Self-control in a fast delivery world Zili Yin, Thanh Nguyen, Michelle Hackl, and Gili Karni

A story of modern revelation

I am 23, and sometimes, I still find myself stomping my feet on the ground when I have to wait for something that I could be having right now. “This doesn’t make sense” I tend to say, “How is it possible, that today, in the 21st century, there are still things that require me to wait for them?”. This could be the lack of airplane wifi, non-prime products on amazon, non-bingeable VOD series, or the shortage of late night cookie supplies in San Francisco. Usually, after a few minutes of loudly presenting my dissatisfaction and a few more minutes of blaming others, I acknowledge two things in defeat: (A) as an adult, I could have (and probably should have) planned ahead to avoid this situation and (B) If I didn’t do so, being impatient will not resolve this problem and definitely won’t prevent it from happening again.

I realize that my self-control and patience is worn down and that I am pretty lost about why or how to fix this issue. I can tell that technology has played a role in it but I am torn between blaming it and putting my faith for salvation in it.

Where does the problem lie?

Before deciding to embark on a journey to restore my self-control, I asked myself whether having self-control is important in the first place. Nowadays, there are apps and devices to help you with most, if not all aspects of your life. Fitbits, for example, remind you to stand up and move every hour, or Eyeleo to remind you that you have been looking at the screen for too long and should take a break to blink.

But, this technology is designed to manipulate us, so it can be used to our advantage, or demise. My wearables can use regular notifications or offer rewards to nudge me into being more active throughout the day, but Facebook can use the same strategy to get me to check on how many likes and shares I have every 15 minutes. Is technology really helping me if it conditions me in ways that make it easier for me to be manipulated? Is it worth using self-control aids if this is the cost?

To complicate this even more, a lot of technology makes me more efficient, such as applications that help me reserve restaurant tables, purchase movie tickets beforehand, or get groceries delivered to my house. The question here is, amidst all these plethora of technologies, how do we become “smart users” and utilize technology to be more efficient? Where do we draw the line between “I need to get groceries delivered to my house so I don’t have to drive to the store to pick it up” and “I can get the dress I just bought on Amazon delivered to me overnight so I can wear it and take a photo for my Instagram by tomorrow”? In other words, are we using these fast-delivery aids to enhance productivity and social interactions, or are we just falling victim to their manipulation? Bringing all this together, how can I practice self-control, and still extract value from technology, in a world of technologically-driven addiction and instant gratification?

Back to the books

Back in the 1960s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel established a connection between self-control and future success. He gave kids the opportunity to choose between one marshmallow now or two of them a few minutes later; he followed them growing up and showed that kids with the ability to delay gratification fared better in life than those who didn’t have the ability to wait. Few years later, Angela Duckworth, a best selling author and character development innovator, stated that self-control can predict better mental and physical health, financial status, and overall well being . These arguments are well known and yet, more and more aspects of our lives become closer, faster, and easier- why not enjoy these benefits? It is easy to find a next day delivery for almost any online purchase, seeing a new movie requires nothing but turning on a VOD streamer, and sharing experiences is done by one upload to the social network. These habits sustain themselves both by our demand and by the industry’s supply; This loop exposes us to more temptations and praises instant gratification.

The internet is divided between two camps. The first claims that self-control is overrated, since technology, soon enough, will spare the need for it; while the other side claims that we become servants of technology and, in the process of making it better, we pay a price that gets harder and harder to recover from.

What I’ve learned

How can we rightly practice self-control in an era that glorifies the instant? The answer does not lie in abandonment of technology. A complete detachment from the source of temptation is irrational and ineffective given the obvious benefits. Technology itself does not create the problem but our use of it does. Submission is not a solution either. Instead, a plausible solution would be to draw the line that justifies immediacy; considering that this line differs between individuals. For example, I find online grocery shopping highly productive but next day delivery for arts and crafts material from Amazon - not so much. The two situations are different and require different strategies; I believe in embracing productivity bolstering behaviors and eliminating thoughtless actions that weaken my self-control. How to distinguish between the two and how they interplay are the next questions to answer.

Alfie Kohn suggests that the capacity for self-control is the key, and supports the possibility that the answer for the problem lies within technology itself. Rather than simply attempting to break the negative feedback loop, we should try to create one that will enhance positive behavior. My approach is to optimize technology use to increase this capacity. I am not looking for a compromise but an integration of technology in a way that will enhance intentionality and self-control.

The agenda is a combination of awareness and self-manipulation; which aligns with my two-level understanding of self-control: principles and implementation. Principles define how I evaluate an action, and implementation defines the timing, how quickly something should happen. My principles reflect my identity, my strong sense of self that captures the best version of me. The awareness of my identity provides a benchmark which assists in evaluating my actions and the self manipulation supports their proper implementation. As an example, I consider myself as an intellectual person, so it is easy for me to choose reading an article over scrolling through Facebook when I have a few spare minutes.

Between theory and practice

Ideally, everyone should have a clear sense of their identity and, stemming from this, a clear idea about the actions you want to take and those you want to avoid. However, this requires the translation of abstract ideas like “I am an efficient person” into concrete actions like “I don’t use Facebook during the week”. The result of having to perform this complex translation is that it is easy for many people, including myself, to rationalize away bad actions or simply slip into habits without thinking about the way we want to be in the world. This is where principles come into play. Principles are based on your identity - your goals and responsibilities. They help you translate who you are into judgements on actions. “I am an efficient person so, when I have spare time, I do things which produce high output with little time input”. This gives you a starting point from which to judge Facebook use “No, Facebook is not time-efficient so I do not use it during the week”. People seek harmony between identity and action, as Marianne Dainton, a professor in Communication at La Salle University, said. If we feel our actions are not in line with our identity, we can either change them or falsely rationalize away the dissonance. Principles are effective because they make this rationalization harder.

Great. But how do we use this information in day-to-day situations? How is this relevant when I want to do things now?? When the temptation of instant gratification is calling? The famous marshmallow study, mentioned above, found that concrete tactics can be very useful when trying to maximize self-control. Looking for a way to utilize technology to increase my capacity to self control I came up with many tactics; these are the ones that work.

Later time: Embrace anticipation

Not only does delayed gratification have long-term advantages, a recent Oxford University study claims that it can increase the subjective enjoyment of the experience itself. Yes, waiting for something we sincerely want increases our satisfaction from it. However, this study found that anticipation increases the enjoyment only when delaying a desired experience whereas a non-exciting one holds no effect. If anticipation increases my capacity for self-control; making a habit out of delaying normalized this behavior and resulted in decreased need for instant rewards. I stopped using amazon prime two-day shipments (which, as I realized later, has a great reward of its own, since amazon compensates me for any normal delivery by adding credit to my account). Nevertheless, to be effective in reinforcing the habit of delay, there are two things to keep in mind. First, the subject should be desired; as this will work for the new episode of Sherlock (yes, I know I am about two years late), but not for paying the phone bills. Second, the delay should align with the urgency of the subject; a birthday gift encompasses a given deadline whereas the Sherlock episode does not.

Same time: Meta-multitasking

Unlike the well-known multitasking, this tactic takes advantage of the fact that technology-based habits are not naturally tied down to a place or time, and associates them with activities that are. Linking tech-habits with real activities ties them to a schedule and increases the control you have over them. The frequency of the chosen activity should reflect the desired frequency of the habit, As Charles Duhigg states.I decided to check my e-mails only while having my morning coffee, rather than immediately when I receive them, since as a student, I decided that checking my email once a day is enough.

Right time: Fight FOMO

The first tip I got was “If you cannot take your eyes off Facebook- delete it”. But we all know that it is almost an irrelevant option. Complete temptation avoidance is ineffective with technology as we ultimately rely on many of its features. If quitting is not an option, how can we choose a good enough one ? A few years ago, Dan Ariely- a behavioral economics professor and author, suggested that we use relativity as a way to figure out how much we value things. A preference emerges from a comparison; so to enhance a preference the key is to present it in the right context. He uses the Economist subscription options as an example. The three options are (1) online - $59, (2) print - $125, and (3) print and online - $125. Which one would you prefer? Using price as a framework, the third option sounds the best; same price, better value. The same concept works with time. Imagine the following three options: (1) now, (2) never, and (3) in five minutes. Using gratification as a framework, again the third option appears to be the best; same gratification, plus the gain of increasing the capacity of self-control. To seal the deal I decided to fill the waiting time with a more desirable habit. My favorite alternatives are: sending a message to an old friend, reading a pre-saved article on a topic of my choice, or adding a couple of minutes to my meditation timer.

A punchline to remember

Set your values, then set your goals and responsibilities to reflect them, and act in a way that strives for harmony between them. Enhance your identity and utilize the road map to keep it in mind. To control timing apply your customized Later time, Same time, and Right time tactics.

This artifact will help you customize the tactics to your own principles


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