Experiment: Living Without A Home Internet Connection

I moved into a new apartment at the start of April, and decided to try an experiment: not having an internet connection.

When I tell people that I don’t have internet, they assume that it’s because I just moved in, and haven’t set it up. Nope, don’t want it.

Is it because I can’t afford it? Nope, don’t want it.

At this point, people become a little confused. Why would I not want an internet connection?

Anytime everyone believes the same thing without question, there’s a good chance it’s something that we as a society haven’t thought through. This can be a good idea for things that have stood the test of time. But if something is new, we can’t afford to accept or reject an idea without question.

The internet snuck up on us. It’s extremely useful, but we haven’t thought through how we should use it. It’s gotten steadily more enticing…there’s so much more you can do and read.

If you want, you can spend your whole day on the internet. And that’s a problem. I think it’s a bigger problem than most people are willing to admit: many people have become internet addicts.

I was one. Here’s my story.

My Experience In Cuba (where they hardly have internet)

I’m 26, and have used the internet in a typical way for someone my age. I’ve been online since 1998 or so, and have always had a home internet connection since then. Since about 2008, I’ve also had internet on an iphone.

My habits were similar too, I think. I would check email several times a day, I had several sites I often looked at (Hacker News, most recently), and I would often sit down to look up one thing and get up half an hour later, having browsed 15 different ideas.

My first break from this routine came in 2007-2008, when I worked in Cuba for 7 months. Cuba has pretty poor access to the internet. By that point, I had been connected for about eight years, and constant access had become the new normal.

I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. It was very, very different. I read War and Peace in a week. In fact, I read about 40 books while I was in Cuba. Real books, long novels. Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov…I swear they weren’t all Russian. I have not read that many books in the same time period since.

I also watched several full TV series. The Wire, Dexter, My Name is Earl. I watched a lot of movies.

And I had plenty of time to explore the country, meet new people, and learn Spanish.

Basically, the internet had been sucking up >30% of my leisure time. I barely missed it (I still had some access at work), and my quality of life improved.

Back To The West (And the internet)

I did not learn my lesson though. I went back to connectivity once I returned to the West, and continued to waste large amounts of time with aimless browsing.

Last year, I decided to repeat the experiment. I was writing a large number of LSAT explanations. They’re profitable but boring and I wanted to get them done as soon as possible. If I was on the internet, clearly I was not writing explanations.

So I went to Cuba again, for a month. The results?

  • I wrote 50% more than I usually would in the same time period!
  • I studied for the GMAT.
  • I finished the Pimsleur German lessons I was working on.
  • I read Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Huckleberry Finn, The Art of War, Treasure Island, The Apprenticeship of Dudy Kravitz, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, and a couple of others. (Remember, I was there for only four weeks)
  • I met up with many old Cuban friends, explored Havana again, relaxed on the beach, and generally had more leisure time than I usually do.

It was incredible. Mind you, I had someone cooking my meals and doing the dishes, so that helped too. But even accounting for that I got an astounding amount of things done compared to the norm.

But when I came back from Cuba, I went back to my regular habits. I had an internet connection at my apartment, which I shared with roommates.

Cutting The Cord

But this month, I moved out on my own. I realized that, not having roommates, I didn’t have to get an internet connection if I didn’t want to. So, I didn’t.

It’s been a week, and I feel great. I’ve gotten more done, read several short books, and moved into my apartment quickly and easily.

For internet access, I go once per day to a nice local cafe that’s two minutes from my house.

I should mention a couple of downsides:

  • No Skype. Or, no Skype without talking in a noisy cafe.
  • Can’t use Webapps at home. This means I can’t, for example, make a screencast with Screenr.

I haven’t noticed other downsides so far. I paid about $65 for internet, so a $2 tea or coffee each day is actually breaking even. I can still do online courses such as Udacity during the time I’m at the cafe. And there are offline equivalents for most webapps.

Here’s how I handled a few common tasks:

  • Encryption (for secure banking): Witopia. 
  • Blog posts: I made a file in scrivener to hold all my draft posts. I put them online when they’re ready.
  • Email/inbox search: I downloaded all my messages to the OS X mail app. It has a better search than gmail(!) so I can instantly find any info I need. If needed, I can write a message using Mail; it will send when I connect. I usually just wait.
  • Important Emails: I have about 5 email contacts who might mail me something both important and urgent. I set up gmail to forward any emails from those addresses to my phone. If anything major comes up, I’ll see it and be able to respond. Hasn’t happened yet.

I can’t think of anything else that I’ve had to do differently. The increase in mental clarity is astounding.

Why The Internet Is Such A Time-Sink

The real reason that this works is that the internet allows you to fill little gaps in your day. Have five minutes? Look at your phone. Passing by your desk? Why not see if anyone emailed you, or check what’s new on Hacker News/Reddit/newspaper website etc.

Those small bits of web surfing add up to a surprising amount of time each day. If you don’t think this is true, try installing Rescuetime and let it count how often you’re in a browser window. You might be surprised. Remember to include time spent on your phone.

You can try methods to “limit” your access, but then you’re drawing down your limited supplies of willpower. Whereas if the internet is simply not there, you have no choice but to do something else.

Most Internet Service Providers will let you suspend your account for a month. Why not give it a try. If it’s terrible, you can always go back. But you might be surprised by the results.

Note: I’m self-employed, and work from home. Not sure how the calculus changes if you’re an employee, I think it depends on your specific work situation.

Update: This made the front page of Hacker News. Definitely didn’t expect this much attention. There were some good comments; I want to respond to a few points.

Self-Control: Some people said I lack self-discipline. They’re 100% correct – I have a hard time resisting the urge to browse if access is easy. Some people do not have a problem with this; good for them.

Everyone has self-control issues with something. Many people have trouble with the internet, which is why this post struck a chord.

In my case, removing the internet from my house freed up my willpower from having to worry about it. I’ve noticed I have more self-control with other things now – studies have shown we only have a limited amount of willpower.

Technophobe?: Far from it. Most of my work is done on the computer, and I still spend about two hours per day on internet work. It’s just more focussed.

Update: I went back to a home internet connection. I wrote a post about it, but the short story is that I was taking a couple of online courses, and the connection speed at cafes made it cumbersome.

I now do more internet work, which makes it difficult to disconnect. I’m the moderator of Reddit’s LSAT forum, and I’m in the middle of creating a site of free LSAT explanations.

I need the internet for work, and yet I know the advantages of not having it, especially if I’m writing books.

I don’t yet have a great solution. However, I have a partial solution you may find useful:

I disconnect my ethernet cable when I don’t need the internet. It’s enough effort to get up and plug it in that I usually don’t.

This also prevents me from mindlessly surfing on my phone in bed, because the cable is unplugged.

I would easily pay $200 a month for fast internet service that was only available 2 hours a day, or where I had to call the ISP to turn it on for a two hour period. That service doesn’t exist, yet….

Comments

  1. mmphosis says:

    Very inspiring.

  2. This is undoubtably a very useful experiment. Bravo!

    However, the World Wide Web itself is neutral, just as TV and books are. What counts is whether one has used it to distract oneself from personal problems.

  3. I love this post. The biggest thing it’s gotten me to think about is whether we’ve been using the internet “wrong” the past two decades. Maybe at some point in the future (or the present, for you Mr. Author), the internet will be confined to something we only use at a certain time of the day. Or something else will supplant the internet as our leisure activity.

    I’ve actually been running similar experiments, and you can start trying this in a much easier way than cancelling your internet. http://ndrw.me/2012/03/01/afternoon-refresh/

  4. Good to see someone else doing this! I’ve been living without Internet at home for the past two years, and I noticed huge improvements to my health, productivity and social life. The upsides and downsides are certainly familiar. I do contracting work, and conference calls from coffee shops are not ideal.

    I’ve been advocating this approach to friends and strangers and the reaction that I’ve gotten is almost the same as the comments on hacker news about this article, “cool, but not for me”, “sounds like a lack of self control”, “but I neeeed Internet”. Those same people would then complain about lack of time, exercise, sleep. Maybe zero Internet is not for everyone, and some people simply need it more then others, but I suspects there’s a certain amount of denial around the whole subject. Hopefully we’ll see more of a change towards disconnecting in the future.

    Thanks for the article!

  5. So you still have internet connection in your mobile phone? It’s also little bit disturbing, isn’t it?

    • No, I don’t have a data plan either. The phone would be about as distracting, but less productive.

  6. Christopher H. says:

    Interesting ideas, I think that most people could get by without internet at home, particularly if their job doesn’t rely on it and/or they also have a smartphone for critical issues.

    One of the things I do to reduce distractions on my phone is to vastly reduce access that non-important apps have to make notifications (best to remove is sounds/vibrate). Another thing that most people can do is to get rid of new email notifications (Outlook icon, mac Mail, etc) so it doesn’t break your focus each time a new email comes in (which can be quite often for some people).

    I make my living by doing web design & development, which unfortunately makes removing internet access entirely pretty difficult. I’m also working to develop mobile apps, and the internet is great as a source of knowledge and resources.

  7. Well in my case it hasn’t by choice.Living in Zimbabwe means a very limited internet access.But you would be surprised at how much one can accomplish, launched a website http://www.mixdem.com from a cafe.Like you i download most of the important things mail,tutorials,software e.t.c.

  8. Or maybe get a 3g dongle with limited data?

    That stands between not having a connection at all and using an application to limit the amount of web browsing. The motivation for not spending time will be not wanting to pay a lot on topping-up (if topping-up is done in small amounts, it will be expensive to do it repeatedly).

  9. Interesting read, thanks. I’d kinda like to try this, but since I’m a self-employed, work-at-home webdeveloper there’s really no way around having an internet connection at home.

  10. I’ve been doing something vaguely similar. I did my surfing primarily using a very unreliable 3G connection from my wireless carrier on my Blackberry. This forced me to surf only for things that I need or desperately want.

    And when I truly needed to hook up my PC to the internet, I went to a cafe w/ wifi or wait until I am in the office. There are times when I felt that being always connected would have served my side project better. But not having it actually forced me to rethink long term importance vs. nice.

    I agree w/ you that having the right “offline” setup is crucial.

  11. I totally agree with you.

    I haven’t had the willpower to “free” myself from the grasp of the 24/7 internet, and I doubt I will be able to do it in the foreseeable future (as a math student, i require it a lot to browse for articles and stuff) but the few times I was forced to be without the internet (holidays?), I enjoyed much more plenty of things that I usually don’t recognize.

    It’s definitely worth to give a try.

  12. Next Step: Move to a cave…..

    You have control your mind. You have to set priority for the tasks. I use to waste a lot of time on Internet like you ( like almost everyone I would say ). But I made my routine strict.
    1. I reach home @ 7:00 from office. I don’t start my laptop if there is nothing important. If I start it 9:00 PM is strict to turn it off.
    2. On weekends I only use the computer for ~ 1 hr after lunch.

    Thats my solution for the problem.

  13. I’ve noticed a trend, somewhat settling if true: people have become internet addicts.

    Exactly as you said.

    Casual to sincere conversation has reshaped the framework of conversational exchange.

    Most talking points in younger group dynamics emerge from experiences made possible by the internet.

    Netflix and Hulu have replaced modern television. Wikipedia, the dictionary. It goes on. This doesn’t need much argument, going from the analogy of each old hardware tech (with poor “squishy” organization) that is replaced by software tech (low-grade, low-cost hardware).

    I’ve been developing websites for nearly a decade now, and I’ve always consumed information in a very extreme fashion. At first, it was music. By 22, I had amassed 250GB of Western music, which was for the most part cherrypicked through my personal method of research. I understand the consequences of letting this information monolith overtake one’s livelihood. I imagined the horror of everyone people as involved in their daily computer use habits as I was. I imagined how easy it could come about.

    I do not believe homes should be connected with general-purpose network connections, rather: the devices they prefer to use or find most essential should be connected.

    People will soon find that we are not prepared for hypermedia. Quite like how people (either through the browser wars, lack of guidance, lack of leadership) were not prepared for AJAX: which is why it wasn’t widely adopted for years. I do not people people are prepared for the Web.

    The first issue is that people do not understand that we have seen only a small fraction of the Web. It is “fundamentally a hypermedia application.” For an undisciplined culture, it can become an organic graveyard of thought.

  14. Wow this an amazing idea, I am a computer science major and I wonder if I could give this a try, the Internet is a huge time sink for me and my procrastination so I would definitely give it a try. I think I would have to find a way to deny access to the Internet except for certain times during the day. That’d be the most feasible for me as a student.

    Thanks for the idea!

    • I’m learning programming, and I actually find the limited internet a benefit.

      I have some reference books that handle most syntax questions pretty well. For many other problems, it forces me to try to find the answer on my own first. I chalk that up to the rubber duck effect:

      http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/03/rubber-duck-problem-solving.html

      Finally, I do run into some problems I can’t solve. For those, I write them down to google later, on a piece of paper or a text file. If a stack overflow question is required, I can type that up in advance.

      I do find my focus on a programming problem is immensely better. Helps me to push through the frustrating moments.

  15. I’ve tried that too (though I don’t used to spend much time at home), it was very relaxing and gave me time to plan-out newer projects, and do other things I love to lessen the frustration from workplace.

  16. Are you a programmer?

    • I’ve been learning since January. I find the lack of internet has helped my focus while programming, though it’s a bit soon to tell.

  17. Where did you get the TV series? I’ve never been to Cuba – is there a DVD shop or something?

  18. An inspiring story. A couple problems I foresee (maybe) if I tried this:

    * torrents?

    * upgrades / updates

    * remote backup

    Yeah, you could go to a pub and set your laptop in the corner while you have a beer and it does some lengthy uploads (like a remote backup),

    I’ve been in sort of a similar situation before and did find that if one doesn’t have internet, most of the “really internet-necessary” tasks can be executed at one go. (Save emails in a text file and send them all at a cafe. I’ve even done this with a flash drive.)

    one more problem: isn’t it possible to just download a bunch of web pages (load your browsre up with 150 pages) and read them all at home, therefore wasting as much time? This wasn’t possible for me with the flash drive because I had a $25 computer that was only capable of running Word — couldn’t hold a separate browser window without seriously slowing down.

    And even one more: how about when you “just need to look up this one thing”? I guess you have to live without that.

    A few things I’ve tried to control my internet impulses at home:

    * physically closing the laptop

    * saying “No” _out loud_ when I’m about to browse to reddit / whatever.

    * putting the laptop in a drawer where I can’t see it

    • Saw you had a few comments, so I’ll consolodate them here:

      TV shows in Cuba: I had downloaded them to my hard drive before leaving. I wish I hadn’t mentioned them as an example though, as they are arguably worse than internet. I just wanted to show how much time was freed up – I don’t really watch TV anymore.

      Offline websites: Yes, you can do this. I’ve used sitesucker to get a few needed reference sites. But I find my main problem is news sites like Hacker News, or checking email, so offline isn’t a worry for that.

      Just look up this one thing: I write them on a piece of paper. For words, my Mac’s Oxford Dictionary is great.

      Backups/downloads: I use backblaze and dropbox. The cafes near me have pretty fast connections, so I’ve got no problem using the cloud. I don’t do huge downloads, but I was able to get a week’s worth of Udacity lessons via their torrent. Not sure if the cafes face bandwidth limits.

      Emails: I can actually send some emails using OS X mail’s outbox, or using my iphone’s outbox. Integrates great with gmail.

  19. I would drop my wired internet at home if I lived alone. I have unlimited 4G LTE on my Verizon Galaxy Nexus. I would add the hotspot, and use that for my desktop and laptop.

  20. Hi,
    Thanks for this article. And honestly, i think i am an internet addict.
    So maybe i’ll give it a try, no internet for a month.
    Thanks again
    take car
    Dim

    • Give it a shot! If it’s an utter failure, you can reactivate with no long term damage. Or it could change your life. It’s a good upside/downside ratio.

  21. CarolAnne Black says:

    First thing on Monday morning and I’m reading your article; I’m already wasting time on the internet. Then I follow that up by downloading RescueTime; now I have a new application to play with at work. Yippee!

  22. Has your dancing improved since your return Cuba?

  23. I’m originally from Cuba, and I experience the same every time I go back to visit! Personally I try to stick to my rss feeds for online content, it allows me to “complete” my browsing for a period of time. and hold until the next day.

    Also my co-workers don’t believe me I learned ActionScript 2 mostly using only the provided Flash Documentation, imagine no StackOverflow, forums, etc :P

  24. when i began with the computers it was the only office computer who existed on the market ABC80, i had the time of my life when i startded, it was all new.
    the unisverstys had theres, but now it was there to handel.
    today i know my life was turning mutch simpler after the microsoft intruductions of PC for windows 3.1 with my modem 2400bps.
    i learned everything from the scratch, i can see now that the young dont have the perspectivs for that sort of life.
    it was really hard and the world turned 160 degree, and my life as a wheelchair sitting person, turned more simpler. i was on the hook, first nearly on everthing.
    i didnt have a high education but i was first on the line to get in to it, infact i also got some people to help me,when i was in trubble.
    thanks again all. but i wich that the people was gettting more kind and nice, todays internet users are really not nice.

  25. I’ve been there too, but in a slighter mode (few days), of course. The problem is that, for me, it’s a bit more tricky to accomplish this work/life strategy, because I’m an IT guy, despite I also work from home.

    The thing is that is almost impossible have everything I need at hand in the offline world, It’s a lot of documentation and unexpected researches needs that happen very often. The worst part in my area is the troubleshooting. But if I manage myself I could cover ~92% of the online needs. It could free me from being online most of the time, but it’d steel hold me from unsubscribing my internet provider and sometimes the urge of doing some unexpected google searches would be counter-productive for me.

    Any suggestions?

  26. I’ve had a similar experience disabling a portable internet connection, but hadn’t considered turning it off at home. I wrote about ditching my iPhone here: http://effectif.com/productivity/life-without-an-iphone

    I’m a programmer, and always find that I’m more productive without an Internet connection. The problem with disconnecting while programming is that I often need the Internet to help me work around tricky problems that can arise while working with third party software. On the other hand, I once got more done on an 11 hour train journey than I’d ever achieved in 11 hours with an Internet connection…

  27. Great post. It’s so much easier to be productive that way!

  28. Interesting experiment: I’m also going to be moving next month and am thinking about not having any internet/TV at home.

  29. Internet connectivity is indeed a luxury we could all live without. I soon found myself scrambling for “less convenient” alternatives, after realizing my design work had been just fine, and could save more productive real-time completing meaningful task that really are more important than recycling wasteful energy spent searching viable solutions around the internet.

    Are these important changes that affect our future standard of living? Or reflect the image of a potentialy dangerous lifestyle.

  30. I am planning on taking on a 100 day switch off challenge – no internet and no mobile phone for 100 days. Sometimes i think that so much social networking and easy ways to fill up your time just stop you from living in the present. Internet is obviously great for some things and it’s really useful, but it would be great to take a step back and see just how reliant we all are on it…

  31. More power to you man for this is the worst of the drugs and addictions. I pan to do it this Monday have lost much of the time for nothing and found that the internet really makes you dumb in real life desipite all the info makes you unfunctional

  32. Earlier this week, I ordered my internet connection to be turned off tomorrow. I have spent this week taking care of some things…I am looking forward to having more time being engaged in life. Browsing is an addiction. Can’t tell you how many times I am waiting somewhere and look around to chat with someone and everyone is stuck in their phone. I miss the contact and I miss being productive. Thanks for a great article!

  33. Hey Graham,

    Great article. Can you contact me? I’m hoping that I could re-post your article on my blog and link people to your site. I won’t do it without your permission.

    I’ll send you more details via email: firefly@sentex.ca but my blog is all about going off stuff! http://ditchyourfridge.blogspot.com

    • Graeme Blake says:

      Yes, as long as you place a rel=”canonical” tag pointing to the original page. Here’s the format to do that:

      With the link to this page instead. Send me an email when it’s up, looking forward to seeing what kind of stuff you have on your blog.

  34. Personally what i did was got an old xp comp at a yard sale hooked it up directly to my modem and left the router connecting my other pcs together but no net access. when i wanted net i had to go walk into the other room and use that old thing which couldn’t open two pages without crashing on me. helped immensely

Trackbacks

  1. [...] A guy goes without Internet, finds that it eats up > 30% of his time. Interesting read. Continue here. [...]

  2. [...] in total, so you don’t use up your willpower and go back to the dark side. What is it?  Get rid of internet access at home. Unthinkable?  The unthinkableness of it made me think of Matthew Chapter 19: 16 Just then a man [...]

  3. [...] wrote about my reasons for the no-internet experiment here. But I can sum it up as: I went to Cuba with no internet for a month, to write. I was much more [...]

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