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Outsourcing My Self-Control

Is it cheating to use technology as a way to break bad habits, or can new tools help save us from our own worst impulses?

By Kim Ukura, Associate Editor, PD&D

Most of my New Year’s resolutions have to do with breaking bad habits or developing good new ones: cutting back on frivolous spending, wasting less time online, and getting to the gym more often.

The problem that I have – a problem shared by about almost 70 percent of American and British adults – is breaking a bad habit alone.  

Luckily, technology is here to help save us from ourselves. Both “outsourcing self-control” and “de-teching” are going to be big trends this year, at least according to Ann Mack, a “trend-watcher” for JWTIntelligence. She cites new tools that can help people stay offline, prevent texting while driving, or cut off credit card spending at a certain limit.

I’ve experimented outsourcing self-control in the past. A couple years ago, Gmail added Mail Goggles as an experimental Google Labs feature to help with people prone to sending unfortunate late-night e-mails. When enabled, Mail Goggles asks you to solve a series of math problems before being allowed to hit “Send” during times you specify. Technology to the rescue, sort of. I’m not ever great at mental math, so it got hard to send even legitimate e-mails late at night.

I’m still skeptical about the idea of using technology as a way to break habits. It feels like cheating – if the technology were to suddenly go away, would the habit still be broken?

But then I remembered a story I read about why we procrastinate. Basically, our brain is wired to choose things that make us happy now, whether or not those things are consistent with what will make us happy later. This bias, called present bias, makes us unable to understand that what we want will change over time, and what we want now is not the same as what we will want later.

Present bias explains why you can make resolutions like, “I’m going to lose weight,” but then choose watching a movie or eating a cheeseburger instead of going for a run or ordering a salad. The immediate benefit is what we can think about. The story goes on to explain:

    You can try to fight it back. You can buy a daily planner and a to-do list application for your phone. You can write     yourself notes and fill out schedules. You can become a productivity junkie surrounded by instruments to make life     more efficient, but these tools alone will not help, because the problem isn’t [that] you are a bad manager of your     time – you are a bad tactician in the war inside your brain.

Maybe that’s where some of these technology tools come into play – they make us better tacticians in the war against our worst impulses.

I need to start saving more money, but present bias causes me to make more trips to Borders than any one person should make. Recently, I read about one bank that helps jump-start a savings program by rounding up all debit card purchases to the nearest dollar and transferring the difference into savings. Easier checking account balancing and savings without thinking? Count me in.

I spend too much of my evening wasting time online, but present bias makes me prioritize watching videos of cute animals over actual important things. There are now Internet-blocking programs that shut down web access during specific times of the day. While the tool can’t actually make me be productive during that offline time, at least it can take away the temptation.

Now I just need to find a robot that will annoy me incessantly until I get up and go to the gym and I’ll be set. I’ll admit: I’m looking forward to a world like Mack describes – one where technology can help save us from ourselves.

Have a favorite de-teching or outsourcing self-control tool? Or are you good enough at breaking bad habits that you don’t need any help? Leave a comment or e-mail [email protected].