A Week Off The Internet: How I Did It, Observations, and More

I’m returning to the blogopshere, twitosphere, Facebook, e-mail, and so forth after a much-needed seven day break. It was, and still is, a glorious experience, for the books I read, the time I spent away from a screen, and the countless observations I had during the time. How, in our tech-obsessed world (where I am quite “connected,” in a digital sense) did I survive? And why would I do something like this voluntarily, for an entire week? Read on…

The quest was sponsored by a few factors, one of them being pure timing and convenience – it was my school’s spring break (I teach math at a local college) and there was little need for me to get online to e-mail students or receive notifications from the administration (or so I thought). We primarily communicate through e-mail, both students and faculty, as the course is largely online with a once-per-week in-class component, so they e-mail me with questions, post in discussion forums, and thus, internet access is paramount. A week without classes was the perfect time to stay away from e-mail and the anxiety it can often bring. But moreover, I needed a break: a break from the stress of being online all the time, of constantly checking Twitter and Facebook, of having my phone beep, whether text message, Instagram notification, or e-mail. I hear the naysayers already: “just turn the notifications off! put your phone on vibrate; turn your computer off…” and so on and so on. Sure, those are good ideas in theory, but as most of us know, much more difficult in practice. It is very difficult to completely disconnect, because the world doesn’t stop. Our friends don’t stop updating Facebook just because we’re not there, nor does e-mail stop coming, nor text messages continuing to arrive. For me, moderation is the not the course, because I’m not very good at it (at least, not yet – this break may have changed that). I need to go cold Tofurky to really have an impact on my life, and that’s exactly what I did (with a few minor errors) for seven days.

Last but not least, I wanted to relax: I wanted to lay around the house, read books, take excessive naps, eat excessive food, play with the dogs whenever, and not feel the obligation of my inbox, waiting there for me to read, act, and worry about whatever its contents may be.

That’s exactly what I did, and it was awesome. Seriously. I was a little bit skeptical I would get bored and crave the web, but that really didn’t happen. I craved human contact, social interaction, and activity, but not status updates or @ replies. I found that really, all I needed was cool stuff to do, whether that be reading a good book (getting information!), mountain biking (camaraderie, fitness, and skill improvement), or simply eating vegan pizza with friends (food, activism, inner growth). The internet can definitely facilitate that, but is hardly necessary. And while most of us would agree with that statement in principle, it’s a lot harder to put into practice.

Here were my self-imposed rules for the last seven days, along with some of my minor transgressions (most brought about through unforeseen obligations):

  1. No computers: no laptop, no desktop, no internet cafes (do these even exist in the US anymore?) With this came:
    1. No Facebook
    2. No Twitter
    3. No Google (Try not looking anything  up online, just for a day – it’s hard!)
    4. No Wikipedia (see above)
    5. No Google Maps (how do I get anywhere?! just kidding)
    6. No e-mail
    7. No internet TV, downloaded movies, etc.
  2. No cell phone, meaning:
    1. No texting (or reading of texts)
    2. No access to my contacts, or phone calls (though I subverted this a bit with the help of my fiancee)
    3. No Instagram, tweeting on the go, looking up things while out, calling my fiancee, etc.

In addition I sort-of imposed a “no TV” rule, though I broke this over the weekend catching up on Game of Thrones and Shark Tank. The justification was my partner was going to watch these shows anyway, and I just happened to be there anyway. Cheating, maybe? But rather than focus on how I failed at the week of “no-tech” I focused on all the awesome things I learned.

The two major rules, were, of course, broken, but not due some addiction to Facebook or calling up friends: work intervened, as (un)expected, and in order to confirm which classes I was teaching this week, I needed to contact them directly. While I did make a stop at the school on Wednesday to address this planned consequence (and just to check-in), the information I sought was not there, so I had to e-mail, and call, on Thursday and Friday. Frustrating, but such is life. In addition I had to “fix” our server in order to facilitate some Game of Thrones watching (seriously, have you seen this show? Exceptions can be made…) and update a eBay buyer who I had made a commitment to prior to the tech-break. Commitments, even about eBay auctions, are very important to me, so I wasn’t going to let that dwindle for seven days.

For my friends, family, etc. I did my best to inform them of the break, and used a Tim Ferriss-style auto-response to assist with that. I had no idea what transpired throughout the week, trusting my e-mail would be dealt with by the following announcement:

Hi, and thanks for your e-mail. I’ll be unavailable by e-mail until Monday, April 30 at which time I will respond to all queries in a timely fashion.

If this is an urgent matter, please leave a message with my fiancee at 502-XXX-XXXX.

Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely,

Samuel Hartman

As it so happened, no messages made it across to my fiance, meaning that either 1) there was nothing urgent to discuss with me that couldn’t wait until April 30, or 2) no one wanted to take the time to make an extra phone call (which probably means it wasn’t that urgent). Now, I’m under no guise that my advice and assistance is so integral to the productivity and well-being of my cohorts and their tasks. I’m not the CEO of some company that needs to sign 10 different strategic plans every day, but I do have my responsibilities, and obligations, namely to places like the Veg Club and to my band. In addition, I have reasonable expectations about my friends when it comes to responding to e-mail, voice-mail, or text messages, like we all do. Consequently, being absent for a week might agitate a select few, no? But in all reality, and given the fact that my partner was still in touch with the world, things proceeded as usual, with little upset. I visited a friend at his house to confirm some plans (to which he responded “didn’t you get the text?”), confirmed many of my week’s plans on the Sunday before, and when something didn’t go according to plan, I let it go. This is both uncharacteristic and difficult for me to do, but I forced myself to let go and let things unfold as they may, not rush for the nearest communication device to try and fix the problem. This was a healthy and much-needed change.

I also modified my voice-mail to alert callers that I would not be responding to messages until today, and while I haven’t heard the ensuing messages (this post needed to come first!), I doubt there is much frustration. The fears and worries of, “but what will happen if my friends can’t call me?!” fade quickly as you realize that life goes on even if you aren’t in the front seat, tweeting your way through it. This need not be depressing (“well then why even try!”), but liberating: we can take a break. We can put our phones down at bed time, and not even check them again until 10am the next morning! Ferriss advocates, in his quest to one e-mail check per week, to whittle down the times to noon and 4:00pm, as no one responds to e-mail first thing in the morning anyway. Even using an auto-response – such as “I’ll be checking my e-mail at…” to alert those trying to reach you that, hey, I’m a busy dude, but I want to get back to you and will do so at this time – can help make the transition easier for your friends and co-workers. Trust is a beautiful thing here, and we should trust the people we associate with to do the right thing even in our absence. This applies more so to job situations than friendships, but the thing to remember is that we can take a break. We need not be connected 24/7, or hyperconnected as CIO guest columnist Irving Wladawsky-Berger puts it. In the article, he writes, quoting MIT professor Sherry Turkle:

She believes that our smartphones offer us three gratifying fantasies: that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; that we will always be heard; and that we will never have to be alone. “And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device.”

So, will we be able to adjust to this hyperconnected phase of the Internet, just like we seem to have adjusted to the initial connected phase by finding a reasonable balance between the physical and digital worlds? We now have to find a reasonable balance between paying quality attention to the people around us and being able to respond to the little devices constantly vying for our attention.

That’s exactly why I took a break. To put the attention back on myself, my friends, my partner, and the quest to find knowledge in some “old fashioned” ways…like reading! A few books that helped me “get through” the week are the following, and I highly recommend you check them out:

  1. The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. An absolutely incredible read about defining morality through science. Harris doesn’t have all the answers, but he makes a powerful philosophical case for why, in a world where there are clearly lives that are better and worse than others, we can use science to determine the proper course. There’s an illustrious critique of religion, and a lot of discussion on free will and brain states, as well.
  2. The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I was turned on to Achor through a TED Talk where he outlines his premise that happiness inspires productivity, work, and success, not the other way around. His book is about the burgeoning field of positive psychology, and while it contains data from animal testing (boo) and success stories of greedy capitalists (banks, insurance companies, etc.), Achor is an inspiring writer and motivator. Just reading the book made me happy!
  3. Evasion “by” CrimethInc. It’s hard to describe this book, but many of the stories of it are enthralling. The author sprinkles his train-hopping, dumpster-diving life with various politics and occasional vegan straight-edge anecdotes which add variety to the book. While it doesn’t flow as well as some of the other CrimethInc works, it represents a very powerful ideology in the anarchist world; that of contributing nothing to capitalist society, and taking whatever one wants.

All in all, I was very excited, but a little anxious, about returning to technology this week. While I look forward to getting caught up on some news, the latest Groupons, and  countless e-mails (some of which are quite positive, I bet!), at the same time, the freedom to do “whatever” without an obligation of technological interference, is desirable. My goal now is to find some sort of balance, perhaps less cell phone usage at night, a ban on Sunday, or simply a reality check: when free time comes and the decision is to be made, go the opposite way of Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk. After all, they are nothing but digital interpretations of our lives. Shouldn’t we strive to live our real lives first?

There were quite a bit of revelations and smaller aspects of the tech break I left out, as this post is quite long already! If you’re curious about a specific aspect of it, please leave a question in the comments. For another look at the problems of hyperconnectivity and smartphones, see this article: “Do iPhones Make Us Narcissists?

Photo: Hugh MacLeod

  • Tiffany

    YOU ROCK!  So proud of you and your ability to detach from technology and communicate organically with others.  I hope that you were able to sit in yourself and reconnect with you.  Great work my friend.

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