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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

How to avoid the time-suck of social networks while working at home

Stuck at home thanks to the coronavirus and can't keep away from Facebook, Twitter, Slack, and the like? Here's how to run them so they don't ruin your life.

Bad news here! Cute kitten there! Work alert here! Now that you've moved your work life to your home space you may find yourself overwhelmed with social networking distractions. I get it. I've been dealing with the constant beep, chirp, and tweet of social networking while working from home for 30 years. Dealing with all the interruptions isn't easy.

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Here's how to get on top of at-home distractions while working. 

No, I can't play right now

First, repeat after me: "Urgent is not the same thing as important." Just because your co-worker pinged you on Slack doesn't mean you must drop everything and immediately respond to them. 

Now, more than ever, you must prioritize who and what gets your time and attention. Most of you will now have more distractions than ever -- the kids wanting to play, that Netflix movie demands watching, and your boss who can't stop trying to virtually look over your shoulder. Practice saying "no, I can't play right now" or "no, I won't watch that show" and "no, I can't take your call."

You also need to make a daily work plan and stick with it. You can no longer take a cue from your co-workers because they're also scattered hither and yon. Sit down, and work out what you really need to do this day, this week, and this month. And then work out how you're going to accomplish your goals. Again, remember urgent isn't the same thing as important. 

Part of that daily plan is to keep your regular work hours. Some of you will be tempted to go to the kitchen for a quick snack, which will last an hour and a half. Others will work themselves to the bone. Both problems are real traps for home workers. Stick to your schedule. When it's time to work, work. When it's time to quit, quit. 

Turn off alerts

Let's get specific. 

First, turn off your social network alerts and notifications. Yes, I know you want to answer that Facebook Messenger note from Aunt Millie. It can wait. 

This isn't just for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and like. It's also true for business IM and conferencing services like Microsoft Teams and Slack. I'd turn off all notices for the purely fun networks. For the work ones, you can fine-tune your Slack and Teams notification so you'll get alerted when your boss rings you up, but you can ignore the idle chit-chat.

As my fellow technology journalist Lynn Greiner observed, "We're like Pavlov's dogs, responding to those pings. Remove the stimulus. The first thing I do with any new device is stifle all of the howls for attention, except a few critical ones." She's a smart woman. 

You should also turn off your email alerts for the same reasons. You want to focus on what's in front of you, not what Joe from accounting wants to know about your last expense report. Try to cut down your email sessions to three times a day with a set time for each session, if possible.

It's the same things with games from that burner of uncountable billable hours. A little play of Solitaire or Fornite Battle Royale to keep you fresh is fine. But if you finish your game and find your lunch hour has gone on for three hours, it's time to put the game away. If you can't stop yourself from playing, bite the bullet and remove them entirely from your work computer. 

Ration your social-networking time

Close down social networking and news sites. Again, I know you want to know how your buddy in San Jose is doing or what's the latest from the CDC, but you need not do it 10 times a day. Really, you don't. 

As my fellow writer Pam Baker put it, "Think of social media as the nosy coworker who never shuts up -- except that you can actually make it shut up without guilt or apology."

Just like email, you need to ration your social-networking time. I don't think you should go cold-turkey on these. Now, more than ever, we need to know what's what with your friends, family, and the world at large to keep our sanity. That said, I'd limit myself to three visits a day with a strict time-limit. 

There is an exception to this. If you find yourself getting upset by the news -- and who could blame you -- don't look at it until your work day's done. You can't get anything done if you're hyperventilating over every new piece of bad news. 

Time to turn to some software help

What if you just can't kick the social media habit on your own? Then, it's time to turn to some software help from programs such as Cold Turkey, Freedom, or RescueTime.

Cold Turkey works on MacOS and Windows. Besides blocking you from distracting sites and services, it gives you, with its customizable blocklists, the ability to stop specific activities. For instance, if you can't stop yourself from searching for "funny cat videos," you can block that specific search. You can use Cold Turkey to stop local programs, too, like that game you just can't stop playing.

Freedom does similar work on Mac, Windows, and Chrome OS computers and Android and iOS smartphones; it gives you a great deal of customization power so you can get it just right for your needs.

The one program which runs on all the major desktop operating systems and Linux as well is RescueTime. What it sets apart from its rivals is it tracks your activities. With the data it collects, you can create detailed reports on just how much time you spend on work, social networking, games, online shopping, and so on. It also tracks what you use and when. This enables you to see exactly what you're doing. 

For example, you may know you visit Instagram every day at 4pm, but did you know that over the last week you've been spending more and more time on it?  Or, did you know you were working hard on Excel every morning when you really should have been writing a report in Word? Setting it up right can be time-consuming, but no other app is better at both helping you block out distractions and giving you a clear view of exactly what you're doing while you're sitting at the computer.

Put these tips and, if need be, these programs to work and you'll find yourself being a lot more productive. No, working from home isn't easy, but with help, you can master it. Good luck.