I’ve known for years that I have a problem with the Internet.
Until my most recent effort to do something about it, I obsessively checked for whatever might be new online throughout my waking hours. Every 15 minutes or so in the midst of other work at my computer I would sneak a quick peek at my email inbox, Twitter, or any news feed that might have a new story since I last checked. Often these intended glances would turn into extended breaks, following links and retweeting or posting my take on what was new.
If I was out and about, I’d turn to my iPhone, unless I was having a meal with someone. And if my guest had to take a call or visit the restroom, I’d reach for the phone with relief to to see what I’d missed.
I was not willing to call this an addiction, but I became uneasy at how little self-control I had over my Internet usage. I would jolt to the realization that I’d just spent 40 minutes away from the work I’d planned to do, with very little to show for it. I made half-hearted attempts to cut back. Darlene complained that she saw the back of my head, bent toward a screen, more than she saw my face.
Six years ago on a vacation on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands I escaped the net for 12 days. I settled into undistracted time that opened up for us at Maho Bay Camps, a spartan eco-resort with tent-cabins and cold showers taken in shared bath houses. I returned to Denver intending to stay off the Internet on Sundays and to check email just three times a day the rest of the week–at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., inspired by “Dr. Pepper Time.” Within a couple of months I had returned to my old ways.
In February of this year, Darlene and I made our last visit to Maho Bay Camps, which sadly closed in May after the lease on the land ran out. We were there for just four days, and again I took the opportunity to unplug from the Internet and to make a plan for doing something about how I spend my time online.
This time I came up with a practice that still seems to be working six months after I began it on February 8. I call it “No Net Till Noon.” Here is how it works:
Monday through Friday – no email, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus or news-site updates until noon. I think of these constantly updating sources of information as the Live Internet, as opposed to more fixed resources like Wikipedia or Google searches. My Live Internet window closes again at 5 p.m. till the next day at noon.
Weekends – No Live Internet from Saturday noon till Monday noon.
Caveat – If work on a goal-oriented project such as a writing project or setting up an interview for my Kindle Chronicles podcast requires it, the practice allows a specific check of email, Twitter, or any other site.
The big news is that after six months I am still at this. Unlike previous resolutions to moderate my Internet habit, this one did not simply get abandoned a few weeks after leaving the islands.
I can also report that No Net Till Noon has made a noticeable difference in my life. I get more work done in the mornings, because I don’t allow myself to waste time checking the Internet every few minutes, just to see what’s new. I make my curiosity lie down on a comfortable old shirt and promise that at 12:00 p.m. it will be able to jump up and run around the Internet for five full hours. Until noon, I focus on a few projects and I get down to work. Or maybe I read a book on my Kindle, work out on the cross trainer, or have tea with Darlene on the patio. Whatever I’m doing in the weekday mornings, I do it with less distraction.
Looking back on how I started this new practice, I see four things that helped it to succeed:
2) I came up with a phrase that I could run through my head, like a chant, to embed it as deeply as possible in my consciousness. In my first days back in Denver, I woke up with “No Net Till Noon” running through my mind, and I returned to those four words whenever I felt the tug of an unseen tweet.
3) I bought a $1.99 iPhone app named Streaks, where I make a satisfying X each day that I practice No Net Till Noon without a major slip. This morning’s mark brings the streak begun on St. John to 184 days.
4) I waited six months to blog about it.
I remember how radical this practice seemed back in February. I seriously worried that if I let my inbox go unchecked all morning on weekdays and for two days on the weekend that I would offend or perplex people trying to reach me by email. I let a few close friends in on my new routine, so they would know I hadn’t died if they didn’t hear back from me by email within minutes. Everyone else, whose inboxes are also full to overflowing, never noticed.
I asked Darlene recently if she’s noticed any improvement, and she said no. This disappointed me, but it didn’t really surprise me. I spend about as much time in front of my computer as ever. But what I’m doing there has shifted in a way that I like.
I appreciate the Internet more than ever these days. No Net Till Noon enables me to disconnect from it each day, instead of waiting for my next trip to the islands.