Last weekend, I challenged myself to spend an entire day offline. No email, no Facebook, no news websites, no YouTube…
It was a challenge to break that default habit of going online at the first hint of boredom or distraction, to see if I could do it and what the effects would be.
The results were more profound than I expected…
Because the internet is now ubiquitous, we don’t think about it any more.
When you turn on a computer or phone, the first thing most of us do is get online without a moment’s thought, in the same way that you turn on the lights when you walk into a room.
But if you know that tomorrow you won’t be able to check the internet at all, it forces you to plan ahead. The internet becomes a scarce resource, and you start to think about what you need to do in the limited time available.
- What do you need to get done while you have time?
- What information do you need for tomorrow?
If you not only think ahead, but also take small steps to prepare, you are much more likely to be physically and mentally ready the next day.
Space to think
When you remove the option of going online, it leaves a vacuum which has to be filled with something.
It is very difficult to sit and do nothing. If you have ever tried meditation, you will know that there is a constant stream of thoughts and ideas flowing through your head which is impossible to stop.
As an academic some of those thoughts and ideas might be useful, but the internet acts as a kind of creative anesthesia… it stops you thinking by filling your mind with fluff.
Some say that the best ideas happen when you are taking a shower. Maybe this is because you have the space, in the absence of incoming information, simply to think.
Learning to relax
If you go a full day without checking email, then you know and accept that there will be unread messages sitting waiting for you when you come back online.
I think if you want to do good work, you have to learn to ignore that which does not matter in the short term to focus on the more important.
My mantra, when I was writing my PhD thesis, was to say, “it’s OK, I’ll deal with that later” whenever I was distracted by the temptation of some other task unrelated to what I was working on.
Likewise, on Sunday I told myself, “it’s OK, I’ll deal with email tomorrow”. The surprising effect was that this meant I was better able to deal with email by doing it all in one chunk, rather than individual emails competing for attention with the work I was trying to do.
Cold turkey is easier than rationing
Cutting off the internet completely is easier than rationing it. You could try saying, “I’ll just go online for 2 hours per day”, but this is incredibly difficult to stick to! How do you monitor it? And once you are in that internet-numbed mental state, how do you stop yourself rationalising “just 5 minutes more”.
It is much easier to stick to a binary rule, than a quantitative one. This is why no-carb diets are so much easier to stick to than calorie counting ones; it is clear-cut, do or don’t do, rather than do, but only up to this arbitrary limit.
The effect on productivity and quality of life
I got a ton of work done during my offline day, but I also had more time to relax.
Because I didn’t use the internet as a break, whenever I ran out of momentum I stepped away from the computer. It opened up other options, like going for a run, phoning a friend, tidying up; all small things that improve the quality of life.
When the internet is the default whenever you get bored, the opportunity cost is huge.
It is not easy to escape the internet, and the best way is to remove the option wherever possible. I recommend using freedom, a program which turns off your internet connection for a set period of time. It costs $10, but pays for itself many times over in terms of the time it gives back (no affiliation, I recommend it because I use it).
I also recommend practice. When you get stuck in your work walk away from the computer and give yourself time to think. When you get bored, stop and do nothing and see what ideas come to mind.
Do those few simple things, and I believe it will not only improve your work, but your whole life.