Friday, February 18, 2011

How to stop wasting time on the Internet

After years of trying various methods, I broke this habit by pitting my impatience against my laziness. I decoupled the action and the neurological reward by setting up a simple 30-second delay I had to wait through, in which I couldn't do anything else, before any new page or chat client would load (and only allowed one to run at once). The urge to check all those sites magically vanished--and my 'productive' computer use was unaffected.
--Mouseover text from the above xkcd comic

John Beshears, David Laibson, Brigitte Madrian, and I wrote about this kind of self-control mechanism in our 2005 paper, "Early Decisions: A Regulatory Framework":

For some goods, convenience can be undesirable. Ex-smokers prefer not to have a spare pack of cigarettes in their cupboard. Dieters prefer not to have a bowl of candy on their desk or a gallon of ice cream in their freezer.

We recognize the conflicts between our long-run goals (e.g., “I want to stop smoking”) and our momentary desires (“I’d like to smoke right now”). The long-term perspective is patient (“I want to start a healthy diet”), while the short-run perspective is indulgent (“I’ll have dessert tonight despite the future consequences”). A failure of self-control occurs when the short-run preference leads to behavior contrary to the long-run plan. ...

In this paper, we discuss a range of regulations that buttress consumers’ long-term behavioral intentions and reduce the likelihood that momentary impulses will undermine those intentions. All of these regulations, which we call Early Decision regulations, encourage consumers to make forward-looking decisions that they cannot easily reverse later. ...

To illustrate our approach, we will discuss five different classes of Early Decision regulations: location-based regulation, time-based regulation, delay-based regulation, self-regulation, and hybrid regulation. ...

Delay-based regulations work on the principle that impulse purchases are motivated primarily by a transitory desire to immediately consume the regulated good. Hence, consumption would be significantly reduced if a delay were built into the purchase process, so that a current purchase did not create an immediate opportunity for consumption. For example, consider a mail-order system for cigarettes, with delivery lagged by some number of days. In such a system, consumers could buy as many cigarettes as they wanted, but they would not be able to buy and immediately smoke on impulse. A decision to buy today would only enable consumption at a lag. Such a system would work well for a consumer who was happy to commit not to smoke next week but could not resist smoking right now. With cigarettes only available by mail, such a consumer would be able to commit not to smoke in the future by simply not ordering cigarettes in advance.

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