I was in Gaza when the Israeli soldiers were snatched from their posts. I was in New Orleans three days after Katrina smashed the levees to bits and the city flooded. But of all of my various adventures, people have been most curious about my recent decision to go offline for a month. I bought an old word processor and left my fancy laptop with a friend.
"How will you exist?" my roommate asked. "You'll have no idea what's going on. You won't be able to find anything."
He was right about not being able to find anything. I rode through the hills west of San Francisco's Mission District on my bicycle one cold night looking for a party. Normally I would have printed a map after searching online for the address. Or when I realized I was lost, I would have called a friend and asked him to Google the address for me. Instead, I went home.
"What is it like?" some asked. "I bet it's relaxing," they said, venturing a guess. "I wish I could do that," others mused wistfully, as if it were simply not possible for them. Still others thought I was a fool; they seemed to actually resent me for it. "Don't ask me what time the movie's playing, Mr. No-Internet." They refused to call when they found out I wouldn't be using e-mail: "I'll talk to you next month, when you're normal again."
Some of these same people would try to control and define my project for me. One officemate burst open my door shouting, "Aha!"
"Don't do that again," I said.
Another asked with disdain, "Shouldn't you be using a typewriter?" An old girlfriend told me that if I was using a cell phone my efforts didn't count. Another friend, when playing a video on his computer, would cover the screen with his hand anytime I walked into the room. "You can't see this," he'd say. It was as if I had violated an oath we'd all taken and was being punished for it.
So what did I do during my month offline? "You must be getting so much done!" was the refrain I heard constantly. That wasn't exactly true, not initially. My first week offline was mostly spent in a state of withdrawal. I suffered from bouts of extreme boredom. I realized I hadn't been bored in years because I'd gotten in the habit of never giving myself the chance.
But slowly I began to find other activities to fill my time. During weeks two and three, I watched the first three seasons of The Wire (something I might have done anyway). I subscribed to the New York Times and spent almost two hours every morning reading it from cover to cover. It was only in the fourth week that things started coming together. I wasn't just breaking the Internet habit, I was breaking the habits I had learned on the Internet: that addiction to continual bursts of small information.
I started reading a lot more books, which is good for me since I'm a person who writes books. And I read more challenging books. I would read and write all morning, take a lunch break, and then write until evening. I could feel my attention span lengthening. I would think about problems until I figured them out.
When I ask people why they need to be online, they inevitably focus on the stream coming toward them—the information they receive passively from e-mail lists and messages from friends and associates that contain crucial information. But it turns out that you don't miss much being offline. If something important and newsworthy occurs, you can find out from the newspaper or The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
While I was offline, those who really wanted to get in touch with me did so through other means. In fact, when I got back online, the most surprising thing was how little I had missed. I had 370 e-mails but most of them didn't say anything. The most significant inconvenience of my not using the Internet had nothing to do with people getting in touch with me; it had to do with my needing to reach others. As the editor of an anthology, I needed to solicit submissions. It was much more efficient for me to do so via e-mail rather than track down everyone's postal address, print out letters, stuff envelopes, pay for postage, and head to the post office. I was hosting a fund-raiser and needed to promote it. How does anyone even do that anymore without e-mail? These things had to wait until my experiment was over.
I made some decisions for my own Internet usage when I got back online. The first thing I did was replace my blog with an advertisement for my books. Why did I think I needed a blog? I resolved to stay away from MySpace and LiveJournal. I don't go online on the weekends. Also, I don't use the Internet while I'm at home. I leave my computer in my office (I brought the word processor home with me). Since I'm most creative in the mornings, I've decided no Internet until after lunch. That basically leaves my potential online time as 1 PM to 5 PM during weekdays. But that's still way more than I need. Most people don't need to be online four hours a day; most e-mails don't need an immediate response.
I suggest this as a routine for people who must spend their days in front of a computer and want to accomplish more: Divide your day into online and offline. Studies have consistently shown that people with more screens open get less done. Multitasking slows down productivity. As long as you read your e-mail and respond once every twenty-four hours, nobody is likely to notice. Dedicate at least half of your day to handling non-Internet tasks exclusively. Write a list of things you need to do when you do get online so your Internet time will be more productive. If the main thing I was doing in my life was writing a novel, I would resolve not to be online at all. I know people who have moved "off the grid," to rural areas to escape any distractions to their work. But the reality is you don't need to go anywhere, you just need a computer without a Wi-Fi hookup. The urge to screw around is always strongest when the work's not going well. And if you work at a computer, screwing around is only a click away. But when the work's not going well is exactly the time to turn the Internet off.
Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, including the story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up (Cleis Press, 2006) and the novel Happy Baby (McSweeney's Books; MacAdam/Cage, 2004).
“I wasn't just breaking the Internet habit, I was breaking the habits I had learned on the Internet: that addiction to continual bursts of small information.”