It was Friday, May 17th, 3:00 pm and I had just shut off Wi-Fi. Combined with my latest purchase, a flip phone that would have been cool ten years ago, I was internet free for the next 30 days. Even though that last unopened email gave me great pause (Nordstrom Men’s Shop Finely Crafted Oxfords), I felt good. Burner phone in pocket, Matt and I grabbed cigars and discussed Hollywood business models.
I had spent the last couple hours getting to inbox zero, paying all the bills I could think of, setting up auto-reply emails, and most importantly, setting up automated emails to my wife to replace the short notes I send her each morning when I arrive at the office. These were the things I thought of as suffering from my lack of internet connectedness. I considered posting a message to Facebook but quickly decided that the vacation reply email was more than adequate. It felt arrogant to assume that everyone on Facebook must be warned about my impending absence. I was pretty sure that as much as I wanted them to miss me, the people I am friends with on Facebook wouldn’t actually notice. If someone had a serious reason to get ahold of me, they already knew me beyond Facebook and would either email or call.
I was excited and, having had the cigar, relaxed. It was time to head home and take the family to Palm Springs for the weekend. I took the directions I had printed (before becoming internet free), packed up the family, and headed for the desert. Having made the trip to Palm Springs three times prior, it struck me that I still didn’t know the way. I was reminded of several occasions over the past couple years when I wasn’t able to remember how to get somewhere I had already been. I began to realize that if I followed GPS to a destination, I usually didn’t remember how to get back without relying on GPS again. This was one of those things that made me feel like I was getting more forgetful. Using printed maps, however, was different. I had to pay attention to where each turn was. I had to anticipate whether or not I might have missed it. I watched the passing landmarks intently, and now know precisely how to get to Palm Springs. No GPS needed.
As soon as we arrived (and I was feeling pretty good about life without GPS), I began to realize that the Map app is one of the most useful tools on a smartphone. Whether it was finding a restaurant, checking when and where Mass was, or looking up a phone number for the cigar bar. In an effort to find my answers without the app, I discovered that phonebooks are no longer in most hotel rooms and 411 is still outrageously expensive. The Map app quickly became the most missed feature of my lost internet life. It was then that I began to think about establishing criteria that would guide my decisions moving forward on what apps and technology I would eventually allow back into my life when the time came to reconnect.
RULE #1: Anything I allow in must enhance the life I WANT to live.
Just because it does something cool is not reason enough to add an app. Thoreau in Walden Pond tells the story of refusing a free doormat because he didn’t have the desire to need to shake it out. I realized I had been allowing a lot of apps in that might not require shaking out, but their mere existence on my phone required, if nothing else, the occasional update. An example was when a friend of mine found this really cool wine app. Eventually I would like to be a wine connoisseur, but this would require a significant commitment of time and effort. That isn’t something I am actually ready to do, so for me the app is a waste of time. If anything, it creates a sense of guilt for not using it.
Waking up Saturday morning, I was ready to head to the pool, order drinks, and consume at least one of the four books I bought prior to leaving the internet. The books, different views on the intersection of culture and technology, would be easy to finish without the distraction of the internet. We packed up for the pool and headed out of the room. We grabbed our towels, got settled on a sea of lounge chairs, and I opened my book. Four sentences later my oldest daughter was asking me to watch her do a trick in the pool. Having lived this experience several times before, I quickly realized: I could either read this book and be annoyed all day, or I could play with my kids and have fun. Luckily, this time I chose the latter. This led to my second rule for moving forward:
RULE #2: I can only pay attention to one thing at a time.
An interesting side note to this is that when I finally got around to reading those books, several studies demonstrated that kids resented parents much more when they were physically present but chose to pay attention to their devices. When the parent was physically absent, they expressed understanding and almost admiration for the hard work their parent was involved with. But with parents who pushed them on the swing while texting, they resented being actively ignored. I knew this from trying to have conversations with people who were paying attention to their phones, but for so long I had bought in to the notion that having email at my fingertips enabled me to be away from the office and with my family more. This experience reminded me that being present means paying attention and playing in the pool, and that giving my attention is more fun and rewarding than self-serving attention.
Driving home on Sunday, the reality of trying to run a multi-media company that operates almost entirely online without myself connecting to the internet became a scary thought. The first thing I panicked about was that I had no way to check our ad performance. We spend significant money on ads, and these ads need to be tweaked on a regular basis or we quickly start spending money that is not returning results. This quickly led me to the next realization: I had come to hate asking for help.
In addition to needing someone to monitor the ads, I also had to ask a coworker to borrow a book early Monday morning. It struck me how hard and reluctant I was to ask for simple help. In a world with Google, I felt rude asking for help on anything that might be available online. I realized this again as I experienced knee pain from hiking and desperately wanted to turn to the internet instead of making an appointment with my doctor. This self-reliance, at first seemingly good in many ways, made me much less connected to those around me. It also arguably made me more prone to making bad decisions. Many of my internet diagnoses of medical problems have been wrong. How much better if I had asked for the wisdom of others in the first place? My problem was that having to ask someone for help had become almost humiliating.
Once I finally got past this and actually asked for help, though, I realized it also created a sense of gratitude: now I owe that person a favor. I quickly learned how much better it was to live in a state of gratitude. I found that simple things like trivial annoyances became much more tolerable. I looked at that person as someone who helped me and to whom I was now indebted.
It was Tuesday before I first noticed how much clearer my thoughts were becoming. I was sure that I was already able to focus and stay concentrated on a thought longer as well as see it to a good conclusion, than I had been able to do in ... forever. My mind was feeling sharper and calmer. Instead of rough seas, it felt like a smooth ride. At the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if I was just making it all up. I should have figured out some sort of test to do before and after for something like this. But as time went on, this proved to be real. My mind had started to be able to focus and concentrate much more effectively than it had been able to before I left the internet.
It wasn’t until Thursday that I had my first meeting with people, outside my coworkers, who were aware of what I was doing. Like many people I encountered, they seemed jealous, angry, and condescending. It’s an odd combination. The conversations went something like this:
“What do you do with all your free time?”
“Read.” I gave short answers since I hadn’t really thought about these things. This was actually a great question that wasn’t an issue until later.
“Is your wife sick of you yet?”
“No, why?” What I wanted to say was, She actually likes having my attention.
“I wish I could do it.”
“Yeah, it’s tough.” At this point I really wanted to say, Bull, you can. You are lying to yourself if you really believe you can’t.
This was the first of several conversations where one idea seemed clear. Like me, there are a lot of people who have an underlying hesitation about how we use our technology, but it’s usually nothing more than a passing thought, and any quick justification will eliminate it. This is just how it is – we are so busy!
By Friday I was really starting to enjoy this new freedom and ability to focus, even if it meant being more willing to ask for help and accept strange ridicule from others. Again, in concern for what would happen when I decided to try this experiment, I had strategically planned the following week to be a vacation with family who were renting a beach house in town. Over the week we had a great time and several conversations about my odd experiment. Two things became readily apparent.
First, my family members, like most people I know, will quickly pick up a device to fill awkward silences. It is as if we are afraid or feel incapable of having a conversation that goes beyond superfluities. I wondered how often I have chosen to do this. I also wondered how often I have chosen to text, email, or Facebook someone instead of picking up the phone.
Second, people become very defensive about how they use technology. They HAVE to use it the way they do. The assumption had quickly become that I was somehow against the internet entirely, or that I just didn’t understand technology as well as they did, or that their particular case was the legitimate exception. Trying to convince them of my basic suggestion, that maybe they could be more conscious of how they use their tech rather than mindlessly turning to it, was not a message that could get through.
The next two weeks were spent back at the office. There, I now discovered the realization that I, like most people I know, have built a completely false sense of productivity. I had long thought without ever realizing it that sitting at a computer was somehow being productive. Without having the internet, the incredibly uncomfortable reality of how much time I wasted on interruptions and trivial matters was staggering. My life at work sitting behind the computer had become one of dealing with minutiae that filled every moment of every day and prevented me from focusing on the real, important, long-term stuff. I began to think that the whole idea that sitting at the computer is widely viewed as being productive is probably one of the greatest wastes in American society today. When I returned to the internet, and my 2300 emails, this notion was more than confirmed. Somehow before, answering those 2290 unimportant emails had seemed more productive than talking to coworkers or working to expand our knowledge base.
On several occasions coworkers would walk into my office while I was reading one of the books to prepare to write this article, and I could feel their silent judgment. Immediately I wanted to say to them, “Oh right, sitting there with Facebook and email open on the same screen you are trying to do work on is somehow much more productive.” But I didn’t, knowing that I would think the exact same thing walking into any office in the country if I saw someone reading a book. It was then I decided there had to be a better way of utilizing employees and get them away from their screens.
By the end of the month I was ready to be back online but committed to applying what I thought I had learned. During the last week of freedom, I developed a plan of attack to build a more concerted effort to use technology intentionally. I reflected on the biggest lessons I had learned through my experiences and tried to design a solution for dealing with each.
The first lesson I learned was that the greatest power I have is in the choice of what I pay attention to. I realized that every moment I spend looking at my phone is a moment I choose not to pay attention to what is happening in real life right in front of me. Whether it is mindlessly following GPS, standing in line at Starbucks, or rocking my daughter to sleep. Having the power of the iPhone in my pocket always made me worry I might be missing out on something, when really what I was missing out on was the life right in front of me.
The second lesson I learned was the hardest. If I am honest, I have wasted a ton of time on trivial matters and interruptions. Almost every time I have surfed the internet or checked email, it has been an enormous waste. In one experience, the week before this experiment, I actually noticed I had lost an entire hour in the middle of working on a project because I checked email. All of it work-related, I had followed up on something in one of the emails that led me to something else. An hour later I realized that the one thing I came to the computer to do I hadn’t even started. I can see that the studies I have read about how each interruption wastes an enormous amount of time are absolutely right. I have lived in a state of constant interruptions. There is no need for me to know the instant an email, text, or random sports update happens.
The third thing I learned is that I was losing the ability to self-reflect. By having the internet in my pocket, the moment I got uncomfortable I could turn to it rather than confront that nagging feeling head on. I actually think this might be one of the greatest tragedies of our age. I believe most of the great achievements of humanity have been inspired by discomfort. To have a steady dose of something that eases the pain and helps you avoid confronting the reality that you are miserable is dangerous.
The most contentious thing I learned is that I don’t think Facebook-only friends have any real value. I came to believe that tech connectedness is a bunch of bull. The overwhelming majority tend to be superficial connections designed to make us feel good about ourselves rather than actually help us be a friend to someone else. Some people I talked with insist that only because of Facebook are they really close friends with people or that they have gotten so much business for their company. But I can’t help but wonder: How many of my Facebook friends would I like better in person if I didn’t read their annoying status updates? How many of my Facebook friends would I go visit if they were in the hospital? For how many would I attend their funeral? The point being, how many of them would I actually be a friend to? Would not being on Facebook make me any less of a friend with my actual friends? And it left me with the question of what is the value of a Facebook-only friend? I had long thought that even loose connections are better than no connections, but I was wrong.
So my solution for getting the most of my technology has been first to shut off all notifications on all devices. I have become convinced that there is almost nothing worth being interrupted for. And I mean NOTHING! Should a text message ever interrupt a face-to-face conversation? Should an email ever interrupt me while I am doing creative work? By allowing things to NOTIFY me, I was allowing the computer, iPhone, or iPad to decide what I was paying attention to. I began to understand that one of the few things I have control over in order to live the life I want to live is deciding what to pay attention to. I want to decide. I ran into a number of people during my experiment who claimed they needed to be notified of every email as it came in. While they had various reasons, I have yet to hear one that makes any sense (outside the hypothetical example of something like a customer service rep who’s only job is to answer email all day).
The next part of my solution is to eliminate the temptation of distraction. I deleted nearly every app on my phone, including all email accounts, in order to make the iPhone just a phone. This works pretty well. The one piece I’d like to have is an app that, instead of only being able to switch into vibrate mode, would allow me to easily switch to the Do Not Disturb mode. That would be an ideal solution. On my home screen today I have Phone, Messages, Cal, Maps (these live on the bottom dock), and Camera, Photos, Contacts and my Credit Union’s App. That is it. It has been tempting to add more, and I wish I could delete Safari (though I found by using restrictions I can make it disappear), Mail, and the others altogether, but instead I have to hide them in a folder on the second page. It is actually very tempting to just use the burner phone permanently; in fact, one of my coworkers did just that, giving up his iPhone, and I may well do the same.
I then asked myself what is the appropriate amount of email, texting, etc. I started by thinking about how long is reasonable to reply to someone based on the method of conversation. I decided email is 24 hours, so there is arguably no reason to check it more than once a day. So now, right before lunch, I check email. This gives me motivation to get through it as quickly as possible, provides an appropriate response time, and most importantly, keeps my head clear all morning to focus on more important tasks.
Texting, I decided, should ideally be limited to family and close friends and used primarily as a logistical aid where there is a specific piece of information to convey that doesn’t need a response. I assume, if you text me, that a few hours is an adequate response time. Ideally I will set my phone down across the room when I come into my office and only get up to check it when I so choose.
I have turned my computer into a creative-only machine so email, web browsers, and the like are all gone from the dock. If I am on my computer, I am creating something. I did this because it is too easy to get lost in email or on the web on the big screen. Instead I set up email and internet on my iPad Mini with a Logitech Bluetooth Keyboard. This is my consumption device. This setup is adequate for doing those tasks but quickly gets annoying, thereby limiting my time. It also makes it so I have to choose to check email rather than get interrupted while writing an article like this. One of my early ideas was the notion that if it isn’t worth getting up and going across the room to check, it isn’t worth checking. If I’m not willing to walk downstairs to the family computer to check email, then it definitely isn’t urgent enough that I should check it on my phone.
The most critical solution, though, is one of behavior. I am struggling but trying to consciously choose what I pay attention to every moment of the day. If I could master this, I could achieve what Thoreau set out to do at Walden – to live intentionally.
So what do I tell people who ask what they should do? Nothing. No one ever asks. They are interested in talking about it, gently poking fun at me and justifying their own actions, but few are open to the idea that maybe they could do something different. So my actual suggestion is fairly simple. Try it. Go without the internet (cut it completely ‒ any exception will deplete the experience). Two weeks is the minimum, three is much better, and four is just barely too much. To claim you can’t is a bunch of bull. You won’t be disappointed, and you will discover for yourself what you might be missing. If you need further motivation, I highly suggest reading Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.