I love sites like reddit and Hacker News. They occupy me when I’m
bored at work, and they expose me to a huge number and variety of comments, blog
posts and news stories, so I feel like I am learning a lot about a lot of topics.
They give me the sense that I’m staying current on technology.
However, over the last two or three years, Reddit and HN have become the “go-to” sites when I have a browser open. I need only to type a single letter in my browser in order to visit them. Nearly every time at work that I tell my code to compile, I tab over to Firefox and refresh HN, looking for something new, any snippet of information that will capture my interest for a few short minutes. And it’s all nearly unconscious at this point. Recently I idly typed news.ycombinator.com in the address bar when I was already at news.ycombinator.com. I noticed, and was surprised, only because the page didn’t change – I didn’t get my fix.
And the addiction metaphor is apt. I have observed my own nearly unconscious, highly trained behavior to go to a new page, scan down the page for unread headlines, and learn a new tidbit of advice from a blog about Haskell, JSON or entrepreneurship. As I understand it, learning is connected with dopamine, so it sounds reasonable that someone could become addicted to it – dopamine is implicated in lots of other addictions, including gambling, drugs and sex. I also noticed that my “learning addiction” is interfering with other aspects of my life, specifically my own sense of productivity; there are plenty of days where I come home thinking “if only I hadn’t spent so much time on Hacker News, I might have gotten all this other stuff done”. And I beat myself up over it, a little bit.
I can’t be alone. HN has a “noprocrast” feature, where it will give you a friendly message and prevent you from visiting the site if you come too often. The existence of this feature makes me think that other people have some form of this addiction too. But the feature is frustrating to use: every time I am denied my fix, I get a little bit annoyed, and when I’m annoyed, I don’t go back to my work – instead I visit Reddit or Slashdot to cool down and get my fix there. It’s much harder for me to focus when I’m frustrated, so it sort of makes the problem worse. It doesn’t help that HN’s noprocrast message shows a timer (you can’t come back for 30 minutes!) which lets me look forward to exactly when I can come back, and that’s distracting too.
So I’m looking for other ways to train myself off of this habit. So far, while writing this post, I already had the urge to visit HN four times. Three of those times, I noticed what I was doing, and stopped myself from loading the page. Once, I did actually load HN; I was thinking to myself “I shouldn’t be reading this, I have a blog post to write, but I just want to see what’s new on this one comment thread.”
One way of easing my addiction could be reducing the delivery rate of the drug. If HN had more momentum (for example, if the top stories changed more slowly), it might reduce my desire to come to the page, because my expectations of getting my fix would be lower. Then again, maybe it would just cause me to look at the “new” page more often, which just shows the 30 newest submissions, regardless of quality.
Here’s a more radical idea: what if the whole site only updated once every four hours? No realtime comments, no stories, etc.; when people make submissions and comments, the site queues them up for the next big update. This would still have the countdown-timer effect, giving me something to look forward to, but there would be no incentive for me to refresh the page between those moments. (I note that you could implement something like this cheaply using an HTTP proxy by tweaking the caching headers.)
I am also trying to come up with productive activities which compete with browsing for when I’m bored. I don’t always want to think about work during compiles, but I also don’t want to visit Hacker News and lose half an hour or more.
So what makes me feel productive that I could do at work? Well, when I get a few minutes to brainstorm, I sometimes come up with ideas which seem original and worth keeping. It seems like browsing Hacker News directly cuts into time that I could otherwise spend just thinking, away from the computer and other distractions. So here’s my idea: when you’re bored, you go to this site, and it presents you with some other people’s postings as inspiration, and instructs you to spend eight minutes brainstorming about whatever you want. You step away from the computer, come back in eight minutes, and the site asks you to write down what you thought about. Then the next person who comes to the site might see your idea as inspiration.
Clearly there are some issues – it would be nice to have usernames and attribution – but I think the idea is sound, and I know that I would probably contribute to it sometimes instead of visiting HN. I know from experience that it takes some mental effort to choose to produce something new instead of just consuming, but I am willing to put in that effort if it makes me feel less like my time is being wasted.