So here’s what I do, in the digital realm, to limits the powers of intermittent reinforcement and increase my powers of adherence: when I have work to do on my computer, I either disable all notifications or shut down social media (Twitter, email, IM) clients altogether.
Does this work? Variably well, and the key variable is how much I enjoy the task I need to work on. If I’m working on a book or article, I usually get sufficiently absorbed in the task that I forget social media. But if I’m, say, grading papers — which I do on my computer: I have students submit their essays as PDFs — then I get twitchy: I’m often tempted to check email or Twitter. In fact, I sometimes think I would do better if I just had the push notifications enabled, so then I would only be interrupted when something actually happened, instead of interrupting myself by wondering whether something has happened. But I’ve noticed that when I leave notifications on I get pinged just when I am actually concentrating on what a student is arguing — so no, turning them off is the best option.
I also have my computer set to auto-hide all applications that are not currently active, so when I’m writing my text editor is the only thing I can see, when I’m grading my PDF viewer is the only thing I can see, and so on.
So that’s my practice. I kind of enjoy talking about these things: productivity strategies and all that. But maybe that’s because those conversations keep me from having to think about more important and less pleasant things. Consider, for instance, a notable fact selected from the account I’ve just given: how much easier it is for me to concentrate on my own writing, my own thoughts, than on my responsibility to help my students develop their thoughts. It’s not especially discomfiting to investigate and critique what Cory Doctorow has called “your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies”; it’s really discomfiting to realize how bored and distracted I can become when it’s not all about ME. And if I find myself less plagued by distraction than many others I know, perhaps that’s not because I am more disciplined, but because I am blessed in having a good deal of work to do that I really, deeply enjoy.