Need Computer/Phone for SuperMemo/Anki But the Internet is the Biggest Distraction. Here are My Solutions.

2018-08-15 2020-05-31 2020-11-17

Image by 377053 from Pixabay

TL;DR: Three aspects:

Physical setup: My Portable Equipment Setup for SuperMemo and Tips for Concentration

Virtual setup: this article

Setting: My Biggest Productivity Hack to Increase SuperMemo Time (td;dr: leave the house; going either to the library or cafe)

In this article I’ll focus on the virtual environment (desktop/laptop/phone) that is conducive to learning with SuperMemo/Anki.

The Dilemma

Using SuperMemo/Anki poses a dilemma:

You rely on your computer (desktop/laptop) to study with SuperMemo/Anki, or your phone (Ankidroid or AnkiMobile) when on the go, yet your computer and phone present the greatest distraction ever existed: the Internet. I won’t bore you with the obvious: social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter; media platforms like YouTube and Netflex; online and offline games… just endless entertainment and media consumption:

Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” The Shallows

The computer/Internet is a double-edge sword: it can either cut or fortify you, depending on how you wield it:

Every advance in productivity afforded by technology has been quickly swallowed by a corresponding reduction in the barriers to procrastination. Boost your productivity: Cripple your technology

It’s especially true when we need to use the greatest distraction (computer/phone) while at the same time, needing it for maximum learning (SuperMemo/Anki).

Same Medium For Work/Study and Entertainment

Another dilemma is that, the Internet can be your source of rewards. For example, you’ve diligently spent 45 minutes studying. Now you deserve a break. A simple reward can be going online (social media feed or videos). But once you’re hooked you’re not willing to let go (I speak from experience):


The question is how do you selectively block your access to those sites when it’s necessary and appropriate, and allow access when it’s equally appropriate?

It’s also easy to form a bad habit loop: whenever you feel frustrated you just go online as an escape. The need to distract yourself from those negative emotions can be very compelling. The more you do it the worse it gets. At the same time it’s almost a gurantee to feel frustrated when studying: any real learning requires mental and deliberate effort.

Biggest Help in Increasing Productivity and Sustaining Concentration: Disconnect

My central idea is simple: just disconnect from the Internet. Too much freedom can breed chaos. The temptation of the ability to go online is distracting in itself. In this case, dramatically reducing Internet access can be freeing. Granted, you might have genuine need to go online, but I’ll argue that it does more harm than good, and there are solutions to “have your cake and eat it.” (see below)

Subtle Distinction: Computer/Phone ≠ Internet

First, your computer or phone is not the Internet. You don’t need the Internet in order to use SuperMemo/Anki efficiently and effectively (in most cases).

Obvious Distractions: Allure of the Candy Store

You already know the drill: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, messaging apps, games. The Chrome or Firefox icon is your portal to endless entertainment. There is this constant allure, attention pull towards these obvious distractions, rather than staying in SuperMemo/Anki. Learning or reading is hard but looping over your feed for potential novelty is instant gratification and relief.

Subtle Distraction: Needing Further Research

Unrestricted Internet access will easily lead to obvious distractions (social media); but restricted Internet access may still lead to a subtler form of distraction: needing further research. For example, there was a period when I’d convinced myself that I needed to import more articles into SuperMemo for reference. I either ended up wasting hours online or importing articles I never needed in the first place.

…But it’s not urgent

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for additional information. But is it truly urgent? Can’t it wait until tonight? In most cases the answer is “no it’s not urgent and I can do it tonight.” In retrospect, I was avoiding the mentally effortful task; “I need to do further research” was procrastination in disguise. It’s not easy to distinguish between the genuine need and this subtler form of procrastination. The tools below help me see through this veil.

My History with Various Productivity Software

When I first tried to tackle this problem, I’d installed various site-blocker addons. One problem: limited capabilities. There are always workarounds. I didn’t intend to find those workarounds, but when craving hit, my brain naturally found the unwanted solutions.

Tools That Help Me Focus

#1 FocusMe

Full disclosure: I’ve been a satisfactory FocusMe customer since 2017. I used the student discount and paid in full.

FocusMe is a fully-customizable tool that “walls off” online temptation to instantly increase productivity and take countless hours of your life back.

Simply it’s a distraction-blocking tool. For the basic usage, you can just block all distracting sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube etc. I did this before. But as mentioned earlier, I found myself doing “further research” all the time, like keep importing articles into SuperMemo or even just randomly browsing the sites that were not in the block list. In hindsight, importing more articles (albeit relevant) is easier than focus on reading one article.

Flexibility of FocusMe: Blocking All Sites Except Whitelisted

So I blocked all Internet access, but whitelist the ones that I definitely need. For example, if you’re a programmer then you most certainly need to whitelist StackOverflow, but not r/learnprogramming, even the latter seems just as relevant. Here’s my plans from FocusMe:


Simply, I have a plan that blocks all distracting sites and another to block all Internet access. I don’t have to exert willpower to start the plans; they just auto re-starts. Before, it took courage and willpower to block those distractions. Sometimes it would take me hours before mustering enough willpower to hit that “Start Plan” button. PS: The “FORCED SHUTDOWN” plan means blocking all apps so I’m forced to sleep earlier.

There were a handful of times when I truly needed access to sites that were not in the whitelist. So I typed out that 250 random characters in order to pause the “No Internet Access” plan, but these were truly rare occasions. This is a good general metric to test any potential subtle distraction: if “further research” does not warrant the trouble of typing 250 random characters to pause the plan, then it’s just procrastination. In this case I will bring up vim-anywhere to make a remark and do my research later tonight.

I have been using FocusMe since 2017 and have been very satisfied ever since. If every minute saved means one penny, then I have made a fortune from this. I’ve yet to find any workaround from this software (please don’t tell me). No matter how strong the craving, I just can’t give in, because, well, I can’t.

“The ultimate way to lock in future behavior is to automate your habits.”Atomic Habits

#2: Cold Turkey

Before FocusMe I used cold turkey. It’s cheaper but not as flexible and does not offer as many functionalities as FocusMe (at least at the time). I think it’s a great starting point and should satisfy most people’s need.

Tips for Increasing Anki Time on the Go

Your smartphone poses another challenge because you only have limited control: you can’t delete the browser (unless with root access and a lot of tweaks), when you go online to sync with Ankidroid/Ankimobile your messaging apps also auto fetch new messages. Think about how many times you’re distracted by a notification: the next thing you know you’re chatting with a friend.

1: AppBlock for Ankidroid

This app provides great functionalities. You can block app as well as websites. You can block all distracting sites and mostly limit yourself to Ankidroid. I mainly use it to block websites (sigh, again, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube).


#2: A Dedicated Phone Purely for Ankidroid/Ankimobile

The above solution is not as hardcore as this. If I were still using Anki I’d buy a cheap Android phone solely for Anki.

Automate Your Productivity

The above tools are all about automating your study/work environment so that it’s easy to slip into deep focus. I’ve optimized my environment so that the default behaviors are the right behaviors:

Mold your life so that the path of least resistance is the path of maximum productivity. Productivity Tips, Tricks and Hacks for Academics

The physical and virtual environments matter more than I thought. I can’t tell you how many times my virtual setup (FocusMe and AppBlock) has saved me from the downward spiral. I remember one time my “block social media” plan ended. I didn’t have enough courage to re-start the plan immediately so I ended up wasting hours online before re-enabling the plan. I used to have trouble reading online articles for even a few minutes before switching to a new tab, or finishing watching a YouTube video without reading the comment session, simultaneously and almost compulsively opening many more videos from the sidebar. The novelty is hard to resist.

Now without an Internet connection, I don’t have to resist because I don’t have to: my tools have blocked them. There’s no better things to do other than studying. For example, one time I spent the whole day editing my articles. It was pure bliss: the first session was 2 hours, then another 4 hours after a break. I was so absorbed that when I felt tired it was already in the evening; the afternoon just flew by. It was enjoyable and satisfying. This would not have been possible without all these tools.

It’s immensely better to have systems that automagically hold yourself accountable. Willpower will fail you but your systems won’t.


Setup and Setting:

Physical Setup: Laptop stand, same playlist, ear muffs, earplugs

Virtual Setup: FocusMe/ColdTurkey, AppBlock

Setting: Library or Cafe

With the right set and setting, and of course, most importantly, equipped with SuperMemo/Anki, you’ll be unstoppable.

For more in-depth discussions on the Internet or smartphones I’d recommend Digital Minimalism, Irrespsitable or The Attention Merchants.