The Psychology Of Distractions (How To Stay Focused Online)

Back when I was in college, my roommate and I had a pact.

During finals week, if one of us caught the other slacking off and not studying, we were obligated to destroy something of theirs.

The pact ended after I found him playing Madden and cut his shoe in half with a kitchen knife.

I guess he wasn’t taking it as seriously as I was.

(By the way, did you know that studies have found that students with studious roommates end up studying more themselves? Roommate correlations were also found with weight gain and mood swings.)

Anyway, the reason we made the pact was that we knew we didn’t have the willpower to overcome distractions on our own, so we wanted to build a system that would be stronger than willpower to help us stay focused.

As it turns out, we were onto something…

The Psychology Of Organ Donations (Trust Me, It’ll Make Sense Later)

Dan Ariely is a professor at Duke University, and one of the most influential behavioral economists of our time.

One of my favorite insights that he’s shared is about organ donation.

Below is a chart showing opt-in rates for organ donation among populations in different European countries.

Why are the blue lines all so much longer than the yellow ones?

What’s the difference between those countries — which have a near total opt-in — and the other four, which range from 4-28%? Do people in the “blue” countries care more about organ donation than those in the “yellow” ones?

Is the cultural attitude toward donation different?

Are there more public awareness campaigns?

As Ariely explains, here’s the actual reason for the massive difference:

It turns out that it is the design of the form at the DMV. In countries where the form is set as “opt-in” (check this box if you want to participate in the organ donation program) people do not check the box and as a consequence they do not become a part of the program. In countries where the form is set as “opt-out” (check this box if you don’t want to participate in the organ donation program) people also do not check the box and are automatically enrolled in the program. In both cases large proportions of people simply adopt the default option.

It’s a difficult and emotional decision, and because it takes so much work to consider it thoroughly, we simply default to the easiest option (which is to not make the decision).

What Does This Have To Do With Distractions?

Every day, you make hundreds of little — much smaller than the one in Ariely’s example — decisions about what you’re going to do.

Sometimes, you make those decisions consciously:

What am I going to wear?

What’s for breakfast?

Am I going to go to the gym today? (hint: if you’re asking this, then probably not)

But most of the time — especially when it comes to doing work — the decisions are so small that you don’t even think of them as decisions. Let’s call them micro-decisions:

Should I tackle this project, or click on that new email that just came in?

Am I going to finish writing this post, or check Twitter to see if I missed anything?

Do I keep searching for that piece of research I need to find, or do I–oh look! reddit!

Distractions are often staring us in the face — they’re bookmarked, opened in other tabs, and tempt us at every turn. In fact, here’s what happens when I start typing a search for “focus” in my Chrome search bar:

It’s ridiculously easy to get distracted online.

And the harder the task we have to do, the easier it is to do nothing when we’re faced with the micro-decision to do it, and to simply go back to our default of browsing Facebook instead (part — though not all — of the explanation for this is what psychologists call the default effect).

This is where most people fail.

They say things like “I just need to focus.”

They think they need to work on their willpower, and learn to always choose to do the hard stuff — work — instead of making the easy choice of letting distractions get in the way.

And sometimes that works…for a bit.

But then, we have a day when we’re feeling less-than-motivated, and doing hard things becomes even harder, and we slip back into our old routine of defaulting to distracted procrastination.

Here’s What To Do Instead.

We choose distractions because they’re so much easier than the work we need to do.

If you want to focus, you need to make it hard to get distracted, so that it can’t possibly be your default.

Block your distractions.

For most of us, it’s not practical to turn off the internet. I need it to do my work. But I certainly don’t need Facebook, email, Twitter, my RSS reader, reddit or the dozens of other sites I catch myself mindlessly browsing.

The first thing I do when I need to focus is close my email client and turn my iPhone upside down so that I don’t see the pop-up notifications. This gets rid of about 20% of my distractions.

Here’s how I eliminate the other 80%:

If you’re like me, you’ll find it invaluable to create a separate “work browser.”

If you normally use Chrome for everyday tasks, you should use Firefox as your work browser, or vice versa.

Then, install a site blocker on your work browser. I like StayFocusd for Chrome and LeechBlock for Firefox (I have no affiliation with either). Site blockers let you create lists of websites that you won’t be allowed to access.

Enter all of your usual focus-killers here.

Personally, I prefer using Chrome for work, because StayFocusd has a useful feature called “The Nuclear Option,” which blocks everything except sites you allow — in my case, Google Docs and whatever sites I need for the project I’m working on.

The Nuclear Option is my default for distraction-free productivity when I need it most.

Do This Now:

Pick a browser that you’re going to use for work, and install a site blocker on it.

Now when you need to focus, getting distracted won’t be the easy way out.

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  • Jenny B

    The awkward moment when THIS is what I’m letting distract me online and what I’m using to procrastinate doing work lol

    • Len Markidan

      Hey! Back to work!

    • FootMeetMouth


    • Daniel Moscovitch

      Was thinking the exact same thing!

    • Tracy

      Yep, me too. Surfing Twitter because, “Everything [I need to do] is boring today!” For heaven sake, I’m 48 years old. I sound like I’m 8. Okay, Len, I’m back to work.

  • Eve P.

    “But I certainly don’t need Facebook, email, Twitter, my RSS reader, reddit or the dozens of other sites I catch myself mindlessly browsing.”

    But I do :-(!

    Its my work, social media, networks etc.

    How to install site blocker for the very sites I have to use :-D?!

    And of course, instead of working, I often catch myself watching all over again that cute video when a girl gets a puppy for her birthday (just don’t ask why)!

    • Yael Webb Parnes

      Same here. I guess we’re totall screwed Eve :/

    • Tracy

      Oh, no, you guys. That stinks. And I know exactly the video you’re talking about, Eve. LOL.

  • Justine Espersen

    This is such a simple reminder, but a necessity to remember. I’ll definitely be trying this out. Thank you for writing this!

    • Len Markidan

      Thanks Justine, glad you found it helpful!

  • Martina P Callum MD

    Great post! I’n trying this tomorrow!

    • Len Markidan

      Thanks, Martina! Let me know how it goes.

  • Sasha Nazaruk


  • David Walter

    Those browser addons are a great idea!

  • ( OFFTIME )

    Great posting, Len! We can only agree! For mobiles, try our app! ( OFFTIME ) helps you to to tune out distractions and unplug better, thanks to app blocking and communications filter.

  • Krystal B.

    I’m with Eve! (sorry this is a few months late but I just found your article) I wish there was a way to block all things non-work related on social media for a few hours a day! Like I’ll be totally in the zone and then BAM Hippo chases boat and you’re like what? I didn’t know hippos could swim that fast? Before you know it you just spent 20 minutes looking up hippo attacks vs sharks and bears. Grant it, I feel more educated about animal attacks in the world, but that doesn’t really do my company any good! Great article! Look for a new follower via Twitter 🙂

  • Kristen Palana

    Great article. I use a little free app called selfcontrol which also blocks distracting sites for the time period you set.

  • Jeremy Steele

    Dealing with conflicting priorities constantly means distractions and what needs to be done is often the same thing! A deep breath and a todo list (great app incidentally) works well. That and the Off Button!

  • Brandsensations

    I guess you’re right with this interesting post. But without distraction I wouldn’t have found and read it ! 😉