Science of Unplugging: the erosion of self-control


Many of us feel our devices sometime get in the way of our lives to the fullest.  Whether it is when we are trying to connect with a friend over dinner or really focus on something work, messages, notifications, and random dings can interrupt us and foil our best intentions.

But why are digital interruptions harmful?   What are the underlying processes at work?  It seems that the new digital environment we find ourselves in is not conducive to self-control and self-direction and this in turn, has detrimental effects to our health, work, and well-being.

Self-control or willpower  is currently the best predictor of future success and well-being (Duckworth, 2014).  But our self-control does not operate in a vacuum.   Studies have shown that our ability to regulate ourselves is influenced by our settings and environments.  For example, a person is more likely to successfully self-regulate and stay focused if there are fewer distractions in their environment (i.e. conversations nearby, screens on, etc).  Today, in our connected, smartphone-enabled lives, however, it has become increasingly more difficult to find or create environments that are conducive to the exercise of willpower.   Many experts argue that many of us are not just connected, but overly-connected and some of us have become addicted to our devices.  Whatever the case may be, our willpower suffers in the new connected age and along with it, our ability to be healthy and productive.

Being able to strategically unplug then is not just a matter of getting a bit of downtime.  It may be fundamental to leading a healthy, productive, and self-directed life.  Dr Kim Young, a leading expert in tech addiction, likens balanced tech-use to a balanced diet.  Simply turning off the devices indefinitely is not a viable option. Rather, the goal must be to find a healthy balance.

Benefits of Self-control

The saying ‘Where there’s a will, there is a way’ is now being validated by the latest psychological research.  It not only predicts future success in academic and financial arenas as well as IQ does, it also is a determinant of one’s future physical and psychological health.  Research finding on self-control:

  •  Higher academic success  overall-Self-control is the strongest predicator over any other trait for academic success (Duckworth & Allred, 2012; Duckworth & Carlson, 2013).
  • Higher grades- Students who are better able to regulate their attention, emotion, and behavior earn higher teacher-assigned course grades (Duck-worth, Tsukayama, & May, 2010)
  • Higher standardized test scores- Students with more self-control score higher on standardized achievement tests (Blair & Razza, 2007
  • Life achievement –A study that followed 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32, found that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes  (study).

Environment ‘hacking’ strategies to boost self-control are effective

  • Setting matters more – Choosing the situation is more effective strategy than relying on impulse control. (Duckworth,  Gendler, & James J. Gross, 2014)  For example, it is easier to focus if with your phone off than if you actively resist checking the notifications.
  • More studying when students changed their setting – Student encouraged to create an environment conducive to studying ended up meeting their study goals more often than a placebo group (article)
  • Populations exercise more when neighborhoods changed – Dan Buetner of National Geographic and Blue Zones found that populations exercise more when their environment was conducive to exercise.  For example, simply adding things like paths and street lights to a neighborhood increased the amount of physical exercise done by those who lived there.
  • Temptation Bundling-  listening to audiobooks only at the gym has been shown to increase gym visits (Milkman, Minson, & Volpp, 2014).  In this case, changing the gym setting to become more entertaining made it easier to choose to exercise.
  • Process Model of self-control:

Screenshot 2015-09-29 13.57.09

Setting up an environment of failure

We underestimate how powerful the effect our environment can have on our behavior.

  • 6 mins of focusA recent naturalistic study in which middle, high
    school, and college students were observed studying for
    15 min in their homes found an average of between two
    and three visible technology-related distractors (e.g., TV,
    cell phone, Facebook page) in the study area (Rosen, Carrier, & Cheever, 2013). On average, students in the study  studied fewer than 6 min before switching to technological
  • available. Similarly, Wansink, Painter,
    and Lee (2006) found that secretaries ate more candy
    when the candy bowl was clear versus opaque. In the
    same study, secretaries ate more candy when the bowl
    was placed on their desk versus 2 m away, suggesting that
    not only visibility but also convenience can be manipulated to dampen the attractiveness of temptations.
  • Relatedly, Rozin et al. (2011) found that making items in a
    salad bar only slightly more difficult to reach measurably
    reduced their consumption.
  • W. Mischel and Ebbesen (1970) in which rewards in the delay
    of gratification paradigm were either concealed from view
    or left visible. Compared to when rewards were made visible, preschool children could wait much longer when
    rewards were hidden from view by an opaque cover or
    removed from the room by an experimenter.(Page 10).
  •  Physical trigger cues have been demonstrated to be the single most potent determinant of successful abstinence among drug addicts (Bonson et al.,
    2002; Kelley, 2004; Weiss, 2005).(Page 10).
  • only 2% of people can actually multi-task without decline in performance.(article)

Historical tidbits about creating an environment for success

  • Classics- Ulysses pact: On his famous odyssey home from the Trojan War, Ulysses prepares for the sirens’ song by binding himself to the ship’s mast and filling his shipmates ears with bee’s wax (Wiki).
  • Ergonomics-Schelling wrote in his 1978 essay, “Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management,” Many of us have little tricks we play on ourselves to make us do the things we ought to do or to keep us from the things we ought to foreswear. Sometimes we put things out of reach for the moment of temptation, sometimes we promise ourselves small rewards, and sometimes we surrender authority to a trustworthy friend who will police our calories or our cigarettes. We place the alarm clock across the room so we cannot turn it off without getting out of bed. People who are chronically late set their watches a few minutes ahead to deceive themselves. “(p. 290)

Setting up an environment for success

  • Blocking digital distractions with create an environment that will be conducive to exercising willpower
  • Creating “smart” environments that allow distractions only after the primary task has complete may be effective.  For example, blocking apps until homework is done or chores are completed.

  -Zack Prager, founder of Ransomly.,  @zackPrager

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