Squirrels Online

Aghhhhhhhh, I have just fallen into a rabbit hole of online searches and can’t get out. Our pursuit of relevant and meaningful resources can be sidetracked with sites that move us in a different direction. The lack of structural boundaries online lures a user into different paths. We may have the best intentions to research something, and then end up visiting Wikipedia or some other site to read unrelated articles or find out what our favorite musician or celebrity is up to. This issue may be known to some as “Rabbit Hole Syndrome.” This idea of online distractions for me conjures up a scene from the movie “Up,” where a friendly dog is introducing himself and then gets distracted by a “SQUIRREL.” I often feel the “SQUIRREL” impulse when online and hope to offer those who have similar tendencies strategies to help manage these impulses.    

Our ability to resist these rabbit holes and squirrel-like tendencies is a matter of strengthening our willpower. An article in Live Science notes that willpower can be strengthened like a muscle. An additional article from that same source describes a bundle of cells that have a connection to willpower:  “Like a wagging finger in our heads, the region admonishes us to consider long-term benefits over instant rewards when we make decisions” (Brain's Willpower Spot Found, 2009). The study’s lead researcher, Todd Hare, a Caltech neuroscientist, continued: "This is the first time people have looked at the mechanism of self-control in people who are making real-life decisions." Knowing willpower has a connection to our physical makeup and brain offers us a better understanding of our potential to curb impulses.
Here are a few suggestions to help strengthen your willpower and build focus in your online work.

  • Create a manageable chunk of time that takes into consideration your mental, physical, and emotional endurance for the task at hand. For example, I may carve out 30-40 minutes to follow relevant online resources to support my online work knowing that I have a low tolerance for screen time.  My eyes get tired and my neck becomes tense if I do not allow a break from the computer.  
  • If you come upon an online “SQUIRREL” distraction that you strongly wish to pursue, save the link and place it in a folder to view at another time.
  • Build in a short brain break that allows you to engage in some unrelated and creative pursuits. (This could involve the online “SQUIRREL” distraction you put off earlier.) The break also refreshes your brain activity and helps you avoid project fatigue. Also build in time for a physical stretch and water break. These two activities will help refresh your body and mind for learning.  

These three suggestions are by no means the only way to build your willpower in online work. These do provide an initial set of strategies that take into consideration the human condition. We are curious, information-seeking, novelty-pursuing creatures who have mental, physical, and emotional needs. The strategies above respect our need to learn in manageable chunks with breaks to refresh our bodies and brains. I hope these strategies help you in your project focus and that….


you find success in strengthening your willpower to curb “Squirrel” like impulses online.

Blog Author
Julie A. Palkowski, Ph.D.
Fine Arts and Creativity Education Consultant; SEADAE Past President
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Posted: 11/23/2018
Blog Tag(s): Technology