Monday, August 22, 2011

I’m Not Lazy, It’s Physics

One of the most basic laws of physics is the law of conservation of energy, and it’s very simple. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can take on many forms, including heat or light, but the amount of energy involved remains the same.  It can be reallocated or change form, but the quantity of energy cannot be altered.

Quite recently, I discovered something the hard way: self-control is a form of energy and it, too, is subject to this law. Although it seems like it should be an unlimited resource, or at least limited only by our willpower, recent research has shown that not only is self-control limited, it’s impaired by things like hunger and lack of sleep. When we’re tired, our temper snaps faster, but the energy required to keep moving while tired takes away from the energy we normally use to keep our tongue in check.

Even worse, a deliberate exercise in self-control can have a rebound effect. A person who has just donated a significant amount of charity is an easy mark for anyone selling luxury goods, but the energy used to make that donation takes away from energy normally used to curb impulse purchases. I deal with this all the time in the grocery store. I might be able to forgo the ice cream and put some fresh fruit into my cart instead, but it often means a furtive grab for a candy bar in the check-out lane. Since candy bars are a smaller, cheaper dose of junk food than ice cream, I let it go.

Unfortunately, I recently had the law of conservation of energy blow up in my face in a far more serious way. In an effort to get a clearer understanding of how I used my time in order to get to bed earlier, I started a time diary. I was very proud of it. It was a weekly chart, with spaces marked out for every half hour for quick notes on what I had done with that time. I even got colored pens for different types of activities, like work, play, renewal, housework and pointless crap, so I could see where my time was going at a glance. It didn’t just seem useful, it seemed fun. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as it turned out.  Although I began my time diary with the intention of getting to bed earlier, I found myself going to bed later and later. As I was already nocturnal, this was the worst possible outcome.

How did something intended to improve my life end up making it worse? After a while, I came to realize that the problem lay with the law of conservation of energy as applied to self-control. The self-control required to track my time had to come from somewhere, and it was being taken out of the self-control I used to shut the household down before I went to bed.

But I still wanted to make this change. How could I do that without taking energy away from other, necessary things? 

The key, I realized, lay in delegation. If there was a way to let something else expend some of its energy on this stuff, I might have enough of my own to shift my bedtime.

I still needed to find out what was happening to my time, and since I spend a lot of it on the computer, software was the obvious answer. After some research into invoicing and work-tracking apps, I picked the free version of RescueTime. As far as I can tell, it was designed for control-freak bosses, because it records everything you do at the computer and compiles it into a variety of efficiency reports. After about two days of that, it became clear that a small handful of completely useless websites were taking up way too much of my time.

The instant availability of those websites, or any blood-sucking websites for that matter, creates a constant stream of exercises in self-control. When deciding whether or not to visit one of those sites, I didn’t make a single big decision and get it over with. I made many small decisions over the course of an hour, possibly as many as one per second if I was doing something I wanted to be distracted from. This kind of thing can wear me down over time, and by evening, odds of me breaking are pretty good.  Even worse, once I do give in, stopping becomes another drain on self-control. Over time, the energy expenditure is enormous and has the potential to become destructive. It was long past time to put a stop to it.

Unfortunately, just shutting off the internet won’t work. I do a lot of research when I write, and I need the web running for that. How could I ban just those sites in every browser I use?

The answer was a ruthless little Mac app called, appropriately, SelfControl. SelfControl lets you set either a blacklist or a whitelist, denying access to certain websites or permitting access only to certain websites, and then it lets you set a timer. For the duration of that timer, you’re stuck. Restarting the computer will not help, nor will attempting to uninstall the app. Once that clock starts ticking, those parts of the internet might as well be dead for all the good they’ll do you.

It was time, however, to get ruthless, so I blacklisted the worst offenders and set the timer for an entire day. Every morning, I click that button, turning a bombardment of decisions into a single action. It removes both the temptation and the distraction the temptation causes, and I was surprised at how much better I felt.

This took care of the vampire websites, but there was another problem, writing itself. Once I get started, I can write for several hours straight, and once I’m in that zone, very little short of fire, flood and child emergencies can knock me out. To make matters worse, I have somehow gotten it into my head that if I don’t get that idea down right this very second, it will be gone forever. This isn’t rational. I know that once I sit down at the computer and start playing around with whatever I’m working on, ideas will come, but we’re not talking about a rational part of my brain here. It’s the same part that freaks out over spiders. It doesn’t understand rational.

Enter Watcher, another Mac app. I’d use the Mac’s built-in parental controls, but after spending a few hours trying to move files and dealing with the consequences of not being on the administrator account, I decided that I’d much rather add a piece of software. While there are a few things you can do with Watcher, the important one in this case is shutting the computer down at a specific time.

Yes, I know, I can go in and change the settings myself, but that’s a little complicated, not to mention embarrassing. If I’m going to go through all that trouble, I might as well just shut down. I’ve also found that knowing that the computer will shut down at a certain time helps me wrap up what I’m doing. One way or another, I will be interrupted. Might as well call it a day.

Do all of these software crutches make me look like I lack willpower? Probably. Still, it goes back to St. Benedict’s insistence that there be “nothing harsh or burdensome” even in the intensely structured life of a monastery, and repeated exercises in self-control over the same issue are harsh and burdensome. It was only when I eliminated those exercises that I realized how much energy they were using, energy that’s now available for other things.

Meanwhile, the computer, which is immune to temptation, needs very little energy to handle these tasks. The apps run quietly and unobtrusively in the background, even on my elderly G4 iBook.

What I learned from my chart disaster is that any change in habits that requires self-control must keep the law of conservation of energy in mind. If I try to just do things by sheer force of will, something else will suffer, and how seriously it suffers will be proportionate to how much energy the change requires. In order to make a change sustainable, self-control must be treated like any other form of energy.  It can be reallocated or even delegated, but it cannot be created or destroyed.

Software isn’t the only tool available. The chart didn’t work well for me, but for someone struggling to keep track of something it in their head, that approach might be more helpful. Others use kitchen timers, or the alarms on their watches or phones as reminders. Calendars, corkboards, dry erase boards and sticky notes are other helpers, and there are a wealth of smartphone apps designed to boost productivity.

I guess the fact that I use parental control tools means I haven’t entirely grown up yet. Then again, I could have figured that out when I bought the colored pens.

The important thing is finding a way of having something else expend its energy in order to free up energy of our own.  Computers and smartphones, even kitchen timers and paper, are better at certain tasks than we are. It makes sense to let them do what they do best so that we are free to do what we do best.

It isn’t lazy. It’s basic physics.

Ann Regentin

Out now at Melange Books - Train Wreck


Mila Ramos said...

I love your posts Ann, they're always so wonderful. And not to mention at times hilarious. :)

Ann Regentin said...

Thanks, Mila. I'm just thrilled that my science passes muster. And feel free to laugh at me, because I'm always laughing at myself on this stuff. :)

Mila Ramos said...

Oh they do!! heheehehhe....It makes looking at things I do just a little bit more fun.