The Secret to Productivity – Sorcery and a Guy Called Fred

Procrastination is nothing new. We humans have been procrastinating since Adam. Closer to home, I’ve been wrestling with it for a long time. But, this semester I think I’ve found a solution at last. Believe it or not, the secret lies with sorcery and a Ph.D. student called Fred…

On his journey home from the Trojan War, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, lands on the island of Aeaea – home of the witch-goddess Circe. Half his crew set out to explore the land. They stumble upon Circe’s palace and hear her singing. The men decide to enter. Greeting them warmly, she prepares a fine banquet for the sailors. Exhausted, they sit down to eat. In a dramatic twist, she secretly drugs their cheese and wine, turns them into swine and shuts them in a pigsty. 

The gods look down from Olympus and take pity on the poor men. 

Back at the ship, Hermes’ gives Odysseus a special herb which makes him immune to her magic. Odysseus forces her to change his men back into human-form. Somehow, he ends up sleeping with the goddess and the next year is spent wining and dining with her. Eventually the time comes for them to continue their voyage. But, before sailing, Circe warns Odysseus:

“Square in your ship’s path are Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound … Steer wide; keep well to seaward; plug your oarsmen’s ears with beeswax kneaded soft.” 

She then tells him that only he is allowed to hear the Sirens. If Odysseus is tempted, they will be lured to shipwreck on the rocky coast of the creatures’ island. To stop this, Odysseus must be lashed to the mast of his ship. They soon reach the Sirens. Odysseus screams and struggles. He cries “untie me!” Desperately, his crew wrap more rope around him. He nearly breaks free but they manage to restrain him. Disaster is averted.

Now, I believe there is wisdom in these ancient tales. Humans are serial procrastinators. We’re always up to no good, trying to do things we know we shouldn’t. In Odysseus’ day, it was singing Sirens luring us off course. Today, it’s the relentless cry of TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.

Let me paint you a picture. 

It’s a Thursday evening and you’re working hard – that pesky essay is finally coming together. Life is on the up. And then you hear the ping of a text. Your friend has sent you a cat video that’s been making her giggle. You can’t help but look. “The essay is coming along so well – you deserve a break”, you tell yourself. “Alright, let’s look at one below, it’s only 30 seconds.” Then it begins. “Let the scrolling commence!”, cry the social media gods. 

One after another you knock out half the TikTok production of North Macedonia in half an hour. Your girlfriend sends you her latest Instagram post. You better like that. Three hours later you find yourself on Reddit. You’re in a strange corner of the site dedicated to photos of TVs that are placed way too high. Yes, that does exist. Yes, I did end up there once…

Sound familiar?

Luckily, the solution is simple: make it impossible to get distracted. Completely and utterly, physically impossible. Willpower is not enough. We are too weak. Just like Odysseus’ men, we need to plug our ears with beeswax and lash ourselves to the mast of our ship.

“That sounds fun. Isn’t there something a little less…extreme?” I hear you say. 

That’s where Fred comes in…

In 2008, Fred Stutzman sat in the library at the University of North Carolina scrolling through social media. He was supposed to be writing his dissertation exploring the influence of social media on major life decisions. Instead, he kept getting distracted by the very sites he was meant to be writing about. Frustrated, he moved to the nearest place without Wi-Fi – his local coffee shop. At last, he started making progress. That was until the building next door got internet. And so began the cycle all over again…

Passionate about the power of the internet but paralysed by his inability to work, he needed a middle ground. He didn’t want to live like the Amish and shun technology. Neither did he want to carry on down this path. Fortunately, Fred could code and wrote some software. While he worked, it blocked distracting pages. While he relaxed in the evening, he was free to roam as he pleased. When he posted it online, he didn’t expect much. But, people started downloading it in droves and he realised he was on to something. 

He ditched the Ph.D. and thus began his new career as CEO of Freedom.

I use Freedom every day. From eight in the morning until four in the afternoon, it blocks distracting websites on my laptop. From then on, I’m free to do as I like. I’m not claiming to be a productivity guru or a model student. In fact, this article was “Ten Productive Ways to Spend Lockdown” until procrastination got the better of me and I ended up writing this. 

But there’s no such thing as bad progress. Since downloading Freedom, I’ve been doing a much better job of avoiding procrastination. I’ve been staying well clear of those Sirens trying to lure me off course. For $1.69 per month, I think Freedom is worth a go.