Skeptic's Notebook

Feb 18 2011

A lesson on SelfControl

Apropos of today’s xkcd comic I want to tell a story. I don’t like studying and often procrastinate doing it for quite awhile (sometimes to my detriment).

There’s an app called SelfControl for Macs that lets you block particular websites for a predetermined amount of time. Quitting the app, changing browsers, restarting, doesn’t matter. Websites are gonzo.

It works splendidly, except for one problem. It’s open source. I hadn’t blocked github, nor Google (I needed that to occasionally look things up while studying), nor SelfControl’s own website.

During one study session, initially aided by SelfControl, I began to wonder how it worked. After all, it was remarkably resilient to any attempts at subversion. Then I hit up Google and clicked my way to the source code. About 20 minutes later I had completely unravelled how SelfControl worked. Except that by figuring out how it worked, I figured out how to subvert it. It’s kind of a pain, so SelfControl is still useful in the theoretical sense.

Before you ask, it did occur to me (multiple times in fact) exactly how destructive it was to procrastinate by actively subverting my own self imposed procrastination limitations. If only I could be compelled to such curiosity regarding the things I have to study…

Anyway, I’ve never used SelfControl again, because to do so now is merely to challenge myself to see how quickly I can recall how to undo it.

So, my advice to anyone who uses SelfControl: Add to the blocked sites list immediately and first. And never go look at the source code for it.

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