Strategies for Self-Control in the Digital Era

Excerpted From
Your Future Self Will Thank You
By Drew Dyck

We all want to improve our behavior. But often we pursue this goal with vague aspirations, like “I’m going to try to eat better.” Of course, objectives like this rarely work because they’re so ambiguous. “Bright lines” are hard-and-fast rules that help you avoid unwanted behavior. The term came from the legal system to describe clearly defined courtroom rulings, but researchers found the idea helpful for controlling conduct.

This is how it works. A vague goal like trying to eat better requires you to constantly assess what you should eat and how much. However, if you have a bright-line rule such as “No eating sugar” or “No eating after 8:00 p.m.,” you’re far more likely to see your eating habits improve. These rules may sound difficult but they actually preserve your willpower. When you see a donut, you know it has sugar, so it’s off-limits. You don’t have to sit around wrestling with a decision. You don’t even have to think about it.

The Bible is filled with these sorts of “bright-line” rules. What are the Ten Commandments after all, but a series of inviolable laws designed to steer us away from evil? Jesus moved these bright lines into the realm of the heart. He taught us to not even lust or hate, knowing that those dangerous feelings are not only sinful but lead to outward acts of sin as well.

We’re wise to apply this thinking to our lives, and not just to avoid committing adultery and murder. Bright lines are especially crucial for breaking bad digital habits.

My pastor, C.J. Coffee, is a bit of a Luddite. He doesn’t spend much time online, isn’t on social media and he has (gasp!) an old-fashioned flip phone. He doesn’t opt for these restrictions because he has something against technology. He does it to avoid falling prey to pornography. Since becoming a Christian in his late teens, C.J. hasn’t looked at porn—not once. You might think that’s because he’s some sort of superman, but he says it’s just the opposite. “I consider myself fundamentally weak in this area,” he confessed. “That’s why I’ve taken extreme precautions to avoid temptation.” He encouraged other people in our church to take the same measures if they find themselves besieged by temptation. “If you’re a guy who’s getting tempted by images online, don’t be proud,” he once thundered from the pulpit. “Set up controls on your computer. Don’t access the internet when you’re alone. And if you have to, get yourself a flip phone!”

Structure Your Time

I doubt any of us sits down to plan the week and thinks, Hmm … I’m going to pencil in thirty-five hours for staring at my phone, thirty hours of TV and seven hours of mindlessly surfing the web. Sounds ridiculous, right? We ’d never plan to spend our time like this. Yet that’s what many of us do—week after week.

How do we bring sanity back to our schedules? By becoming intentional about the way we spend our time. Of course that doesn’t mean we say no more phones, TV or computers. For most of us, that isn’t feasible. If I said no to email, I’d lose my job! But it does require applying wisdom to our online habits. For those struggling with online porn, there are a host of great tools. You can download software like Net Nanny that will block all porn on your computer and phone. There are other services, like Covenant Eyes, that send a report of all your online activities to an accountability partner. You may feel a little silly installing software or paying for an accountability service, but it’s worth it. Better to swallow your pride and spend a few bucks on a service than risk polluting your mind and soul with the evils of online porn.

There are also small steps you can take to curb your digital dependency. One is to disable color on your smartphone. The former Design Ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris, explains that opting for the “grayscale” option makes the apps on your phone far less addictive. A few months ago, I did something simple that reduced my tendency to waste time on my phone. I turned off all the notifications. Did I really need to be alerted every time someone liked one of my tweets or Facebook posts? Must I know each time posts a new political story? Nope. Yet these dings and beeps were continually pulling me away from more important activities and sapping my ability to concentrate deeply. So I went into my settings and disabled all notifications. I haven’t missed them. The second thing I did: Install an app (called Moment) that tracks all the time I spend on my phone. It’s sobering to get an accurate understanding of just how much time you’re spending on your phone. Such tools help you prevent giving too much of your time and attention to the internet.

Make Your Sabbath Tech-Free

Observing a Sabbath is crucial. Don’t worry—I’m not legalistic about it. The Jews observed the Sabbath on Saturday. The early Christians moved it to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, to honor the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Today, we no longer live in tight-knit, kin-based cultures, and everyone has different work schedules. I don’t care if you observe Sabbath on Sunday, Saturday—or Wednesday. But observing a Sabbath is wise, especially in our hurry-sick world.

A couple years ago, our family started giving our Sabbath a low-tech twist. We forbade the use of screens. We called it “No Screen Sundays.” It’s a little cheesy, but somehow the alliteration helped it stick. We don’t always observe it in our home, but we try. And when we do, it feels like a little slice of heaven. The kids aren’t zoned out watching cartoons, Mom isn’t texting, and maybe most refreshing of all, Dad isn’t glued to his phone checking email or Twitter. It’s a day to worship God, enjoy our church community, and to be together as a family. Really together. “The Sabbath prefers natural light to artificial light,” writes A.J. Swoboda. We’ve found this to be true in our home. When we power down our devices and step outside into the natural light of God’s creation, our souls are restored.

This is just a sampling of strategies I’ve found useful. You may opt for different ones. The important thing is that we get intentional about freeing our minds from the tyranny of technology. Too much time in front of screens breeds impatience and impulsivity. It leaves us depressed and distracted and discontent. Compare those states of mind with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and—self-control. The contrast could hardly be sharper. By limiting our time online, we give God the space in our lives to cultivate the virtues he longs for us to have, including self-control.

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Adapted from Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

Drew Dyck
Drew Dyck

Drew Dyck (@DrewDyck) is an editor at Moody Publishers and the former managing editor of Leadership Journal.