How-To: Fight the Dangers of Distraction On Your Mac

Distractions are rotting your brain. Recently, research has revealed a lot about the long-term effects of distractions and digital multitasking. An inability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information, poor performance and stress: this is your brain on the Internet. Your Mac (s aapl) can help, though.

The Problem

As a species, we’re wired for distractions, a holdover from tens of thousands of years of evolutionary progress. For our ancestors, the ability to react to the sound of a twig snapping off in the bushes somewhere meant the difference between ending up as a snack for some large predator, and being able to feed your children for another day.

Fast forward to today and our distractions aren’t nearly as important, but our brains still reward us chemically for paying attention to them. Whether it’s email, RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or the dozens of other channels of information vying for our attention, we’re all overwhelmed with opportunities to engage in this cycle throughout the day. It feels good; it’s addictive; and it’s changing our brains.

What We Can Do

Does this mean we should all cancel our Twitter accounts, stop checking email and throw our iPhones in the trash? No, we just need to exercise some moderation. Consistently spend some time concentrating on doing one thing and ignore distractions. Not only will our brains thank you in the long run, but in the short term, you’ll see performance improve, too. Of course, doing it is easier said than done. Luckily, technology can give us all a little SelfControl.

domain blacklist

SelfControl is a handy little OS X application from Steve Lambert that blocks all access to blacklisted domain names for a time specified by the user. Block websites, mail and instant messaging servers, or any other service that might prove to be too much to resist. Just add all the domain names to the list and set the timer. Any attempt to contact those servers, either through a browser or some desktop application, will not work not mater how badly you want to see the latest LOLcat video.

There’s no cheating allowed, so be prepared to not have access to any of those services for as long as the timer lasts. Quitting the application or restarting the computer won’t help you. Of course, there are a few command line tricks you can play to restore access (it’s just an application, after all), but I’m not going to tell you how that’s done, as it would defeat the purpose.


Now that we have all those external services blocked, lets see what we can do to minimize other distractions. Being able to hide everything that’s not immediately relevant is a good start:

  • Hide all desktop icons: This is easy enough. Just open up the Terminal and use the “defaults write CreateDesktop -bool false” command to hide the icons. You’ll have to follow that with a “killall Finder” command to restart the Finder before you see the change. The files are still there, and you can access them through the Finder itself, but now they’re not staring you in the face. You can always use the “defaults write CreateDesktop -bool true” command to bring back the default configuration.
  • Hide the menu bar: There are a few applications like MenuEclipse that can shade the menu bar, fading it into the background until you hover over it with your mouse, but I prefer to hide it only for a couple of heavily used applications. To do this, just edit the Info.plist file of your application, and add this new key value pair: “LSUIPresentationMode” “4”. Now, whenever your application is in focus, the menu bar and the dock just slide off the screen. If you’re not comfortable mucking about in .plist files there’s a great set of AppleScripts called MagicMenu that can take care of all the technical bits for you. Hiding the menu bar this way is a bit of a hack, and can have some unwanted side effects depending on the application, so proceed with caution. Always back up the .plist file so you can revert back to the default setup.
  • Hide unused applications: If I’m busy writing in Textmate, I don’t need to see some animated Flash ad playing in Safari, or a bunch of random Finder windows open in the background. LiteSwitch is a replacement for the default application switcher in OS X that, among other things, will automatically hide windows from any applications not in focus. Just set the “Window Layering” option to “Single Application Mode”. Now, whenever you tab over to a new application in the switcher, windows from any other apps are automatically hidden. If you want more control over what gets hidden when, you can leave window layering set to normal and just hit the “A” key when in the switcher to activate single application mode.

Now, we’ve at least got a fighting chance to fend off the years of evolution screaming at us to pay attention to something other than what we’re doing. If you know of any other handy little tools that can help keep us focused, please share in the comments. One final word of caution though: Lets not spend so much time tweaking an approach to maximize focus that we end up distracting ourselves in a whole new way.

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