The slackers' guide to New Year's resolutions

By Rachel Dry
Sunday, January 3, 2010

I could use more self-control.

That's one New Year's resolution, anyway.

Luckily, I am a Mac user and self-control is easily downloadable. One click and a few seconds later, there it is on my desktop. With this program that lets me block certain Web sites for set periods of time, I have outsourced one of my 2010 goals: Waste less time on the Internet.

But wait a minute. (Or wait 90 minutes, actually, because that's how long I told the SelfControl program to block Gmail.) I haven't changed -- or shown much resolve. I'm not doing the work of focusing more effectively. A piece of code is doing it for me.

It's the digital equivalent of the anti-nail-biting polish that attacks the habit by making your nails taste terrible. Or a gym that charges you more money if you don't show up than if you do, making avoiding exercise a risk to your wallet as well as your health. (This model supposedly exists at a fitness chain in Denmark.) It's the same as locking the liquor cabinet, or buying a parking spot far from your office and thereby forcing yourself to walk to get some exercise.

If I stop wasting hours of my life on the Web because I've blocked some sites, not because I have simply stopped wasting hours online, is it as valuable as if I willed myself to change? It seems not so much willpower as a work-around. In the metrics of New Year's resolutions, does that count?

John C. Norcross is well versed in this conundrum. He's a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and a co-author of "Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward."

He's very reassuring. If I am downloading the program, even if it does all the rest of the work for me, that's enough initiative. "It's the exact same benefit," he says.

Norcross has tracked New Year's "resolvers" in several studies and has seen that resolutions, like any successful changes, require "contingency management," which means setting rewards and punishments that hinge on your behavior.

The approach I've asked him about -- technology to make you change -- is what he calls "mutual control," where I "voluntarily enter into an informed contract." It's different than if my boss unilaterally blocked the time-wasting Web sites on my computer. In this case, I feel responsible or accountable for the change in my behavior.

Even good old-fashioned outsourcing in its entirety can work -- and count. Norcross recalls a woman in one of his studies who resolved to keep her house clean. She didn't want to clean it herself, though, so she hired someone to do it. But she had to work extra hours to pay for the help, so the action was still her own.

And Web-blocking is a lot cheaper than a cleaning service. It's free.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company