How I Focus: Cold Turkey

Cold Turkey Blocker Logo

In my last post I talked about how I use Forest to stay off my phone when trying to focus. In fact, I just started a sixty minute block to help me focus while working on this post. However, that just keeps me off my phone. What about all the magical distractions the internet can offer as I write this on my laptop? For that I use Cold Turkey.

What Is It?

Cold Turkey is a distraction blocking tool. It gives me the power to fight against my tendency to fall down the internet rabbit hole and not actually get anything done. My capacity to get lost in Wikipedia (or YouTube (or Twitter)) is boundless. Cold Turkey prevents those tangents from even happening.

Block Lists

The core of Cold Turkey is its ability to block lists of websites and apps. I currently just have one list called Distractions, but you can define multiple lists if you prefer. You also have the power to add exceptions. For example, I block youtube.com, but I’m also a YouTube Music user (R.I.P. Google Play Music). I’ve added an exception for music.youtube.com so that I am still able to listen to music throughout the day.

One downside to how Cold Turkey works is that block list is based entirely on what is in your browser’s address bar. This means that I can still be distracted by YouTube videos embedded in sites or that get posted in Slack. Sometimes this is useful, but overall it’s more of a negative for me. I have used other tools in the past that modify your hosts file, but always ended up having issues. The downside of some stuff getting through is outweighed by having it work reliably.

The ability to block applications is also really helpful. My Mac currently doubles as my work and personal machine, so it’s helpful to block things like Steam and Discord during work hours. You can also block specific binaries or the contents of specific folders from running, but I haven’t needed to use that myself. Blocking things in just the Applications folder has been good enough so far.

Scheduled Blocks

I’ve worked remotely for over eight years now and one way I keep a strong separation between home and work is by working a pretty strict 8-4 schedule. Cold Turkey helps me out by supporting scheduled blocks. From 8-4 every day, my Distractions list is blocked.

It’s difficult for me to work around this. I have it locked down so that I cannot turn it off or remove anything from the list during this time. That’s important for me, because it reduces the temptation to make an exception just this one time.

I’m not limited to just the scheduled blocks though. I can also turn on a block for a period of time ad-hoc. I often do this during non-work hours when I’m trying be productive on something like a blog post.

Wait! It Costs Money?

Fry from Futurama telling someone to "shut up and take my money"

Yes. I’m a software developer and I believe that other software developers should be paid for their work. It takes time and effort to make a tool like this work reliably across operating systems as those systems change. Don’t be shy about paying for software that is valuable to you.

You can use the free version to get a feel, but application blocking and scheduled blocks are central to my usage. That’s easily worth $39 to me.

Conclusion

Cold Turkey Blocker is arguably the most important productivity tool I use. My capacity to be derailed by the many wonders the internet offers is immense. If, like me, you struggle to resist its siren call, then give Cold Turkey a shot.

How I Focus: Forest

Forest app icon

I have worked remotely from home as consultant for over eight years now. Keeping focus during work is a constant struggle for me. I’m endlessly inventive in coming up with new ways to distract myself from doing work when I don’t want to. One tool I use to combat this is Forest, a distraction blocking app for your phone.

Blocking Apps

The big selling point of Forest for me is the ability to block apps for up to three hours. By default, it locks you out of every app on your phone. However, I use the allow list feature to allow certain apps. For example, I use Remember the Milk to keep track of projects and todo lists. That is productive work I can do with my phone, so I allow it.

The app blocking used to have some serious issues on Android, but recent updates have made it very reliable for me on Android 10. It used to get confused by notifications and and fail block timer. That is no longer an issue for me. I have no experience using it on iOS, so your mileage may vary.

Pretty Little Trees

Screenshot of weekly progress in Forest app
Some of these things may not appear in an actual forest.

My kids love how Forest gamifies staying off my phone by encouraging me to plant an adorable forest. For every 30 minutes you stay off your phone with a timer running you get a new tree. They love to see what I’ve grown recently and they even encourage me to grow more trees. That’s a win-win for them. They get to see more pretty trees on my phone and I’m not distracted by my phone, helping me be a more attentive father.

You earn coins every time you successfully complete a block, which you can then use to unlock different types of trees and bushes. The art style is whimsical and they’re not afraid to veer into things that are tree-adjacent at best. For example, the screenshot above has both candy and spirit trees alongside more realistic plants like apple trees and sunflowers.

Other Features

There are some features that might be useful to others that I do not use.

First, they have a Chrome extension to block websites. I use Cold Turkey Blocker for this, so I haven’t tried the extension. It seems worthwhile to try though if you like Forest and don’t currently use any other website blocking tools.

Second, you can go nuts with tags and notes on your block sessions if you like. I tried to do this a bit. I had tags for work, reading, side projects, etc. I constantly forgot to use it though, so my data was a mess. I gave up on it, but if keeping track of historical data is your thing then this feature is for you.

Finally, you can spend your virtual coins to plant real trees. Forest partners with Trees for the Future for this. I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of this kind of activism. It’s there if you want it though.

Conclusion

Forest is an important part of how I work on a daily basis. The combination of my phone being upstairs and an effective blocking tool even if I go upstairs keeps me off my phone when I’m trying to be productive. And the flexibility of the allow list lets me use my phone strategically when I need it for productivity. Plus, the in-app Forest you grow is adorable. If you, like many, are struggling with phone distractions, give Forest a try.

From Punch Cards to Git: A Brief History of Version Control

Believe it or not, there was a time before Git. Even longer ago, there was a time before version control. In this conference session, we will discuss version control systems of yesteryear, such as SCSS and RCS, file locking, versioning, the Darcs patch theory, the history of version control, different paradigms, and the future of version control.

Way back in the before times, in the halcyon days of January 2020, I gave my first conference talk at CodeMash. I had spoken publicly at a local user group I used to run, but had never given a professional talk to a crowd of strangers.

Brian Meeker speaking at CodeMash 2020
Brian Meeker speaking at CodeMash 2020

I had hoped to give this talk at other conferences this year, but… well, things happened. Luckily this talk was recorded and is available at Pluralsight. The slides are also available on GitHub. Further good news is that the talk is evergreen, so when conferences start up again in 2022, I won’t be stuck with a talk that is four versions behind whatever tech stack I was talking about.

I’m extremely proud of the content of this talk. The presentation itself though… I look very much the part of a first-time presenter. I practiced a lot by myself in my office, but never recorded. Seeing and hearing the tics of your own speech and pacing is very important. Having this recording available gave me a lot of things to work on for conferences in 2022.