I’ve found myself in a vicious cycle lately. Whenever I have free time to kill, I’ll typically rotate through the same, stale list of websites, sucking up whatever new content comes along to relieve me of my boredom. I’ll bounce between Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and Gmail (and occasionally Slickdeals) in one big loop until I can finally remind myself that this is dumb and maybe I should go outside, walk around, or do something more productive with my day.
Thanks to the Chrome extension HabitLab, I’ve been able to dial back my borderline-compulsive behaviour. It’s a Stanford University-backed experiment that offers plenty of different encouragements — some gentle, some not-so-much — to keep you from obsessing over whatever websites capture too much of your attention and time.
We’ve talked about this extension before, but I want to dig in a bit deeper to show why HabitLab is a digital lifesaver.
It will come as no surprise that, as the editor of a website devoted to productivity, I'm obsessive about refining the details of my tech life to be certain every element is helping me get the job done. While I have software that I swear by (WriteRoom, Deckset, Evernote), I'm more of an evangelist for browser extensions.
My favourite Chrome extensions are lightweight, easy-to-install and usually free, but the effect they have on my productivity is profound. These are the extensions that I love most fervently and recommend most frequently.
Once you install the extension, you’ll jump to a page that offers suggestions about websites you might want to limit. You can add any sites you want, but I love that the pre-populated suggestions also come with a little counter underneath that estimates how much time you’ve been spending on said sites. (Repeat to yourself: Don’t look at the Facebook number. Don’t look at the Facebook number. Don’t...)
Once you’ve picked the sites you’d like help removing from your life, you’re asked to set the extension’s level of annoyance. If you need the lightest possible touch to encourage you to stop checking the same handful of sites all the time, the extension can just track the time you spend on these sites. Easy as that. And if you need a lot of help, the extension will even go so far as to automatically close any of the selected sites after you’ve kept them open for 60 seconds. Stop. Browsing. Reddit.
In addition to whatever “extension aggression” setting you pick, you can also enable other “nudges” to help you stay focused. And I love the smorgasbord of options HabitLab offers, which includes prompting you to enter how long you’d like to spend on a site as soon as you load it up, a “GateKeeper” that forces you to wait a few seconds before a site loads (to hopefully discourage you from continuing on), and a “scroll freezer” that prevents you from doing just that after one scroll too many.
Some nudges work differently for different sites. On Facebook, the extension can drop gentle reminders about your wasted time directly into your News Feed, so you don’t miss it. If you’re a big Twitter fanatic, HabitLab can hide your entire feed. Procrastination solved.
Sure, you need to finish that PowerPoint presentation for next week, but it won't hurt to just check Facebook real quick and see if Mark posted pictures from the party last weekend. And then make a quick online order. And you really should like a few photos in that gallery... It's easy to waste a few minutes (or a few hours) on the web without realising it.
Within the extension’s settings, you can also see how long you’ve been spending on your “forbidden sites” for seven days at a time, as well as how effective each nudge has been at getting you off the sites. You can even set the extension to only enable nudges during certain hours, in case you don’t care about how much of your own time you waste, but need to stay productive at work.