Sunday, December 05, 2010

Computer Distractions – Too Many Choices

An overwhelming amount of our modern lives are being spent in front of a screen. While computing devices are useful tools to get a myriad of jobs accomplished, they are also a major source of distractions.

Why are computers so distracting? Human beings have been using tools for millennia. Yet, it wasn’t until the invention of computers that we started getting distracted by our tools.

Part of the problem, of course, is that computers are not just tools but also media for communications. As you work on a computer, you are constantly barraged with an endless volley of emails, tweets, instant messages and facebook updates. It is hard to keep track of all this information.

But even if you turn off the internet, computers are still distracting. If you use a word processor to write your documents, it is not unheard of to be lost, fascinated by the many functions, the in-built thesaurus or the wonderful drawing tools.

Computers are distracting because they offer too many choices. We don’t get distracted by a screwdriver. That’s because all you can do with a screwdriver is screw screws. It doesn’t offer any more choices.

Thus the trick to taming computer distractions is to limit your choices. It might seem like an alien idea in the modern consumerist culture, but it is a good idea. Simplify your software and online life. Limit your choices and see the kind of difference that makes in your life.

Here are some suggestions

1. Don’t install too many software that provide the same functionality. Have one software per functionality. For example, keep one word processor, one email client, one media player or one web browser installed. Uninstall all software you do not need.

2. Prefer simple software to complex one. A text editor is enough to write text. You don't always need a full fledged word processor. Don't use a lathe machine where a pen-knife would suffice.

3. When possible re-use software functionality. For example, if your needs simple, you might just keep all your notes as documents. No need to use a dedicated note taking software. You might use your video player to play audio files. Of course this may or may not work for you depending on your needs. For example, you might be a music collector and want something more sophisticated to manage your collection.

4. Do one task at a time. I do this by maximizing all my windows and focusing only on one window at a time.

5. Try opening as few tabs in the browser as possible. I like to limit myself to a number that completely covers the width of my screen.

6. Try limiting the number of online services that you use. If you’re on facebook, try deleting your orkut or myspace or twitter accounts. Don’t worry about ‘losing touch’ with people. If they really think it important to communicate with them, there’s always email or phone.

Some time ago, renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth said that he’d stopped checking email. He said that “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.” He only accepts physical letters now.

While shutting off email might be disastrous for us mere mortals, his sentiment is worth thinking about.



  1. How True! This is a new perspective for me and the more I think about it the more it seems to be true. I spend so much tiem on computers, mostly because of the vast extent of info and distracting tools available. Those tips sound really useful. I will out them to practise.

  2. @Iniyaal: I'm glad you like the post. You might want to check out other stuff on minimalism on the internet. (Note the irony.)

    Thanks for dropping by and reading.