On a whim I decided to spend all of yesterday offline. No email, no Facebook, nothing. I used to have a habit of doing food and other fasts, but its been a long time since I’ve done a fast of any kind.

Here’s what I learned:

  • I was twitchy and cranky for the first 2 hours.  I continually had the sense there was something I needed to check. But with everything off I was forced to ask “wait – why do I need to check that? And if I need to do it, why do I need to do it now?” I never had a good answer. NEVER. Email, facebook, twitter, looking up some obscure fact, could all wait until tomorrow, or whenever. There was no reason to be online, other than the habit of being online. It was fascinating to confront this same loop of logic again and again in my mind. Slowly my mind fell into a calmer loop of behavior.
  • By three hours I’d forgotten about the internet completely. I was more relaxed and noticibly better at concentrating on things. I went to the gym, to the supermarket, and not once felt at a loss for not having something in my palm to fiddle with. I did notice how rare anyone makes eye contact with anyone else anymore.
  • The Web didn’t notice I was gone. My ego might have silently believed I was missed (“Wait, I have to post/tweet/status about this! If I don’t the world will explode!”), but it was clear I wasn’t. There was no organized search party on twitter looking for me. No one even noticed.
  • I had more attention to spend which made things more interesting. While watching the NFL I just watched the game, instead of frequently fiddling with the web while watching, and it was better. I didn’t feel the compulsive need to have a second thing to do. I noticed more things and enjoyed it more (I wrote about this phenomenon in Attention and Sex).
  • My  concentration improved. Without the availability of instant distraction my brain eventually settled down into a state of mind where I was more patient with my own thoughts. By the afternoon I had improved peace of mind and clarity.
  • I am a calmer person today. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’d say I am 35% calmer and more relaxed simply from this Internet fast.

How I did it:

As dumb as this sounds, I’ve been asked this already. Its as if we forget everything has an off switch:
  • The night before I turned the wi-fi off on my Mac.
  • The morning of I turned my phone’s web connection off.
  • The only cheating I did was to look up a recipe on an iPad.
  • I told my wife I was doing it, which helped keep me honest.

It’s easier to do if your family and friends do it with you. The idea of a sabbath makes much sense, as its good for people to separate from daily things, and having social rituals around those fasts increases the ease and value of doing them. Thanksgiving was a good day to try this as there were people around (social) and activities like cooking and cleaning that required my full attention (concentration).

What’s next:

I highly recommend doing an Internet fast sometime this holiday season. It will help you sort out what’s important and why. You’ll be surprised. Even if you continue your current habits you’ll do so with intention, not addiction.
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12 Responses to “Lessons from 24 hours offline”

  1. Lizabeth Barclay |

    For many years our cottage was a no-internet no cell zone primarily to get the children unplugged. We all learned that the world doesn’t end when one is not continually connected. The cottage now has internet so I can work remotely.

    Reply
  2. Joe Beernink |

    While I didn’t take the day off, I did greatly slow my pace of checking things on-line yesterday. Actually, I’ve been slowing down quite a bit lately. I think the constant scrolling of my twitter feed during the election burned me out, and there just aren’t things going on now that seem quite as important. For a few weeks there, I would have to recharge my phone in the middle of the day. Now, I seem to make it through the entire day with battery to spare. I thought I’d miss it more than I do.

    I used to play World of Warcraft (back before I had kids), and I never thought I could give that up, but once I decided to quit, it seemed almost ridiculous how much time I had spent on that game. It’s starting to feel that way with social media as well. It’s a tool we use, not a critical life support function, in this space capsule of our lives.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Your observations match mine. The idea of fasting always made sense to me since at worst it makes you appreciate what you are fasting from more. At best it clarifies what’s important and why and helps you make better choices. You can’t lose.

      Reply
  3. Heather Bussing |

    My favorite app is the off button.

    Reply
  4. Kenneth Vogt |

    How will we ever have anything to share if we never have a moment to look inward? Some people may be put off by the notion of a fast as they may hear it as a time of deprivation and shortage. I like that you brought in the concept of sabbath. Sabbath is not about the taking away of things but rather about focusing on that which is truly important. Scott, I hope you will report back on your monthly (or you should dare, weekly) sabbaths.

    Reply
  5. Bonnie Biafore |

    I went to a weekend mindfulness retreat several years ago. By mid-afternoon the first day, I was aggravate,. itchy, distracted — and had to take a break. My mind was fighting the exercise like a wild horse caught in a lasso.

    These days, I will find my mind bashing over to-do lists or worse, I wake up from dreams about writing or doing social media stuff (except the work hasn’t actually been done). The last time this happened was when I was much younger and waiting tables. If I took too many shifts, I would have waitressing dreams in which I couldn’t stay on top of handling the tables I had.

    Thanks, Scott. I am going to join you in offline sabbaths — and I’m going to sign up for another mindfulness retreat to rein my wild-horse mind back in.

    Reply
  6. Angela |

    Amen, Scott! The concept of Sabbath has been lost to the degree that nothing is sacred in our modern society anymore. Black Friday craziness has now begun on Thanksgiving evening at 8pm, which makes me ill. I’d wager that soon, Christmas Day will be the same. I think you’re absolutely right about how we’d probably be better people (and a better collective society) if we made it a priority to unplug once in awhile to be able to truly examine our priorities in life. It’s hard (but important) to live with intentionality in the present once in awhile… away from our shiny glowing devices.

    Reply
  7. Satish |

    Interesting – That you saw improvement in concentration and became calmer within a span of few hours. I observed these kinda changes only after I was offline for a whole week.
    Thanks to that experience, there have been some lasting changes on my behaviour, like check email three – four times a day. Rss and twitter 4-5 times a week. I don’t carry my mobile phone all the time… Left facebook, gave away my tv.
    All these things resulted in a better quality of life. More time to think. Less noise, so less filtering todo. More time todo interesting stuff and so on.

    Reply
  8. Sean Crawford |

    Hi Scott,
    Speaking of paying attention… Yesterday in Edmonton I saw the art house feature length documentary “Searching For Sugarman.” Wow. I’m still under the spell. There was lyric-based music, without frantic MTV camera work.

    The film documents how one of the three standard records at everyone’s house would be that of the “Sugarman,” Sixto Rodriguez, who’s lyrics are compared to Bob Dylan’s. This was in South Africa. There Rodriguez was as big as any household name band here.

    The thing is: Rodriguez lived, and recorded his two albums, over here in America. Then, goes the legend, he committed suicide on stage. Why is he unknown here? But not there? The main theory is that his working class oppression songs fit the struggle against apartheid.

    Here is another theory, my own: Due to the regime, the South Africans were slow to get television… Here in the west, Dylan got his start during the folk music wave, which crested just before (or with) the mid sixties coming of the electric guitar. Rodriguez, in contrast, did not release until about 1969 or 1970, with competition from both blaring amps and the idiot box.

    A catchy hook or chorus is easy, lyrics are hard.

    In short, I don’t think a fast-food nation would pay attention, stop and listen. It’s too bad. We missed out on something beautiful and powerful.

    Reply
  9. Lois |

    I was once about to do this, but looked at my phone, and a friend from Australia had just sent me a message that she was in town briefly.
    If I had done this “fast”, I would have missed that. Less dramatically, local friends often message me to get together the same day – going offline would mean missing all that. So ideally, I’d like to keep the “in touch” part, but do a “fast” on much of the idle checking stuff.

    How do you manage that aspect? Maybe only pick up the phone for particular notifications.

    Reply

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