with Fred Stutzman, developer of Freedom.to software
Creator of productivity software Freedom, Fred Stutzman joins us to talk about distractions associated with technology, some interesting stories of how people have handled them, and the future of his software. Other topics addressed include the shame of lacking impulse control, the genesis of Freedom, and more.
About Fred Stutzman:
Fred is the co-founder and developer of Freedom.to, a productivity service that seeks to reduce sources of digital distraction.
He has experience as a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina at Chappell Hill and Carnegie Mellon University.
He holds a PhD in information science, a graduate certificate in quantitative research, and a BA in economics.
Fred began working with technology back when he was nine or ten years old.
The Freedom.to developers have set a goal of allowing people to return to a state of balance with technology.
Fred has always had an interest in the impact technology can have on society and people’s behavior.
As technology has advanced over the last decade or more, with people bringing their lives and networks online, it has created an imbalance in the lives of some.
Fred: We should be in control of our technology and our lives. We want to be able to give that back to people.
In graduate school, Fred studied social media. When tasked with writing his dissertation, he found it hard to concentrate on his work, so he left his workspace to go work at a coffee shop specifically because it didn’t have Wi-Fi.
Later, to solve the problem of a distracting internet more completely, Fred developed a program for himself, which he then later released online for others to download.
Shame and Attention:
Almost universally, Fred heard people mention feeling shameful of their behavior around certain technologies.
Many don’t question or think deeply about the place certain technologies have in their lives.
People expect to receive the benefits of increased productivity and efficiency but end up encountering distracting signals and have problems concentrating.
As a result, many feel ashamed or incompetent.
Fred: We’re fighting a tough battle against powerful technology that can draw us back in particularly easily when woven into our social lives.
Eric: When one already struggles with regulating attention to important tasks, to then add in the excitement and dopamine hit associated with receiving an exciting notification, the allure of those potential distractions is powerful.
When Fred gives presentations, he compares the expectations most people have for how they use Facebook (viewing pictures, connecting with family and friends) versus the reality of many notifications people receive (birthdays for brief acquaintances, calls to action for finding new friends in the middle of the workday).
If you can turn off the inbound noise of alerts and notifications, you really can focus and have a clear mind.
Writer Nir Eyal describes a cycle analogous to pulling the lever of a slot machine: users visit certain websites and services with the hope of finding that perfect interesting piece of media. Each time they return, they “re-roll their dice”.
With distractions from so many sources, being able to turn them off can feel very freeing – hence the name “Freedom”.
Stories and Strategies:
Eric likes the idea of “frontloading” willpower: using the time when you do have willpower to accommodate for the times when you don’t.
Eric schedules Freedom to shut off his internet fifteen minutes before he wants to go home for the night.
Fred: You could step away from your computer or even go take a walk – find ways to break those habits and drive willpower.
When Fred comes home from work, he’ll activate Freedom to be more present with his family.
Fred has even heard of people locking their phones in safes to prevent their use.
Eric used to play the table tennis game within Wii Sports Resort and, despite intending to only play for a half-hour, would play until three in the morning. As a solution, Eric plugged the Wii console into a lamp timer that would shut off after a set period of time.
Some parents will cut the power to their home router after a certain time.
Fred heard some students will partner with friends who will then change the passwords for their social media accounts until after exams are over.
Apparently, author Jonathan Franzen removed the Wi-Fi from his computer used superglue to clog up its Ethernet port.
Eric heard, through the Reply All podcast, that a man out on probation for hacking and was prohibited from accessing the internet, would mail in computer code to his employer.
One of the developers on the Freedom.io team had to work for a decade writing code without internet access. In the end, it made him a terrific programmer because of how self-sufficient he became.
Freedom and ADHD:
Fred is clear that while a piece of software that limits distractions might be helpful to those with ADHD, he’s not making any specific medical or clinical claims about the program’s effectiveness.
Recently, Freedom has partnered with two universities, Carnegie Mellon University and University of South Florida, to help with studies being conducted on productivity software.
A New Version of Freedom:
The program was developed in Fred’s spare time back when he was in college.
After it became more popular, users requested that the program extend beyond desktop environments to mobile devices.
They decided to develop a cross-platform solution that would work across virtually all of a person’s devices simultaneously. With one button press, someone can mute distractions on their phone, tablet, and desktop all at once.
A greater level of control, including specific time limits and specific website limits will be included.
Once installed onto various devices, a user will log in and be able to choose between different options of what to block.
Down the road, they plan to add in features that react to a user’s actions, potentially blocking the internet upon opening specific programs, then re-activating it after those programs close.
There are three planned tiers: free (basic blocking on one device), desktop premium ($24/yr, all desktop devices, advanced scheduling), and desktop and mobile ($45/yr, universal coverage across all devices)
People accepted into the beta can lock in a discounted price for the next two years.
Random Question Round:
If you could invent or improve upon an invention, what would it be (other than Freedom)?
What are the five applications you use most often?
If you were to make a videogame in which you were the player-character, what would it be?
What would your character be like in this videogame?
What would your character’s weakness be?
Would you ever enter into an ice cream eating contest?
Products and Services Mentioned:
Hooked: How to Build Habbit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
Alfred, OS X automation and productivity software
Stack Overflow, a message board and Q&A site for programmers
Slack, a work communication tool
Contact Fred Stutzman:
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