I am an internet fiend. There are no two ways about it; the internet to me is like kryptonite to Superman, or sugar to your average student: when I’m around it the sheer potential of the things you could do and the people you could connect with and the jobs you could nail and the stuff you could learn…just…it just melts me, and before I know it a minute has turned to ten, ten has turned to fifteen and fifteen has turned to sixty.
So it was always going to be interesting going to live in Unplugged Extreme territory.
As you can imagine, I learned a lot from doing so.
When we moved to Era, there was no post office, no courier service, no mobile phone signal, no landlines and no internet. If you wanted to talk to someone who didn’t live within walking distance, you had to, well, walk further, or send a handwritten note with someone who was going that way, or…yodel. Loudly.
It was quite the change from London.
The first and most immediate consequence of this was that I missed my loves ones A LOT.
There were other, more positive consequences though. Of course, it’s notoriously hard to prove causality, so I can’t really claim that because we didn’t have an internet connection, I spent less time on screens, got fewer migraines, went to bed earlier, slept better, focused well, and had a far less flitty brain. I can’t prove that not having an internet connection had anything to do with the greater feeling of being present, or my ability to sit, waiting, with nothing to do, for extended periods of time and not feel impatient or bored. I can’t prove that not having an internet connection allowed me to think without manic mental jumping around, or to feel free from endless demands, or to sit in silence without reaching for entertainment. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect it.
Both Aaron and I so strongly suspect it, in fact, that we sat down several times in the process of transitioning back to the world of wifi and asked ourselves an important question:
How can we use the internet as a tool?
We love the internet. It’s an incredibly powerful, incredibly accessible tool. The problem is, if I’m not careful, I don’t use it as a tool. I use it as a default, a distraction, a procrastination device, a hit, or a form of escapism. This isn’t very healthy for me. It affects my sleep, my relationships, my time management, my work, and, ultimately, my happiness.
So we had to figure out a way to come back to the world of wifi, get access to this incredibly powerful tool, and not let it destroy our lives.
The first thing we tried was the most obvious: when we moved into our own place, we didn’t hook our house up with an internet connection. This worked OK, and we lived like that for about seven months. After all, we reasoned, free wifi is never more than half an hour’s walk away, which is certainly a lot closer than our first few months in Era – how hard can it be?
This worked as a way to use the internet as a tool instead of a default. The problem was there were a lot of jobs that it was easier, cheaper and more secure to do online. We ended up spending a decent amount of time hunting for free wifi, and we spent more money on coffees (to get access to the free wifi) than we would have done on having our own connection. This might work for some people (and if it does, make sure you protect yourself with VPN – Virtual Private Network – because free wifi is never secure), but for us it was introducing more stress, more time use and less money into our lives, so we needed something better.
So we hooked up our house and tried some other solutions. I knew one idea would just be to improve my will power, and it’s not like I’ve ruled that out, but I also wanted to create an environment conducive to success. Internet marketing is powerful; have you ever logged on to Facebook to do a job, and then, ten minutes later, realise that not only have you not done it, but you have forgotten what you logged on to do? Yeah, me too. I know that to do my best work and to live my best life I need to set myself up to succeed in my goal of making sure the internet is productive instead of destructive in my life.
The first thing we tried was to plug our router into a timer plug. That way, it automatically turned itself off at certain times of day. This worked pretty well, because when it turned itself off we remembered that it was a time of day when we didn’t really need the internet, and we were just getting distracted. It was still easy to get distracted during work hours, though, and – here’s the big flaw – timer plugs are really easy to override.
Another option I tried is RescueTime. This free app records what you spend your time on your computer doing, and sends you a weekly report. It’s a reality check. You can classify your time use according to how productive it is, create daily goals (like “spend less than an hour a day on ‘distracting’ activities” or “spend more than eight hours a day on ‘productive’ activities”) and keep track of your progress by logging into your dashboard. Sometimes, a reality check goes a long way.
Aaron took this to the next level, and installed software on his computer that actually blocks certain websites, including his email (!), after he’s used up an allocated amount of time. This, rather radically, means that if he spends an hour wasting time on Facebook, he won’t be able to check his emails until the next day. I frequently hear comments from him like “hang on, hang on…SEND…phew…log out…” and look over to see him talking to his computer as the amount of time he’s allocated himself dials down to the cut off point. He finds this system pretty effective because he’s good at prioritising, and he’s still keeping up with his emails!
I feel like I need a bit more flexibility than that, because I genuinely do use Facebook, Twitter and email for work. The best idea, for me so far, is to literally switch our defaults. Have you ever thought about why so many of us have the internet connected by default in our house at all times? I’m trying to switch it up, and have our internet switched off in the house by default. This achieves several things. For one thing, it’s much easier to get engrossed in fully-focused work when there is no “potential” sitting three or four clicks away. If I do mindlessly open my browser or click a link, I get an connectivity error message, which causes me to stop and think about what I’m doing and why. As our internet takes about three or four minutes to boot up, I save up my jobs, then turn on the internet once and do them all with some focus. It’s quicker than walking to a wifi cafe but it’s still not instant access, so I’m less likely to get waylaid. Sometimes I’m tempted to turn to the internet to “rest” but I generally find other forms of rest more restful, so having to intentionally turn on the router and wait for it to boot in order to “rest” makes me think twice.
Changing the defaults seems to help me to use the internet intentionally instead of as a default, a procrastination device, a hit, or a form of escapism. It doesn’t stop me from getting distracted once the router is on, but I think that’s where the timer comes in. If I’m turning on the internet for a specific reason, whether for work or entertainment, I have an idea in my mind about how long I’m planning to use it for. Setting the plug timer to turn off the router after a specified period of time is one way to introduce a bit of accountability.
This latest method is a new idea, so I’m still trying it out. So far, it is proving to be the best solution for me, especially when complemented by the one method that both Aaron and I have used for a while and both find really important to our quality of life: unplug regularly. We frequently get out of the house with nothing but one switched-off phone. We’ll walk for a couple of hours or lie on the beach for a couple of days. Whatever it is, for however long, we find we need that time to completely unplug again and again.
Those of us who have the internet in our homes and our pockets, have an amazing tool at our fingertips. It is a tool that our society has become very dependent on it, for better and for worse. Personally, I want to participate and learn to use this powerful tool well but I also want to limit the potential damage it can do in my life. After all, any powerful tool can be used for great good and for great ill.
What about you? Are you addicted to the internet? Do you find yourself frustrated at the negative consequences of having it in your life as well as the positive ones? Have you found tools and methods that help you limit the damage? Do you ever just wish you could be unplugged?