Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
If you’d told me a year ago I’d be writing this post, I would have told you to adjust your meds. But as of today, I’ve lived without home Internet for exactly six months. It wasn’t a planned detox; before going cold turkey, I wouldn’t have thought that doing a PhD without being constantly connected was possible. I even remember questioning the honesty of a friend, who happens to be an engineering PhD, and who, quite some time ago, mentioned that he’s living without an internet connection at home. But then last summer I moved into a new apartment and, due to multiple reasons that included frequent travel and some unforeseen expenses, I began postponing setting up that connection.
And gradually I realized that I was, in fact, much better off without it. My thoughts were less fragmented, I was calmer, had more productive time (both in a personal and academic sense) and was much, much happier than I was when I spent every second of the day “connected.”
Today, most people are shocked when I tell them I don’t have the Internet at home. Some think it’s bohemian and some think it’s pretentious, but all of them want to know how I do it. “Good planning and mindfulness” would probably be the short answer. In fact, it took a lot of readjustment and, in many cases, switching from digital to analog altogether. Living by myself certainly made things easier than they would have been had I had roommates, a family, or a partner.
Although it did for me, I can’t argue that going offline will work wonders for everyone. But if you’re feeling unproductive or chronically burnt out, I’d urge you to give it a try—even just for a little while.
1. More time to think and write
While there’s tons of software out there to help us monitor our time on social media, few of us really have a sense of how much time we waste taking unconscious online breaks. Rather than watching videos on YouTube, today I find myself spending many afternoons on the sofa just thinking about ongoing research or coming up with new ideas and taking notes. This might sound unproductive to some, but for me taking the time to reflect in a distractionless environment on my research and readings is a luxury and a necessity.
2. More time for (non-academic) reading
Instead of falling asleep with the laptop on my lap, I now read myself to sleep. The past few months have been the first time in years to read 50+ pages (of non-academic books—yay!) a night without becoming impatient (and tossing them aside in favor of online time). This “lighter” reading is also giving me fresh ideas and a new perspective on things, which is a blessing when I get stuck with my research.
3. Increased feelings of calm and wellbeing
This may sound clichéd, but it was actually one of the first changes I noticed and what initially kept me going. Less than a week after going offline, I started feeling less stressed and more grounded. I became more “present” around the house, started paying attention to my plants, became more sensitive to lighting and the texture of my furniture, and became more invested in my cooking. I soon realized that the less time I spent online, the less time I wanted to spend online.
4. Reduced computer vision syndrome
For most of my adult life, I've suffered from kopiopia, or what is more commonly known as Computer vision syndrome (CVS) or digital eye strain. CVS is essentially a result of too much time spent in front of a digital screen, and it is estimated that more than 90% of digital device users suffer from it. For me, it manifests in blurred/double-vision, dry eyes, and the inability to drive at night, but symptoms may also include headaches, neck pain, and vertigo. If you’re suffering from CVS but, unlike me, are a digital reader, you might want to try F.lux to alleviate symptoms.
5. Better quality of sleep
When you survive on less sleep than your body needs (and let’s be honest, most PhDs do), you want that sleep to be good—really good. Recent studies confirm that the quality of our sleep is seriously compromised when we spend the last 30 minutes before going to bed glued to a digital screen. Since I’ve swapped the laptop for books, I sleep more soundly and I have less anxious dreams. As a result I’m more cheerful, focused, and productive the next day.
How To Do It
1. Be prepared for your life(style) to change
It won’t be easy at first because you’ll want to do something and you won’t be able to. While you’ll still be able to browse the Internet on your smartphone (if it’s 3G enabled, at least), extensive research, elaborate email responses, or TV and audio streaming at home will no longer be an option. If you used to spend your evenings binge-watching bad TV online or listening to hip podcasts, you might have to find new hobbies or invest time and money into building a decent offline media library.
2. Communicate your altered schedule to those who might be affected by it
Make sure you communicate with employers, colleagues, and family before you “disappear” so that they don’t think you’re being irresponsible or disrespectful. And if you’re TAing, communicate your email policy to your students clearly (and remind them of it regularly). Being available to students is really not about answering “urgent” emails at 10PM. I teach a daily class and I still get by without answering emails that come in after 6—and although I provide students with the “emergency option” of contacting me via Skype until 9PM, no one has actually used it or complained so far.
3. Plan ahead and plan wisely for the time you actually spend online
That’s probably the most important part and the one that takes the most practice. I have to keep lists of things I want to check online and I order them into categories. With research, I sometimes have to make concept maps in order to remember in what context I thought of something and/or want to research it. It has also been an interesting exercise to observe what things don't matter anymore or appear silly by the time I get to check them. But the biggest challenge for me was, and still is, writing papers and articles offline. Not having instant access to journals, blogs, and, yes, Wikipedia can be daunting and requires very good preparation. But it has also forced me to become more organized and think more structurally about how I write papers, which has made me a faster writer.
4. Be patient with yourself
You’ll probably miss an “important” email or disappoint someone with your “inaccessibility” at some point. You might “give in” and tether your laptop to your iPhone to respond to your advisor or stalk your ex on Facebook. Or you might find yourself driving to a 24-hour WiFi-enabled cafe in the middle of the night to finish a paper. And, really, that’s ok. Gradually, as you get used to not having the Internet and develop a routine, managing your on- and offline time will become much easier.
If all this sounds crazy or impossible (it’s not, but I hear you), there are some alternatives that offer similar benefits without invoking the nuclear option of complete cancellation:
- Force yourself to only check social media on your smartphone. It’s less fun from the small screen and you’ll spend far less time on those sites. Even if you’re working on a computer, force yourself to use your smartphone if you’re inclined to check Facebook.
- Ban digital devices from your bedroom. Keep a stack of books and magazines/newspapers next to your bed and try conceptualizing your bedroom as a “reading zone.” Also “having” to use your smartphone as an alarm clock is no excuse—you can use a watch or buy a cheap alarm clock.
- If you’re scared of missing out, use an application like Pocket to save articles you want to read and videos you want to watch for later. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed of your favorite websites and check it at your convenience.
- Consider using some software to block out distracting websites (rather than disabling the entire Internet), like Self Control or Concentrate. Another popular option are time-tracking apps that monitor how much time you spend online doing what and, conveniently, send you a wake-up call if you’re overdoing it on Instagram.
One last thing before I end this post. My intention here hasn’t been to argue that the Internet is evil or harmful, or that we should abandon it altogether. It’s a magnificent thing that can enhance learning and life, in often unexpected ways. But, perhaps, like all good things, it needs to be enjoyed in moderation.
Have you tried disabling your home Internet? Did you find it useful? Share your experience in the comments below!
[Image by Flickr User Beverly Le Fevre and used under Creative Commons licensing]