My friend has a theory that ADD and ADHD are bullshit. His belief is that there are too many distractions in modern life for children to grow up without an inability to focus. Basically he thinks that we all have ADD and ADHD, and it’s due to the amount of glittering, whirring gizmos we welcome into our lives. Between HDTV, 3-D movies, the virtual reality of home computers, and Smartphones, it’s impossible to keep your eyes on one thing for long enough to blink twice. I only bring this up because this week presented the kind of project that required the monotonous tasks of cutting, pasting, and thinking up four-hundred headlines for a travel-related iPhone app. It was the kind of work that was creative and enjoyable, but it caused a sort of drone-like trance state, where motions became routine. The only way to prevent drool spilling out of my mouth and onto the keys was to succumb to the siren song of the Internet. Which is a job hazard wrapped in the lingerie of a job perk. Internet distraction needs to be carefully dosed, lest freelancing begins to take the "glorified" out of glorified unemployment.
The Internet is my office. I work using mainly Google Docs, I run Chrome for browsing and use Live Writer for blogging. We use Basecamp for projects, and primarily conduct correspondence through Gmail or Gchat versus the traditional conference call. I’m not disciplined enough to sit at my computer all day, knowing that a world of wonder is one tab away, without peeking behind the curtain. Sometimes it feels a bit like I’m a drunk working as a bartender, only the analogy goes kaput once I recognize that, if that were the case, tiny relapses wouldn’t be discouraged, they’d be welcomed.
See, for me, fucking around on the Internet is my coffee break. Facebook is my break-room. Tumblr is my cigarette. Twitter is my extra long pee and conversation about last night’s CSI with Cheryl from accounting. The problem is, as with any gig, you can’t let the breaks get the better of you. Most of us have worked desk jobs where some sorry asshole (hopefully not you) started getting too caught up in enjoying their downtime, hitting up the MySpace, or bullshitting with their buddies. One day they were called into the boss’ office, and ten minutes later they were carting their belongings down in a box, possibly with a security escort. Every job requires discipline.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that working from home, in your pajamas, with the creature comforts of your television, tea kettle, and comforter a mere arms-reach away, makes that battle for focus slightly more difficult. Working on the Internet ups the interruption ante. But I’ve learned that a taste of the forbidden fruit of free time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve written before about the benefits of fucking around for a little bit each day. It’s like that guy who used to work two cubicles over, the one who never seemed to leave the office until the day he disappeared. Eventually you heard he was rumored to be in a hospital suffering a breakdown, six years later he’s living on an ashram and going by the name Tandralu. Burn-out is a real thing. But here’s the tricky, sticky part of the Internet being your main means of diversion: you can’t tell if your cigarette break is going to turn out to be a three-hour meth bender. In the "real" world, there are concrete means of getting some time away from your screen. Most of them involve consuming food, drink, or chemicals, and most of them are fairly mundane. To extend the metaphor, if Facebook is my break-room, I’m never sure whether I’ll walk in and grab a quick cup of tea or if I’ll wind up studying the fabric of the couch for a few hours. Getting distracted on the Internet requires vigilance and brute strength to keep it brief, at least for me.
For example, this week the Internet was good for several respites. I took ten minutes to locate an old friend and find out that he’s attending a Masters program for English. I discovered that the guy who passed me his email at the gym is actually a married performance artist from the Midwest. I located the greatest cheap Thai restaurant in our neighborhood. I ordered Sriracha and a wedding gift. All of these things took less than fifteen minutes and helped me to get my brain back on track.
What didn’t work was my quest for a new book, courtesy of a still unused Christmas gift-card from my cousin. Looking up countless tomes on Barnes and Noble ate up the better part of an hour, and amounted to nothing but frustration. (Really, what I keep hoping is that Mary Roach will release, like, six books at once. Somehow I imagine that she’ll either channel Stephen King or develop a speed problem and start writing books the way I complain. By which I mean incessantly.) Also approaching productivity from the opposite corner was a short story competition. Although I wholeheartedly believe that writing for competitions is a vital part of my upkeep as a professional, it can drain a lot of energy, especially when I’m working under a deadline. It doesn’t allow for any real downtime either, since downtime spent crafting a story isn’t exactly the same sort of time suck as, say, looking at pictures of Lady Sovereign on the web. Email is also a fucking Molotov cocktail thrown at the window of my ambition. Sure, I’ll get to those other 175 headlines, right after I write back my friend who is going through a breakup, my pal who is dealing with the ice storm in Oklahoma and wants to know a good app to kill time, and my very favorite yoga instructor who is just "checking in." Those emails only took…well, the truth is that I can’t tell you. I didn’t respond to all of them, because when I noticed how close to the wire it was, I abandoned that second email mid-sentence. It’s still saved in Drafts.
I don’t know if I can say that there are hard and fast rules to budgeting your breaks. I believe that, as with all things freelance, you have to design your own system. One of the greatest graphic designers we know works from his basement from midnight until 4AM every day, getting buckets of stuff done. Other developers take hourly breaks to eat Pringles and smoke. (I’m leaving the specifics of that last detail to your imagination.) When it comes to using the Internet as a method of recreation while also using it as your mode of work, it bears repeating that if you throw moderation to the winds, the greatest pleasures bring the greatest pains. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a deadline to meet.