I first started experimenting with internet-free weekends in 2011.
Two ‘aha’ moments combined to prompt me to start thinking that perhaps the discomfort might be well worth the effort.
The first came over lamb and lemon potatoes at a Greek restaurant in Melbourne. It was Christmastime, and some friends and I had flown down to Australia’s unofficial cultural capital and rented an apartment for a long-awaited week of fun, feasting, theatre, shopping and general hanging out. There we were, on one of Melbourne’s many delicious alleyways, a delicious meal in front of us and great friends around us.
And in that moment I realised we were, every one of us, on our phones.
What was I doing?
The second moment came a few months later, when I read Hamlet’s Blackberry.
William Powers’ brilliant book, subtitled, ‘A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age’, combines three elements –
- An overview of connectedness and its effects
- A look at seven great thinkers throughout history (Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau and McLuhan) and their philosophies about balancing ‘connectedness’ (the crowd) and ‘disconnectedness’ (the internal life; intimacy and solitude)
- Accounts of his own family’s experiments going internet-free
Powers’ book was the practical ‘now what?’ that built, for me, on what I had already encountered earlier that year in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, in which I had read Carr’s startling research into the literal changes to our brains and behaviour as a result of connectedness, including studies that demonstrated that:
- Reading content in a form that is hyperlinked reduces comprehension, due to the cognitive load required to subconsciously process the decision of whether or not to click on the link
- When our brains are trying to process too much information, they have a much harder time carving out the mental margin it takes to focus, or to discern relevant from irrelevant information. We start finding ‘distractions more distracting’ than we otherwise would if we were not overwhelmed with stimulus.
- Frequent interruptions, including digital interruptions – whether or not we actively invite them – scatter our thoughts, weaken our memories, and make us more tense and anxious.
- The more we attempt to shift our attention across multiple things at once (otherwise mislabelled as ‘multitasking’), the more we hamper our ability to think deeply and creatively, and the more we come to depend on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.
- There is evidence to suggest that if we become too digitally distracted, it can diminish our capacity for the depth of contemplation that allows us to develop our ability to empathise.
Powers’ excellent book, then, gave me a way to make the issue personal and actionable. He articulated exactly where I found myself, and inspired me to try a similar internet-free experiment to his own. I very much did not want to become a person who fit his description of someone who “became hostage to their outwardness and never shook the restless energy of a hunted mind.” I indeed felt the pull of what he called the “psychic leash” of the smartphone, and I wanted to regain control, rather than be controlled.
Perhaps the lines that most stood out to me, and to which I have returned again and again in the years since, were these –
Beyond the sheer mental workload, our thoughts have acquired a new orientation. Of the two mental words everyone inhabits, the inner and the outer, the latter increasingly rules. The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live… To be hooked up to the crowd all day is a very particular way to go through life.
Yes, I thought. It really is. And I refuse to make it the only way I live.
And so, the internet-free experiments began. Here’s what I’ve learned about implementing an internet-free weekend:
You have to really decide
If you go into an internet-free evening, or day, or weekend with the attitude of ‘I’ll give it a try, see how I go, see if it works out and see how long I last’, you almost certainly won’t stick to it for very long. It is something that will require a change in the normal flow of your life, and so it won’t simply happen – you need to make a definite decision.
Define the time period
Going internet-free is going to be uncomfortable at some point. And so, in order to relieve yourself of the difficulty of having to make a decision about whether it’s been ‘long enough’ when your willpower is already being tested, you need to have defined upfront, before you go offline, when your end point will be.
- For devices that don’t have their own data plans – If you live alone, or your whole family is taking part, you can turn the router off at your home. If not, turn wifi off on all the devices.
- For devices that have their own data plans – You should be able to go into your device and turn off your data plan through a setting called something like ‘mobile’ or ‘data’ or something similar in your general settings. You’ll also need to turn off wifi.
- For apps – I also delete from my phone the apps for my email and social media accounts, so that I don’t see the visual triggers for those online temptations.
Have some plans for your time
Now, I’m not suggesting you have to create a packed schedule for the entire time you are internet-free. The goal is not to trade one kind of stimulation for another – indeed, it’s important to find time to let your mind wander, to be alone with your thoughts and to remember what you did when you were bored other than check-in online.
However, you don’t want to be caught off guard by the fact that your time will be spent differently now that you are not spending any of it online. You want to have some specific plans – these can be plans with friends, or plans to do something or go somewhere, but also plans for what you will do with yourself and your thoughts when the natural instinct to connect kicks in. What will you tell yourself? What will you do?
Ideas that may help you, especially the first time, can vary according to your personality, but may include –
- Keep a log of how many times you go to check your phone or to pull something up online
- Keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts as you disconnect
- Go for a walk
- Make a list of loose-end errands that have been bugging you for a while and start chipping away at them
- Read a book
- Meet up with a friend and talk (you might notice the difference when you don’t have a device on hand)
- Make plans to do something outdoorsy
- Do something creative with your hands – pick up that guitar again, write a physical letter to a friend, bake something, do some gardening….
Particularly the first time you do it, it can be very enlightening to be mindful of how you experience an internet-free period of time.
Noticing how you feel, how often you feel inclined to go online (and therefore how often normally would be), what you find frustrating about the experience, how your thoughts or behaviour change over the weekend, how your interactions with people change, and so forth, can be an extremely powerful exercise in self-awareness.
Is it easy to go offline for a period of time like a weekend? No.
Is it worthwhile? Absolutely, yes.
Can you do it? You can. You really can. And I recommend, even once, that you do.