Distractions are one of the few factors that affect productivity the most.

When I talk about dealing with distractions, I’m talking in the sense of dealing with procrastination and akrasia.

One technique that definitively didn’t work for me is thinking of procrastination as not having the control over my actions, as if a monkey was in charge. This mode of thinking helps to understand the problem, but it offers no tool to deal with it. It gives the vague feeling that once you view the problem in the right way, it will help you because you are aware of it. Unfortunately, as with many behaviours and biases - and it is definitely the case with procrastination - being aware of the problem does very little. What you need is not a new way of looking at the problem, but a change in your mindset.

The mindset that did work for me was this simple idea: you should deregulate the distraction blackmarket. The basic idea is to “lift the ban on entertainment”. In other words: stop fighting distractions and let them run their full course. Everything else will follow.

I’ll just quote the original article because it is elegantly put:

The world is full of distractions, and I have plenty of vices. I am just as susceptible as anyone to binging on TV shows or video games or book series. Instead of trying (and often failing) to stop myself from indulging, I decided to allow myself to indulge whenever I really wanted to.

This changed the game entirely. I no longer willed myself to avoid temptation: I weighed temptations alongside my other options, took their pros and cons into account, and made an informed decision. Did I need to distract myself? Sometimes, the answer was yes.

Knowing that I could no longer trust myself to bail me out if I got addicted to new media, I took special care in removing as many distractions as I could from my environment. Because I’d resolved not to spend willpower to cancel addictions, I became much more cautious at the point of entry. These days, I ignore recommendations about new TV shows and books, preferring not even to learn the premises, thus dodging the temptation entirely.

By allowing distractions a place in my mental calculus I allowed myself to choose between them with more care: I am able to watch movies instead of TV shows, to read standalone books instead of entire series.

I know full well that my resolution against spending willpower against myself means that once I get addicted to something, it has to run its full course before I can be productive again. This is a nuclear option: because I know that I won’t stop, I am very leery of lengthy media. I avoid open-ended addictions (ongoing online games, chemical addictions, etc.) like the plague.

I refer to this strategy as “playing chicken against myself”: because I know that I’ll let long addictions run their course, I seldom have to.

From another perspective, you could say that I deregulated a black market on distractions: By lifting the mental ban on entertainment, I was able to price it accurately and weigh the tradeoffs. If there is a new book I want to read, the answer is not an outright and unenforcible “No”. Rather, it’s “can we afford to be underproductive for the next few days?”. And when the answer is negative, it’s significantly easier for me to postpone gratification than to resist the temptation entirely. The end result is that I have much more control over when I indulge in escapism.

Finally, I’ve found that this feels a lot better than feeling guilty about being unproductive. It’s a healthier state of mind, and it’s led to a general increase in happiness.

And a bonus side-effect: when you choose to not engage in a distraction, it is not because you shoudn’t, it is becaue you have decided not to.

The tradeoff-weighting that you make in advance comes from the realization that important choices happen before you start it, and the change in mindset where you refuse to apply willpower once engaged in the distraction.

One last useful trick for deciding what activity to engage in: adopt the point of view of your future self. This acts as a temptation-dispelling mechanism. From the point of view of your future self, impulsiveness of the actual you (that is in the past) plays no role.

So for example, tell yourself at the beginning of the weekend: what future-me would like present-me to do right now. Or better yet: pretend that the weekend is finished, and ask: what do I wish I would have done. Then do that.