My Dividend from Leaving Hacker News

I stopped myself from being able to access Hacker News (HN) and it's made me happier, more focused, and more productive. Given that I wasn't spending that much time on there the degree that it's had a positive effect on my life came as a shock. Someone close to me said it was like I had been on a drug.

Maybe I was. Many people have said, on HN, that we should all remember that reading HN is not doing work. This post is my thoughts on the site and the benefits I found when I cut it off.

A little bit about Hacker News and me

For all of the interesting things HN brought to my attention, it was filling the compulsive lazy consumption niche that other people fill with reading about celebrities, sports, and the news. There are updates all the time, either new posts or comments in threads that I had been following. I'd generally check a few times per day at work while waiting for compiles and check it a bit right before going to sleep. All together I probably spent an hour each day looking at it, maybe a bit more if I ate lunch at my desk.

I've recognized for a long time that it was the salaciousness and conflict that brought me in, but I wasn't able to do anything about it. I very rarely read the actual articles. The headline was often enough to give me the gist of what was happening:

  • Company A bought company B
  • New JS Framework Foo.js is Out
  • New business X just launched
  • Neat Science Discovery
  • Drama with or Between Some Companies/People
  • etc

If you replace the companies with sports stars, celebrities, or politicians it starts to look like the compulsive reading that other people do (and, frankly, that our community often looks down upon). The argument that I made to myself and I've seen others make is that unlike celebrity watchers this is real useful information, not just gossip. It's professionally useful. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that unless you're in a position to act on it, it isn't any different than keeping up with your favorite sports teams. It's okay to do it and enjoy it, but it's important to recognize that it's largely entertainment.

The most useful use of HN, and the one part I miss a little, is seeing announcements of new technologies (not new companies, although sometimes it's both). The biggest problem I had with this argument was that HN is really, really terrible at posting the updates to the specific topics/technologies you're interested in. There are only so many posts up at once and between the salacious topics and the irrelevant topics there just isn't room for an in depth coverage of everything. I'm feeling this especially heavily since I switched from web development to infrastructure/distributed systems, which are at the opposite ends of the coverage spectrum.

(incidentally, if you know of a website/twitter account where I can get news and updates about infrastructure, build tools, or distributed systems I would love to know about them)

I mentioned earlier that I rarely read the articles. Beyond the headline often being sufficient, a primary reason for that is that the comments section is fairly likely to have highly rated comments discrediting or debunking the original article. Also, given that I was filling the niche of a technical/startupey gossip magazine, it was more entertaining to read the comments because that is where all of the conflict was.

What's happened since I left

After I made it impossible to access HN using my home/work laptops' hosts files I went through a short withdrawal phase. I'd get stuck on something or bored and open my browser and type "news.y" then hit enter for autocomplete and see an error page because the site was blocked. If I was really stuck I'd sometimes do it several times over a five minute period. Now, three or so weeks later, I would say it happens about once per day and it's happening less over time. Muscle memory and habits really take a while to fully break.

Now that I'm off I've noticed a number of really positive effects. I should also note at this point that while all of these things got better, they were things I was already doing pretty well before. They went from good to great.

I'm more focused at work. Since HN isn't available to me as a quick distraction during compile cycles or when I need to take my mind off of a problem for a few minutes I've had to find other activities to do during those times. The primary ones I've found are keeping up with the code reviews better and I've been going for a short walk around the Foursquare offices to get a stretch.

It's unclear if I'll burn out on this after a while, but right now my days are hyper productive. Since HN was the only distraction I'd manually check I'm doing basically nothing that isn't work now. Our head of engineering likes to tell us that we should do our best work, and only we know what that is. I thought I was doing my best work before, but it's now clear to me that this is my best work. And it's awesome.

I'm more focused and present at home. This effect has been more profound. I've been less forgetful about doing my chores, cleaning up, and other household tasks. I've even had the presence of mind to pick up tasks that weren't mine and anticipate things that need to be done.

My wife has commented several times over the last few weeks that it seemed like I had been in some sort of haze and woke up. Even though I was never on HN in the evenings, after I blocked it I was less distracted and more mindful during them. I don't really understand why, but I like it.

I'm more productive on my side projects. In the time since I cut HN:

  • I switched my blog to Ghost from a static blog generator and tweaked the theme to my tastes.
  • I finished an entry I'd been procrastinating on for months.
  • I wrote this entry from scratch in two mornings before work
  • I put together several geo visualizations for Bike Train, a project I've recently started helping out with
  • I'm about to get back to working on my async server implementation of the raft paper

I'm more relaxed. I used to feel a bit of stress over not making progress on my side projects during the week, which made me less relaxed during the evenings when I wanted to be hang out out with my wife.

Because I'm more focused and getting more done my mind gets worn out by the end of the day. I fall asleep quickly and have an easier time getting up early. This has had the negative consequence of slowing my reading progress since I read at night to wind down, but I'm comfortable with that given all of the positive benefits. Plus, I'm reading more on the weekends when I have downtime where previously I would have checked HN.

In closing

What's been most surprising to me is that I've got more time back to be productive than I was spending on HN in the first place. Not having to context switch or have short interruptions really makes a difference.

Previous times I've cut off HN I made exceptions like "only on my phone" or I'd allow myself to unblock it every now and then if I didn't have anything else going on. This time I'm not making exceptions. I really wasn't getting anything out of it that was of value to me and really substantial stories will make it to me through Twitter or my coworkers and friends.

I happened to only have one compulsive distraction, but some people have lots. If you can stand it, consider trying to cut them all off for a month and see what it does to your focus, productivity, and sleep.