The Internet and Self-Control: An App To the Rescue

February 5, 2010 BY danariely

I have “a friend” who will head over to a coffee shop to get work done. Not because she’s unable to work at her desk or because she needs the presence of other people, but rather because it lets her get away from the Internet and all its distractions.

True, she could easily stay put by just keeping her browser closed. But that requires self-control, and as we all know, keeping ourselves in check is easier said than done. Whatever the resolution (start dieting, start saving, stop procrastinating, etc.) we routinely stick to it for a bit and then cave. We make the resolution in one state of mind – a cool, rational state – and then break it when temptation strikes.

That’s the reason for my friend’s coffeeshop strategy: precommitments allow us to commit upfront to our preferred course of action. In her cool, rational state, my friend can decide not to surf the web and make a point to leave the wireless behind; later, when temptation strikes, she’ll be out of luck. Access denied.

On the whole, I like my friend’s strategy. But there’s a potential problem: what if she needs the Internet to do her work? What then?

Not to worry – there’s an app to the rescue: SelfControl, a free Mac-only software program that blocks access to incoming/outgoing mail servers and websites and was thought up by artist Steve Lambert. (As the son of an ex-monk and an ex-nun, he’s well-versed in self-control.) The app only takes seconds to install and comes with all the flexibility that my friend’s coffeeshop strategy lacks.

Instead of taking leave of the Internet all-together, you can pick and choose what you can and can’t access, and for how long. If Facebook is your particular time-suck, then add its URL to SelfControl’s blacklist and the program will block Facebook and nothing else. If Twitter is another danger zone, then by all means, throw its URL into the mix. Next, figure out how long you want to block them for – anywhere from one minute to twelve hours – and move the slider accordingly. Then press start and you’re good to go.

But here’s the key part: once you click start, there’s no going back. (No wonder the app has a skull and crossbones symbol as its icon.) Switching browsers won’t help you, and neither will restarting your computer or even deleting the app. You won’t get those websites back until the timer runs out. As such, it’s as effective of a precommitment as seeking out a wireless-free zone.

Though temptation routinely deflects us from our long-term goals, our struggle with self-control isn’t a lost cause. Once we realize and admit our weakness, we can do something about it by taking on clever precommitments that save us from ourselves. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the SelfControl app, but in this world it sure is useful.

Irrationally Yours,


P.S. For more on precommitments, check out this post on self-control and sex.