Timewarp is a free Google Chrome extension I created that helps you stay productive when you need to. If you want to track how you use apps and websites on your computer, checkout RescueTime. If you want to block distracting websites on your mobile devices, checkout Freedom.
I was stressed at work in late Spring 2013. I can’t remember what caused my stress, but I noticed myself checking Facebook every 5 minutes, seeing no new post, closing the tab, and repeat. I realized my attention span was shorter than it ever was. Something was clearly wrong.
Now I know I was “hooked” by “variable rewards” of checking my feed, after reading “Hooked”, a book by Nir Eyal. The dopamine released in anticipation of interesting content gave me satisfaction during stressful times, so I went back again and again, even when there was no new content. Turns out Facebook excels at building habit-forming products than anyone else, and I use it not merely for its utility. It became a habit. I panicked because continuing on this trend means I would achieve nothing in my life.
“What if, when I try to access Facebook from now on, a reminder shows up to break this problematic behavior?” I thought, “There must be something that does this already.” So I googled.
I found a Chrome extension called “StayFocusd”. It’s powerful, lots people love it, but as a UX junkie I felt its UI is more complex than necessary. 80% of its utility comes from 5% of its features. All I really wanted was blocking a handful of websites that I visit everyday that are irrelevant at work. IMO the last thing any productivity tool should do is wasting users’ time by making it hard to figure out how to use it, or presenting users with information that doesn’t help them achieve their goals.
I also hoped the blocking mechanism could be more delightful. Instead of making “violators” feel guilty about visiting these websites they love, my intuition told me positive reinforcements will work wonders in this case. I envisioned a utility that can apply the same habit-forming techniques that Facebook championed but at users’ disposal. It’s simply a more powerful strategy.
So I created Timewarp in my spare time in 3 weeks and have been using it every week myself. As of now there are 16,000 users who installed Timewarp.
After you install Timewarp, you need to create “wormholes” in “Options” page, which is a metaphor for rules.
There are three kinds of “wormholes” you can create:
This is my favorite kind of wormholes. Not only does it save me from distractions, it also helps me build new desirable habits. For example, I enrolled in a course on Coursera, but I haven’t got into the habit of checking the course page every day.
By creating a redirect wormhole from “facebook.com” to “coursera.org”, every time I try to go to Facebook, I’ll be taken to Coursera instead. This simple technique allows me to use the addiction I want to get rid of to my advantage, and make it effortless to check out my course page every day. This is why I named the extension “Timewarp” — escaping habitual “black holes” and arriving at a productive universe at the same time. How cool is that!
You can also set how much time you allow yourself to spend on a site per day, and redirects are only activated when you’ve used up your daily allowance.
I also use quote wormholes a lot. Every now and then I came across great quotes from the books I read. I’d write them down, read them often, so they can sink in and become part of my mind sooner. Here is a quote I took from a book I read recently called “Success under Stress”.
“The best way to find yourself is losing yourself in the service of others”
Thinking it’s a useful tip to remind myself keeping my ego down, I created a quote wormhole for YouTube. So now when I enter “youtube.com” in Chrome’s address bar and hit enter, I see the quote instead of Internet’s latest cat video collections. I still indulge myself with videos of kittens before I go to bed though.
Now there are websites which are only mildly distracting to me, such as Medium and Hacker News. For these types of websites I’d create timer wormholes so it shows how much time I’ve spent on them today so I am informed of their impact on my productivity.
Once you’ve created the wormholes, click on the rocket icon to activate Timewarp! If you need to access Facebook to reply an important message, just click on the icon again to discharge it. When you are done turn it back on with another click. Timewarp never gets in the way when you need to get your tasks done!
I created Timewarp with these 3 principles in mind:
While these principles seem trivial, they are really hard to stick to. It’s too easy to add a nice-to-have feature that bloats the UI but doesn’t add real value. For example, I was inclined to add detailed time tracking because it’s gonna be “cool”, but I’d rather people take 10-minute walks instead of sitting and staring at the metrics. Some users earnestly wanted a way to block the entire internet and make it cumbersome to unblock themselves, but I had to say no because the effectiveness of Timewarp is a function of the willpower of its users. If people are willing to stay away from a website, a simple reminder would do. If they really need to access it for any reason, nothing should or could stop them.
While my intention is to keep Timewarp as minimal as it is, I do have some exciting plans to improve it in the next few months so it can serve more people. However Timewarp probably will never be a stand-alone app or be cross-platform to work on all of iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows. So here are the other tools which are complementary or alternative to Timewarp. I believe we share the same vision of reclaiming our most precious resource: Time.
I am using RescueTime in combination with Gyroscope to track my productivity when I am using my Mac. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I am really impressed by how well thought out RescueTime is. It smartly categorizes the time you spend on different sites as productive or distracting based on your work. I am a Software Engineer, so checking emails and using instant messengers can be distracting. But If you are in sales or customer support, maybe your productivity is soaring when you are emailing and chatting a lot. RescueTime makes that easy and generates a productivity report every week that’s easy to process.
I found about Freedom on StayFocusd’s website. I’ve downloaded the app and it blocks social websites in Safari when it’s turned on. It doesn’t seem to block the social apps from accessing the Internet though. But if browsing on mobile is an problem to you, it won’t hurt to check it out.
As mentioned above, this is a feature rich distraction blocker.
Another useful website blocker which doubles as a parental control.
Disclosure: links to Hooked, Success under Stress, RescueTime, and Freedom are affiliate links.
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