Switch to mobile version

How to Make the Internet Small Again

Post image for How to Make the Internet Small Again

In a recent online discussion, several peers made a simple claim I want to test out: when you take a break from the activities you know are eroding your attention span—mostly phone and internet habits–you notice it improving after only a day or two.

My attention span has certainly worsened over the last ten years (especially the last two), and this worsening seems to correlate with how much I use the internet. I presume it is a two-way relationship—a shredded attention span makes it more difficult to absorb yourself in offline activities, which makes online activities more appealing, and so on.

I immediately began planning the simple experiment of staying offline for three days, and quickly realized that such a break would just create a speedbump, not a lasting change. I could see myself dumping my laptop in a drawer, blocking my fun phone apps for 72 hours, then catching up on my missed messages and Wordle puzzles on day four, essentially rebounding me right back into always-online mode.

Instead of that, I want to use this experiment to see precisely where the internet has attached its creeping tendrils to my mind and body, by violently severing all of them all for a few days. Will I be bored? Lonely? Will people hate me for being unavailable? Will I have to guess at the public library’s Wednesday hours?

When the internet lived downstairs

Once I have some idea why and where I’ve come to need an always-on relationship to the internet, I’m going to sit down with a pencil and work out how I can meet my legitimate online needs while staying completely offline at least a few days a week, and only partly online on the other days.

That is my dream—to live in 2022 but use the internet like we used it in the ‘90s and early 2000s, when internet access was tied to desktop computers you had to share with others. “Online” was a place you went to look things up, exchange messages, goof off, or explore—but only for a part of the day, and not every day. The internet was small compared to your real life, which was something that happened offline.

A good day’s work, c. 1997

I articulated this desire a few years ago, in a post called It’s Time to Put the Internet Back into a Box in the Basement:

I want my internet confined to a box in the basement again. Such a box would still be supremely powerful—or it could be, if we could keep it from constantly fragmenting our limited time, stoking our insecurities, and dulling our ability to focus. We certainly wouldn’t want to be opening the box fifty times daily, a few minutes at a time, as we tend to do today.

I want to go down to the basement after work, put my messages and my writings into the box, take other people’s messages and writings out, and read them in my easy chair. And I want a big mechanical switch to shut it all off when I’m done with it.

This vision was and still is very clear to me, but I didn’t do any more than write that wishful rant about it.

The other day, when I pondered taking a three-day “detox” to heal my frayed attention span, I realized it would teach me a lot about what I actually need the internet for and what I don’t. Afterward, I can use what I learn to design the more curated, limited relationship with the internet that I actually want.

Perhaps I’d clear my correspondence two days a week, research and reading-material downloads another day, and browse social media for an hour on Saturdays. Writing and creating would happen strictly offline, either on an unplugged laptop or a typewriter, and I’d go online only to publish. I don’t know quite what form my new online routines would take, but I know they won’t involve all-day-every-day grazing.

So I’m starting with the three-days-off experiment, taking copious notes on my typewriter. This short break has two purposes:

1. To see if my attention span improves noticeably in a short time, as some claim.

2. To discover exactly why it is so damn hard not to be online all the time.

Ultimately, the goal is not to stop using the internet, or even minimize its use, but to put it back into a box in the basement where it belongs. The first step is to discover what I’m up against. If I find a way to make the internet small again, I’ll write a book about it so others can do it too.

What does “three days off the internet” mean exactly?

Basically, I’m going to spend as much of the three days as possible away from the internet, without entering a kind of unsustainable hermit-mode that I can’t wait to rebound from.

This entails two essential changes.

First, the phone. I’m going to shut off mobile data, and tether the phone to the wall of my kitchen, where I can use it for calls and text. I’ll take it with me when I go out, data still off. Text notifications will be disabled and I won’t worry about turnaround time. I look forward to chatting on the phone with my pals while I’m sitting in a kitchen chair, like it’s 1996.

I will still use my phone to play music or audiobooks, which doesn’t require data to be on. (I have a Bluetooth speaker and headphones so I can keep the phone in the kitchen.)

Single-purpose devices are totally metal

Second, the computer. I’m going to put my laptop on a shelf, closed, and leave it there, with a few scheduled exceptions. While in the future I do intend to write on my laptop (with wi-fi off), for this three days I’m going to write everything on my typewriter, including my journal entries for this experiment. I want to use single-purpose nonelectronic tools wherever I can.

I’m going to email a few certain people in my life to let them know I’m doing this. Everyone else will have to find out the hard way. (I’m interested to see how much real fallout this creates—I suspect less than I fear.)

The three days will be this coming Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. I’ll post a debriefing sometime after I’m done.  

Dealing with exceptions

During the experiment, any tasks requiring the internet will be recorded on a clipboard, to be batch-processed after the experiment period is over.

However, I do expect to run into situations where using the internet is unavoidable. I will address any website problems or other urgent issues, for example.

The only time I know I will use the internet is for two evening Zoom calls, one on the Saturday and one on the Monday, which I intend to keep. These are social events (D&D sessions with friends, to be specific) that are good and healthy and exactly what I want to be using internet technology for. We’d do it sitting around a table if we could.

There may also be times when using the internet is avoidable, but avoiding it is absurd. For example, if I forget the address of the place I’m going to, I’ll look it up rather than shrugging and going home. In these cases I will turn data on, use the required tool, then turn it off again, without smuggling in any frivolous stuff.

A window onto worlds — when you want one

I’m also going to let some things simply blow up, rather than try to resolve them all beforehand. I’ll auto-forfeit some ongoing chess games. My fantasy hockey team may lose. I’ll break my Wordle streak. My hope is that any such breakdowns will illuminate the many pointless ways I’ve committed myself to being online all the time.

How will I spend the time?

I expect to have more time on my hands, and I’d like to redirect it to reading, exercise, meditation, creative work, and other rewarding activities I often pretend I don’t have enough time for. I’ll cook from cookbooks and paper recipe cards. In other words, I’ll dive into my offline hobbies, Depth Year style.

I’ll also socialize as much as I can, in person when possible. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot about how much I lean on online platforms to replace real interaction.

I’ll still use Netflix and other TV streaming services, because that’s how movies are watched these days, and I don’t think it’s movies that are fragmenting my attention. I won’t use YouTube though – that’s a different animal.

As always, you’re welcome to join me if you like, even for just a day or a part of one. I’d love to hear what you learn. You can post your insights in the comments.

***

Photos by Brent Dalling, Alejandro Escamilla, Hosein Zanbori, and Pavan Trikatum

Need help focusing?

The big productivity books are written by people who don't especially struggle with productivity.

The rest of us find other ways. I shared mine in this post.

Linda Myers February 3, 2022 at 12:05 am

I did a mini-withdrawal. On January 1 I stopped using CNN’s website a couple of dozen times a day. I read NYTimes and WaPO via email, and that’s enough.

Next week I’m going to sign into Facebook three times a day instead of keeping it up all the time.

Maybe I’ll read more!

Elisa Winter February 3, 2022 at 6:08 am

Hi, Linda! Me too…. Except I went cold turkey off all news. A couple of weeks ago. All apps gone. My nervous system could not take another second of any of it. Mostly I was down to just reading the NYTimes from a much more voluminous and varied news diet. Now, it’s only the crossword puzzle for me. I don’t feel out of touch, not yet, anyway. And I also feel far less crushed by the news onslaught. I don’t think we’re meant to live in a sea of nonstop provocation. Glad to see others twisting the “news” tourniquet.

Kevin February 3, 2022 at 6:49 am

If I can offer a suggestion; I installed the “Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator” Chrome extension, and it made a world of difference. Once installed, the newsfeed is replaced with a quote. You can still check in/see whatever you want on the platform, but just adding that little bit of friction suddenly makes FB a LOT less appealing.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:45 am

I’ve heard people swear by this. I should try it.

Kevin February 3, 2022 at 8:49 pm

It made all the difference in the world for me. It made the site almost boring?

Mike Riley February 8, 2022 at 8:26 am

I was able to give up FaceBook almost completely, visiting it only once or twice a month usually to see a Marketplace listing or something like that. I had this suspicion that Facebook was having a more negative impact on my life than it was a positive impact and that turned out to be the case in a big way. FOMO is still a thing but it’s a small price to pay to stop Facebook from sapping the life out of me in a million small ways.

Tracy February 3, 2022 at 1:56 am

Funny enough, I just set a mini notebook on my desk this week to collect and batch internet tasks as they occur to me rather than disrupting my flow, with the intent of being more intentional about my internet use. I’ve still noticed myself getting unintentionally distracted when I open my phone, so a few days with data off is probably worth trying…

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:46 am

It seems like this part alone could make a huge difference and would be easy to implement. Instead of going online twenty times a day, you write down the reasons you need to and then batch-process them later. Most of them probably wouldn’t matter. I’ll know more in a few days.

Larry February 3, 2022 at 4:19 am

Hello David,
I wish you great success with this experiment. I know I am online too much; but my activity consists of only email and checking for new posts from subscribed channels on You Tube. No FB, games, puzzles etc. That’s it, and I feel like that is too much.
Other computer usage is genealogical research and an occasional search for knowledge / trivia.
Best of luck.

Rosie February 3, 2022 at 4:20 am

An excellent project, David. I’ll be very interested in your findings. I keep all notifications turned off except SMS and Whatsapp which helps, but am still very aware of the insidious nature of our relationship with the internet and the way it permeates our beings.

Victoria February 3, 2022 at 4:40 am

I think that by “internet” what people nowadays really mean is social media. I did a concious decision to detach from the second, but not the first a year ago, and without exaggeration, it changed my life. I get plenty of information to further my interests and hobbies from the internet, including youtube. But I never go to a hate-dumps like twitter, reddit, etc. Sadly news websites have fallen under second cathegory as well. I think people in the west have been tricked into thinking that collective bullying or hating a country\group of people makes the world a better place, it doesn’t of course, it only makes people more callous to other people.. I stopped with netflix either, and now watch only a few chosen movies\tv episodes a month.
I’ve got so much free time, that it allowed me to take up regular running, meditation, reading, serious cooking – I now can make myself almost any dish I used to go to restaurant for, and real life time consuming but rewarding hobbies. I never thought for example baking bread could make me so happy, but everything about the process from textures, smells to a final result is soul-filling. Or meeting foxes on the run in the forest was absolutely magical.
At first this decision felt sad, kind of like a breakup, but as the force of habit dissolved, I have become much happier and healthier person. Please forgive my english, not a first language. Kind regards, I love your blog, always lots of insights to think about

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:51 am

It is mostly social media for sure, although as you say, news and other parts of the internet are strongly integrated with social media (both its platforms and the general culture of it). I would love to find a way to cleanly separate out the parts that trouble me, but it’s no longer a matter of simple not going to facebook.com, twitter.com, etc. They all connect together, and the boundaries aren’t clear.

Sounds like you’ve done really well and I hope to do the same. I’m looking forward to the free time.

Deb February 3, 2022 at 5:28 am

Hi David, I really need to do something about my attention span too. It’s so bad now that I can barely read a book or watch a movie. I just don’t have the attention span for it. About a year ago I tried turning my phone off every morning from 9 to noon. I told people who were close to me that I was doing that and they adjusted and accepted it. Just breaking the tether for 3 hours a day was eye opening. It was extremely difficult the first couple days and I was shocked at how many times in 3 hours time I turn to my phone. I couldn’t believe how painful it was to have to wait a mere 3 hours to look up some random thing that really had no bearing on my life at all. The up side was, like you said, it got better quickly and my morning productivity around the house soared. I can’t wait to read the results of your experiment!

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:53 am

“I couldn’t believe how painful it was to have to wait a mere 3 hours to look up some random thing that really had no bearing on my life at all.”

This made me laugh out loud, thank you. It sounds like breaking those tethers to pointless online routines is the beginning of it in any case.

Elisa Winter February 3, 2022 at 6:15 am

And to think, David, that we have done this to ourselves. Do you sometimes feel like you’re living in that classic scene from A Clockwork Orange… eyes held open with metal clips staring at nonstop video awfulness? Tears spilling down? We sat in that chair and put those clips on willingly. I for one have no tears left.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:54 am

Hehe it is something like that. The least they could do is offer us eyedrops.

Kevin February 3, 2022 at 6:52 am

I’m going to join you on Saturday (or try, anyway). I have 1 small article I need to publish, but I may just schedule it to run ahead of time.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:55 am

Right on Kevin. Part of this is going to be managing exactly that — publishing and sharing my work, without getting caught in the surf when I do. I’m sure there are ways.

Kevin February 6, 2022 at 7:46 am

Update: I set similar carve outs as you. It went better than I thought it might.
Wound up “catching” myself clicking on Twitter and responding to someone, but that was about it.

Instead, I read a lot, watched some soccer, a little Ozark, and then my wife and I went out to dinner. A nice lazy Saturday. It was great.

DiscoveredJoys February 3, 2022 at 6:53 am

There’s Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) which becomes addictive. But there’s also Friends Of Switching Off (FOSO).

I’m a great believer in FOSO. It’s not completely cutting off, but I don’t do social media, I visit only selected web sites (grin) unless they get corrupted by monetisation. I watch very little TV and very few streamed films. I also rarely listen to podcasts – I find them hard work without a transcript.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:56 am

What is Friends of Switching Off?

DiscoveredJoys February 4, 2022 at 10:01 am

My own pet name for people who live a lightly connected life and also don’t expect *you* to know the plot of the latest series on TV or Netflix, are indifferent to who gets an OSCAR, and can quite happily sit and read a book.

Kevin February 3, 2022 at 6:54 am

EDIT: Same with a couple of tweets for my Substack page…

Jenni February 3, 2022 at 7:01 am

I love this!
I’ve cut Way back on Facebook. I don’t miss it.
My problem is memory. I can’t think of things, so I automatically turn to Google. Adding or multiplying numbers in my head is something I need to return to instead of automatically turning to my phone/calculator. When my phone is dead it is obvious how often I turn to it as the Great Guru!
I look forward to your results and insights.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 9:59 am

I am wondering if maybe memory recall (and other types of thinking) are also diminished by our dependence on the internet. We certainly are worse at reading maps. Maybe these skills will return with a little manual practice.

Kent F. February 3, 2022 at 7:40 am

Great post David! Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been working from home and my office is quite literally in my basement. I love the flexibility working from home offers me, but have found that with the computer and office setup there I spend more ‘non-work’ time putzing around on the internet in front of the computer and have been observing the results in myself and experimenting with different tweaks with regards to computer and phone use. I think I will give a variant of your method a try, including limiting my phone to pretty much traditional ‘phone’ use – and texts.

We’ll see how it goes!

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:01 am

I have a similar issue, although I’m learning to bring my laptop out of my office before putzing around on it, so that I don’t begin (or continue) to associate the office with online recreation. Best of luck with your self-intervention :)

Kay February 3, 2022 at 7:56 am

As far as being immersed in the news (a real problem for me), now I just read the headlines of one of the big dailies. I can’t read the articles, because I’m not a subscriber :)
That, and the Sunday paper we have delivered, give me all the news I need

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:02 am

Haha! Paywall to the rescue!

Tara February 3, 2022 at 8:46 am

I just removed nearly all of my FB feed last night, as it was making me anxious and stressed. I would delete FB altogether but have a few friends/social groups I would lose contact with if I did that. So I periodically prune my feed aggressively, because I get sucked in to following other stuff. I did delete FB off my phone, it is only on my ipad now.

My goal has been to spend only 60 minutes a day on email/fb but I constantly exceed that, it’s so addictive and lazy.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:04 am

In a comment above, Kevin recommended a browser extension that eliminates the news feed — you can still use FB for the groups and other stuff, but you don’t see people’s awful opinions

Mary-Ann Owens February 3, 2022 at 8:51 am

I love your experiment. What a wonderful way to have a different experience. I watched some talks by a writer and herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner. He said, “We wouldn’t be so lonely if we were connected to nature.” This is fascinating and I’m trying it, there is a flow and even chaos to nature that is there for all of us. There are other ways that aren’t so mechanistic and they just may present more presence and enjoyment.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:07 am

Totally agreed on the restorative role of nature. That is definitely a factor for me right now. It’s -30 degrees outside today, and days like this make it hard to get out there.

John February 3, 2022 at 8:55 am

Hi David,
I’ve also noticed how easy internet access allows me to chop up my day into useless fractions of minutes, which I see as more of a problem than just the internet time itself (although that’s not great either). This week I started forcing myself to use the internet for at least ten minutes at a time, so no more quick checks of news or social media. So far I think I can remember my day better and my focus on the task at hand is greatly improved. I hate to rely on discipline for anything so we’ll see how long I can keep it up without starting to slide back.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:10 am

I agree. The fragmentation of time and attention is the real damage. That’s why I want to batch all of my internet use and confine it to certain days or parts of the day.

Gregg Romaine February 3, 2022 at 9:13 am

As always, David, nice article! I’ve been off all social media except for reddit for a while, and that’s been great for me. But reddit may soon need to go. That or I will have to seriously re-curate the experience.

Something I was curious about, though:

How will you actually measure whether or not your attention span improves?

Thanks!

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:22 am

Reddit is the worst one for me. I get stuck in it easily, and it’s endless. I block it on my phone and don’t miss it. Unfortunately, it is occasionally very useful, such as when you want real-person answers to a question and Google is only providing “monetized answers” to what you’re asking.

The measuring sticks for attention span will be my subjective experience of reading and meditating. I watch these two activities closely and I’ve noticed a diminishment of my ability to do either.

Gregg Romaine February 3, 2022 at 5:28 pm

Ah, I see. Cheers! Thanks for everything you do. You always help me reflect and learn!

jon nicholson February 3, 2022 at 9:24 am

Yes, I am in for this plan. While I do not consider myself a “slave” to the net, I do resent it’s pressing need for my attention. I have two cats who require less attention and that is saying something. Three days is a good trial, over the weekend when I could be doing other things anyways. I do admit, winter here makes this exercise challenging because rural winter means being “stuck” indoors. I think I can make it work by revisiting some projects that have been abandoned for online solitaire and listening to people telling me how to make my life worth living. Phew. I feel better already. Thanks

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:24 am

Same here. It’s so cold today and I do not want to be outside. Addressing the reality of winter will be part of the challenge. Still, I have stacks of unread books in here with me, so it’s not as though I have nothing to do.

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:26 am

Also… I’m not sure if by online solitaire you meant the actual card game, but that is a perfect name for most of what we do online. Stimulate ourselves with inconsequential activity.

Patrick February 3, 2022 at 9:33 am

I wondered out loud to my wife the other day how long it had been since I’d gone a whole day without screen time. Pre-2013 I didn’t have a smartphone or internet at my house so weekends away from the office were almost always internet free.

I’m looking forward to reading about what you learn from this!

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:27 am

Sounds like it’s time for an experiment!

LanChi Pham February 3, 2022 at 9:57 am

Cool idea, David! I intend to try this too. In the US, we have a three-day weekend on Presidents’ Day (Feb. 21) so from Feb. 19-21, I will be completely offline. I won’t even be using my computer, but instead journaling by hand. Everything else will have to wait or I’ll figure out some other way to accomplish whatever needs to be done.

It’s funny, but this post reminded me of an insight I had when I was a teenager (and didn’t have a job that required me to be online 5 days a week): I felt better on days when I didn’t go on the internet. I wish I had chased that insight deeper and spent considerably less time online, but I’m trying to make up for it now. Thanks for the inspiration!

David Cain February 3, 2022 at 10:28 am

Nice! The days before I was online everyday were so long ago, but I remember them fondly. I’ll see how these new ones go :)

Tammy Smith February 3, 2022 at 10:31 am

Linda & Elisa, I’m with you. Deliberately reducing my news consumption to just 30 minutes of local news to catch the weather. I realized in January just how badly keeping up with current events was affecting me. Especially my sleep. When I return to it, it will be greatly reduced and highly selective.

Jayme February 3, 2022 at 10:35 am

Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism is the absolute best for getting serious about a tech detox. He encourages a full 30 day detox before deciding what you want to let back in.

Alex February 10, 2022 at 7:58 am

Seconded here – this post/experiment is peak Digital Minimalism and I really like it. Putting in place what that book described was really eye opening for me. My focus and mood improved substantially, and a lot (though not all) of my behaviors that I’d previously attributed to undiagnosed ADHD and ‘laziness’ proved to be a lot less core to how my brain has to work than I thought.

Sharon Hanna February 3, 2022 at 11:11 am

Wow. The timing is far out. I am so addicted to playing Lexulous scrabble with friends that my right arm above my wrist is painful; I’ve just been diagnosed with stage 2 hypertension (sitting too much, not exercising enough, drinking too much wine… and more)….anyhow the universe it letting me know it’s too much. Also Wordle – ugh ugh. For me also it’s music – so the computer is on for Spotify or CBC. I know you wrote about having a proper radio….but you can’t get Spotify on it. Do I need Spotify? Probably not. It’s just another way to get sucked in to “whatever I want at the moment”. UGH.

lori B February 3, 2022 at 12:02 pm

what a THRILLING experiment.
i cannot WAIT (patience being absolutely inessential when everything is at my fingertips every second) for results and reflections.
thank you for your boldness and unquenchable curiosity!!!

Karen February 3, 2022 at 12:11 pm

I am 100 pages into Johann Hari’s latest book – Stolen Focus. I highly recommend reading this book! It just hit bookshelves last week in US…

I deleted my FB account in the summer of 2014. I have never looked back. I never joined another social media entity since that time (Twitter, Instagram, etc.) so I don’t have the “pull” from these places however I’m still using the internet too often. Johann’s book is giving me a lot to think about. I Love to read, and wish my comprehension was where it used to be back in high school/early college.. (hmm, before the WWW!). Maybe one day, if I intentionally use the internet and not as so many have aptly said – use it as a pacifier, a boredom buster or simply just because we are acting lazy. I’m guilty of all of those.

Elizabeth February 3, 2022 at 1:32 pm

I just listened to an interview with Johann Hari on the podcast The One You Feed. It was very interesting and I too will be reading his book.

Gloria February 3, 2022 at 12:15 pm

You may want to check out the book “Make Time”. The authors have a lot of tips for dealing with this and it’s a fun book to read.

Tangie Solow February 3, 2022 at 12:16 pm

I’m reading a book “How to Break Up With Your Phone” by Catherine Price. It’s on Amazon for about $12. I’m adding “laptop” to the break up. The book is brief, to the point and full of great information. It goes perfectly with what you are doing, David. This post from you will add to my inspiration. I desperately want my life and attention back. I plan on having more time to spend with what feeds me. RAPTITUDE is on that feed me list. Many thanks.

Alex Kidder February 3, 2022 at 1:18 pm

Just get older David. Your eyes will fade and you’ll need glasses to read your phone. Then…refuse to wear your glasses, except when “working”. Tada, my internet is downstairs. ;)

We don’t have a laptop in our house, so using the internet (like I am now), is part of my workday, the time when I wear my glasses and act serious (this being a break). Meals with kids, socializing out, basically any other time — I have my phone with me — but not my glasses. So I can only use it to listen to music/books or take pictures. Anything else requires the glasses I refuse to carry.

Valhe Kouneli February 3, 2022 at 3:15 pm

I downloaded the app TikTok on my phone a month ago, and became quickly addicted. When I had lack of motivation at work, I ended up browsing the videos aimlessly and endlessly. I ended up consuming hours of time on the app at home too, even though I had plenty of other things to do that would make me much happier. Finally, I reached a point where I realized I had to do something. I wasn’t ready to uninstall the app altogether (I find it a relevant cultural phenomena of the time), so I downloaded a screen time limiter app on my phone. I don’t have the paid version yet, so it doesn’t block an app when I have reached the set time limit, but it shows a floating timer over the app that becomes red when the time had been exceeded.

Once I started to limit my app time, I became instantly happier. I managed to read a book for the longest time. Now it’s been almost a week with the time limit app, and my usage times have been creeping up again, but not anywhere as near as before. (The speed in which I process things in my life is fast, so the timeline for these events if short as a reflection.) I’ll see how this goes. I am ready to buy the version of the app that actually prevents me to use the apps after exceeding the time limit. Because self-control has never been my strong suit…

But thank you for this post. Like the short attention span (elder) Millenial addicted to TikTok I am, I skimmed through it instead of reading it properly, but got the basic idea what you were talking about. I appreciate your insightful posts, and have been a long time subscriber of your newsletter.

David Cain February 4, 2022 at 9:57 am

I don’t use TikTok but two weeks ago I fell into Instagram “reels” and even though it is mostly trash, it’s like a kind of slot machine with unlimited coins. You can keep flipping to something else, and this format plugs very easily into my dopamine-starved brain. That’s part of what inspired me to do an experiment.

Corina February 3, 2022 at 3:39 pm

Hi David – good luck with this experiment, and enjoy! I’m always a fan of what you do and so this is not at all critical, but I am surprised by the exceptions you’re allowing yourself. It’s your experiment, and you want it to be doable, but what about not using Netflix or other data-using things? I live in a rural area and until work from home I had a grand total of 3 GB/month at my disposal, via hotspotting through my phone. It made me extremely selective about internet use. So I still get movies on DVD from my library, even though I do have more data available now. Food for thought for next time?

David Cain February 4, 2022 at 10:00 am

Netflix really isn’t where my problem is. I get bored of movies and shows pretty quickly, unless they’re exceptional, in which case the time is well spent to me. My issue is more with the social stuff.

Havu February 4, 2022 at 12:48 am

I’ve disabled the web browser on my phone (turns out it’s impossible to delete on iPhone, but possible to hide). When I really, really need to use internet when I’m lacking a computer, I’ll enable the browser, do the internet thing, and disable it again. I can still use many apps that make the smartphone a very powerful tool, like navigation, email, audiobooks etc., but I’ve deleted the most addictive apps like Facebook and news.

I still spend a lot of time in internet on my laptop, but disabling the browser on the phone has cut a big part of the most harmful internet and phone addiction: those moments when I’m glued to the phone and unable to stop browsing. And it seems that I’ve managed to make the change permanent. For example, I cannot browse news and internet stuff when I’m commuting to work on public transport; nowadays I read a book or meditate or just look out of the window.

Good luck with the experiment, and I’m eager to hear the results.

David Cain February 4, 2022 at 10:02 am

I think I’ll probably end up doing something like that. Basically, I just need a slightly inconvenient barrier between me and “online,” to break up reflexive use. Used intentionally the internet is great. But with all these integrated sources of content, the friction level is too low.

nikola February 4, 2022 at 4:29 am

Thanks for writing this up, very relatable. I approached this problem a bit differently, by identifying a few most unnecessary patterns of use of my phone, and knocking them out one by one. Taking my phone with me to the bathroom – ok, no more phone in the bathroom. I seriously regain up to 30 minutes a day. Doom-scrolling on the couch – right, no more phone on the couch. I find myself reading books more to relax during breaks.
Next up, phone out of bedroom. I think we’ll converge to a similar place (the fabulous kitchen chair).

On the topic of batching, one of your earlier posts inspired me to apply this to a few areas where I went from frantically checking apps and websites, to dedicating an hour or two a week to specific tasks. Instead of checking my modest savings and investments every few hours, worrying about moving things around, etc I simply deleted all the apps and only deal with this on Mondays at 8pm. Similar goes for non-essential shopping, longer term planning. I think my (our?) mind finds batch processing more suitable for many things for evolutionary reasons, and that just doesn’t fit well in todays reactive / streaming world.
Thank you, good luck with the experiment!

David Cain February 4, 2022 at 10:04 am

The bathroom is a good no-no zone, because it inevitably makes every break from work into a little entertainment-fest. I’ll do something like that, thanks.

Robert Wringham February 4, 2022 at 5:48 am

“I articulated this desire a few years ago, in a post called It’s Time to Put the Internet Back into a Box in the Basement”

YEARS?? How did that happen? For what it’s worth, I still think of that post and agree with the sentiment entirely.

David Cain February 4, 2022 at 10:12 am

Yes! Four years this month! I figured it was time to begin to act on that sentiment. I will find a way to put the internet back into a box. That is my promise to the human race.

Kenoryn February 4, 2022 at 8:21 am

I agree that you’ll probably find people don’t notice or care if you don’t get back to them immediately. I don’t bother to check messages or answer them until I feel like it (or make myself since I don’t usually feel like it) and I have never noticed anything care or be bothered by this. (Well maybe my Mom, who says howcome I am never home and she can’t get hold of me??) Most things can wait a couple of days, and virtually everything can wait a few hours. I don’t expect other people to get back to me instantly and they don’t seem to expect it of me. Maybe if you have been an instant-answerer, people will expect it of you and take some time to adjust to the change.

Ditto for the news. I don’t watch or listen to or read or otherwise seek out the news, ever. My husband feels he has to read the news every day to be well-informed and know what’s going on. But I’m still hearing about the asshole ‘truckers’ in Ottawa constantly, and every other big news story – you don’t have to seek it out, you basically can’t avoid it. Reading or watching more about it will just make me fume.

David Cain February 4, 2022 at 10:14 am

I have no doubt you’re right about that. People might be conditioned to expect a quick response, but if so it’s because I’ve trained them to, and I think they’ll get over it quickly.

Tanner February 4, 2022 at 6:19 pm

Hi David – I am excited to see how this experiment goes for you. I’ve been thinking about this too and recently moved my entire Google calendar to a paper planner. It’s been a huge help in keeping my off the internet more than I need to be. Can’t wait to hear about your results.

Kelley February 4, 2022 at 7:36 pm

A couple of things struck me from your post, but it comes down to what I think you’ve said before: “using the internet as a tool, and you set the boundaries.” I can’t help but think that using your phone to dictate some thoughts about a future blog that strike you in a grocery store is a good use of your tool. Or using Pandora to serve up songs instead of listening to a radio. The typewriter might be too much of a stretch and too hard to maintain. Social media is a big time suck. I jumped off the train a few years ago. I occasionally have FOMO about it, but generally my peace of mind far outweighs what I’m missing out on.

My other thought is that: we just aren’t used to waiting on things anymore. At the doctor’s waiting room, everyone is on their phone. Grocery store line. Waiting in drive-thru line. We can’t stand “not doing something” during that “wasted time” anymore. I don’t know if that’s something we can come back from. At the very least…it’s very difficult. We have become so “efficient” with our time. But I’m gonna tell you: it does make me more patient than if I had nothing to do while waiting on the doctor. Just something to think about.

Scott February 6, 2022 at 11:20 am

I recommend reading Supernormal Stimuli by Deirdre Barrett. In it she explains how television and movies do indeed compromise our attention with their frenetic editing, activating our orienting response that evolved to detect movement.

You’re right that YouTube is a different animal, but they’re both predators.

Ashley February 6, 2022 at 7:02 pm

I hope you find enough insights through your experiment to write a book. I would buy it. Or even just a few insights in a blog update will be valuable.

A couple days before you posted this, I happened to look at the stats on my phone usage and was horrified to see that most days I spent 5+ hours on my phone (one day was 8+ hours?!). Much of it on Reddit or wasting time elsewhere on the internet. Reading things I didn’t care about, scrolling through the same exact stuff over and over again hoping to see something new, and exposing myself to a lot of negative stuff through news and social media. And 40-50 phone unlocks per day!!! How??? It’s so embarrassing.

Just seeing my stats was enough to improve them a little. My Reddit time dropped to zero within a few days. But now I want to experiment too, because I still find ways to spend pointless hours every day on my phone. Anytime I want to go on my phone for something that’s not important, I will choose a different activity – quality time with family, meditation, reading a book.

I will have to try jumping in the deep end and turn off mobile data completely. I can’t explain why, but the thought of cutting off internet access feels somehow painful. I mean I almost physically recoil at the thought of shutting off data and leaving my phone in another room all day. I didn’t know it was this bad. Like I said, I’m embarrassed I can’t stay away from the internet.

Ryan Sutter February 7, 2022 at 9:28 am

When COVID started and I wound up working at home this really came to a head for me. I really wanted to figure out how to get offline wherever possible. I work in software engineering and I have been massively online almost 24/7/365 for about 30 years. I had completely lost the ability to focus for 10 minutes in a row. The last 10-12 years were the worst. But I had noticed that going on a hiking trip for a few days or getting offline some other way tended to bring my brain back pretty fast so I too adopted as many disconnected options as I could for music, for writing, etc. I bought a turntable, iPod, typewriter, etc. I also established online hours, specific time slots for email and messaging in the morning, and turned on Do Not Disturb mode automatically on my phone from 10:30 PM to 8:00 AM. I’ve been living like this for most of the last two years to one extent or another and I feel as if I have finally achieved enough distance and balance and put the internet back in the box. I still have a smartphone but it rings to a rotary phone when there is an incoming call. I close my laptop and put it in it’s bag when I’m not at work. I read paper books. I play my guitar and paint again. It’s great.

Johan February 13, 2022 at 2:13 pm

Awesome experiment!

When will you post the results? Curiously, does your list include not playing any type of videogame (online with friends)? That is if you even use a videogame platform. For me, that would be a good use of online time with friends during such times. Similar to people playing D&D over video.

Bogdan February 15, 2022 at 9:28 am

Hi David,

I have stopped being used by FB and Instagram over 2 years ago and I can not say that I am missing anything that was there.
A month ago, after an inner journey, I completely stopped being used by YouTube. If I was alone, I had something playing in the background ALL THE TIME. There was a constant stream of information into my awareness. On some level I was aware that I was addicted but it took me well over a year from that realisation to quitting.

The bigger issue is that I on one side of this conflict are lots of multi Billion Dolar companies making multi Billion Dollar investments each into creating AI algorithms to get each single one of us in a very personalised way addicted to their platform.
Even considering that I could “resist” is pure hubris and a tremendously foolish use of my willpower.

Interestingly, “just quitting” was very easy.
Surprisingly, I find it now effortless to go to sleep around 22:00 or earlier on harder days and get up around 7:30 without any alarm clock.
I picked up my woodworking hobby again.
I keep my house in far better order.
I look to real life humans for connection.
I spend a lot more time just watching “my” Cat :)

And yes, like so may of us, I work from home, on a laptop, online, connected to “systems”.

Carolyn February 26, 2022 at 10:46 am

I’m in the middle of reading Lost Focus by Johann Hari which discusses this very thing. Our collective dwindling of attention and the forces behind it & the individual & systemic solutions he has researched. A very important and well researched book. Frightening how manipulated we’ve become.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Desktop version

Raptitude is an independent blog by . Some links on this page may be affiliate links, which means I might earn a commission if you buy certain things I link to. In such cases the cost to the visitor remains the same.