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Fast Pitch: Five unusual ways to stay focused online

January 18, 2011

The Internet is a great tool for collecting information, but it can be an awful place to try to get work done. If you’ve ever ran out of time on an online exam because the cute girl in your Humanities class was Facebook chatting you a stream of emoticons, you’re probably already nodding your head. (Unless you’ve already ditched this post for Hulu.)

There’s mounting evidence to suggest that getting distracted on a computer isn’t just a matter of poor self-control. Last summer, New York Times and Atlantic columnist Nicholas Carr argued in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains that the Internet has fundamentally rewired our brains for multitasking at the expense of our ability to focus. Carr cited some research that actually shows the difference in the way neural pathways are built when we are confronted with a storm of quick-hitting information bites on the Internet versus the linear progression of ideas we get from reading books. Mainly, his point is that even though we see much more information than our ancestors, we’re whittling away our patience to fully comprehend it.

The problem is, even if it weren’t for all the distracting links and the pop-up ads, there’s just so much FUN stuff to do online. Games, movies, TV shows, this YouTube video – are all accessible in a few clicks, and they never seem like big time commitments when you start them. But an hour and a half later …

Now,neither Carr (nor is suggesting that you cast off your modern technology and stop using the Internet. It’s critical to modern business,and we’d be out of work if you did. But if you want to clear your mind and become a more efficient worker or internship hunter, consider these oft-overlooked tips to limit Internet Overload.

1.)    Don’t surf the Web (or anything else, for that matter) in the bathroom. Aside from the awkward confrontations it might produce, which we previously documented in The Coffee Run, it’s one of the easiest time slots to cut.

2.)    Cook your own dinner, and make it fairly simple. Don’t see the connection? Think about it: the wait times involved in cooking force you to keep your mind focused on one task for a certain period of time. At the end of a long day of work, it’s a good way to rest your mind. And it’s probably healthier from a nutritional standpoint, too.

3.)    Turn off web browsing on your mobile device when you’re near your home computer. You’ll probably be less distracted with just one way to access the Internet. And you’ll have to peel your lazy butt off the couch to get there.

4.)    Set a real alarm clock instead of the clock on your cell phone or computer. If you manually set the alarm on these devices every night, you’ll probably fall into the habit of flipping through them for a while before you go to bed. Of course this creates distractions of its own, but researchers have suggested that bright displays also trick your body clock into thinking it’s earlier in the evening, making it more difficult to sleep. And that makes it hard to concentrate tomorrow.

5.)    Check out this blog post from the99percent that lists a number of computer programs designed to help block out the noise and zero in on the task at hand.

What strategies do YOU use to avoid Web distractions? Let us know in the comments field.

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