web browser using Google Docs or other web-based software.

The problem with web-based software is, well, that it's web-based. It puts you in a browser. Even if the application itself doesn't have any ads, it's in a web browser. Distraction is just a bookmark away. Alone in my office, it's easy to drop by Levenger.com and check out their luscious, delectible 90-pound paper project notebooks. YUM!!

When you have desktop software, use it. Don't compose in Google docs. Compose in the word processor on your desktop. If you must work on the same document as someone else at the same time, cut and paste your part into your desktop program. Shut down your web browser. Make the changes, then transfer them back.

(Links are evil. I got distracted for 45 minutes while writing this episode because I went to check  Levenger to see what’s new, and got distracted by a link! True story!)

Tip #5: Use Software that Eliminates Web Distractions

If you absolutely must use the web—for example, for research—browse in a way that eliminates temptation. If you use Apple's free Safari browser, you have "reader mode" at your fingertips. When Safari can figure out the main story on a web page, the word "Reader" appears discreetly next to the page address in the browser address bar. Click the word "Reader" and you're transported to a magical world where you see just the article in a convenient, easy-to-read font with no ads, sidebars, or links. "Reader mode" also works on the iPhone and the iPod Touch have the same feature.

If you don't use Safari, Evernote just released a browser plug-in for Chrome and Firefox called "Evernote Clearly." It does exactly the same thing: it brings forward the main story on a page and puts all the distractions into the background.

The trick to focus when you're using the web is to realize how much the machine is designed to distract you. Turn off ads, social media, or even the whole internet if need be. Use desktop software—even when collaborating—and if you must surf, use an add-in that eliminates distractions.


http://www.adblockplus.org - AdBlock Plus, ad hiding software
http://macfreedom.com - Anti-Social and FREEDOM for the Mac and Windows
http://levenger.com - Amazingly gorgeous stationery supplies
http://www.apple.com/safari - the free Apple Safari web browser
http://www.evernote.com/about/download/clearly.php - Evernote Clearly browser extension

Woman on Computer image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.