My Week Alone on the Internet

In many ways it’s hard to remember, the but internet didn’t used to be as social as it is now. There was a time, not too long ago, where Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. didn’t exist, or at least had very little traction in our daily lives.

Last week, as I found myself needing to make a final push on some work—in particular, a large update to the very blogging platform this post is published on (more on that later)—I noticed, and became increasingly annoyed with my proclivity toward CRS. What is “CRS”, you ask? It’s what I’ve dubbed Constant-Refresh-Syndrome—and I had it bad.

It’s that reflexive hit of the “refresh” button, or key-command at the slightest pause in your workflow.

CRS is a low-grade affliction. If you don’t pay attention, you might not even notice your tendency toward it. It’s that reflexive hit of the “refresh” button, or key-command at the slightest pause in your workflow. Waiting for a file to upload? Refresh Tweetie. Waiting for a website to load? Refresh Dribbble. Saving a file? Check Tumblr. The work sitting right in front of you too annoying? Check RSS. Avoiding work altogether? Refresh all of the above.

It becomes readily apparent when—and I almost hesitate admitting to this sort of behavior, but I know I’m not alone—you refresh Tweetie, read the new tweets in the queue, and then find yourself repeatedly refreshing multiple times until a couple more tweets appear. I had it bad.

So, last Sunday, I got fed up. I closed Tweetie and it’s enticing blue glow in the menu bar. I banned myself from checking Dribbble, Tumblr, and, for good measure, RSS. It wasn’t meant to be a very long break, but I liked how it felt. There was a newfound freedom, and by the next morning, I’d decided that I needed a week alone on the internet.

An experiment

Now my little break had turned into an expiriment. What would it be like to go for a few days without tethering myself to the main avenues that I interact with people online, gather news-material, and spend my free time?

It’s not that I thought any of these things were bad…, but I wanted to re-learn their value (or not).

It’s not that I thought any of these things were bad, or that they needed to be banned from my life for good, but I wanted to re-learn their value (or not). What would I miss? What would I not? Would this actually make me more productive?

Keeping up with @Jonses

Part of the pressure related to all of these mediums is the compulsion to “keep up”. I don’t like to miss out. If I only read part of my Twitter feed during the day, I feel like I’m only having half the conversation. I follow several wonderful people on Tumblr, and while I’ve only met a couple of them in real life, they’ve endeared themselves to me and I don’t want to miss out on the bits and pieces of their lives that they put online. Plus, the jokes. My Tumblr stream is full of good jokes that often don’t make sense if I missed their inception.

Dribbble feels like a checklist to me. I want to know what my peers are up to, and it’s not unreasonable to view all of the new content of those that I follow in any given day. But at the same time, I’ve created the expectation for myself that I will stay on top of that feed and found myself feeling unsettled if I wasn’t “caught up.”

I find that I have similar behavior with my RSS feeds. We have such a binary relationship with RSS, something is either marked as read, or unread, and there’s that little voice in the back of my head that doesn’t want to miss out. It doesn’t want me to mark entire feeds as read in a giant swath without actually at least glancing at them.

For the week, I released myself from all of these unwritten (and, often, unsettling) expectations. I used to live my daily life without consuming all of this content, so why had it become so important?

It was hard at first, but then it was freeing. I worried that I was missing out on some things and some conversations, but the desire to return to my CSR behavior, or to fill any voids in my day with these distractions went away.

You will still distract yourself

The immediate effect of shutting myself off from these services and forcing a change in my behavior was positive to my productivity. I needed to, and did get a lot of work done last week.

I began to find other ways to distract myself.

But the elimination of the distractions was a bit short lived. I think I experienced longer periods of focused, uninterrupted productivity, but I’m human and this wasn’t a magic formula that kept me from needing to take breaks. As one might expect, I began to find other ways to distract myself. Conversations with people at a coffee shop. Music. Reading articles that I had long-ago tucked away in Instapaper.

Lesson learned? We will always find ways to distract ourselves and avoid the task at hand. That said, I need to get more disciplined at picking periods of time when I check out, dig into work (or life) and let the online world pass me by.

In particular, with content-driven mediums like RSS, Dribbble, etc., I’m hoping not to return to the behavior of trying to “get through everything” each day. It’s just not necessary. Sometimes I have the time, sometimes I don’t, and, while I don’t want to miss out on anything, the important stuff will float its way to the top through repetition or emphasis through other people. The “checklist” or binary mentality needs to go.

The upside: people

…these online interactions fill in the gaps between our real-life interactions.

One of the things I missed most in the last week were those quick, little connections with people that Tumblr, and, in particular, Twitter provides. I follow a lot of people I know in real life and these online interactions fill in the gaps between our real-life interactions.

More than anything, the ability to truly stay connected to people made the case for these services.

I hate balance

…it mostly taught me that it’s about balance.

The older I get, the more I seem to be able to answer any question with: “it depends.” This was a fun experiment. It helped me understand what I get out of these different services and mediums, and what I don’t in better ways than I’m able to articulate here. But, it mostly taught me that it’s about balance.

I know I’m not good at balance.

I’d like to get better at recognizing when to unplug, and especially on not worrying about what I’ll miss when I do so.

But, for now, I’m back to stupid jokes on Twitter, and general randomness on Tumblr and everywhere else.

It’s nice not to feel so alone.

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