Interview with the Creator of SelfControl Steve Lambert

Interview With Steve Lambert

SelfControl is an OS X application which blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and websites for a predetermined period of time.

For example, you could block access to your email, facebook, and twitter for 90 minutes, but still have access to the rest of the web. Once started, it can not be undone by the application, by deleting the application, or by restarting the computer – you must wait for the timer to run out.

SelfControl is Free Software under the GPL. The Sourcecode and wiki are available on Github. Free Software means you are free to use, modify, and redistribute the application and the source code. Free Software and volunteers have made a Linux version and a Windows version possible as well.

Read our full review of SelfControl for Mac here.

Martin: Hi Steve, thank for the opportunity to talk to you. A lot of people know and use your program SelfControl.

Can you tell us a bit why you made SelfControl? 

Steve: I wanted something that would block my email while I worked, so the SelfControl website blocker was originally used to be a simple command line script to serve just that purpose.

It was the time were everything you do is meant to be with an open license and I thought maybe I’d put this out and it’ll help somebody.

Steve: It turned out to be the most popular project I’ve ever made. It was like a total accident. It was just like the classic programmer thing where you scratch your own itch, you know.

 Steve Lampert 

 Creator of SelfControl 


I wanted something that would block my email while I worked, so SelfControl was originally used to be a simple command line script to serve just that purpose.

Martin: It was the same for me when starting FindFocus. I was trying to start an online business about working part time and stress reduction, but always ended up being distracted. I was on Windows at that time and tried all the programs out there, but was never really satisfied with the solutions because they lacked flexibility.

All the other programs on the market were developed by single programmers but despite some of the programs being commercial none of them build a real business on that.

If I would walk into advertising with the skills I have I could probably be a millionaire but I cannot do it.

That’s when I decided to develop my own website and distraction blocker FindFocus. I wanted to build a tool to help people to stay away from distractions. The more I dig into the research the more I feel programs like Self-Control and FindFocus are needed.

It’s so scary what the internet and big company’s do to us. 

Steve: I try to keep my perspective in balance. Of course some people say: ‘Oh the Internet is destroying the way that we think and is racking humanity’ but if you study history this has been said about every new technology. Look up the term “bicycle face”. People used to believe that your face would deform  because we were not meant to travel at that speed.

Additional Info: Bicycle face:

A little over a century ago, women were discouraged from riding their bicycles. A bicycle face was considered a serious health issue. In the 19th century, medical professionals came up with a disease called ‘Bicycle Face’ to discourage women from cycling.

Because of the increasing availability of cycles women became more independent and were able to travel alone. This of course threatened the male hegemony.

The definition varies from source to source, but the general opinion was that women who biked too much would develop a chronic look of exhaustion and strain including tight lips, a flushed face, harsh wrinkles, and bulging eyes with dark circles underneath.

Martin: Yes, I heard the same about the invention of the railroad.

Steve: Yes, all technologies have this sort of thing around it. I try not to fall into that. For me it started different in a way. I don’t know why you cannot make a decision about when you receive your email and when it would send. For most people that seems to be like such a difficult thing. Everybody says “It’s not possible. It’s so difficult” and I think “Why?”

I think for a lot of companies it’s not in their interest to control that. You know what I mean?

Martin: Yes, when I first contacted you I really liked the contact form on your website. The form, that was inspired by Dan Ariely. I haven’t seen Dan’s tool before but I am huge fan of his work and I think it’s pretty awesome!

How many emails do you get through Your “email gate”?

Steve: I still get a good number of emails but it’s helpful when they indicate “Oh you don’t need to write me back” or say “you can write me back next month”.

I can see that much on my phone when it comes up and I won’t even look at it further. The form is not meant to intimidate people, so they won’t write to me. It’s just for me to get some more information.

Just to know if they want me to write back is super helpful. And then when I do write back something like “Thanks” then they are like:  “Wow”.

Basically I changed the expectations about the response. If I write back “Thanks” it actually means something to them, where if they expected me to write back and all I say is “Thanks” they would be insulted.

STEVE’S “Email Gate”

Martin: Yes. It’s the same philosophy that Cal Newport describes in his book “Deep Work”. Have you heard about it?

Steve: No.

Martin: Cal uses the same approach for filtering email.

Steve: I used to get a lot of customer service kind of emails saying: The program should do this and say: Yes you should create that feature then. It’s basically mismatch of expectations. I don’t know how familiar you are with the world of free or open source software. One thing I have to say about putting self-control out and making it free is that people don’t understand “free software”

Martin: I stumbled upon Richard Stallman and watched his Ted talk, recently.

Steve: Richard Stall man, of course. (laughs)

Martin: I did not completely agree with him but I think I got his point of view. For example I tried to use Linux when I was studying engineering at the University. It was just so customer unfriendly. Because of that I still prefer using Windows or Mac’s OS X. But he definitely right about using free software at universities and schools and teaching people how to code. I think his view is quite extreme. Especially for people like me who still want to have some control over the software. To build a real business on Richards’s model is quite difficult I think.

Steve: His argument is that the profit comes from service instead of sales. Like you are doing these in-person orientation, where you could say maybe the first one is free and the follow-up one costs money. It’s just a different profit model of customisation and service instead of software licenses.

Richard Stallman is like and idealist. No that’s the wrong word. He’s simply uncompromising. It’s a good challenge to study his approach. It’s so easy just to dismiss it but this guy has been acknowledged as a genius. He made most of LINUX.

So just try to work with this idea for a minute. This challenges push me in a way.

Understanding of open source software was just not there and shifting expectations was almost impossible.  I was saying you do it and people were just thinking I was a jerk.

One of the things we were talking about was being a customer and having expectations about software instead of being a participant and saying it would be really great if this feature was existing.

Then I say, why don’t you pay someone else to do that? Shifting this expectation was almost impossible because understanding of open source software was just not there. I was saying you do it and people were just thinking I was a jerk.

But the good thing about releasing self-control for free is that it is way more popular than if it would be a commercial software. People downloaded for free and I hope they understand it as a gift and instead as of the product. I think, Self-control is useful for me and want people to use it, if it’s useful for them two. A lot of people understand it that way and use it because of that. And then they think: “Oh God this is so helpful”.

That’s the reason I get a lot of emails from doctoral students, from law students, people finishing medical degrees that say: “I could not have done this without the software. Thank you.”

I teach at the University and one of my students was like at the end of their senior year said “I did not know that you made that program” I don’t know if I would have graduated from high school if I haven’t found SelfControl. They were just so stunned and grateful that I was the person that designed the program.

I don’t know if any amount of money would have been worth Zadie Smith not publishing her novels, or students not finishing high school. I rather have all those things happen.

It helped a lot of people to write novels, too. A lot of authors acknowledge the software in their novel. Zadie Smith was one, which was a big deal. For me I don’t know how much money I could have made because there would be less users if I charged for it. And I don’t know how much money I would charge.

I don’t know if any amount of money would have been worth Zadie Smith not publishing her novels, or students not finishing high school. I rather have all those things happen.

Martin: That’s one of my motivations as well for creating a software like this. Maybe somebody will find a cure for cancer or something like that because they are able to stay focused.

Steve: Yes culture, science all of that stuff. In the same style of Richard Stallman extreme, I challenge you, I would challenge you to think about how you could help and lower the barrier so you can help the most people and still have a viable source of income. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to worry about that because I have always had other ways of making money and I never depended on making money from self-control.

The other thing is that working in places like South Africa and Kenya the amount of money would be totally different. How do you make it accessible to everyone? Two people who cannot afford it but need it? And to make the people who can afford it to pay for it.

Martin: I always ask myself what’s the right approach for this. However, I found that if people actually pay for a software like this, especially if it’s a bit more they by definition “value” it. They put more effort into using the website blocker and appreciate the software much more. When I was releasing the software for free in the beginning nobody cared. The cool thing was, when I started to charge for FindFocus, literally my first customer that paid about 100$, was Brett McKay who runs “The Art of Manliness Blog”. This was a huge success for me.

Steve: Yes I heard about that blog. In social change stuff they have a thing they call: “The commitment pledge” for example if you want to quit smoking, a lot of smoking decision programs include a document that says “I am gonna quit on this day” and you need to sign it. And you don’t give it to anyone. It’s just you sign the document. And the psychological commitment that goes along with that is enough to help you be more successful.

I think your in person on boarding calls are really smart because your customers think: “I am meeting with this guy, I am gonna do quit my distraction problems. And they become more serious.”

I think your in person on boarding calls are really smart because your customers think:   “I am meeting with this guy, I am gonna do quit my distraction problems. And they become more serious.”

The other thing I was gonna say about making the software is that SelfControl is gonna save this problem for you about people that really need it. You can say that FindFocus is a professional, robust software with a lot more features and details. If you just want to block sites, try Self-Control. It’s free.

When you’re ready and need a more specific and flexible solution, FindFocus is here.

That you be a way of doing that. You don’t have to solve all the problems.

Martin: Would you be willing to support FindFocus?

Steve: Yes, of course. I mean, your software has timers and stuff like that.

What I want to say is: In open source software people make bounties like “I want this feature added but I don’t know how to do it or I don’t have time to do it but I put $15 towards it or I put a hundred dollars towards it”. One of the most popular features that was requested was a timer. At one point there was a bounty of $300 on this feature. So if someone would have coded that future he would have gotten the $300. This was for timer. And someone made a separate program that when self-control on a timer but it was a hack.

You had to edit a text file and to put in times. It was really particular but it worked. But not that well. That’s the kind of thing. It’s been years that people wanted it and no one made it. Your software has this automated breaks, and with your code it wouldn’t be that difficult to add new features like in the morning from Monday to Friday I don’t want to get emails until 10 in the morning, etc.

That’s the Thing With Free Software... It’s Been Years That People Wanted This Feature And No One Made It.

Martin: I will just show it to you. I am on Windows right now but it’s the same program for Mac as well.

Steve: It’s a different program and you have a whole lot more. For example people ask about the Pomodoro thing, too.

Martin: In FindFocus, you can use different profiles. I use a white list approach, where I only allow the sites that I need for work. That means I allow all the websites and services that I need for my business and block everything else. At the same time I can run multiple profiles. For example if I want to do some research my email and Facebook is still blocked. And then I just schedule these profiles throughout the day. I allow myself to pause a profile for two minutes, so I can do a quick search. After the timer is up all websites except the ones for work are blocked again. I’m forced to go back to my writing or work.

The thing about FindFocus is: It’s 100% flexible. You can design any schedule you want. For example you can block “Steam” throughout the day and allow access to emails only twice, etc.

Basically you can do all the advanced stuff that you’re not able to do with self-control. I really like it and especially for Mac it’s by far the best website blocker out there.

What I really like about the software, is that you have difficult unlock modes. You can have a delay, you can type in some text, like “Martin, do you really need to check your email right now”. You can even combine this with an unlocked delay.

Are you can put the software into Fort Knox mode, which basically does the same as self-control. You’re not able to reverse your preferences.

Steve: Wait. Let’s say you are in the middle of the block, does that mean you can unlock it but have to wait a certain amount of time?

Martin: Yes.

Steve: So you don’t get the immediate gratification.

Martin: yes exactly. I did a lot of research in behavioural science. It shows that putting a reward just five minutes away, is a really big thing to stay on task. You can even just pause the program for a few minutes and then the software will force you to go back to work.

Steve: Nice. This is great.

Martin: And of course FindFocus can block applications as well.

Steve: Has anyone asked you to make mobile apps yet?

Martin: No.

Steve: They will.

Martin: I want to do that in the future, but at the moment I really need my own software. You saw that I run it all day. I am getting distracted all the time. I am heavily influenced by the Quaker approach. It’s a religious group from the UK. And one of my professors from Cambridge taught us this philosophy:

“The process grows the people who do it. The product grows the people who receive it. The profit grows the community.”

This is the philosophy behind everything that I do. I’m always questioning, if I’m doing the right thing. For example with pricing and being exposed to all the Internet marketing stuff, where you always walk this thin ethical line between manipulation and ethics. So I am questioning myself a lot.

Steve: I think that’s good. It’s what has made your software more successful, because you care about people being successful instead of your product being successful. FindFocus will be successful as a byproduct. And that’s a great attitude to have. It will make the product better.

You can see other software, where you clearly can see that the #1 priority is to make sure the sales are successful, and #2 is the actual product. It’s a real subtle difference but it changes the way you think and approach it. In the end you will make something more valuable. For cultural production, for scientific production, for well-being…

This is the thing I had to get comfortable. If I would walk into advertising with the skills I have I could probably be a millionaire but I cannot do it. (Laughs)

You care about people being successful instead of your product being successful.   FindFocus will be successful as a byproduct. And that’s a great attitude to have. It will make the product better.

Martin: Yes. I get that. I am an engineer but I love artists and like people who create the live they want to live. For me it’s not about the money. Lately I had a PhD asking if he could use FindFocus for a research project and I gave him a few licences for free. On the other hand the official price for FindFocus is $1000 for lifetime license.

If you really think in terms of value it worth it. For example if you just save 10 hours and value your time at $100 you will get a positive ROI already. In Western countries this is not that uncommon. Most people will see a positive ROI after only one month.

Steve: You are right. Maybe there is some kind of Stallman idea. You done all that research and you have the expertise of the software. Both together are helping people to stay on track. You could do coaching, where you can charge a bit more and talk about that kind of value.

Martin: Yes, I will probably do webinars in the future and add online coaching programs, where maybe they will get FindFocus as a bonus.

Steve: With all of the Stallman stuff, just think of it as a prompt, not a command. He came to one of my talks once.

Martin: Wow, cool.

Steve: I saw him in the audience and I had not been that nervous in a long time and hoped he was gonna like what I had to say. But he was really good about it.

Martin: Awesome. Thank you so much for the interview.

Steve: Sure. Thanks for reaching out. I really appreciate it.

Martin: Thank you for your time. Really appreciated it as well. 

About Steve Lambert

Steve Lambert made international news after the 2008 US election with The New York Times “Special Edition,” a replica of the “paper of record” announcing the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other good news. In the Summer of 2011 he began a national tour of Capitalism Works For Me! True/False – a 9 x 20ft sign allowing people to vote on whether capitalism worked for them . He has collaborated with groups from the Yes Men to the Graffiti Research Lab and Greenpeace. He is also the founder of the Center for Artistic Activism, the Anti-Advertising Agency, Add-Art (a Firefox add-on that replaces online advertising with art) and SelfControl (which blocks grownups from distracting websites so they can get work done).Steve’s projects and art works have won awards from Prix Ars Electronica, Rhizome/The New Museum, the Creative Work Fund, Adbusters Media Foundation, the California Arts Council, and others. Lambert’s work has been shown everywhere from museums to protest marches nationally and internationally, featured in over fourteen books, four documentary films, and is in the collections of The Sheldon Museum, the Progressive Insurance Company, and The Library of Congress. Lambert has discussed his work live on NPR, the BBC, and CNN, and been reported on internationally in outlets including Associated Press, the New York Times, the Guardian, Harper’s Magazine, The Believer, Good, Dwell, ARTnews, Punk Planet, and Newsweek.

Similar Posts