11 Things I’m Trying To Do In Order To Achieve a Sane, Healthy, and Marginally Productive Relationship With the Internet

It’s fair to say that when I write about the Internet or digital devices, my tone tends toward the cautionary, and that’s probably understating the case. But, as my wife would be quick to confirm, I don’t always practice what I preach.

I wanted to do something about this, so I created a list of digital disciplines that I’ll be trying to stick to in a serious, but not quite puritanical fashion.

Of course, I don’t think these digital disciplines will be universally applicable. You may find them entirely implausible given your own circumstances, or you may find them altogether unnecessary. All I’m claiming for them is this: given my priorities and my circumstances, I’ve found it helpful to articulate and implement these disciplines in order to achieve what I would characterize as a healthy relationship to Internet culture.

[Aside: I’m using the awkward expression “Internet culture” as shorthand for the whole range of diverse artifacts and practices that accumulate around the Internet and the devices we use to access it. I realize that the very idea of “the Internet” is contested¹, but trying to delineate it here in a rigorous academic manner would be even more tedious than this aside.]

Before getting to the digital disciplines, though, let me first lay out some basic underlying assumptions. You’ll probably find some of these debatable, but at least you’ll know where I’m coming from.

  • Time is a limited resource, and I would rather treat it as a gift than as an enemy.
  • While I have no interest in denying the authenticity, much less the reality, of online experience, I do privilege face-to-face experience (or “fully embodied experience,” which is not to say that online experience is disembodied), all things being equal.
  • Relatedly, we are not less than our bodies; so how our bodies, not just our minds, interact with the Internet and Internet-enabled devices matters.
  • While it may be difficult to articulate a precise theoretical distinction between online and offline experience, the terms attempt to get at real distinctions with practical consequences.
  • Trying to “keep up” online is a joyless, Sisyphean undertaking that is best abandoned in principle.
  • “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • I don’t go in for the whole trans-/post-human/cyborg thing. As Douglas Rushkoff recently put it, “I’m on team human here. Call that egotistical, but it’s the only team I know.”
  • “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.  While it retains visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.” (Hannah Arendt)

Make of those what you will. Here, finally, is the list. Remember, I am the primary audience for this advice.

1. Don’t wake up with the Internet. Have breakfast, walk the dog, read a book, whatever … do something before getting online. Think of it as a way of preparing – physically, mentally, emotional, morally, etc. – for all that follows.

2. Don’t remain ambiently connected to your email account. Close the email tab/app. Check in two or three times a day for a fixed period of time. The same holds for FB, Twitter, etc.

3. Sit on a link for a few hours or even a day before sharing. If it’s not worth sharing then, it probably wasn’t worth sharing in the first place. Don’t add to the noise.

4. Don’t take meals with the Internet. Log off, leave devices behind, and enjoy your meal as an opportunity recoup, physically and mentally. If you’re inside all day, take your lunch outside. Enjoy the company of others, or take the chance to sit in silence for a few minutes.

5. Breathe. Seriously.

6. Do one thing – one whole, complete thing – at a time whenever it’s reasonable to do so. If writing an email, write it all at once. If reading an article, read it straight through. If a task can’t be completed in one sitting, at least work on it for a reasonable amount of time without interruption. Resist, in other words, the allure of the multitasking myth. It’s the siren song of our age, and it will shipwreck your mind.

7. Clear the RSS feed at the end of each day. If it didn’t get read, life will go on. This is a hard one for me; I want to read it all, stay on top of things, etc. If I don’t clear the feed, though, I end up with a pile of information that eventually snowballs to unmanageable proportions anyway. What’s more, deleting potentially interesting, unread items each day functions as a happy, cathartic gesture of liberation.

8. Turn off all notifications that threaten to interrupt or distract. Mentally, we tend to respond to these with Pavlovian alacrity. Emotionally, they are not unlike our own little versions of Gatsby’s green light. In either case, it’s a ruinous habit.²

9. Turn devices off when spending time with others. Also, shut the laptop when speaking to another person. This may seem quaint or reactionary or nostalgic or antiquated or judgmental or curmudgeonly. I see it as a way of remaining minimally civil and decent, whether or not I’m accorded the same civility and decency in return. If you must attend to a call or text, politely indicate as much and do so. Better that than surreptitiously attending to your device while still attempting to give off the impression of attentiveness. That’s a meaningless charade, and everyone involved knows it.

10. Log-off of social media sites after visiting them. The extra step to log-in makes it slightly less tempting to click over when a craving for distraction strikes. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of these little digital speed-bumps.

11. Don’t go to bed with the Internet. Here’s why.

A few years ago, Umberto Eco said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” Perhaps that’s a bit too melodramatic for this particular list. Certainly, I’ve attached no death-defying hopes to it. But I do think following through on these digital disciplines will help me make better use of this life and take more pleasure in it.

If you’ve got your own similar list of digital disciplines, share them in the comments below. If they’re useful to you, chances are others would find them useful too.


¹See the comment thread on this post on Nick Carr’s blog.
²Self-plagiarism alert. I’ve used this language before, here and here.

39 thoughts on “11 Things I’m Trying To Do In Order To Achieve a Sane, Healthy, and Marginally Productive Relationship With the Internet

  1. Excellent advice. What interests me is how many of these 11 I have come to myself, finding real “damage” to my emotional/sensual/introspective life when I don’t follow what seem like pretty simple and clear rules. And yet, there are many times I still don’t have the discipline to do so — there is an “addiction” element clearly involved — and every time I regress, I regret.:-)
    Thanks for the clarity and wisdom, Michael.

  2. Wow – have you been listening to our internal ramblings about limited time, keeping on task and reducing noise? Love this advice and considering a tattoo to help me remember it all!!

  3. Good stuff. Since moving to Japan my husband and I have found it so hard to resist the urge to reach for our smart phones at every break in conversation. We try to keep them away at the dinner table and recently made a “no smart phones in the bedroom” rule because we realized it was the last thing we looked at before bed and the first thing we reached for in the morning. So far I haven’t missed it. Looking at your list, I think there are a few more things we need to do (or not do)…

  4. Great points – I agree with them all. I especially dislike waking up to the internet and avoid it if possible.
    Another thing to consider – is Skype really a better alternative to a phone conversation? Although it’s nice to see the other person’s face, I often find that the temptation to open up other web pages is too much to resist – either for me or for the other person. (Maybe that doesn’t say much for the quality of my conversations, but still!) ;)

  5. “Trying to “keep up” online is a joyless, Sisyphean undertaking that is best abandoned in principle.” AMEN!!! Like most people, I struggle with not falling down a million rabbit holes all day long. The Internet can be truly addicting. Besides the social consequences, I worry about my ever fragmenting attention span and startling lapses in memory. I am going to take more digital sabbaticals.

  6. Great post. I really hope your readers give your advice a real go. I’m a huge fan of reducing so much time spent aimlessly on smartphones and computers, and have undergone by own experiment of weening myself off compulsive phone-checking. It doesn’t seem like much, but it has a huge impact!

  7. Like the suggestion to switch off email when it’s not being used. I’ve gone a step further and banned myself from owning a smart phone, to avoid the constant checking of email and social media. Some friends have said they could not do their jobs without a smart phone, but I’ve found so long as I keep people informed as to when they are likely to receive a reply, it is no problem. Reliability seems to be more important than constant availability.

    Tips added to my own list at ethancrane.com!

  8. Mike, enjoyed reading this. I think I need to institute some of these practices — particularly as my Smartphone has become the epitome of extended embodiment. I’m sure I would be shocked to know how many times I check my email, news, weather, or spontaneously look something up each hour (or minute). At least I stay off the social networks — I rely on my wife for that. Thanks, Suzy, for forwarding me this post :)

  9. I wonder if anyone has done experimental research on these effects (they seem intuitive enough) – and how they contribute adaptively to the development of our brains, too….

  10. just came across this blog! this is a wonderful post. I’m trying to change things to live a more human life and include more happiness in my day. Staying off Facebook for just a day has already made me infinitely happier :)

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