The internet is an addiction. I didn’t realise this until I stopped using it.
I have been off the internet for about a week now. Well, not completely. But I have blocked all the sites I used compulsively – social media, news sites, and TV and video sites.
The effect so far? Surprisingly dramatic. My focus is sharper, and my thinking is clearer. Distracting mental noise has reduced by about 50% at a guess. Negative thought patterns are dissolving. I feel my thoughts are more my own now, and I’m not just reading other peoples’ and calling them my own. I knew when I quit the internet that I would regain control of my mind, but the speed at which it seems to be happening has really surprised me.
So in this entry I’ll take you through what led me to quitting, how I did it, and the effect it has had so far.
Seven months ago I started learning about mindfulness. The idea is that you try to stay focussed in the present and really experience life. You stop thinking about the past and being resentful. You stop thinking and worrying about the future. You stop conceptualising and comparing and judging everything. When the mental noise stops you can simply be. You can experience, enjoy and be grateful for life. That’s not to say that all thought stops, but it is to say that compulsive thinking stops. Compulsive thinking is addictive thinking, and it has occurred to me that many of us are addicted to the internet because it encourages our thought addiction.
Over the last seven months it has been a struggle to stay in the moment. I would have moments of total peace, joy and presence which made me know everything they said about mindfulness in the books was true. But these moments would only last a few hours at a time, and they would soon fade, and I would be drawn constantly back into compulsive thinking.
But what chance did I really have with mindfulness when I was conditioning my mind, for hours upon hours a day, to think compulsively? I was using the internet every day. I would mindlessly browse addictive websites for long stretches. I didn’t really stand a chance.
Last week I caught myself staring at stupid memes and plates of people’s food on Facebook for half an hour. Half an hour of this life, gone. Consumed by an activity I did not enjoy at all, but which I could not seem to stop doing.
I made the decision to quit. And I took it seriously.
Even though the technical side of this would take an hour tops (blocking a few sites and deleting a few accounts), consciously disentangling myself psychologically from the internet took me two whole days. Though to be honest, a lot of this time was spent saying ‘goodbye’ to the internet by bingeing on YouTube videos of Gordon Ramsay shouting at people. Stupid I know, but addictions, eh.
Deciding to quit Facebook took me four whole hours. I wrote down all the pros and cons, and after really thinking through every pro, I realised they were just illusory benefits. Here’s what I wrote down.
Initially, it was just meant to be Facebook that I was quitting. But then I kept thinking. ‘I’m quitting Facebook because it’s a waste of my life. What other sites are a waste of my life?’
I went through the same cost/benefit analysis of every site that I spent a lot of time on.
News sites. This one was the easiest. I figured none of the reported news was relevant to my own life. If there was any news that was relevant to my life, I would find it out first hand. As Tomorrow Never Dies media mogul supervillain Elliot Carver once said, ‘good news, is bad news’. Do I really want to fill my head with all the bad things going on in the world? I won’t get any joy out of it. It will just make me depressed.
Second objection? Many news sites try to get you ‘engaged’, which really means getting you annoyed and posting pissy comments at the end of the article. Opinion pieces and clickbait junk. The goal is to keep you on site, keep you clicking, and keep you enraged. Sorry, ‘engaged’.
Next was the TV sites. It occurred to me that I didn’t want to fill the void left by the internet watching TV shows. Their aim was the same as these websites – to keep you hooked to increase their ad revenue. They monetise your time. Your life to them is a commodity to be sold to advertisers. A quote from Andrew Lewis says ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product!’ At least I’m getting paid to be at work, but I’m a slave to these people!
Oh but what about the BBC? They’re not in it for the money, surely. Well actually, yes they are. They just get it from the government (well, us), rather than the advertisers. They use the same methods of psychological enslavement to keep you addicted to justify their existence to get money from the taxpayer. As no journalist ever says today, ‘follow the money’.
And then there was the big one. YouTube. Why was this one so hard? Well, for one, I used to like eating dinner and watching Gordon Ramsay shout at people. If I didn’t have YouTube, what was I going to watch when eating?
Ok, so I needed a better reason than that. What about all the useful tutorials on there? Well, it’s fine until the next recommended video is Gordon Ramsay’s idiot sandwich moment, then Gordon Ramsay’s biggest blow outs, then two episodes of Hotel Hell that I’ve already seen. Four hours of life, gone. Forget it, if I want to learn something I’ll read about it in a book or use a different website.
Ok, so I consume a lot of garbage on YouTube, but what about all the good stuff? All the talks that I watch by spiritual masters like Eckhart Tolle, Sadhguru and Osho? I watch a lot of that stuff too. Actually, a lot is an understatement. I binge watch so many videos about being in the moment, that I never am in the moment! Besides, YouTube is THE most addictive and time consuming website of all.
And then I had no more excuses. YouTube, blocked.
And that was it. The void was fully open. There was no more content that could fill it. Well… what if I create surrogates and get addicted to new sites? What if I do a Donald and can’t sleep because I’m on Twitter? What if I spend hours looking at irrelevant curiosities on Wikipedia? I can’t get rid of my computer completely. I still need to be able to book plane tickets!
Ok, so here I got back to my motivation. Before quitting I had watched a video of a guy giving a Ted Talk who was recalling his experiences of being a year offline. He said somewhere that he had to get used to boredom. But then, he started playing video games to fill the void. The whole point of my quitting was to become more mindful, and live more intensely in the moment. So the solution to the final problem was in the motivation. I had to embrace the boredom. Get used to being bored. Like we all once were before the days of print, TV and internet. An empty mind is a clear mind from which original thought, creativity, joy and love can emerge. Before I got into mindfulness I hadn’t experienced these things in years.
And so I created my new internet guidelines.
And so it’s been a week. Here’s what the experience has been like so far.
My eye contact has improved. I feel like I’m actually engaging with people now and am more intensely present with them. Eye contact says a lot. It says you’re here. I never really use to make much eye contact. I would very quickly get distracted by events, thoughts or my phone. Improving my eye contact was not something I actually consciously did, it just happened. I was just more focussed on the person I was with.
The eye contact thing was more a symptom. The root was the compulsive thinking. The negative thought patterns that swirl around. They swirl around because we have little control over them. We have little control over them because we are conditioning ourselves each day to get distracted, to lose focus.
I was in Portugal for two days last week. It was 33 degrees and I stared at the sea, totally focussed for a couple of hours. The tides rising, the waves crashing. It was all so alive, but this would have been impossible to see if I was compulsively thinking, and not looking. I watched how the water was being pulled up by the force of the moon’s gravity (I think). This is something I never would have noticed, cared about or enjoyed when my focus was poor.
My writing has improved. What would have taken me at least two days has taken me a couple of hours. In this moment, this is the only activity that I am engaged with. The words are just coming without conscious effort. Like Donald Trump, it’s clear to me now that I have all the best words.
So that’s pretty much it for now. I haven’t quit the internet entirely, but only the sites and content that kept me from living my life to its fullest. I can focus on one thing, and not get distracted by thoughts, and I’m no longer spending hours on end looking at classical art memes. I’m less self-conscious and more engaged with people. I feel more like myself much more of the time.
When considering quitting the internet (or more specifically those compulsive and addictive sites that make money off your attention and time), the only real question to ask yourself is… do these sites really add anything to my life?