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Based on their comprehensive review of available research, Duckworth, Milkman, and Laibson propose a framework that organizes evidence-based self-control strategies along two dimensions based on how the strategies are implemented and who is initiating them.
They observe that in some cases the best self-control strategy involves us changing the situation to create incentives or obstacles that help us exercise self-control, such as using apps that restrict our phone usage or keeping junk food out of the house. In other cases it’s more effective to change how we think about the situation — for example, by making an if-then plan to anticipate how we’ll deal with treats in the office — so that exercising self-control becomes more appealing or easier to accomplish.
Other strategies work better when someone else implements them for us. For example, our electricity company might use social norms to prompt a change in our thinking, showing us how our energy usage compares with that of our neighbors. And policymakers often use situational constraints to prompt behavior focused on the long-term. Examples range from incentives (e.g., tax rebates for eco-friendly building materials) to penalties (e.g., raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol). Employers are increasingly using another type of situational constraint, defaults, to encourage employees to save for retirement; many are requiring people to opt out of an employer-provided retirement plan if they don’t want to participate.
Giving advice, as opposed to receiving it, appears to help unmotivated people feel powerful because it involves reflecting on knowledge that they already have. So if you’re completely clueless about the resources or strategies necessary for progress, asking for help is probably the best first step. But if you (like most of us), know what you need to do, but are having trouble actually doing it, giving someone advice may be the push you need.