Will, Systems, Distractions, and Irony

May 21, 2008 – 2:39 pm

Paul Graham, the creator of Y! Combinator, recently wrote an essay in which he said “Maybe in the long term the right answer for dealing with Internet distractions will be software that watches and controls them”. The link on “software” was to Rescue Time, a web site that gathers your per-app time usage and compares it to others (a Y! Combinator company; Paul is shameless).

My fellow O’Reilly Radar blogger Brady forwarded a comment from a mailing list that said “Software can’t keep people focused/productive, it has to come either from within or through external forces (deadlines, time limits, etc.)”. I was moved to respond.

Raising kids, in particular one with a “tackle the hard stuff” problem which I’m SURE that I have NO idea where he gets it from, I’ve realized it’s not an either-or.

You need the little switch inside you set to “I will do this!” rather than “I will shirk this!”. Will is not optional. Systems and checklists aren’t a substitute for this switch. However, if your switch is set and you don’t have systems, you run the risk of doing an incomplete or incorrect job. Systems and tools keep state, context, and direction for you.

Any system to keep you from browsing websites isn’t going to work unless you actually want to stop browsing websites. Cognitively, I think the web is candy to our mind’s sweet tooth for novelty. You can easily lose a week thinking you’re accomplishing something when all you’re doing is reading people’s thoughts about other people’s thoughts about things that still other people have done (techmeme and RSS are enablers, the candy racks at the grocery in my metaphor). You’re so far from actual Things Getting Done that you might as well have hibernated in the couch with a bong and your cousin’s collection of exotic porn for all the good that week has done you.

See this WSJ article on why we like the taste of new and newer things, and this New Yorker article on how checklists are useful even to doctors (some of the most determined, focused, motivated, and skilled workers on the planet).

Yes, the irony of blogging a post on the futility of reading most blogs is not lost on me. Hopefully your ability to tolerate hypocrisy exceeds my ability to hypocritise, and therefore you can stay tuned for my coming tweets on “why Twitter is a waste of time”, and the blog meme “what are your most hated blog memes?”.

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