Your attention is a hot commodity on the internet. From social media to ecommerce to gaming apps to work software like Slack, internet services are oriented toward getting you to stare and click, click and stare. "Engagement" is the ruling metric, closely tracked by marketers and product managers. A website like Facebook wants to sell ads more expensively and in greater quantities, while shopping behemoth Amazon wants you to buy another vacuum or blender. But across the board, tech companies' prime directive is to capture your time and mental energy.

Software engineer Kevin Simler wants to help people get their concentration back, and be more mindful of where they're spending their time. Along with a small group of volunteers, Simler has built a Google Chrome browser extension called Intent. The product is simple: It keeps track of the websites where you spend time and sorts them into categories. Once a week, Intent tells you how much time you've spent on social media, shopping online, reading news sites, and so on.

Then the program asks you whether you're happy with the amount of time in each category (or alternately on a specific website like Facebook or Reddit). If you say that you're not, going forward Intent will put a small label in the corner whenever you're browsing social media, for example, telling you how much time you've spent on that category today.

Four years ago, Simler began writing a book, he explained, and realized how destructive procrastination could be. "I started to feel real tension between what I wanted in the moment (to distract myself on Twitter or Reddit) and what my best self wanted (to write something big and important)," he explained to Inc. via instant message. "It was my first glimpse at what I know a lot of people have experienced -- especially students and knowledge workers, who are basically glued to their screens most of the day anyway, where distractions are always just a couple taps or keystrokes away."

Simler doesn't entirely blame the sources of distraction for consuming people's attention. "It's easy to slip into language that demonizes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., for getting users 'hooked' on their 'drug-like' products, or whatever," he said. "The reality is that the problems mostly come at the margin. There's a 60 percent or 75 percent overlap between what you want and what Facebook wants. You want to socialize with your friends, and they want you to be a happy user! It's the remaining 40% or 25% where things get dicey -- where they want you to spend more time than you might otherwise choose for yourself. And that's where people start feeling addicted or manipulated."

Simler said that he and his teammates, including former colleagues Andrew Aymeloglu, Brandon Burr, and Javier Lopez, have gotten such "overwhelmingly positive" feedback on Intent that it's surprised them. "There's a lot of gratitude," according to Simler, "which I think comes from the fact that we're trying to help (more than whether we're actually helping or not), which really speaks to the need for something like this. People also seem to really enjoy seeing their data, how they actually spend time online. And they appreciate the gentle, coaching tone we take in the product. We're not trying to nag people about their bad habits... if you love spending time on Twitter, that's awesome! We just want to help people use technology more deliberately. It's too early to tell if our approach is having a significant impact, but it's promising."

Intent will continue to evolve in response to feedback from users. (I personally asked for a UI change -- being able to navigate with arrows on the keyboard -- and it was enacted after less than 10 days.) Simler described an upcoming feature: "We're calling [it] the Dopamine Disruptor, which enforces a 10-second pause before you visit a problematic site. I've been using it for a while now, and it produces a weird effect: It's somewhat annoying while it's happening, as you would expect, but it really does dissuade me from mindless visits."

Personally, I've found that the basics of Intent have a subtle effect on my browsing behavior. The weekly check-ins -- which, I admit, I sometimes postpone repeatedly -- leave me more generally aware of where I spend my time online. Preliminary results suggest that Intent's influence on my behavior is small, but nevertheless noticeable. (This may be different for me than for others, since keeping up with the conversation on social media is part of my job.) I haven't spent quite as much time window-shopping online, so that's a win. Intent puts the ball in my court by providing information, but it's still up to me and my willpower to knock it out of the park.

Published on: Nov 27, 2017