Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Battling Internet Addiction with a Time Lock Safe

Battling Internet Addiction with a Time Lock Safe
I’ve never thought this blog was meant to help people. For one, I’ve never been particularly good at helping. I have no insights into helping with someone’s nutrition, or the kind of exercise that will finally stick, or how you can get to sleep at a reasonable hour.

Even the thing you’d probably expect me to have good advice on, money, is oddly something I’m not all that good at advising on. The tactics that worked for me may not work for you. We’re outliers in a lot of ways. And just because we’re be able to work towards an early retirement doesn’t mean I have some secret on how to do so; some plan that you can follow, too. 

(If there is any secret, it’s this: we were able to retire early because we earned about double the median household income for the entire time we were working towards FI, and we did so in fairly low cost Arizona after moving here from ridiculously expensive San Diego. That’s kind of it. We might seem more frugal than people who earn as much as we did; but we’re not far more frugal than the median family…who just happens to be stuck earning the median income, too.)

But recently I did stumble across a good-if-somewhat ridiculous life hack, if only out of sheer desperation. So I guess I can share that.

It’s how I’m battling my internet addiction using this time lock safe. I think the thing is meant to keep cookies or booze out of reach of your kids while you're away or something. 

But it turns out to be really good at helping grown man-babies from staring at their technology when they're supposed to be doing important things, like enjoying time with their actual human babies.

Are you using your phone too much and need to focus on other things?
Step one: Put your phone in the safe and lock it for an hour or three.
Step two: Focus on other things.

Are you using the internet too much but need to use your computer to write, or focus on work?
Step one: Put your internet router and your phone in the safe and lock it for an hour or three.
Step two: Open up a Word document and write on your computer, which is now basically a fancy typewriter.

Trouble getting to sleep because you stare at your phone for hours?
Step one: Put your phone in the safe before you go to bed.
Step two: Go the fuck to sleep.

Using your game console too much?
See steps above.

There is no step three. That’s kind of it. End of helpful advice.

Once it's locked, that's that. You can't open it. There's no combination - no key. Taking the batteries out doesn't unlock it. And it's just expensive enough that a cheapskate like me would rather wait an hour, rather than smashing the damn thing open with a hammer.

Here's a video of me locking our internet router in the safe so I could finally sit down and write this blog post:

I can’t say when these internet habits started forming. Maybe a couple years ago, I found myself pulling out my phone more and more, until it was happening at almost every opportunity.

Five minutes in between meetings at work? There’s time to browse my news feed.

Brushing my teeth before bed? Let’s see what’s on Twitter.

Lying in bed at night? Good time to catch up on blog reading.

First thing in the morning? No need to jump right into the day: let’s stay in bed and let the internet wash over us for a while.

On some days, there’s rarely a down moment for me: even a brief time away from the internet. If I’m mowing the lawn or out running errands, I’ll listen to a podcast. If I have chores to do, Pandora is there to help make the time go by quicker. At all opportunities except talking to another human (and sometimes even then) I find myself trying to consume some sort of digital content.

And to be clear, I don’t really mind any of this in the moment. I like the internet. I like being abreast of the news and issues. I like learning more about subjects I find interesting. I like reading blogs and articles and watching interesting YouTube channels, and feeling connected to the world around me through the veritable technological wonder that is the modern internet.

But there are downsides. My attention span is shorter these days. I don’t like being bored, even for a few moments. If I’m waiting in line at the supermarket for even a minute, I feel the urge to distract myself.

I’ve lost some ability to sit and focus on things that aren’t particularly or immediately gratifying. Like work. Or anything that requires concentrated effort over a long period of time, especially when the alternative is something that is immediately gratifying and is sitting in my goddamn pocket.

I was reading Deep Work by Cal Newport again recently and it reminded me that there’s a cost to this constant contact with the internet. It’s a certain shallowness; an inability to go deep on to tasks like writing, or solving a hard problem, or diving deep on a work project that can’t be finished in the same amount of time that it takes to read an article. 

I’m certainly not alone in the temptation to fool the internet instead of doing things that would be more valuable to me in the long run: putting in an honest day’s work, spending quality time with family or friends, writing, exercising, or leaning into a hobby. To try to quantify how often these digital distractions occur, psychologists Wilhelm & Hofmann & Roy Baumeister performed a study in 2012, checking in with subjects at random times, and asking them to reflect on whatever desires they were feeling at the moment. Again, from Deep Work:
“Here’s a short version of what they found: People fight desires all day long…The five most common desires these subjects fought include, not surprisingly, eating, sleeping, and sex. But the top five list also included desires for ‘taking a break from [hard] work…checking email and social networking sites, surfing the web, listening to music, or watching television.’ The lure of the Internet and television proved especially strong: The subjects succeeded in resisting these particularly addictive distractions only around half the time.”
That fifty percent success rate sounds about right, at least in my case. I sometimes can put my phone down, close my laptop, and focus on the things I want to focus on. But sometimes, I just fail miserably. I don't think it's really a matter of tactics, but more so an outcome of how much mental willpower I happen to have left at that moment. 

If my plan for success is “try really hard to avoid this temptation” then my success is an outcome of luck: how much willpower do I have left in that moment? And there’s the rub, because as Newport notes, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it”. 

Rather than relying on my willpower, I’ve found more success when I rely on systems. In this case, a system that I can’t easily break.

If I can stir up enough activation energy, enough initial willpower to turn a knob and drop the source of my distraction onto a dumb little plastic box, then that’s it: I’ve created a physical barrier between me and the phone, or me and the internet, or me and the laptop cords, or between me and the PS4 controllers. If my distraction can fit in the box, and I can muster five seconds of inspiration, then I don't need to rely on will power.

I’ve tried a lot of the digital solutions to this, apps like Cold Turkey and Chrome extensions like StayFocusd. The problem I’ve had with these sort of solutions is that my monkey brain is very motivated to find workarounds to these digital tools, and it has found them. (I won’t share the workarounds, because maybe these solutions are working for you.)

Still, once I knew there was a way to get around the digital wall, I was right back in the same place I was before: relying solely on my willpower to avoid the temptation.

This is probably a sign of my own mental weakness. Why can’t I just control my impulses? Wouldn’t it be better if I just figured out a way to overcome the temptations once and for all, instead of relying on actual physical barriers? 

What am I going to do when I find a temptation that is bigger than a breadbox?

But I’m trying to get less wrapped up in solutions that would-be-good-if-they-worked, but never seem to work for me. Instead, I’m leaning into things that actually get me the results I want, imperfect as they are. 

I'm going to bed on time and getting better sleep. I'm more focused at work and I feel better about the effort I've put in at the end of the day. Most importantly, when it's time to spend time with Mrs. Done by Forty and Baby AF, I'm focused on them.

And sure, I've got to rely on a ridiculous kitchen safe to do so.

So what? Like they say, progress, not perfection.


  1. Haha. I love this idea!
    Unfortunately I need an internet connection to work (90% of the time at least) so I will forever be fighting the urge to distract myself.

    I like the idea of putting the phone away during family time though. Even if you just stuck it in a cupboard in another room, I don't think there is much chance of me bothering to go get it unless I really needed to. Might give that one a go :)

    One thing to watch out for as baby DbF gets older... They pick up the digital addictions pretty quickly! TFS Jr is a YouTube addict so we already have to limit her time on it... Hah!

    1. I need an internet connection with work, too, but for whatever reason I don't feel the urge to browse the internet on my work computer. (Likely because I know they'll be able to see what I'm wasting time on while on the clock.)

      Yes, physical barriers (like just putting it in another room) help a lot. When I'm really tempted, I sometimes would just give my phone to Mrs. Done by Forty and tell her not to give it back to me for X time. It works, though it pushes some emotional labor onto her, so we went with a safe instead.

      And yes! Baby AF is one of the reasons I am trying to get better with technology, for sure.

  2. That's a really good idea. My wife could use something like this. It just need a hole so she can plug the phone in overnight.
    I don't have a problem with my phone. I never bring it to bed and I don't really spend a lot of time on it. The screen is too small. I prefer to use a real monitor because my eyes aren't that good.
    Good luck! I hope this works.

    1. The hole in the safe is a good idea, Joe. I might just bust out the drill this weekend and see what happens. :)

      That's great that the phone isn't a distraction for you. I've found that even with my phone in there though, I personally still have a problem with wasting too much time on the computer browsing. So we bought a big enough one that the whole internet router can fit. ;)

  3. i think our phones or technologoy has to be the most "accepted" addiction out there! EVERYONE is seemingly addicted! I say whatever works for you, keep doing it! Tonya@Budget and the Beach

    1. Tonya!

      I definitely know I'm not alone in this, so I guess that's why I broke my rule of not dispensing helpful advice. ;)

  4. This is a brilliant solution, though I'm sorry you have the addiction in the first place. I suppose I'm not a lot better except that I'm all alone in the house so the addiction doesn't bother me. I don't have as much trouble sitting down and writing for a while without checking social media. At least 45 minutes to an hour can go by (often more) while I work on the blog rather than check Twitter. But. As soon as I'm done with the blog, I'm glued to my Twitter feed I'm afraid. Like you're experiencing, it's probably shortening my attention span. I definitely like to distract myself when I'm in line (though I never had the best temperament for line-waiting even without a smartphone). So maybe I should practice a little Internet abstinence myself. But... Don't wanna!

    1. That makes sense, Abigail. I don't know that everyone really has a problem with the internet in the way that I do. I've already seen more positive outcomes (playing more boardgames with Mrs. Done by Forty, quality time with Baby AF, more focus at work & when writing). But for other people, the same tactic might just needlessly separating them from healthy use of the internet.

      Different strokes, right?

  5. I love this idea. I'm going to use it at some point, I'm pretty sure... Though I've somehow managed to avoid Facebook for a few years running, I keep bouncing in and out of Twitter. I delete the app, only to check in on Safari. Stupid Twitter.

    1. Cubert! Sorry for the late reply -- been really slacking with all things internet now that work has picked up.

      I similarly had no luck reducing my twitter time by deleting the app because my brain knows twitter.com exists. (On a side note, I always found it to be a weird 'life hack' to delete Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever...like, they all have the ability to be urls, folks. Maybe I'm missing something, or they are just better at tricking their minds than I am.)