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Big Ideas

Lab Rat: What Happens When You Unplug from Your Internet Addiction?

In an attempt to overcome digital distractions, we experiment with complete disconnection from the Interweb outside of office hours.

Let me begin by saying that I love the Internet more than anybody I know. I love that it keeps me connected, I love that it keeps me informed, and most of all, I love that it helps me blur the lines between business, pleasure, and complete mindlessness. Yet, after a veritable orgy of web browsing over the holiday break, I began to debate the pros and cons of unfettered access.

While I was constantly searching for ways to become more efficient at work, I was idling away my free time with trivial eBay pursuits and constant email monitoring. Could an online cleanse be in order?After some soul searching, I decided to take a two-week leap into digital darkness – limiting my internet, TV, and cell phone access to working hours. Here, I document the journey – the acting out, the anger, the eventual acceptance – and a few realizations I had along the way. Not surprisingly, it reads a bit like the journal of a recovering addict…

DAY 1: Begrudging Compliance

I awoke in the morning slightly annoyed that I was unable to view those 43 pending emails that glowed red on my iPhone as I was turning off my alarm. But, alas, I had a new life to live! While walking to the subway, I felt great about an undistracted opportunity to soak up the sights. I actually noticed things I had failed to see on the route I’d been walking for a year and a half. Not a bad start.
As the day wore on, I frantically switched between my Google Reader, personal mail, IMs, and Twitter, and pit of dread began to settle in my stomach. What exactly would I do after left the office? And how could I possibly leave all of this work unfinished?
The evening seemed to drag along in slow-mo. Although I had a stack of books at my disposal, I was unable to focus on them. I flitted between several activities: rearranging the apartment, dipping into magazines, and exercising. None of them seemed satisfying or complete. Had years of blog-reading ruined my attention span?

DAY 2: Depression & Defiance

On the second morning, I became quite frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t access my computer for simple, non-browsing reasons. Needing to grab a document I had recently digitized, the only thing I could do was lug my laptop into work and view it at my desk. That cool new band my Dad told me I had to check out? Ditto on the lugging. Computers and the Internet are useful, important tools. This we know. I start to feel like my experiment has veered from an exercise in self-control into extreme Ludditism.
The evening was the worst. I pouted, I whined, and I’m fairly certain that at one point, I cried, “A life without the Internet is not worth living!” Instead of doing anything offline, I settled for bed at 9:30pm.While I was constantly searching for ways to become more efficient at work, I was idling away my free time with trivial eBay pursuits and constant email monitoring. 

DAYS 6-8: Acceptance & Insight

As my withdrawal symptoms started to subside, I settled into a nice pattern of dinner-workout-household project-reading during. I hadn’t been this productive or at ease in years.
Even so, I concluded that a tendency to procrastinate is not a symptom of Internet use. While technology can certainly amplify and enable a tendency to dawdle, every online time-waster has and equally effective offline cousin. Gossip? Grab an US Weekly. And what’s the true difference between a water cooler conversation and an IM session?
The trick is to identify which activities are truly important to you, and proactively shape your schedule around them. Then the activities that are not truly fulfilling just fall away. Admittedly, this becomes much easier when the lure of instant gratification on the Internet is off limits.

DAYS 8-10: Backsliding & Disillusionment

Since I’ve decided that weekend access is OK, I literally spring out of bed on Saturday morning to see what digital glories await. TV on, Internet up. Puzzlingly, I become bored after 45 minutes. Suddenly, I have begun to analyze my surfing tendencies. Is this information really enriching my life? Do I need to spend four hours searching for the perfect shoes, or can I settle on 30 minutes? The rest of the weekend was spent disconnected.
With the fortnight nearly complete, I’ve become much better at delegating my work hours. Now, I’m less apt to waste time, and I’m settling into a zone of focus more naturally. I’ve also become much more exacting in my personal communications – my Twitter feed was refined and useless newsletters were unsubscribed from.
I found that I was spending an inordinate amount of time on things that didn’t seem important when processed in small doses, but became a substantial time-suck when aggregated. I’ve definitely become more aware of what truly requires attention urgently, and increasingly, it isn’t much.

DAY 14 (and beyond): Surrender

As I wound the experiment down, I found myself dedicated to pursuing a myriad of new activities, and pleasingly I was able to devote attention to all of them. Being mindful of really investing yourself in whatever you are doing at that moment – whether it’s checking emails, reading a book, or lazing around on the couch – is a huge step. When you’re doing something, do it fully, and when you need to move on, do it consciously. You’ll be surprised by how little you “need” to complete a particular task at a particular time. I’ve found that most of the deadlines and time constraints I had been stressing about were pretty arbitrary.
It’s hard to imagine another two-week experiment that would offer so many lessons. A quick summary of the most notable revelations:


1. Attention is elastic. Spending all my time online seemed to have narrowed my attention span. When I started spending more time away from my computer, I found I could focus for longer periods of time more easily.
2. Computers are actually quite useful tools, when used moderately and sparingly. As with any relationship, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When that relationship is with a computer, I would say absence makes the time spent together grow more productive.
3. The Internet doesn’t waste time, people do. Procrastination knows no bounds. It’s just as easy to waste time offline as on. However, I did find myself more likely to pursue enriching activities (e.g. reading, exercising, and catching up with family) when forced to spend time away from my desk.
4. Not everything is urgent. Connectedness helps breed a constant sense of urgency. When you take some time “off,” you realize that many of those pressing items can, and will, wait.
5. Mindfulness is important. It’s easy to drift through your workday (and beyond), sailing along on a steady stream of emails, web links, and phone calls. Remember that you call the shots, and spend your time (consciously!) according to what you want to accomplish.

Comments (23)
  • Tamia

    See, I feel like four hours is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to spend searching for the perfect shoes. This (and the fact that I sleep with my laptop) may indicate a problem.

  • laura

    I had this experience over the summer when I was on a 3 week vacation to Europe. I only had access to the internet at internet cafes (with limited time), no cell phone and usually no clocks. I learned to be calm, not care about what my friends are doing on facebook, and to tell the time by where the sun was in the sky. It really is an enlightening experience. When I came home, I realized that being online, I had no idea what to do. It would take me about 15 minutes to become bored again. I had absolutely no interest in anybody’s tweets or status updates, because honestly, in the grand scheme of things, it is completely uninteresting. I even fantasized about deleting my facebook account, but realized there are a lot of people I still need the contact with. (I DID, however, delete a long list of people I don’t care to talk to anymore.)
    Four months later, I’m still thinking about getting rid of text messaging on my phone. If people want to talk to me that badly, they should be calling me about it anyway.
    Since I’ve been back, I have (obviously) reverted back to my old internet hermit lifestyle. I have to say, I was much happier back when I didn’t have to see what my friends were doing every second of the day. I was much happier thinking about what I would be doing every second of the day, and making sure that it was NOT being on the internet.

  • Drew Melton

    Agreed, 100%. I spend most of my weekends “unplugged” and by Sunday feel completely rested and ready for the workweek.

  • Barton Smith

    Very interesting experience.

    When I moved state a few months ago, I was without the internet for the first couple of weeks (although it was on my iPhone). I’m amazed at how much I enjoyed reading (and I could focus on the book more like you said). Everything also seemed more relaxing and the nights smoothly rolled on longer. Computers are a very participatory activity and I never realized how tired that made me until I stopped doing it.

    But now I’m back to old habits, as I sit here with tired eyes, shoulders and brain trying to pull myself away from Twitter and dive back into some work.

  • Nidhi

    Very interesting!
    Made me realize how digital we are turning very second…..I think I haven’t seen out of my metro window ever while traveling to work. It is hard to believe but I nerve felt odd or something like that because everyone else round me is doing the same thing.

  • Kaun

    totally! More awareness should be made about the detrimental effects of internet overdose. If productivity is affected by spending too much time on the internet, it is not assumptions to say it has a bigger effect on the younger generation unless people are educated about the effects.

  • Cari

    This is an “experiment” we should all undertake. My husband & I have noticed our teenage girls have shorter attention spans and less than acceptable social skills which we believe are related to their constant connectivity. Thanks for sharing this experience!

  • sentinel

    I just have to check reddit and hacker news even when i visit family ! Totally addicted.

  • Scott Scheper

    Excellent article, Brittany. I’ve recently given up my iPhone–and pretty much a phone all together. I used to be addicted to mobile browsing, but decided to unplug. You can read my experience and my story here:

  • Lee Jones

    Nice analysis, do also check this great info. about internet addiction:

  • Web Design Sheffield

    It’s pretty bad isn’t it. Usually the one of the first things I do in the morning is reach for the iPhone and, blurry eyed, go through and delete my junk emails so I don’t have to do it when I get to my desk. Then a scan through my Twitter feed to see what *vital* news or info I’ve missed out on during the time I was asleep. Not good!

  • Komal

    Great Article. I am also kinda internet addicted but I m gonna check it 🙂

  • Ige Ramos

    My laptop is the new fridge. oftentimes when I wake up in the middle of the night. I would head straight to the fridge and have something to eat. but now, i head to the laptop telling myself that I’ll just check my email and three hours later, I’m surfing the net and there goes my sleep.

  • Erik Posthuma

    So true.

    I just came back from a two week vacation in which I touched the internet for a total of 60 minutes. I’m back at work and see that I’m more focused and I get much more work done on a day. I like your visual which groups the day into offline and online time. I’ll be doing this and see how it effects my life.


  • hayley

    I gave up facebook for lent before easter this year… and came to similar conclusions – especially that Connectedness breeds sense of urgency and makes you switched on at every moment of the day. I know my attention span has dropped dramatically in the last 3 years with having access now to unlimited internet in my home. I realised this with my essay writing – as I noticed a trend that writing only gets done in the 1 or 2 minutes I have to focus before needing to check email / social media. Slowly putting things in place to change this.

  • A Reader.

    I think one just needs to have children; then you will be mostly unplugged. Great article by the way, it was very interesting!

  • Kristin Eide

    Thanks for sharing. Wow, my life would look very different if I unplugged more.

  • Blake203

    Its not too late to come back to the other side laura, the internet does not define you, only you define you

  • Alcohol rehab oklahoma

    I do really would like to to thank you for your great thought just about this topic. I guess that you require the help of a professional article submit service or the different article submission to do your article impelling.

  • internet in my area

    As above give nice post. It’s give a batter explanation to know about the plugged and Unplugged strategy. when the internet unplugged so you can facing little problem to surf internet.

  • Lewis Jones

    I’m 17 years old and I definitely know this feeling, as a generation that has grown up with technology, I don’t remember a time where I couldn’t access the internet, even at a young age I was allowed an hour every weekend on dial up which I have no idea what I did with.

    As a creative I try to unplug myself by sketching and other traditional art, so much of my work is done digitally it’s easy to forget how relaxing holding a pencil can be.

  • Hubert Porowski

    Apperciated. This is what I’ve been recently trying to accomplish.

  • Will Stewart

    Great, I read this on my birthday, when all sorts of FB cheer is flowing in. I will wait until tomorrow…yeah, that’s it, tomorrow…

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