A couple weeks ago, I tried out an experiment in self-control. I decided to set some new parameters for my internet usage.
My rules for myself were modest: I would not visit any of the social parts of the internet until I finished my daily writing (about 2,500 words), my daily reading (a minimum of 40 pages), and my daily exercise (10,000 steps tracked by my UP band). No exceptions: I would not even send tweets from within apps.
Furthermore, I decided the rest of the internet was off-limits, unless I was looking at it while I was on the treadmill. At least until I get those first 10,000 steps, everything from Wikipedia to Huffington Post would only be available if I was moving. I allowed myself the indulgence of Words with Friends, but again, only on the treadmill.
So how’d that all turn out? Um - really well. I never would’ve guessed how well.
During my two week trial, I read 280 pages more than I read during any other two week stretch of time in the last year. I made 10,000 steps on 5 out of 7 days, quite a bit better than my usual average of 3 out of 7. Between work, reading, and the kids, I never have time for TV, and a film is a rarity… but with all the hours I spent on the treadmill, I had no problem squeezing in 3 episodes of Orange is the New Black and a documentary.
It’s harder to judge how much of a difference it made to my work. The web has never stopped me from getting my daily 2,500 words. But: I felt more effective, less distracted (and less distractible), and consistently happier with my results. I also logged a couple days when I scribbled so fast and so much, I had to stop now and then to rest my hand.
Which brings up some results that are harder to quantify. The first and most interesting is that after I met my daily goals, I rarely felt motivated to jump online. Turns out that Twitter’s pull and Tumblr’s allure are particularly strong as a way to avoid the kinds of activities that have a high price tag in terms of concentration, energy, and personal commitment.
But those things that cost - they’re also the things that pay. Over the last two weeks I’ve routinely been surprised to reach late afternoon and find myself humming along in a state of quiet contentment. There is all this unhurried time suddenly.
I’ve heard about internet thieves who make millions stealing 25¢ from this credit card and 40¢ from that one. That’s what the most compelling corners of the internet were doing with my free time: taking in increments almost too small to notice. It feels good to steal that time back.
I should add that I’m not sneering at social networking here. I’ve had a lot of fun on Twitter and have won some fine friendships there. Twitter is largely a good place. It’s a bit prone to mass shaming now and then, a habit I abhor, even when someone is begging for it. But it’s also a place that bubbles with wit and kindness. At least among the people I follow, there is always exciting talk about books, writing, culture, current events, lifehacks, politics. Sometimes, especially when you’re down, you just want to connect. Nothin’ wrong with that, amirite?
But, like, for a while there I was eating a slice of pie almost every single day. Then, about 9 months ago, concerned about my weight and a general feeling of sluggishness, I made a switch. Now, instead of pie, I limit myself to a single caramel a day. I love that caramel with my last cup of tea. My new take on goofing off online is similar.
Of course sometimes I still do have a slice of pie. And sometimes it will be necessary to taunt John Scalzi online, or there will be a Nickelback release that you all need to know about; sometimes there will be art to promote (my own or the work of friends); sometimes I will choose a day to shamelessly fuck off. I think everyone needs four shameless fuck-off days a year. And on those times I will be running my mouth on Twitter bright n’ early, and Tumblng like an acrobat.
But, y’know, I like feeling in control of my online habit (as opposed to feeling it’s in control of me). I don’t want to be Joaquin Phoenix making love to his phone all night. I think from now on, for the most part, a caramel will do me.
Oh, what? Today? 2,800 words, 10,785 steps (and counting), 42 pages of reading so far. Yeah, Saturday worked out pretty good.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
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