The remarkable effects of going 24 hours without the internet

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…

Planning ahead

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.

Recommendations

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.

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Comments

  1. Joanne Kamens says

    Sad…I am an orthodox Jewish scientist and have done this with my entire family and many friends every week for my entire life. The impact on relationships is huge. I don’t understand how anyone stays sane without it.

  2. DM says

    Thanks for the challenge! Do you have any thoughts on the free software “SelfControl” (for Mac) as opposed to Freedom?

    Knowing myself, “cold turkey” is really the best option when it comes to the Internet. I’ve done most of my research at this point, and I just need to get drafts written. Being wired at this point is more of a distraction, a chance for me to procrastinate through escapism or through shady justifications of “let’s research more.” I recall you said you cut Internet access to your apartment when you were writing for those three months, and I’ve done the same. There’s a cafe and library near by for me to go to when I need to use the Internet. It can be challenging at times, but I know it’s the right decision for me. I keep telling myself, if I gather up all the time I waste on the internet, I can use that time toward being done sooner and gettin’ on with my life!!! :)

  3. Babu says

    Hi James,
    I also followed your advice on being away from internet and I succeeded even I was working on my computer whole day. It was really not easy to stay away in many occassion when I need some more information during my study, but I fixed my mind to be away. I helped me develop my confidence to work without internet which is really making us so dependent beside its remarkable service…

    So, I did… Thanks James…

  4. Aisha says

    Thank you james. I really need to work on this. I feel agitated when I can’t seem to write and having blocks, and consequently I go online to keep myself calm and busy. But I guess it’s the internet distraction that cease the idea from flowing. This inability to focus is depressing and like a vicious cycle it makes me more unproductive and slow from getting my work done. I hope I have more self control.

  5. Anja says

    Hi James,
    I tried it myself and it was a relief to not to got to the internet. I went out with friends. Slept longer and had a nice evening doing other things like reading a magazine which is groing in staples on my desk.

    I’ll do it more often. For a start once a month! Thanks for the great idea!
    Best

    Anja

  6. Joseph says

    Thank you very much for the great post and the software you proposed. I always have problems with self discipline when it comes to internet you and this software and your suggestions have been a great help

  7. Cyril says

    Thank you James for proposing this great idea, it definitely challenged us, and one of the important aspects I learned was that it re-shifted my priorities. Also, it taught me to relax and take time to enjoy the nature outside the world laptops. Thanks again,

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