'It's 22 of the Cutest Baby Animals," the headline said. "You won't believe number 11!" Despite an impending deadline - not to mention my scepticism (how cute could they possibly be?) - I clicked on the story. I'm only human, after all. Yet this cost me at least half an hour of good work time - as have other clickbait headlines and bizarre images on my Twitter feed.

The distracting suck of the internet has become seemingly inescapable. Calling us from our pockets, lurking behind work documents, it's merely a click away. Studies show that each day we spend, on average, five and a half hours on digital media, and glance at our phones 221 times.

Meanwhile, the developers of websites and phone apps exploit human behavioral tendencies, designing products and sites to attract our gaze - and retain it. Writing for Aeon, Michael Schulson points out developers have staked their futures on cultivating habits in users, in order to win as much of that attention as possible.

Given the internet's omnipresence, is it even possible to rein in our growing consumption, which often comes at the expense of work, family or relationships?


Psychological research on persuasion and self-control suggests some strategies.

Tricks for clicks

Number 22 in the introduction is an example of the "pique" technique. Lists are usually round numbers, such as the Fortune 500. Unusual numbers draw our attention because they break this pattern. In the United States, social psychologist Anthony Pratkanis and colleagues conducted a study and found people were almost 60 per cent more likely to give money to beggars asking for 37c than those asking for a quarter.

An attention pique (such as asking for 37c or calling out photo 11) triggers us to halt whatever we're doing and reorient to the puzzle. Questions demand answers.

These tricks exploit built-in features of our minds that otherwise serve us well. It's clearly advantageous that unexpected stimuli capture our attention and engage us in a search for explanation: it might stop us from getting hit by a car, or alert us to suspicious changes in our bank balance. So it wouldn't make sense to teach ourselves to ignore our brains when they sound an alarm.

Bound to the mast

Content on the net is also built to keep us coming back for more - notifications when someone replies to posts, or power rankings based on votes. These cues trigger the reward system in our brains because they've become associated with the potent reinforcer of social approval.

Not surprisingly, internet use is often framed in the language of addiction. Psychologists have even identified Problematic internet Use as a growing concern.

So what can we do? Like Odysseus' strategy for resisting the temptation of the sirens, perhaps the best trick is to commit ourselves to a course of action in advance - with force, if necessary.

Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast of their ship until they were out of the sirens' range. The modern-day equivalent is to use technology to figuratively bind oneself to the mast. Software packages such as Cold Turkey or the appropriately named SelfControl allow you to block yourself from certain websites, or prevent yourself from signing on to your email account for a previously specified period of time.

Commit in public

Pre-commitments can be much more effective when they're announced in public. Researchers have found that people who publicly commit to a desired course of action such as recycling or being sociable are more likely to follow through than people who keep their intentions private.

We are deeply social creatures with a fundamental need to belong, and publicly declaring a plan puts one's reputation at stake.

More and more, scientists who study self-control are starting to see tools such as pre-commitment and software that blocks out websites not as "hacks" that circumvent the system but instead as integral pieces in the self-control puzzle.

For example, a recent study tracked a group of people on a moment-by-moment basis, asking them questions about their goals, temptations and abilities to resist them.

Contrary to expectations, the people who were generally good at self-control (measured with a reliable questionnaire) were not the best at resisting temptations when the temptation presented itself. In fact, they were generally pretty bad at it.

Instead, good self-control was characterised by the ability to avoid temptations in the first place. We often think of self-control as the ability to white-knuckle our way through temptation, but studies such as this one indicate that self-control can be as simple as planning ahead to avoid traps.

The next time you need to get something done, consider pre-committing to avoiding the internet altogether.

Like Odysseus, realise that if you find yourself facing temptation directly, the battle may already be lost.

Elliot Berkman is assistant professor, psychology, University of Oregon.