Digital tricks to tame an Internet addiction

Melissa Bell
Sunday, January 30, 2011

In the age of the Internet, two minutes of doing nothing can feel like forever. The seconds ooze by, my mind skipping from dinner plans (healthy acorn squash or a cheeseburger?) to a Brian Adams song I can't get out of my head ("Everything I do, I do it for you!"), to the Moscow bombing. I look at the timer.

A new e-mail pops up in my inbox. My hand shakes a little, hovering over the mouse. I really want to check it. Instead, I stare at the sunset photograph on my computer screen, listen to the ocean waves crash and try very, very hard not to be distracted by the countdown on screen.

At this point, barely a minute has passed.

The Web site holding me captive - Do Nothing for 2 Minutes - drew 1 million unique visitors in its first five days. No doubt most of those visitors weren't just curious, but people like me who could really use some digital meditation space.

"Detox from information overload," PopJam CEO Alex Tew, who co-founded Two Minutes, tweeted when he released the site last week. "Technology has taken away something from us," he added by phone from London. "It would be cool to let technology give us that back. That thing being a moment of calm, of course."

Science writer Jonah Lehrer calls this "information craving," and it's fueled by tiny kicks of dopamine, one of the brain's pleasure chemicals, every time we find something new. As we juggle PDAs, computer screens and multiple social accounts, we divide our attention into increasingly tiny slivers.

Two Minutes may be a quick fix, but there are options for enforcing longer breaks from all the digital distractions, giving us time to do more than nothing.

Authors Nora Ephron, Nick Hornby and Dave Eggers all swear by a $10 program aptly called Freedom, which shuts down Internet access on a PC or Mac for however long you choose.

In other words, you pay for the Internet to come into your home, and now you can pay for it to disappear.

Just download the program onto your computer from and set a limit - from 15 minutes to eight hours - and the Internet is off. If you can't resist and must get back online before your time is up, you have to fully reboot your computer. Grad student Fred Stutzman developed the program to help him finish his dissertation.

For the specific social time wasters, Stutzman also built Anti-Social. It costs $15 and blocks only social sites, from MySpace to Vimeo. For parents worried about the amount of time their teenagers spend posting updates to Facebook, this site will set timeouts to help get the homework done.

Another option, the StayFocusd program, offers up the chance to custom-design your self-imposed exile. It's a free extension for Google Chrome (so you can still sneak onto other Web browsers) that allows you to choose which sites to block and for exactly how long each. Spending too much time on eBay but still need to access Gmail? This is the site for you.

Taken together, these programs give us the power to fight digital distractions using digital tricks. That might even beat two minutes of doing nothing.

This column aims to help you tame the Internet beast and demystify the online world. What are you curious about? What confounds you? Let us know. E-mail

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