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Businessman with laptop computer. Stock image. (Jupiterimages/www.jupiterimages.com)

How to fight digital distraction? Turn your friends off Add to ...

Michael Klein doesn't trust himself.

Whether it's Facebook, Wikipedia or ESPN, the 28-year-old is easily distracted. No wonder: The culprit is right there - the computer to which he's tethered, coding and crafting papers and teaching assignments day after day.

Mr. Klein, a doctoral student of neuroscience and psychology at Montreal's McGill University, decided on a radical solution for his wandering mind: a self-imposed exile from the Web, with the unlikely help of two websites.

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For a one-time cost of $15 (U.S.), Anti-Social lets him "turn off the social parts of the Internet" for a time frame of his choosing. When he needs to complete meatier tasks, Mr. Klein uses Freedom ($10), which prevents him from accessing any part of the Web for up to eight hours.

"It's definitely a bit of a shock," says Mr. Klein.

"It's not unlike the feeling you get when you're on vacation or travelling somewhere remote. It's a weird feeling to not be able to send an e-mail or call someone whenever you want. After a while, the strange feeling becomes a good strange feeling."

With so many working online all day long, the rabbit hole that is the Web at their fingertips and friends and family beckoning relentlessly, it's surprising any work gets done at all. For those hitting a wall, a host of new websites is offering to help tune out the noise.

"Just relax and listen to the waves. Don't touch your mouse or keyboard," instructs DoNothingFor2Minutes.com.

Launched in January, the site gets visitors to stare at a sunset-lit ocean for 120 seconds. It's harder than it looks.

"With everybody constantly checking their Facebook and Twitter, this was to give them a time out from digital overload," co-founder Ben Dowling, 27, says from London.

Apparently, people need an escape, however banal: The site has drawn 2.6 million unique visitors in less than a month. ("People set it as a home page and try to use it every day," says Mr. Dowling.)

Should a user's mouse budge during the exercise, the program chastises with a notification that reads "FAIL." Although Mr. Dowling notes that "most people fail," he believes sites like his symbolize the seeds of dissent against digital distraction.

"Until you sit down and do nothing, you don't realize how many different things you're juggling, that you've got 100 browser tabs open."

While visitors to Mr. Dowling's site crave to do nothing, others are tuning out the Web with "productivity applications" that help them do more.

A Firefox extension called LeechBlock blocks sites "that can suck the life out of your working day," while StayFocusd restricts the amount of time you can spend browsing time-wasting sites on Google Chrome.

"You'll be amazed how much you get done when you turn off your friends," reads the tagline for Anti-Social, which blocks time-wasters, be it social media, dating sites, gossip aggregators or online games on both Macs and PCs, across browsers.

Fred Stutzman developed the site after using his earlier, sterner program Freedom to help him focus as he toiled away on his dissertation. (He's finished now.)

"I just really like working on the computer when it's disconnected," says Mr. Stutzman, now a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University who studies human-computer interaction.

"I use it for about an hour at a time. I come back up for air for a couple of minutes and go back under for another hour. Some people do it for eight hours at a time. I would get twitchy if I did that."

Freedom has attracted throngs of prominent devotees, including Nora Ephron, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Seth Godin. In January, Mr. Godin wrote about the need for anti-distraction technology in a blog post titled "Lost in a Digital World."

"Ten years ago, no one was lost in this world. You had to play dungeons and dragons in a storm pipe to do that. Now there are millions and millions of us busy polishing our connections, reaching out, reacting, responding and hiding," Mr. Godin writes.

Mr. Stutzman says the new programs have much in common with the Pomodoro Technique. Created in the eighties by Francesco Cirillo, then a university student struggling through school in Rome, the technique involves setting a timer and completing a series of tasks within a given amount of time.

Mr. Cirillo said the new tools can help reduce "internal interruptions" - "sudden impulses that we experience while doing a task, to do unrelated things, that consequently disrupt our work."

"We often delude ourselves into thinking that constant networking and multitasking are desirable, essential and inevitable. It is important to remember that it is something that we choose," Mr. Cirillo said from Rome.

But do people who use the tools risk being seen as (literally) anti-social and cut off by others?

"A lot of people feel that they'll be socially isolated if they disconnect," says Nicholas Carr, author of the recent book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.

"At this point it's more than just a matter of personal discipline. You have to recognize that social norms and expectations are changing."

Mr. Stutzman acknowledges the Web's new "interpersonal obligations."

"When you first run Freedom and disconnect, there is this worry. But you do it a couple of times and you come back online and you're able to handle your tags and your Facebook messages and your e-mails. The world doesn't end."

Still, does it speak to our compulsivity that we need Web tools to help us curb our online tendencies? As the Washington Post's Melissa Bell put it, "You pay for the Internet to come into your home, and now you can pay for it to disappear."

Mr. Klein's retort?

"You can pay for drinks at a bar, but eventually you might pay for rehab as well."

 

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