Fred Stutzman on building an app to fight digital distraction
This week we decided to sit down with Freedom’s founder and CEO, Fred Stutzman. Fred’s expertise lies in the science of distraction and focus – a journey that began in 2009 when his favorite coffee shop work spot acquired a dangerous feature – wireless internet. With this new installation, Fred now found that his favorite spot was no longer a safe haven of distraction-free focus that he so required while writing his PhD dissertation. Instead, he now had to constantly battle his urge to check email, notifications, and the rest of the web. After noticing the slump in his productivity, he decided to do something about it. He created Freedom’s predecessor – a simple program that would block the internet for a specified amount of time.
Seven years, plenty of research, and millions of downloads later, Fred is founder and CEO of Freedom, a productivity platform that blocks distracting websites and apps across all your devices.
As our in-house productivity expert, he’s here to share a little of what he has learned about digital distraction and getting things done.
What fact, statistic, or research about distractions or multitasking do you find most astounding?
Two things resonate with me – the first is Gloria Mark’s finding that it takes over 20 minutes to recover from a distraction. When you think about all of the distractions that you experience during the day, it is hard to find time for real focus without first mindfully managing distractions. The second comes from research on task switching; we’ve known for a long time that multitasking increases cognitive load, which reduces efficiency. And now we see that the simple existence of alternatives – being able to switch to that Twitter tab, or check the news – increases cognitive load. Modern computing is this perfect storm of distraction – imagine what we’d get done if we worked at our potential?
What does your usual pre-work/work routine look like? / Where is your favorite place to work?
I try and swim every day before work. I like swimming because of the focus required – it makes the world go away for an hour. And while I spend most of my time at the Freedom office, my favorite place to work is a noisy, busy coffee shop.
What are the biggest distractions you face?
Do not check political Twitter. I can not wait for this election to be over.
How pervasive of a problem is distraction?
Distraction is universal – which is a good and bad thing. We all need some distraction in our lives – it is great for creativity, and we all need time to space out on Facebook every once in a while. Distraction gets problematic when we lack a system to manage it, and our tools get in the way. That is to say when we have to exert extra effort to manage distractions – just so we can get our work done – it robs us of our ability to do our best work.
What is one thing you have learned from helping so many people fight distraction over the years – simply put, what have you learned from Freedom users?
I’ve seen so many books written, Ph.D.’s completed, large projects finished, etc. with Freedom – the tie that binds them together is the incredible sense of accomplishment people feel when they get their best work done. So being productive is extremely personal – it is important for our self-worth and progress as individuals. Seeing people mindfully take control of distraction and succeed affirms my belief that we’ve all got great work inside of us.
Other than Freedom (of course), what are some of your favorite tools that help you be most productive?
Productivity is what we’d call an embodied process – it relies on your tools, your cognitive and physiological states, the ambience of your environment, etc. So I try and create an environment for productivity – using Flux for my display, Brain.FM, Focus @ Will, and Cofftivity for the soundscape, Rescue Time for awareness.
What are some of the ways in which you find balance between the busy life of an entrepreneur and home life?
I struggle with this! And it is completely normal! I love to read about people who have work/life balance perfectly figured out – it sounds fantastic. I think my reality, and the reality of so many other people I know, is we’re still figuring it out. I think an employer can do a lot to promote work-life balance – and we try to do that at Freedom. But at the end of the day, we’re building something new and exciting, which is a work-life reward in its own right.
How do you handle email?
My list of Gmail filters is extremely long. Honestly, though, that’s my answer. Filtering, pre-sorting, and prioritizing makes it possible to stay near inbox zero.
What excites you most about your work?
Where do I begin? Creating software that honestly, truly improves people’s lives – it’s so inspiring. Building the future of computing! That’s exciting. And working with great people who have agreed to come along on this crazy journey. Startup life is harder than I ever imagined, but making a difference in people’s lives is all the inspiration I need.
Fred and Freedom are currently based in Durham, North Carolina. When he’s not at work, Fred’s spending time with his wife and three kids. To learn more about Fred or Freedom, you can visit his personal site here, or Freedom.to.