You know it when it happens: You were busy working on an important project with a looming deadline. Then you remember an email you needed to respond to, but in opening your email you see that it’s your sister’s birthday soon, so you go to Amazon to buy her a gift and remember the bathroom rug in your cart, with makes you think of the renovation you’d love to do. The next thing you know 25 minutes have disappeared and you’re googling pedestal sinks.
Going down this kind of internet rabbit hole is usually due to one of three factors: environment, avoidance, or addiction. Here’s a look at all three and what you can do to keep your inner rabbit above ground.
Sometimes, you’re working along just fine but then it’s simply the sight of a hole that causes you to jump into distraction. Maybe it’s a glance at your Twitter feed, a notification to your phone, or an email pop-up. Regardless, you see it and then you see the next article related to it and the next video beside it and before you know it 30 minutes has passed.
If this sounds like you, a couple of simple strategies can help. The first is to err toward as few reminders as possible. For example, turn off the notifications on your phone for tempting apps, filter interesting articles directly into a To Read folder, and leave no potentially distracting tabs open. The lack of visual cues can dramatically decrease your chance of diving in.
Then as a safeguard, set up systems that limit how much time you can spend on certain apps or websites. For example, on your iPhone you can set up App Limits and on Android you can use Antisocial and App Detox. On your computer, services including Freedom and RescueTime can perform similar services. You can block websites entirely or simply limit your time.
Sometimes you needed no external trigger to run down a rabbit hole. You go looking for it because whatever you’re doing right now feels boring, annoying, or just plain hard. Going down a rabbit hole doesn’t get your report written, but it’s a fun escape.
Instead of chastising yourself for wanting to indulge in a little fun, use the pull of the rabbit hole as an incentive for productivity. For example, when you feel yourself wanting to check your newsfeed, don’t dive right in. Instead start in on your tough project doing a 25-minute Pomodoro. Once you’ve focused on your work for 25 minutes, then you can give yourself 5 minutes to read an article or watch something interesting. Once the five minutes are up, you go back to work until your next treat at the end of another 25 minutes.
Another way to use your desire to satiate your curiosity to your advantage is to bundle up the interesting articles you happen across during the day into an after-work indulgence. If you use tools like Pocket, you can save what you want for later and then take it in on your commute home as a guilt-free reward for a job well done.
At the far end of circumstances, your inner rabbit isn’t just looking to avoid a particular task, it’s addicted to the dopamine rush of all the internet can offer . In more mild cases of internet addiction, you may simply need to fill in some internet holes. Delete apps from your phone or permanently block yourself from certain websites. Over time, your brain will readjust to life without the particularly brain-stimulating content, and you’ll notice its absence less and less. In more serious cases, you may actually need to get professional help. Overuse of the internet can materially alter the structure of your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain where you make decisions, plan, and prioritize. So for a time, you may need outside help to assist you in thinking clearly while you’re regaining your own brain strength.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll never find yourself down a rabbit hole, but with these tips you can end up in one less and catch yourself faster.