I’m writing this thanks to Cold Turkey, my faithful Internet-blocking software. I’ve used it for many years, and would not have finished any novel nor my thesis without it. For years, at 9 o’clock every morning, I’d switch it on for three and a half hours, shutting down all the websites I didn’t want to go on - leaving JStor and suchlike accessible - and then switch it on again at 2pm for another four hours.
Recently, though, I’ve had to upgrade to the Pro version. You see, it was getting increasingly difficult to actually switch on Cold Turkey at 9 o’clock, or again at 2pm. I’d let 9am go past, and then suddenly it was 9.13, and then you might as well wait till 9.30 because it’s a round number.
Now, with Cold Turkey Pro, I can schedule my whole week, or indeed month, in advance, and lock that schedule into place. Tomorrow’s Clementine can’t cheat. Ha!
Yep, it’s ridiculous that I paid 14 quid to prevent my sly, lazy future self from going on the Internet instead of working. In a way, I’m doing her a service: the satisfaction of getting into a ‘flow’, of writing or reading for hours on end, is always there, faithfully. But it mostly shows that I absolutely don't trust her to wait for that elusive second marshmallow; I know it won't be present enough to her greedy mind when the first marshmallow is sitting there looking lonely on the table.
We’re engaged, it seems, in a exhausting arms race: the world is getting better at distracting us, and in response it’s also getting better at providing weapons against distraction. Self-discipline is now dependent on a heavy apparatus of self-binding devices and pieces of software; on temptation-bundling; on wilfully not-buying certain items.
Ever since I was a young teenager, I’ve felt this arms race slowly growing. I’ve always been pretty self-disciplined, having gone through a stringent educational system with stacks of homework and a holy terror of teachers.
But of course at the time the world didn’t offer much resistance to my seriousness. When I was in high school, my Nokia 3410 was the only distraction in the library, apart from handsome boys who, unfortunately, didn’t find me an equivalent source of distraction at all. It wasn’t hard to focus; plus we were scared, and being scared makes one very self-disciplined.
Then at university, I wasn’t scared anymore because British education isn’t psychotic like French education and terrifying teenagers into doing work isn’t considered the right approach. There I signed up for Facebook, but I only had a few friends. Then more. It was becoming tricky to focus, but at least when I took my computer to the library there was no Internet.
Then wifi appeared, and gradually became available pretty much everywhere.
When I started my PhD, it had become unmanageable. I was far from the only one who struggled; in fact I was probably among the more self-disciplined, thanks to the aforementioned years of French torture education. Soon Cold Turkey and its equivalent for Mac, Self-Control, became talked-of among students as you would talk about some kind of miracle medicine.
Like me, my friends were engineering increasingly complex traps to commit their future selves to work. It’s interesting to see how normal these strategies of trapping-your-future-self has become. We’ve learnt to live in constant suspicion that tomorrow’s selves, next week’s selves, will betray our present selves. They’re not to be trusted.
One of my colleagues asks his wife to go to work with his (smart)phone when he needs to spend the day writing an article. Another has never installed broadband in her new studio flat. Another has returned to pen and paper. My own self-binding strategy has been to resist buying a smartphone; I still don’t have one.
All of these strategies certainly work, but leave us with the nagging feeling that they only help self-discipline in the same way as stabilisers help you cycle. Taking away all of these layers of self-commitment, I could probably continue to function as if they were there for a while; just like I’d probably carry on for a bit if the stabilisers suddenly vanished.
But I’d do so with a vague, unpleasant hunch that it would be extremely easy to fall to the side. And here my future self might look back and ask: 'You idiot! Why the hell did you never actually teach me to cycle?'
Clementine Beauvais writes in French and
English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.