A few weeks ago, I tried to go seven days without doing any Internet reading— no blogs, news sites, aggregators, forums, wikipedia, or Reddit. I predicted that the experiment would improve my focus and productivity, and it certainly did. Sitting down at the desk to power through schoolwork, it was amazing how much the blanket ban on information consumption sped up my work.
Unless you’re blessed with or have cultivated perfect focus, you have probably relied on some sort of commitment device to keep you working. Commitment devices are voluntary restrictions of choices by a past self, on a current self, designed to make a future self happy. For example, publicly declaring you plan to apply to particular grad schools, get in shape, or ask a girl out on a date. Having the pressure of others’ expectations on you certainly doesn’t make fulfilling your commitments more fun, but once fulfilled, you can thank your past self for providing you the motivation you needed to get them done.
School itself is a commitment device; how many times have you told yourself you were going to learn something, but never got around to it until you were enrolled in a course and had a grade at stake? Sure, teacher support is part of the benefit of formal education, but simply being accountable to someone is a large part of why we learn better in school (or some other formal setting) than on our own.
We also use many different commitment devices within school. Working in a group requires everyone to invest their time in a shared endeavor, so that anyone shirking feels like they are betraying the other group members. Leaving your laptop at home and working with pen and paper eliminates the possibility of distraction on the web. Arranging to trade drafts of a paper with someone gives you an early deadline to meet, and makes a failure to meet that deadline personally embarrassing.
My information fast was an experimental commitment device. It wasn’t really a public commitment— even though I announced it on my blog, there was no monitoring mechanism— but at the end of each day, I had to face my own evaluation about whether or not I had succeeded. Without the fast, it was easy to rationalize breaks in productivity to read the news, work on other products, and the like, because each marginal minute of goofing off wasn’t too important in the scheme of things (“If one minute of blog-reading isn’t too bad, what’s wrong with two? After all, I’ve been doing homework for an hour”). Having committed myself to zero, though, that first minute of reading now meant instant failure, and made me much more reluctant to indulge.
Was it a success? Mostly. I lasted until the weekend, where the lower productivity expectations let me rationalize some reading. The following week, however, I think I was even less productive than normal, and saw evenings whittled away by Reddit, YouTube, and an endless stream of interesting reading in bite-sized chunks. I think the solution may lie in a commitment to information-fasting over certain hours of the day: 8-5, maybe, regardless of when I actually have class or things to do. We’ll see.