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Downloading Self-Control

I’m a writer. That’s my job title. But it’s a funny description for someone who does what I do: spends her days grasping for any excuse not to write.

You see, I have the discipline god gave a golden retriever. I’ve read about writers with fuel-injected work ethics, devoted scribes who lock themselves in mountain cabins for weeks at a time to expunge their souls onto the page with no interruptions.

Me, I welcome interruptions. No, I crave them. Focus is hard; interruptions are easy. When I hit a bump in my work — a lay-there lead, herky-jerky transition, or wussy ending — I slip out of writer mode like soap from a wet palm and find myself hunting for online distractions.

Email. Twitter. Google News. I’d like to blame modern technology for my short attention span, but the real menace is me and my diabolical reluctance to concentrate.

“It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.” Buddha said that. I would have said it myself if I hadn’t been so busy not researching column topics or negotiating editorial deadlines, but rather diving down the rabbit hole that is YouTube, searching for old friends on Facebook (who, at this point, it’s safe to assume, don’t want to be found), and checking for the next 10 days’ forecast — not because I’m planning a wedding and may need to order a tent but just because the ‘Net allows me to see the future and how cool is that?

The bad news is I have no self-control (I abandoned you and checked Facebook while writing this very paragraph). The good news is I no longer need it. Because I can download it. For free!

There are now programs you can install to block the Internet from your computer so you can get work done. They prevent you from clicking over to see if Beginners has yet come to your neighborhood multiplex, or to send a funny “Get Well” e-card to your convalescing cousin. In short, they get in the way of getting in your own way. The popular Freedom — endorsed by hotshot writers Nora Ephron and Dave Eggers — shuts down the ‘Net for up to eight hours, and one called SelfControl blocks any Web sites you deem off-limits.

They aren’t foolproof, of course; you can still find ways to outsmart your efforts to outsmart yourself. The point, I suppose, is to put a finger-wagging impediment between our instinct to meander away from hard work and our ability to do so. If we’re reminded en route to distraction that we don’t really want to be distracted — that we, in fact, took pains to prevent ourselves from indulging in such distraction — then perhaps we’ll refrain and refocus.

But has it really come to this? Installing software to keep ourselves from submitting to unwise impulses? I find the circuitousness of the solution embarrassing, and I dislike the implication that willpower is as obsolete as postage. Just because I haven’t mastered the virtue doesn’t mean I’ve given up on it entirely — unless there’s a program that will lock down my cookie jar? Or my corkscrew?

Then again, perhaps setting up hurdles for ourselves is its own form of discipline. I know a woman who refrains from getting bikini waxes before a first date so she’ll be sure to keep her skirt on, and another who handcuffs herself to her desk — and gives her roommate the key — when she has to study. One couple tells me they leave their credit cards at home when browsing furniture stores so they won’t buy big-ticket items on impulse.

Maybe, then, downloading SelfControl doesn’t mean you lack self-control — but that you had it all along. Maybe it’s the modern writer’s version of locking yourself in a mountain cabin.

Published inColumns

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