Why You Are Better Than Robotic Willpower

There are many tools around that make sure you’re only doing what you’re meant to be doing. Let’s say you’re supposed to be writing. To help you stay writing, there’s software that cripples your Internet connection, that removes your social network access, and that generally takes control of what you can and can’t do.

photo by jakedobkin

photo by jakedobkin

Instead of willpower, you can set tools to force you away from temptation.

But this is damaging.

Doug Belshaw asked via Twitter:

I responded:

While software like Quiet Hours will automatically switch off email and social apps for you to get on with more important tasks, it’s not all roses and butterflies:

  1. You stop working naturally – The forced nature of your work can scupper creative thinking. There’s nowhere else to go, but you’re made very aware of the fact. Choice is more open than force, so aim for that as often as possible.
  2. It feels like a punishment – Where’s the fun in removing all distractions so clinically? There’s a fine line between giving yourself a bit of peace and pissing yourself off.
  3. A ‘no ifs, no buts’ approach is restrictive – Need to quickly look something up for a reference? Well you can’t. I tried a ‘no ifs, no buts’ practice in the past, but quickly stopped. When you’re busy working and find your restrictions stop you working, it’s a bigger distraction than everything else put together. I didn’t end up screaming, but it was a close thing…
  4. Tools can’t eliminate the problem of forgetting what you were meant to be doing – I’ve walked away from writing something in order to find a quotation in a book. Half an hour later, I’m still looking through books and I suddenly remember what my initial purpose was. A five minute job took much longer than necessary. An automated shut-down tool will remove a couple of these problem points. However, it won’t stop the problem itself.
  5. You may end up believing that you cannot rectify these problems manually (i.e. yourself) – The more you rely on tools to kick you into shape, the less you’ll be in touch with your own talent and power to push on.

There’s nothing wrong with using software to help eliminate distractions. But reliance on software is dangerous. You have the power to do it yourself:

  1. Keep a to-do/task list – An easy way to train yourself to concentrate on what you’ve set yourself.
  2. Leave plenty of time for important tasks – Left until the last minute results in panic. You may be totally focused on the task, but the deadline hovering over you like a guillotine blade will be more than enough distraction.
  3. Do things in small chunks – Rather than commit to an hour on an essay, try to work for just ten minutes. Then take a minute or two off to check social networks and other distractions. Multitasking doesn’t work, so try ‘minitasking’ as an alternative.
  4. Keep ‘valid disruptions’ in check – I’ve said before, “disruptions aren’t always unwelcome, even if they are disruptive”. Be aware of this and you can work more effectively. Give yourself time to spend on the good stuff and mix it up with your other work. There’s nothing like a bit of variation!

What do you think? Would you rather automate the process of removing distractions? Do you feel better when you have control yourself? What tips do you have to stay focused?


  1. Glad I helped prompt this post! I think there’s a wider danger here, the ‘externalisation’ of a problem – as if it’s not something that’s up to you to sort out. And I think that problem goes all the way from productivity (or the lack of it) right through to expecting other people – such as the government – to right the wrongs of our society.

    Be the change you want to see in the world! 😀

    1. Great take. Instead of saying “I wish the world wasn’t like this” it’s worth asking questions like “How can I make this work better for me?”

      There will always be stuff outside our own control. But there’s so much we can take hold of and turn to our advantage.

      Now let’s have a collective “Bring it on!” 🙂

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