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The slackers' guide to New Year's resolutions

By Rachel Dry
Sunday, January 3, 2010; B05

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.

SelfControl was developed by Steve Lambert, an artist and fellow at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York. He wanted the same thing I did: something that would help him focus. But because he couldn't find it anywhere, he made it himself, with help from 16-year-old Charlie Stigler, whom he connected with on a site called RentACoder. (Stigler's the one who came up with the excellent name.)

The program is simple, as Lambert explains: You list the sites that you don't want to be able to visit. After you select the amount of time you want to block yourself from those sites, your machine won't let you access them, not even if you restart the computer. Lambert doesn't have a specific tally for downloads, but he says more than 113,000 people have visited his Web site since March, when he made the program available there, compared with around 6,000 visitors before.

I wish I didn't need Lambert's help. I like the idea of changing by muscling through -- putting my mind to something, whether eating better, exercising more or checking certain Web sites less obsessively. All things that would lead to a happier, healthier 2010.

I should get over that. That's what Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, has seen in her research on habit change. To alter behaviors, you must change your environment, not just try harder in the same old situation. "We all know that doesn't work," she says.

As examples, Wood cites the "5 a Day" campaign to get people to eat fruits and vegetables, and the "Got Milk" ads -- efforts to give people information about healthy foods that assumed we'd all change our behavior once we had the facts. They didn't work. "We're all still in an environment where we have cookies in the cupboard," Wood points out. "If we stop by the QuickStop to get some gas, there's not milk and fresh vegetables there. There's snacks."

Wood's advice is simple: Use changes in your "micro-environment" to develop new habits. Go ahead, put controls on your computer. That's still you doing the work.

The risk, of course, is that you are doing the work -- think Norcross's "mutual control" -- so "you can just switch it back anytime you want to," Wood warns.

That's why I like the perspective offered by James Anderson, the creator of LeechBlock, an add-on for the Web browser Firefox that allows a user to block sites for certain periods. (He says that since Feb. 7, 2007, it's been downloaded more than 250,000 times.) Anderson doesn't spend as much time in front of a computer as he did when he developed the program; he is currently an assistant professor of theology and philosophy at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., so he can offer a theological perspective on procrastination and resolve.

"If you think that there is meaning to life and this whole world is created by God and you're created by God -- every moment you have is a gift from God -- you have a responsibility to use it wisely and not fritter it away," he says.

And it's not cheating to ask for help: "It's morally commendable to recognize your own limitations and to take whatever measures necessary to help you fulfill your responsibilities."

Morally commendable! This from a professor of theology. So it's okay for me to say: I can't do this myself. I need help. I will attain SelfControl in Web app form.

Of course, these various applications only block Internet access. I am still free to search among the documents on my computer, which I did recently as I waited out the SelfControl clock. There's a quote I was looking for, one that I remember typing and saving in my student days, as I read "The Principles of Psychology" by William James. It's about habit. At the time I wrote it down, I thought James's insight on the benefits of effective habits would be just the thing I needed to develop my own.

Long story short: nope.

Maybe now, though, with these other tools to help me micromanage my micro-environment, his words of wisdom will help me this resolution season.

"When a resolve or a fine glow of feeling is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit, it is worse than a chance lost," James wrote. "It works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge. There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but never does a manly concrete deed."

I don't know what James would think about anti-nail biting nail polish, creative fitness-center billing practices or physically blocking the Internet's distraction. Those training wheels of habit-changing don't seem to fit any definition he might use for "manly."

But at least they're concrete.

Rachel Dry is an assistant editor for The Washington Post's Outlook section.

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