Lab Rat: What Happens When You Unplug from Your Internet Addiction?

Let me begin by saying that I love the Internet more than anybody I know. I love that it keeps me connected, I love that it keeps me informed, and most of all, I love that it helps me blur the lines between business, pleasure, and complete mindlessness. Yet, after a veritable orgy of web browsing over the holiday break, I began to debate the pros and cons of unfettered access.

While I was constantly searching for ways to become more efficient at work, I was idling away my free time with trivial eBay pursuits and constant email monitoring. Could an online cleanse be in order?After some soul searching, I decided to take a two-week leap into digital darkness – limiting my internet, TV, and cell phone access to working hours. Here, I document the journey – the acting out, the anger, the eventual acceptance – and a few realizations I had along the way. Not surprisingly, it reads a bit like the journal of a recovering addict…

DAY 1: Begrudging Compliance

I awoke in the morning slightly annoyed that I was unable to view those 43 pending emails that glowed red on my iPhone as I was turning off my alarm. But, alas, I had a new life to live! While walking to the subway, I felt great about an undistracted opportunity to soak up the sights. I actually noticed things I had failed to see on the route I’d been walking for a year and a half. Not a bad start.
 
As the day wore on, I frantically switched between my Google Reader, personal mail, IMs, and Twitter, and pit of dread began to settle in my stomach. What exactly would I do after left the office? And how could I possibly leave all of this work unfinished?
 
The evening seemed to drag along in slow-mo. Although I had a stack of books at my disposal, I was unable to focus on them. I flitted between several activities: rearranging the apartment, dipping into magazines, and exercising. None of them seemed satisfying or complete. Had years of blog-reading ruined my attention span?
 

DAY 2: Depression & Defiance

On the second morning, I became quite frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t access my computer for simple, non-browsing reasons. Needing to grab a document I had recently digitized, the only thing I could do was lug my laptop into work and view it at my desk. That cool new band my Dad told me I had to check out? Ditto on the lugging. Computers and the Internet are useful, important tools. This we know. I start to feel like my experiment has veered from an exercise in self-control into extreme Ludditism.
 
The evening was the worst. I pouted, I whined, and I’m fairly certain that at one point, I cried, “A life without the Internet is not worth living!” Instead of doing anything offline, I settled for bed at 9:30pm.While I was constantly searching for ways to become more efficient at work, I was idling away my free time with trivial eBay pursuits and constant email monitoring. 

DAYS 6-8: Acceptance & Insight


As my withdrawal symptoms started to subside, I settled into a nice pattern of dinner-workout-household project-reading during. I hadn’t been this productive or at ease in years.
Even so, I concluded that a tendency to procrastinate is not a symptom of Internet use. While technology can certainly amplify and enable a tendency to dawdle, every online time-waster has and equally effective offline cousin. Gossip? Grab an US Weekly. And what’s the true difference between a water cooler conversation and an IM session?
The trick is to identify which activities are truly important to you, and proactively shape your schedule around them. Then the activities that are not truly fulfilling just fall away. Admittedly, this becomes much easier when the lure of instant gratification on the Internet is off limits.

DAYS 8-10: Backsliding & Disillusionment

Since I’ve decided that weekend access is OK, I literally spring out of bed on Saturday morning to see what digital glories await. TV on, Internet up. Puzzlingly, I become bored after 45 minutes. Suddenly, I have begun to analyze my surfing tendencies. Is this information really enriching my life? Do I need to spend four hours searching for the perfect shoes, or can I settle on 30 minutes? The rest of the weekend was spent disconnected.
 
With the fortnight nearly complete, I’ve become much better at delegating my work hours. Now, I’m less apt to waste time, and I’m settling into a zone of focus more naturally. I’ve also become much more exacting in my personal communications – my Twitter feed was refined and useless newsletters were unsubscribed from.
 
I found that I was spending an inordinate amount of time on things that didn’t seem important when processed in small doses, but became a substantial time-suck when aggregated. I’ve definitely become more aware of what truly requires attention urgently, and increasingly, it isn’t much.

DAY 14 (and beyond): Surrender

As I wound the experiment down, I found myself dedicated to pursuing a myriad of new activities, and pleasingly I was able to devote attention to all of them. Being mindful of really investing yourself in whatever you are doing at that moment – whether it’s checking emails, reading a book, or lazing around on the couch – is a huge step. When you’re doing something, do it fully, and when you need to move on, do it consciously. You’ll be surprised by how little you “need” to complete a particular task at a particular time. I’ve found that most of the deadlines and time constraints I had been stressing about were pretty arbitrary.
 
It’s hard to imagine another two-week experiment that would offer so many lessons. A quick summary of the most notable revelations:

TAKEAWAYS:

1. Attention is elastic. Spending all my time online seemed to have narrowed my attention span. When I started spending more time away from my computer, I found I could focus for longer periods of time more easily.
 
2. Computers are actually quite useful tools, when used moderately and sparingly. As with any relationship, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When that relationship is with a computer, I would say absence makes the time spent together grow more productive.
 
3. The Internet doesn’t waste time, people do. Procrastination knows no bounds. It’s just as easy to waste time offline as on. However, I did find myself more likely to pursue enriching activities (e.g. reading, exercising, and catching up with family) when forced to spend time away from my desk.
 
4. Not everything is urgent. Connectedness helps breed a constant sense of urgency. When you take some time “off,” you realize that many of those pressing items can, and will, wait.
 
5. Mindfulness is important. It’s easy to drift through your workday (and beyond), sailing along on a steady stream of emails, web links, and phone calls. Remember that you call the shots, and spend your time (consciously!) according to what you want to accomplish.

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