The devastation from the flooding caused by tropical storm Harvey in the Houston area captured the nation’s attention. So many of us have at least one family member, friend or acquaintance in Houston’s sprawl, and like many, I found myself addicted to news updates. I’ve written a few times about organizing for survival in times of human-caused or natural disasters (I still need to splurge on that solar generator!) but what do we do when we are at a safe distance from a disaster?

It’s tempting to stay glued to the news. From the first text a friend sent regarding her status during the storm, I started googling “Harvey flood updates” every hour or so. I woke up in the mornings that week and immediately looked at my phone to catch up on texts and to scroll through the news. Time slid by like butter on a hot skillet and for several mornings I missed my meditation and other bits of routine that build the foundation of a “good day.” Tools of Titans author Tim Ferriss would slap me silly if he found out.

What I would suggest to myself and what I’ve read from productivity experts over and over is to set limits on screen time. What I would have done differently in the case of Houston and Harvey is to only allow myself to check on updates after my morning routine was completed and again just after dinner. After all, my friend would text if anything major happened in between times. I would also set a timer on my phone for ten minutes maximum so that I didn’t follow too many news stories down rabbit holes about Hurricane’s past (Katrina, Allison) and present (Melania Trump’s shoes).

News is built to keep you hooked, but it is extremely repetitious. You will definitely be well-informed with just brief morning and evening exposure. There are lots of phone apps available to help if you become addicted to checking the news as I was. Freedom is a highly regarded app that is also available for computers ( The information page on Freedom’s web site states that we lose 23 minutes every time we check e-mail, news, social media and other enticements away from work. It takes 23 minutes for the brain to fully refocus on productive tasks. Over an eight hour day, that is a lot of wasted time. The cost for the Freedom app is just over two dollars a month if you sign up for the annual plan, and there are sales now and then. The potential increase in productivity far outweighs the cost of the app.

As more and more people are working remotely, with no occasional boss or manager looking over shoulders at what’s on the computer screen, the temptation to “just check” Facebook or whatever is irresistible. There’s an app for that, and once you let it lock you out of the internet for a specified time, willpower will become unnecessary. The toy simply gets taken away and you can have it back after you get some work done.

The Stay-Focused app ( is a little warmer and fuzzier than Freedom. It has features geared to younger students and to kids in general and how to protect them from too much or inappropriate internet use. It also has a daily “Caritas” function, which is set up to send money to the charity of the user’s choice if they choose the snooze function on the alarm clock. For me, that could either add up fast or motivate me to actually get up on time.

From a distance, it’s hard to know how to help other than verbal and prayer-type support and checking up on the news can feel like helping. Obviously, driving or flying in to the area to volunteer, unless you have some incredible, requested expertise, just adds to the problem. Donating money is how I’m choosing to help. Trust the folks on the scene to purchase what is needed. I asked my friend in Houston and checked with a few other sources to determine which charities would likely do the most good with their funds:

Local churches: There is a button on the website for Mary Queen Catholic Church based in Houston ( 100% of the funds will go to families in need. Sometimes local churches have the best sense of their community.

Local listings: The best list of worthy charities I’ve seen is on the Texas Monthly website ( The article lists food banks, ways to help people with special medical needs, local animal rescue agencies and other great options to donate to.

Another positive action you can take is to learn from what you read about the disaster and become a little better prepared yourself. My list includes getting a few more gallons of water into our stash. I’ve also added the Goal Zero generator to my Christmas list.