Control Thyself, or I’ll install Self-Control on your Mac

Apr 2, 2009 | Tech News




I’ve been on a bit of a productivity hunt lately. While I’m not so self-disciplined that I can avoid productivity traps and distractions, I am self-aware enough to know that I can use all the help I can get. Here are the three methods that I’ve tried recently to keep myself focused and efficient, from simple, to analytical, to extreme:

#1 Simple: Inspired by a tweet I saw, I’ve been using a countdown timer to set myself a period of 45 minutes of work. During this time I won’t check email, Facebook, read twitter, or any of the million things that can distract me from writing code, blogging, or the million things that need to happen when I’m sitting in front of my laptop.

This is the timer I used on the Mac: Minutes by Nitram-Nunca:


Minutes nitramnunca


Like any self-imposed rule, it works well if you stick to it. The first few days I saw quite a dramatic improvement. But over time, I got a bit lax about using the timer, and over the course of a few weeks the practice eroded. I was pretty much back to where I started, needing to find another solution.

#2 Analytical: Designed to address the “You can’t improve what you can’t measure” problem, RescueTime is a really cool analytical tool for your productivity. A client installed on your machines log the computer activities, such as windows opened, URL visited, and so on, and uploads the data to a centralized server at The site tabulates your usage data, and present the data to you in views and lists so you can see how you’ve spent your time over time. You can slice and dice the data, group them together using your own set of Tags, etc etc. It’s the Google Analytics of personal productivity.

Over the year or so that I’ve used RescueTime, the team has done a good job increasing the privacy protection, particularly on the website visit fronts. You can now set a whitelist of web sites that you only want RescueTime to know about, so your daily habit of can be kept a secret you can take to the grave.

Rescuetime dashboardMy Computer Usage From Last Week

#3 Extreme: Let’s say that you have an extremely case of distract-culitis, and can not be trusted to set your own timer, or be responsible even when confronted with the data that you are wasting your life away. Then you need something like SelfControl, an OS X application for the Mac. It’s a personal firewall designed not for security purposes, but to limit what web sites you can visit. You set a time duration, a list of site that you can visit, and those URLs will be unavailable to you until the countdown is over. What makes it extreme is that once you started SelfControl, you can’t turn it off. You can’t change the blacklist after the clock started, nor can you shut it down and expect the firewall blockage to go away. It even persevere through a reboot. You are blocked to connect to any of the blacklist site until the countdown is over. It’s probably akin to checking into a Betty Ford Addiction Recovery Center, but it will work.



I believe the hyperlinking nature of the web has really done quite a job to our attention span. And if you are predisposed to ADHD behavior to begin with, these tools can really make a difference for us web workers who are always in front of a computer.

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