At 6:30 AM I sit down at my desk, having just finished a bowl of oatmeal and just started a cup of coffee, and I prepare to start writing a new short story that I’ve been composting in my mind.
A sip of coffee later and I’m on reddit, absorbed and intent on reading something that I don’t care anything about. It’s 10:01 AM, at the time of writing this post, and I honestly can’t remember a single thing I read on the Internet this morning, except I know that I didn’t write a single word of the short story I had intended to start.
“Maybe early morning just isn’t a creative time for you,” I told myself, “Maybe you should try writing it this evening?” Except I know that of the last three stories I’ve written, 90% of them were written in the morning, before work, during moments of intense willpower when I found within myself the ability to actually do what I love instead of whittling away precious time on Reddit.
I also know that the evening wouldn’t really be any different. It’s in the future, so of course it feels like a land of opportunity and infinite time, but when it slides into the present it will feel exactly the same as this morning. Reddit will still be there, along with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and every other website that deals content to me that I might, and probably won’t, be interested in. In the evening I will ask myself if maybe I’m really a morning person after all.
How much time do I, and others, waste on the Internet? It’s a hard to say because everyone values their time, and what constitutes waste, differently. For me, wasted time is time I spend not writing, not reading, not brainstorming new ideas, and not relaxing (alone or with my wife.) That sentence was harder to write than I expected it to be, because I had to reconcile the fact that I value relaxing, as in doing things that from the outside appear to be not productive, like playing video games, going out for coffee, or watching TV, just as highly as I value doing productive activities.
I also had to reconcile that somehow those activities are different than browsing the Internet. That although neither produce anything tangible, they are worth far more to my happiness, stress, mental health, and relationships.
The problem with the Internet, I’ve decided, is that it’s always on, always nearby, incredibly easy to access, and requires no effort or concentration to use for extended periods of time. Every other activity that I value requires at least a modicum of effort to enjoy. Playing a video game requires thinking and reflexes. Watching a TV show or reading a book requires an extended period of paying attention and allowing yourself to become immersed in another world. Writing, more than anything else, requires both focus and immersion, along with creativity, a gray resource of my mind of unknown origins.
Engaging in any of those activities, even something as easy as watching TV, is more difficult than the endless scroll of a social media feed or the front page of reddit. And that easy drip of barely-there stimulation is always available to you. At a red light in traffic, at your office desk, in line at the coffee shop, even in the middle of your movie or the book you finally decided to pick up and start reading. As a writer I have to sit down at my computer to write, and even if I disable wireless and install a Chrome plugin to block Reddit, those things are easily re-enabled or uninstalled.
There’s no easy solution as to how to get off the Internet’s relentless push of data, of aggressive over stimulation. The common advice is to take a break, to unplug and relax. But it’s so easy to plug back in again without realizing that you’ve done it. In the end it requires an intentional and disciplined approach of personal willpower, which is so much harder than it seems like it should be.
That difficulty, of choosing to turn off and not turn on again, begs the question: are we addicted to the Internet? Not physically, I don’t think. You won’t suffer headaches or nausea if you force yourself to stop checking Reddit, but you will have cravings. Like an addiction, you will want to select the easy path of stimulation over the more difficult path of productivity or true rest, and you will want to engage in it more often than you thought possible.
I graduated college nearly six years ago, and during those six years I have done surprisingly little, when I think about it. I’ve gone to work, I’ve taken a few vacations, I’ve spent time with friends, I’ve read books, finished games, wrote some open source software. But there is a large black area of time I know I had that I didn’t use. Free time that was scrolled away. I would feel better about myself if there was a big stack of finished games, movies, books, stories, and memories of experiences I could look at and say, “That’s six years of doing something,” instead of six years of Internet media that I can’t remember any better than what I looked at this morning.
It’s time to change that. It’s time to shift from a lifestyle that involves the Internet pushing its content to me to a life where I judiciously choose to pull what’s important to me.
Here’s how I’m going to do it: Fixing the Internet.