Motion (YC W20) – defense against online distractions and addictions

Hi everyone,

It's Harry, Ethan, and Omid here from Motion ( We built a Chrome extension that uses real-time interventions to prevent people from unknowingly wasting time on online distractions.

A few months ago, I mentioned that I was spending too much time on Facebook. Omid recommended a browser extension to block certain sites. It worked well - my time wasted dropped to 15 minutes the next day. However, a few days later, I was setting up my company’s Facebook page, and the extension blocked me at the 15-min mark, the time I set for myself. I needed to finish that page, but there was no way around the hard-block, so I had to uninstall the extension.

Later, I tried other similar extensions. Each was either so permissive that it wasn't useful for my purpose, or so strict that I had to uninstall it. We realized that existing solutions did not work because their approach is too prescriptive and simplistic. They didn’t recognize that people also need to use Facebook, Youtube, etc. for legitimate purposes. The problem is really intricate. On one hand, Facebook is great for getting reminders on friends’ birthdays or managing business pages; on the other hand, every minute spent on Facebook could potentially lead to a trap. These traps come in all forms - video autoplay, news articles with catchy titles, and sponsored content that looks just like your friends’ posts. Instead of always being hindered from visiting these sites, I needed to have access to their useful parts, but be careful to not get distracted in the process.

I decided to build a simple tool for myself - a countdown timer each time I visit a distracting site. We all started using it and liked it, so we decided to hand out the extension to some friends. Surprisingly, despite many bugs, our user retention was infinitely higher than our previous ideas. In fact, we built 6 MVPs during our pivoting process - commission-free prediction market, recruiting platform for quant traders, intercity carpooling service, workplace motivation app, online travel agency, and crypto options market making (last one because both Ethan and I were options traders before our startup; Omid was a college student until this year. For backstory - Ethan and I were best friends in college, and Omid and I have been friends since high school) Since none of these ideas had worked and we were finally getting some users, we decided to work on this one. Also, with this one we were solving a problem that we ourselves had.

Here’s how it works now: each time you visit a distracting site (e.g. Twitter), we show a screen where you can choose to either leave or proceed to the site with a visible countdown timer. On sites like Facebook and Youtube, you can choose to hide the newsfeed or video recommendations. Once time is up, we ask you whether you're done. When you visit less distracting sites such as Gmail, you get reminders on how long you’ve been on these sites, so you don't unknowingly spend too long on things like responding to email.

Before you start working on something, you can write down your task, and it will show up with a timer on every tab you visit until you clear the task, so you don't get sidetracked. Finally, every morning, we give you a report on how you spent your time the previous day, and allow you to mark the sites that are distracting.

We firmly believe in data privacy, and promise that we will never sell user data. We do not collect the URL or content of sites you visit. We had to decide between using Chrome's "all_urls" permission and the more narrow "activeTab" permission. If we only had activeTab, each time the user opens a new page they would have to manually activate our extension. That would be an unacceptable user experience in our opinion, so we settled on the broader permission.

The extension is free at the moment. We plan on releasing for other browsers in the upcoming weeks. We plan on monetizing either through a premium tier with productivity tools built for power users or charging a very low amount from every user.

Big tech companies have been attacking our attention with sophisticated technology, spending billions of dollars to optimize their engagement metrics. We may think we are in control, but often we are unknowingly being exploited by companies who profit handsomely off our attention—which, if you think about it, is the most valuable asset we have. If we could just simply turn off all these products, that would be an effective defense, but for many people that's not an option, so something more is required.

It's far from complete, but we believe we're on the road to building a more useful tool to help individuals defend their attention against these traps. This is a problem many in the HN community have thought a lot about. We’d really love your feedback and learn what you would like to see in a tool like this - what productivity problem do you have that a tool could help solve? How can tooling help to give us back control over our own attention? Thanks so much in advance!

Harry, Ethan, and Omid

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andrey azimov by Andrey Azimov