Offline Sunday: a challenge for the internet-addicted

The internet is now so ubiquitous in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine living without it. It is an incredible resource and invaluable tool, but for many of us (myself included) the line between useful tool and harmful addiction has blurred.

The internet is, without doubt, the biggest productivity killer, because it is the comforting presence always within easy reach whenever you lose momentum with your work or get distracted. It is the default habit we often resort to under stress, to escape momentarily from the responsibility, burden, or boredom of the task at hand.

In this blog post, I’m not going to suggest a cure, but rather a challenge to show the scale of the problem.

The Challenge…

The challenge is simple: spend 24 hours completely cut off from the internet

No email, no Facebook, and definitely no Twitter. No news websites, no blogs, and no amusing videos of cats on YouTube.

Although the challenge is simple in principle, it may not be quite so easy in practice. But the idea is to help you develop an awareness of…

  • your dependency on the internet (if you fail)
  • what can happen when the internet isn’t an option (if you succeed)

Sunday is a good day to choose to try the challenge, because it’s easier to get away with not answering emails. I’m going to try it on Sunday 15th December 2013, and will write a post about the experience afterwards.

Join me in the challenge by not joining me online!

offline-sunday

The default habit…

For me at least, the internet is a default habit.

Whenever I am unsure what to do, the first thought that comes to mind is always to check email. Then while the email is loading I’ll open another tab with my second email account, then another with Facebook. Then after scanning those I’ll often open a news website, check for new TED talks, open Google Analytics to check traffic to the site, check Mailchimp to see how the email list is growing, then back to Facebook where I’m chatting with 3 people at the same time, then I’ll notice another email has come in…

Since getting a smartphone, I sometimes do this before even getting out of bed. I’ll then get up, have breakfast, and still be checking my phone while eating… There’s no good reason to do so, it’s just a compulsion.

It’s a problem when a useless habit takes precedence over a basic need, such as food!

Why the internet is so addictive

In terms of usefulness, the internet spans a range from essential to utterly and mind-numbingly pointless (search for “nyan.cat” if you don’t know what I mean).

If we only used when there was some positive benefit then it would be fine, but often the possibility of finding something useful is used as a justifiable first step towards the pointless crap. You convince yourself that you’ll “just check email quickly, in case there is a reply from the boss…”, but it’s never quick, and it’s never just email.

This possibility of there sometimes being something useful or interesting or amusing is what makes it so addictive. The occasional reward reinforces the behaviour in the same way that an occasional win reinforces gambling addiction.

What happens when you remove the default option of the internet

When the internet isn’t an option, you’re forced to think. You have to decide what to do, rather than automatically taking the default option.

It might not be comfortable at first. You might find yourself creating reasons why you need to go online, but if you resist for even just half an hour, you’ll hopefully find that you start getting creative in terms of things to do.

Even if you do nothing, you are at least giving yourself some time to think, which is pretty important for an academic.

It’s an experiment

I don’t know if this will work, but let’s try, just out of curiosity to see what happens. Who’s in?

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Comments

  1. orlik says

    ah i came up with this a while ago… same name too. even made an event on fb for it. didn’t prove too popular but I was certainly more productive.

  2. Naomi J. says

    I’ll be trying this. I’ll allow myself Kindle, as it’s offline – just an e-reader. But everything else electronic is going away! (As I watch TV via the internet.) Should be really good for me!

  3. Julie says

    I recommend this, as someone who did their first degree and grew up before the internet really existed (no, not a dinosaur, just in my 40s and doing a doctorate). We even (gasp!) handwrote all our essays and labs. If you don’t know what to do, it may just be that all your hobbies etc happen to have become based on internet connectivity- don’t panic, think of how many hundreds of years all this didn’t exist and people still did amazing things, had fascinating hobbies and worthwhile lives. Why not spend a whole luxurious day doing something you really like?

    If you are panicking, why not use a moment before the self-imposed blackout to find somewhere to go for a walk, a new cafe to eat in, a hobby or activity to try? Read an old-style book, visit a friend, make a landline phone call to your parents, meditate…walk the dog, cuddle up with your partner, tidy the house or garden…so many things don’t need your devices, but also fill your mind and if you enjoy them, you’ll enter that magical state of “flow” where you could stay doing whatever it is forever. That could even be reading some articles you’ve been meaning to get to or a really key academic book- but in the spirit of this these would have to be paper ones. Some of my loveliest days are spent doing other often practical stuff, then reaching the end of the day and realising I haven’t checked my email or switched on the computer and it doesn’t actually matter; anything really urgent people will probably call me, and everything else can wait til the morning.

    I try to use the web as a tool and spare brain to find stuff out- and although I’m quite good at this I too get pulled into loops of interesting articles, checking my online shop (I make handicrafts and sell them in my spare time) and emails. I can usually check those within 10 minutes, make a list of things that need making/posting/doing in the physical world and switch off and go do them. I do worry if out and about (I don’t have a smartphone) and I feel the need to know something- but there are other ways to find stuff out, and often not knowing something can be good. I’ve been learning mindfulness to manage stress and one suggestion is- don’t overplan and over-research everything. Why not turn up to the cinema at a randomly chosen time and pick a film from what’s on when you get there?

    But I too will make an effort not to go online Sunday- it’s always good to practice control and not get too addicted!

  4. Sita says

    I have already tried to stay offline for one day or more, and it’s very useful to enjoy other good things of my life. I often try to stay offline on Saturdays or Sundays and also on holiday, and I feel very very good. My problem is avoiding Internet surfing while working, I mean, beating procrastination. I’m quite addicted to it.

    I’ve read that to change an habit you need only 21 days. So at the biginning of November I promised not to check Facebook before dinner for one month. I achieved the challenge, but I’ve not changed my habits: since the day after the challenge I re-started to check Facebook whenever I want, with the consequent decrease of my productivity (and a deep sense of dissatisfaction).

    So, I really recommend you to try the “offline Sunday” (I will repeat the experience this Sunday with you), but I also know that changing an habit is more difficult than a one-day experience.

    Thank you!

  5. grace says

    I am definitely going to try this. I can’t imagine though what i will do to fill my day. But i guess thats the point of the whole experiment. Let see how it goes!
    Thanks.

  6. Lillian says

    Completely disconnecting from all the internet isn’t truly an option for me because I work in what can sometimes be a time-sensitive environment and also because of my family traditions of communication (my sister is in China, my parents and my husband are on the US East Coast, so we use the internet to call each other). However, what I’ve found to be helpful is to give myself a time limit on checking email – particularly on my phone – and then simply sign out of email accounts on my computer, block specific websites during specific hours using browser extensions, and ultimately switch off the wifi for X amount of time while I am working. I found it really difficult to completely unplug for an entire day, but to go without internet for an hour or two – no problem! The same with Facebook, Twitter, etc – by using the browser blockers, I found myself not caring about it and then only checking for 10 minutes after I completed work for the day.

    I think that unplugging for some period of time can be helpful, but for me, an entire day would be anti-productive.

  7. Reem says

    I am going to try this next Friday, Sunday is working day here in Dubai! It looks like a useful technique to get used to.

    Thanks

  8. Usman Sharif says

    I will undertake this challenge also. Working in IT (using a computer for +48hrs a week) and undertaking a PhD means I am constantly connected to the internet via various different mediums. As James has previously mentioned ‘staying connected’ can be a form of procrastination and therefore to ensure I stick to this challenge I will be using ‘Freedom’ and also switching off all mobile devices.

    Good luck to all.

  9. Marium says

    I’m in! I think this will be a great exercise in untethering ourselves from the draw of the internet – not just that day, but at times when we are supposed to be focusing on our work. When we see we can do it for a day, it empowers us to make wiser decisions in the future. Thanks for this great challenge!

  10. Sepideh says

    Hi, I am in. I tried before this technique and I slept for more than 12 hours and the rest eating and during night start to crying!!!! I am addicted to internet!!

    But, I will try this time, and will not use my smart phone also.

    Thanks
    Sepideh

    • James Hayton says

      well don’t put yourself under too much pressure. This isn’t necessarily about getting loads of work done, but rather just avoiding that default habit. If you need to sleep, sleep!

  11. Dominic Hosler says

    OK, sounds interesting I’m in.
    I also have a smartphone and yes, I often check twitter / emails before getting out of bed.
    Lets see how it goes on Sunday 15th.
    I’ll switch off my phone’s data and wifi connections for the entire day (but still be contactable via actuall calls and text messages, this isn’t a day without technology after all).
    I also don’t have a computer at home at the moment so that will make this challenge a whole lot easier.

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