Outsourcing self control

November 5, 2017

Self control is one of the biggest struggles most people have. Me included.

I’m beset by the near-term desire to behave in many ways that I wish I didn’t. I snack too much, and drink too much. I spend too much time on twitter. There are a few approaches to to deal with this:

  • rely on my willpower
  • pre-emptively avoid tempting circumstances (hacking the akrasia horizon)
  • create quick feedback loops which deter it
  • Commitment mechanisms: out-source the self control.

The technology version of last option is the newest. It’s a recent development that I can use technology to craft systematic self control, and so the most interesting to me. I often mention it as an example, and frequently receive follow-up questions asking what I really mean.

Let’s dive in.

Constraining consumption, not output

For most of the hours of the day, I shouldn’t be browsing or consuming social media or the news. But I often want to push output into these channels.

It’s worth noting that these channels (Twitter, Facebook) want the opposite: they want my attention on their website, so that they can show ads. They create as many hooks and triggers to get my eyeballs on their ads as possible (deep dive here). So I turn off notifications etc.

But what about when I want to post? How do I avoid being caught by the unread count icon?

I use AppBlock on my android phone to lock me out of inbound social media apps. It has a good lock function which means you can’t decide to un-block apps unless it’s plugged in (akrasia horizon!). I love that it regularly tells me how many times I’ve tried to check twitter when I shouldn’t. It’s eye opening, and a good reminder of how automatic and addictive using the app is.

I can still post using Buffer. But I’m restricted to about 3 one-hour blocks per day where I can consume social media.

A downstream effect is that this makes my media time scarce, so I’m more selective about what I see/follow. I’m now more likely to unfollow people, and use the mute or block to reduce noise. On my computers I’ve uses Freedom in a similar fashion. I block news, facebook, twitter etc except for a few hours where I plan to use them.

These hours are definitely NOT first thing in the morning, and just before bed. Those are sacred hours.

I also like to chunk my comms time to a few half hour blocks through the day, rather than monitor it frequently. I’ve gotten ito the habit of closing my Gmail, Slack and other messaging services.

Browsing versus Reading

I love using social media to curate reading material. But I think my “browse & filter” mode should be different than my “absorb and understand” mode.

So, if I want to read and understand something, I don’t read it in a web browser. I use Evernote’s web clipper to clip it to a “Reading Queue”, which is always sync’ed on my tablet. I then have ‘reading times’ when I’m away from a computer, where I read them in a more focused setting, and can highlight/take notes in Evernote. If I do want to read something in a web browser, I use the Mercury chrome extension to strip out the distractions.

I also find it cathartic to close browser tabs. When I want to save them, I use the OneTab chrome extension. It’s great because you can save a whole set on a specific topic to come back to later. I find employing a “now or later” mentality helps focus: if you’re not on a tab, why is it open? If you want to read it later, save it/the URL and come back later. It’s amazing how much stuff turns out to not be that important with a bit of space/perspective (see also, WYSIATI)

For pleasure reading, I use a kindle. But for books that I know I’ll want to reference and refer back to, and really absorb the ideas and content, I still buy physical books and heavily mark them up.

Areas of self control I still wish I could outsource

I use a simple app TaskLife to keep track of what I did (or didn’t) do each day that I want to. Tracking is good for being realistic with yourself about how often you do something, but it only encourages self control, it doesn’t enforce it. I likewise use to use RescueTime and Intent for tracking computer usage, but I’ve found they didn’t change my behavior.

Calories and nutrition are an obvious one. Even a simply less effortful way to keep track of what I’ve consumed would be great. The biggest impediment to tracking this stuff is opening the app, adding a thing, etc. Just put a scanner in my esophagus please. I’d love something that moderated by alcohol consumption. The ideal is if it took alcohol directly out of my bloodstream if I exceed a target level. That way I don’t have to moderate consumption and deal with laggy feedback loops.

Is there danger in easy virtue?

My friend Greg Davies often expresses concern about these behavioral fixes: if self control is like a muscle, I’m actively atrophying my muscle. Take away the system, or find an environment where I can’t use a system, and I’ll have less strength and ability to cope.

I’m ambivalent on this view: I’m not sure if self-control is a general muscle, or a bunch of specialized ones. If the former, maybe critics are right. If the latter, then there’s less concern. I don’t want to be a rugged self-control survivalist who can survive without anything.

Either way, if my self-control muscle can’t cope with the 2 ton weight being put on it daily, it will need some help. I also worry that using these systems also means I don’t actively struggle with the tradeoffs, and I might mis-understand others experience because it’s so different than my own. While those are valid concerns, I’m not convinced the downsides outweigh the upsides.