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Deep Habits: Don’t Web Surf During the Work Day

October 1st, 2014 · 47 comments

browser-history

Swimming to the Offline Shore

By 2004, I was an expert web surfer. I had memorized a sequence of web site addresses that I could cycle through, one after another, in rapid succession. I would do this once every hour or so as a quick mental pick me up to help get through the work day.

At some point, soon after starting graduate school at MIT, I dropped the habit altogether. It’s been close to a decade since I considered the web as a source of entertainment during my work day.

Indeed, I’m so out of practice with web surfing, that I’ve found on the few occasions that I’ve recently tried to relieve some boredom online, I wasn’t really sure where to go or what to do. (Most of the articles I end up reading online are sent to me directly by readers, not encountered in serendipitous surfing.)

To illustrate this point, the image at the top of this post is a screenshot of my complete browser history for today, taken at 2 PM. (Note: I doctored the list slightly to remove redundant entries for a given visit to a given site.)

A Replicable Feat

Imagine what would happen to your efficiency and depth if you dropped all non-work related web use during your work day.

No clickbait. No Facebook. No blogs (except, of course, Study Hacks, which is immensely relevant to everyones’ professional success!) From my experience, the impact of such work day prohibitions is massively positive.

When you eliminate the chance of web surfing, you tend to be more efficient in processing your work. (The way I see it is that I’d rather finish my day an hour early than sprinkle an hour of time wasting throughout.)

Of equal importance, the simplicity of the rule — no web surfing, no exceptions — makes it easy to avoid this temptation when trying to work deeply, thus preventing unnecessary ego depletion.

Some might worry about the need to be in the loop. At least for me, however, this has never been an issue. As the computer scientist Don Knuth put it: “[Frequent connectivity] 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.”

To conclude, we’ve become so enmeshed in the attention economy that it can seem impossible to fathom leaving it for a large part of your day. But this is why I’m telling you my story.

It is hard at first.

But after a while, you don’t miss it.

47 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Don’t Web Surf During the Work Day

  1. I’ve been having an increasingly difficult time focusing, and I’m pretty sure it has to do with Internet addiction. A few months ago I began working in “focus blocks” of 90, 60, or 30 minutes. During these focus blocks, I don’t allow myself to surf the Internet (I can only use it when it is required to reach the specific goal I’m working on). I also put my phone on “airplane mode” so there are no notification distractions.

    I have been tracking the number of these focus blocks in a notebook, but I was beginning to struggle. I began to procrastinate (mostly surfing the Internet), and the number of focus blocks I did continued to decrease. Last week I decided to schedule these focus blocks at precise times.

    Here is my new focus schedule:
    8:30 AM – 10:00 AM – Every single day
    10:30 AM – 12:00 PM – Every single day
    1:00 PM – 2:30 PM – Monday thru Friday
    3:00 PM – 4:30 PM – Monday thru Friday

    This is only 6 hours a day on weekdays and 3 hours a day on weekends (for a total of 36 hours), but I can already see a huge productivity increase. I don’t worry about being productive at any other time, and I don’t feel guilty about being on the Internet if it isn’t during my focus blocks. Knowing that I only have to wait 90 minutes before getting my next Internet “fix” allows me to focus completely for 90 minutes, which is a huge improvement, and scheduling the focus blocks precisely eliminates my procrastination.

    1. Darris says:

      I love this focus model. Looks completely do-able and fairly painless. I’ve chosen no to own a smart phone. I slipped earlier this year and bought an iPad with the agreement that if it wasn’t a good fit I’d return it within 10 days. I knew by day 2 it just wasn’t my thing. I don’t want to be tethered to anything in life that takes me away from being present. That said, when I sit down to work on my iMac I can easily get mired in surfing the Internet and feel so shameful spending endless hours on Facebook and other nonsense that adds nothing to life. I’ve been spending less and less time there these past two weeks and I’m feeling more creative than I have in years. I’m photographing more, editing less, sewing and designing more, cooking, hiking and spending more time at the beach. Life is SO much better! I still love podcasts and YouTube for skill building and tech stuff but I’m just burned out on social media and click bait. I like your schedule, it looks like a great fit for me, thanks!

    2. Lucie says:

      Thanks so much for this Mark. I’m about to move from a full-time, fixed location working lifestyle to a freelance/location-independent model for the first time and the gremlin of procrastination already concerns me. This is a really achievable model to set me off on the right course. Thank you!

    3. John Patterson says:

      I totally agree with this. If we can just eliminate distractions and exersize a little self-control, the amount we can accomplish will increase drastically.

    4. Gordie Allen says:

      Focus Blocks sound like a wonderful way to cope with distractions! I’m a born-again, self-help study guide author who shelved my writing for 11 years to conduct seminars. In 2012, I retired and attempted to re-start my writing career. Attaining consistent flow (again) has been challenging thus my motivation for visiting your blogs. Keep up the good work. I’m excited about the possibilities of focus blocks!

  2. Jeff says:

    I agree with the no exceptions rule. A few days of cold turkey is all you need before you notice a real psychological effect (you don’t miss it).

    Much of my work, and maybe some of my “deep work”, depends on internet connectivity like researching papers. And I always relapse. Once the browser is open, I’m done. It’s hard to follow “no exceptions” when you start convincing yourself of exceptions.

    The anti-social app (Mac) helps.

  3. Denis says:

    I agree with your point. When I thought about this, I understood, that generally the surfing habit originates from pre-rss era. Sibscribing to email newsletters is a disaster, they clutter inbox in no time, and it is easier to surf on a likely circle.

    I mainly work with texts at home. So I decided to use my workstation only for job surfing. When I need to recreate I go to another room and take my tablet to surf and read RSS, and occasionally give some comment, like this one.

  4. Viraj says:

    I am a tad bit confused by the Don Knuth quote (even though it is not difficult to understand) and was wondering if you can explain it further?

    Knuth says, “[Frequent connectivity] 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.”

    Is he just referring to his career or just as a general principle (as in what he says in the quote is good philosophy to live life by)? Also, in some instances, “frequent connectivity” may be a good thing as it can help build up “weak ties” and also simultaneously strengthen the “strong ties” you have with those people and things close to you. So, the connectivity, in a certain sense, can help you live more serendipitously (at the expense of structure).

    1. Todd says:

      Viraj,

      I believe the “bottom of things” in the quote means understanding something deeply rather than many things shallowly. Perhaps you are interpreting top and bottom to mean prestige or success. I may be wrong interpreting the quote, but I don’t think he means unsuccessful when he says “at the bottom”.

    2. Viraj says:

      Todd,

      Thanks for the reply. I guess I was assuming the “frequent connectivity” as being linked to prestige or success. But, your interpretation of the quote seems to be what Knuth is implying. A deeper understanding is always something nice to have and one of the ways you become “so good [that] they can’t ignore you” (to borrow a line from Cal’s work).

  5. Carl says:

    Interesting. My sense is that diversions to the web during the work day, and even excessive use at other times, are a form of seeking–wanting something else, or wanting to feel something else other than what you are presently doing.

    There is a ‘high’ that occurs when we draw attention to a particular piece of info as opposed to exploring info with an innocent curiosity.

  6. J.P. McDevitt says:

    Absolutely agree. I made a rule 2.5 weeks ago that I would limit random/entertainment surfing to ONLY 12:00-12:30 AM (I keep a late schedule). It has had an unbelievably positive effect. Not only am I doing more of the “important” stuff than I’ve done maybe ever, but now when I do procastinate I don’t have the web to fall back on. So when I procastinate, I do things like cleaning, organizing or taking care of things I was supposed to take care of months ago.

    I allow myself to check email one additional time earlier in the day. This current post I’m allowing as a mildly-justifiable exception after my excitement at seeing Cal post about this in my email box.

  7. kc raja says:

    i wonder how you do in consciously, since i use the web for science journals; and need it for referencing; thats when my mind wonders and hit on social media. help needed?

  8. Brendon says:

    I’m not convinced that surfing the web while working is always a negative. When working deeply, I would agree that it is a net positive. On the other hand, every job involves some drudgery. Productivity suffers when we avoid the unpleasant tasks, and allowing some enjoyment in the form of distractions makes those parts of our work less daunting – work that we might otherwise avoid doing entirely because it appears too unpleasant.

    Often if I have a backlog of unpleasant tasks, I can work for a long stretch with the aid of enjoyable distractions. If I don’t allow myself any distractions, my mood suffers and I avoid doing any work at all.

    If I’m engrossed in a task that I am enjoying, it is a different story, but I can’t pretend every task is like that.

  9. Chet Frame says:

    Weaning oneself from e-mail is very difficult as well. By setting times when you will review and answer e-mail, you make it a part of your daily or weekly work rather than your main priority in life.

  10. Julian Paolo Usero says:

    It’s funny you mention memorizing websites: yours is actually currently one of my websites that I cycle through from time to time, and if there’s nothing new I just read old posts to see if I can gleam something new from them.

    It’s a weird pull, web-surfing – the reason I found this blog and a few others was precisely because of that habit, and I wouldn’t be on my current projection if it wasn’t for my countless hours of web-exploration.

  11. Jason P. Chambers says:

    I have to agree with you on this one, Cal. The need to limit distractions in order to focus is truly key. Anything that diverts from that focus (come here multitaskers) is going to impact the thing from which your focus has shifted. Perhaps if we thought about it in a more physical context it would help some people to understand. Consider if when we went to exercise: One minute we’re on the treadmill, but 30 seconds later are off to the rowing machine, then a short time later we’re doing jumping jacks in front of the TV, then we’re running to get a drink of water. Now to some that might sound like a good circuit routine, but it’s really just an example of effort shifts that lead to a largely meaningless workout.

    As I tell my students, when it comes to research and “thought work” the Internet is both the greatest and worst thing to happen to us.

  12. Ben says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thank you for this post. I agree with you on the benefits of avoiding distractions. But in one of your older posts on productivity for college students, I remember you saying that the top students often take 10 minute breaks between 1 hour study intervals. I’ve been using this method, and would often relax during those 10 minutes by surfing the web. What alternatives do you recommend while taking breaks that you rejuvenate ones productive flow other than web surfing?

    Thanks,
    Ben

    1. J.P. McDevitt says:

      Your “break” should be something AWAY from the computer/desk. Washing dishes counts as a break. I feel better after washing dishes than I do after wasting 10 minutes surfing. Go talk to somebody, do a few push-ups, tidy up your room, read something in a separate location etc.

      FYI, some new research just came out that the ideal productivity intervals are something like 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off.

      1. Campbell says:

        I was wondering what research you were referencing

      2. Tjerk says:

        I also need those 10 mins off about once an hour; yet I cannot stand them at my desk/computer. Things I do are walking around the block (literally one block), preparing a cup of coffee, eating a piece of fruit, staring at the clouds or a tree or a bird in a tree or a spider making a web in the tree, planning what I will do that night, go to the toilet.. anything that is not cognitive demanding: very rejuvenating breaks and very much needed for me to work full days on hard stuff.

        Actually I find web surfing also something that takes away energy, after surfing the web for an hour, i actually need a break in the form of one that I mentioned above.

      3. Carl says:

        Wow…52 minutes on, 17 minutes off–that’s roughly 30% of your time, and sounds like a lot.

        1. Joe Pawlikowski says:

          It’s a hair less than 25% of your time

          1. Carl says:

            Hmm…now admittedly I’m not a math whiz, so I may be wrong. As I see it In J.P.’s given example, if 52 minutes is 100% of your time, then how is 17 minutes 25% of 52?

            I’m getting 32.7%…..?

          2. Carl says:

            Whoops I see–you’re right.–as the total time block is 69 minutes.

      4. Ben says:

        Thanks for the input. I’m also curious as to which research(es) you are referencing.

      5. Marie says:

        I completed a grad school program with intense reading. I would take breaks by just going for a walk down the block and back. I cleared my head and found refreshment in a way the internet never did for me. I recommend active breaks which give the mind a rest. Or, maybe even a cat nap.

  13. John says:

    Hi Cal,

    In many ways, your description of your “information diet” is very similar to our bodies’ nutrition needs. Many of us are seduced by sugary foods which gives us a short-burst of energy and makes us feel good momentarily. However, in the long-run if you want substance you need to chose foods that digest more slowly that require more effort to digest. In the case of our craft, “digestion” means deep work and a lot of concentration.

    Here is another interesting fact. Many studies have found that the people who live the longest and most healthy lives are the ones that eat small portions of whole foods. This is sometimes called calorie-restriction.

    I believe this also applies to our careers. Focusing our limited attention on a couple of critical skills and allowing time for our minds to rest is always the best recipe.

  14. Bobak S says:

    Cal what did you replace this habit with? In other words, when you need a mental pick me up what did you start doing instead of web surfing? I have the same habit you did prior to 2004 and I curious to know how you solved the issue of a suitable mental pick me up… Or was the answer a simple suck it up and work!

    1. Brian W says:

      I am also very interested in what to replace the web surfing habit with. When quitting, smokers often find it helpful to “substitute” a new habit in place of smoking, such as chewing gum. Is there an easy, positive alternative that surfing addicts like me can substitute instead of surfing?

      1. Frank says:

        Brian,

        I keep a list of 5-minutes tasks to fill in the breaks from work, like paying a bill, cash out on a ATM, reply to an e-mail, etc.

        I also think that reading blog comments is very relaxing. When I read a blog post I don´t go straight to the comments. I add that post to a stack of post to read comments. Then, when I feel like, I read some comments on a 5-10 minutes break, and reply to some!

  15. krishna says:

    think about this cal. Your beautiful blog is on the NET how i might have come across your blog if i wouldn’t have randomly surfed the web not targeted surfing. Random web surfing has it’s benefits too.

    1. Carol says:

      I don’t think Cal is saying “Never surf the web,” although it sounds like he himself rarely does so. But he’s saying don’t do it in the middle of your work day. Do it at night, or on the weekends, or some other “off” time.

  16. Jan Koch says:

    Hey Cal,
    found your site via Navid Moazzez, loved your interview with him!

    I also experience that random serving takes up a lot of time during work. But what if you’re dependent on serving? I’m working as web developer and web designer, thus I’m faced with tricky coding problems every now and then. Of course I can figure out some solutions myself, but for others I need the help of the Internet – so I start surfing.

    However, I try to limit my surfs to website that are helpful for the current situation and I try to avoid social media and clickbait headlines. Do you have a recommendation how to control your surfing habits effectively?

    Best regards,
    Jan

  17. Alex Petrov says:

    I mostly agree with this post.

    The problem is that kicking the habit seems much more complicated than not doing it. It’s a complusion for me. I started trying to quit around Octoboer 2013. Around the beginning of February of this year, I managed to go without all my time-wasting sites for several months. Then I went on vacation and binged, and now I’m back to trying to quit. I don’t even know how I managed it last time. I’ve tried browser extensions, disconnecting the Internet, etc.

    I’ll figure it out again at some point, I’m sure.

  18. Andrei says:

    I’m definitely guilty of sliding the slippery slope of the web surfing rabbit hole. For some time I stuck it out with the Pomodoro extension for Chrome, going pretty consistently 20 mins work / 5 mins break (still 20% gone time, of course). Then I started to slide again …

    So when I read this post I first thought it was an awesome idea – “Yay! Just what I needed to motivate me! I should comment on how cool and inspiring this sounds.” … Then I had a better idea – try it for a week and then come back and write about it.

    Well, today marks the start of my 3rd week of “no web surfing, no exceptions” and it’s been awesome. Really, really awesome. And very rewarding in some very unexpected ways.

    Sure, I’d definitely say I’ve been more productive than before and I really appreciate it. But what’s been even more interesting is the way I now feel and think about kicking the surfing habit and the work itself.

    Oddly enough going “cold turkey” has been much easier than gradually reducing the surf time. Kind of like it’s easier (in my opinion) not to eat any cookies / chips / poison of choice if the box is closed than not having the second one (<a href="http://bigthink.com/world-in-mind/bet-you-cant-eat-just-one&quot; title="Lays' Bet You Can't Eat Just One" comes to mind).

    Also, going boldly into Cal's domain of "deep thinking", I dare say that I actually started experiencing those weird trails of thought where I start thinking about ways to solve my work my problems from different angles, in some cases at depth and range of angles that I wouldn't normally explore, or even expect, in my "surfing days". And it's actually enjoyable. Weird, but I think I like it.

    Lastly, there's no regret at the end of the day of spending "X" minutes / hours / other embarrassingly long periods of time surfing and then wondering what you could do with all that time.

    So big thanks to Cal for bringing up and sharing his thoughts on this seemingly simple but yet very rewarding habit.

    PS. My next project – learning to write shorter blog post. Thanks for reading 🙂

  19. Hannah Mabey says:

    I read this article by Cal titled, “Deep habits don’t web surf during the work day.” And i was interested to know why we shouldn’t web surf. It states that if you don’t surf the web you will be more concentrated on work, and therefore have a more fulfilling day, and spend less time at work all together because you aren’t distracted. I feel like this carries out into other aspects of our lives as well, for instance, hanging out with friends. You should engage your time more wisely when spending time with friends and family, and you will get more out of the interactions you have with them. They will feel like you are more connected, because, in fact, you are. The key to social media and web surfing i think, is limitation. Don’t do it when you have other important things going on, because you will create bad habits that will be very hard to break. Overall, Cal’s article on web surfing habits that i read was super interesting.

  20. Luke Boobyer says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m currently trying to reduce the amount of useless web surfing I do during my breaks and really focus on other activities. I use the LeechBlock Firefox extension to block most of site useless sites I visit and I force myself to get away from the computer during breaks.

    I also use Feedly to help me quickly scan through feeds of sites that I frequent regularly so that I don’t get sucked into browsing through articles on sites for hours on end.

    Both of these combined have really helped me improve my productivity online but there are still sites I need to cut out completely and that can only be done through sheer willpower.

  21. Josh says:

    I know this post is from a while ago, but I have a question about a related topic. What do we think of the recent findings that ego depletion may be largely an artifact of publication bias and small sample effects, and if that is the case does that change the way we approach doing deep work?

  22. Daniel Dickson says:

    Cal,

    I know you are super busy – so I don’t truly expect you to answer this (and its an older blog post anyways). When you feel mentally burnt-out (which happens to me a lot), what do you do to take a break or “have fun” during the work day?

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