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Self-control: You don’t have to do it alone

– I could use more self-control. Luckily, self-control is easily downloadable. One click, and there it is on my desktop. With this program that lets me block certain Web sites, I have outsourced one of my 2010 goals: Waste less time on the Internet.

But wait. I haven’t 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 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.

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 like a work-around.

John Norcross is well-versed in this. He’s co-author of “Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward.”

He’s reassuring: If I’m downloading the program, even if it does 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 blocked the time-wasting Web sites on my computer. In this case, I feel responsible or accountable for the change in my behavior.

Norcross recalls a woman in his study who sought to keep her house clean. She didn’t want to clean it, 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.

SelfControl was developed by Steve Lambert, an artist at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York.

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, your machine won’t let you access them, not even if you restart the computer.

Lambert doesn’t have a tally for downloads, but he says more than 113,000 people have visited his Web site since March, when he made the program available.

I wish I didn’t need Lambert’s help. I like the idea of putting my mind to something, whether exercising more or checking certain Web sites less obsessively.

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.

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 when we had the facts.

They didn’t work.

“We’re all still in an environment where we have cookies in the cupboard,” Wood says. “If we stop 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 habits. The risk, of course, is that “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. He’s 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 … 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.”

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