Monday, January 24, 2011

Pursuing the goal of an Internet hiatus

I need to make a greater effort to impose Internet hiatuses on myself.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while: ever since ten months ago when I traded my desktop computer for an ultralight “notebook”-style laptop. With the rather old-fashioned desktop, which lived permanently in my second-floor home office, hiatuses enforced themselves. I’d walk away from email and Internet simply because I had things to do in other parts of the house.

But the laptop is easy to bring along when I’m in the kitchen, which is where a lot of my non-office time in the house is spent. That means I know as soon as a new email pops onto my screen. I can look up a book on Amazon at a moment’s notice. I can check the weather forecast or see who’s doing what on Facebook – whenever I want to.

And naturally, like just about every other 21st-century Internet user in the world, I eventually realized it was too much. Too much distraction, too much ceaseless information. I was losing my ability to stay inside my own mind and exist without constant input from the outside world – whether the outside world consisted of an email from my sister or an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

I needed a change, and I was able to get a preview of what that might be like last weekend when I went to a retreat house in northeastern Connecticut. I brought my laptop with me because I planned to do a lot of writing, but I didn’t know if it was even possible to get on line from the retreat house and I didn’t plan to ask. This would be my enforced 48-hour fast from the Internet.

Except fate intervened in a small way when on Friday night, one of the retreat leaders asked me for some writing exercises and I thought of one I’d read about in a newspaper essay recently. I couldn’t reiterate the exercise myself; she’d need to see the original essay if she wanted to use it. “Just tell me the name of the essayist and the publication where you saw it, and I’ll get it on line,” she said. “This house has wireless access, you know. The password is the same is the phone number.”

It was too late to block my ears and sing, but I did not want to know that, because I didn’t want any temptations. I told the retreat leader that she could use my computer, but she’d have to access the article herself; I didn’t even want the little number popping up on my screen telling me how many new emails I had. I didn’t want even the slightest temptation to hop on line.

And for the rest of the weekend, I didn’t. Even after having been given the password, I stayed away, and it felt wonderful. My mind felt clearer without so much information to choose from. I’d brought a few books and a couple of newspapers with me to the retreat, and that was enough reading material for me: I didn’t also need the entire universe of free online periodicals and blogs. I was staying in the retreat house with 17 other women, and that was companionship enough for me: I didn’t also need the social reinforcement of email, Facebook and Twitter.

But as so often happens after retreats of any kind, the question was how to maintain it once I got home.

Being self-employed as a writer, I don’t feel the same guilt as an office worker might when I occasionally log onto Facebook during the workday – as I see it, Facebook is the equivalent for me of water cooler conversation, the kind of social break that renews my energy for the next segment of work I need to do – but it would still be better if I used it less during work hours. Email isn’t so easy, of course, since that’s how I communicate with clients about ongoing and upcoming assignments. If I put too many restrictions on my own use of email, I won’t get any work anymore.

But weekends and evenings are another story. I’m trying to implement a new habit of shutting down my computer by 6 p.m. and staying away from it for the next two or three hours; a quick check-in before bed for email and other messages is okay. On weekends, I would really like to step away altogether from the Internet and all its potential for hyperactive distraction, just as I did at the retreat.

True, not all email communication is frivolous, even during the weekend. But I can try to get away from it a little more. I can try to remold my brain into the neurological patterns it had before there were so many options for communication. And I can hope that in doing so, I find my way to a higher plane of focus and concentration.

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