Step Away from the Facebook Feed…

First published in The Irish Examiner, October 2014

The internet’s power to educate, inspire and inform is equalled only by its ability to distract us senseless. Clare O’Reilly embarked on a week-long quest to find out the best ways to battle her instincts to click on just one more link.

For the easily distracted, the internet can be a dangerous, dangerous place. Almost everything we encounter online is designed to tempt us away from what we are currently doing. So if you are required to be online all day for work purposes, this can cause considerable problems.

For the last few years I’ve worked from home, unsupervised, with the weapon of mass distraction that is the internet at my fingertips. I’ve had many mornings (usually Mondays) where I’ve allowed myself a strict fifteen minute time-limit to ‘check the internet’. All of a sudden it’s lunch-time, there are 57 tabs open, and I’m 28 potatoes into a ‘33 Potatoes that look a bit like Enda Kenny’ list, with no idea of how I’ve gotten there.

I’m self-employed, so the time I spend looking at Taoiseach-shaped potatoes doesn’t just cause me to question my sanity, it’s also costing me money.

Happily, on that self-same distracting internet there exists a whole host of apps and add-ons that promise to save the easily-distracted from ourselves.

I’m very eager to figure out how to decrease my distractions and increase my productivity so I decided to embark on a week-long quest to figure out the most effective ways of blocking out the more distracting parts of the internet .


I start my week by downloading an application called RescueTime. This program keeps track of every website you visit and how long you spend on each one. It claims to ‘help you understand your daily habits so you can focus and be more productive.’

I have a lot of work to get through today, so I’m relatively strict with myself when it comes to staying on track. Still, the RescueTime report at the end of the day makes for sobering reading. Of the eight hours logged, three hours and 22 minutes were spent on what RescueTime defined as Highly Distracting Websites. Since I’ve been on my best behaviour all day, this is worrying.

The free version of RescueTime gives you a report of your activity each day but does not block access to any distracting websites. To do that, you must upgrade to the premium version costing $7 a month.

(The Highly Distracting Websites in this case were the likes of Facebook, Youtube and Reddit. If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece so far, and have somehow never heard of Reddit, please try everything in your power to forget that I ever mentioned it.)

Conclusion: RescueTime is a good way to make yourself aware of the websites that take up the most of your time. However It can feel a little strange to be spying on your own internet habits. Isn’t that what the NSA is for?


First thing Tuesday morning, I download the free open-source application SelfControl. The logo is an ominous-looking skull and crossbones. This app means business.

To get things started I must enter a list of the sites that I want to deny myself access to. This is called the Blacklist. Next I must set a time-limit for how long my self-imposed blackout should last. I enter every website that caused me trouble the day before, and set my limit to 4 hours.

The first thing I realise is that this action is impossible to reverse. There is no way my laptop will let me access my Twitter account, or go on Youtube, no matter how hard I try. Most applications can be disabled simply by rebooting your computer, or fiddling around in your settings. Not SelfControl. Once you’ve set a time-limit, you must wait it out.

Once I confirm that there is no way of cheating the app, I manage to get a lot of uninterrupted work done. I allow myself back on the blacklisted sites for an hour at lunchtime, but go back on SelfControl for the rest of the afternoon.

Conclusion: Extreme, but effective. Recommended. SelfControl is only available for Mac but ColdTurkey is a good alternative for PC.


Buoyed by yesterday’s success I decide to try and put some real-life self control to the test. Once I clear my email inbox, I go downstairs and yank the modem from the wall socket.

I come back upstairs to my desk where the urge to go back downstairs and plug the modem back in kicks in immediately. Since I’ve knocked off the wifi, I can’t even check emails on my phone and it’s all too easy to convince myself that I might be missing an email of grave importance, however unlikely that might be. The longer I sit at my desk, the more elaborate my worries become. What if something of worldwide importance has happened since I disconnected? For all I know, Russia could have invaded South Tipperary in the last forty minutes.

I manage to stick it out till 11.30 and then I sheepishly slink downstairs and plug the modem back in. I have two emails. A newsletter from Topshop and a message from a friend who wants to know how my zero-internet day is going. Russia has not invaded South Tipperary. I use SelfControl for the rest of the day.

Conclusion: Suitable for those with more self-restraint and who do not need access to their emails.


AntiSocial is an app designed for a person whose biggest distraction is social media. Twitter and Facebook are automatically blacklisted and AntiSocial enables you to restrict access to them for up to eight hours at a time. It’s also possible to add more website addresses to the list.

The main difference between AntiSocial and SelfControl is that the former is very easy to switch off. If you decide three hours into an eight-hour day that you desperately need a Facebook fix, you just need to reboot your computer.

Conclusion: Friendlier than SelfControl but easier to reverse. Available for Mac and PC. First five tries are free, then it’s $15 to buy.


Freedom is probably the most well-known app in this arena. The idea behind is it is very simple. Freedom blocks all access to the internet for up to eight hours at a time.

It’s the final day of the test, so I decide to go big. I set Freedom to go to work for 480 minutes.

I know ahead of time that it’s easy to turn Freedom off, all I need to do is reboot my laptop, but somewhere along this week, I must have picked up some actual self-control, because I don’t bother. I’ve set my phone up so that I’m notified whenever an email comes in. This means that I’m happy enough to stay off the rest of the internet for an entire working-day.

Conclusion: If you need extended blocks of time away from the internet to concentrate on a project, Freedom is your app. Available for Mac and PC. First five tries are free, then it’s $10 to buy.

Please internet responsibly.

I may not have transformed into a paragon of productivity (yet), but I end the week a lot closer to that ideal than I was at the start. It turns out that for the very easily distracted, it is possible to stay focused on the internet, once you employ a little help along the way.

And if this article has made you despair at your lack of self-restraint and ability to stay focused online, try not to worry. Writer Zadie Smith thanked Freedom and SelfControl in the back of her novel NW. So, if nothing else, at least we’re in very good company.

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Originally published at on October 13, 2014.

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