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 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….