Feature Request: Self-imposed Time Restrictions

by adamzerner1 min read15th May 20197 comments


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Hacker News has a feature called "noprocrast". Here's how they explain it in the FAQ:

In my profile, what is noprocrast?
It's a way to help you prevent yourself from spending too much time on HN. If you turn it on you'll only be allowed to visit the site for maxvisit minutes at a time, with gaps of minaway minutes in between. The defaults are 20 and 180, which would let you view the site for 20 minutes at a time, and then not allow you back in for 3 hours.

If you try to use HN when you precommitted to not using it, you'll get the following message from them:

Get back to work!
Sorry, you can't see this page. Based on the anti-procrastination parameters you set in your profile, you'll be able to use the site again in 43 minutes.

I was thinking that something like this would be awesome for LessWrong. Personally, I have a rather large problem browsing the web - which includes browsing LessWrong - when I should be doing other things. After reading Digital Minimalism, I get the impression that such struggles are moreso the norm than the exception.

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You can use leechblock to add time restrictions for any site.

It also has the option to add loading delays to sites, which I find useful for sites which I can't afford to block outright.

Leechblock is excellent. I presently use it to block facebook (except for events and permalinks to specific posts) all the time except for 10min between 10pm and midnight; I have a list of webcomics that I can only view on saturdays; there is a web-based game that I can play once every saturday (whereafter the expired time prevents me from playing a second game), etc.

We (the LW team) are definitely thinking about this issue, and I at least strongly prefer that people use the site in ways that reflect decisions which they would endorse in retrospect; ie, reading things that are valuable to them, at times and in quantities that make sense, and not as a way to avoid other things that might be more important. I'm particularly thinking about this in the context of the upcoming Recommendations system, which recommends older content; that has the potential to be more of an unlimited time sink, in contrast to reading recent posts (which are limited in number) or reading sequences (which is more like reading a book, which people have existing adaptations around).

A big problem with naively implemented noprocrast/leechblock-style features at the site level, is that they can backfire by shunting people into workarounds which make things worse. For example, if someone is procrastinating on their computer, noprocrast kicking in when they don't want to stop might make them start reading on their phone, creating bad habits around phone use. Cutting off access in the middle of reading a post (as opposed to between posts) is especially likely to do this; but enforcing a restriction only at load-time encourages opening lots of tabs, which is bad. And since people are likely to invest in setting personal rules around whatever mechanisms we build, there are switching cost if the first mechanism isn't quite right.

So: I definitely want us to have something in this space, and for it to be good. But it may take awhile.

Some further thoughts: I think there are some areas where it makes sense for the LessWrong site to make proactive efforts. (I particularly raised concerns about the upcoming Recommendations section feeling a bit time-sinky)

But I also think, for features like the one described in the OP, it usually makes sense to solve that at a higher level up than "site-specific." i.e. if LessWrong lets you limit your time, but Facebook doesn't, you just end up using Facebook instead of LessWrong. If you want to limit time on LW it makes more sense to use tools like Freedom or SelfControl.

The place where it makes sense to me for the LW team to work on features like this would be "areas that require higher granularity", where you don't necessarily want to block all of LessWrong (because Freedom does a better job), but you do want to block or add trivial inconveniences to parts of LW that are particularly distracting (which Freedom can't do)

Since this seems to be an akrasia/executive-related problem, I suspect just having links to possible addons to use (and ideally, example configurations) easily accessible could be disproportionately ameliorative compared to its implementation cost, both via the reminder that compulsive browsing and mitigations for it both exist, and via the social signaling that this is an approved way of browsing that won't make you weird. Though I'm not sure about the possible noise it creates, depending on what easy options you have for placement/hiding.

Nod. I could see that. Agree with the "depends on whether we can find a reasonable place to put the link without adding noise" clause.

I'm hugely in favour of this. There have been quite reasonable questions raised about how much Less Wrong improves us and how much it sucks up our time.