Sunday, December 05, 2010

Building a Habit: Using the net less

What I became aware of was that using the internet had become a habit: something I didn't think too much about, I just sat down and surfed (at home, at work). Sometimes an hour would pass and I snap out of my netdaze and wonder what I'd been doing.

That's an hour of my life I could've been doing something with. And each of those hours could be multiplied by several times every weeks.

It wasn't just the big hour-long blocks of my life that I was concerned were slipping away. There were the 'five minutes' here, the 'ten minutes' there. The "I'll just check one thing" net-checks that spiralled out of control until I'd find myself on a website dedicated to the covers of 1970s science fiction novels with no real idea of how I'd gotten there.

My time is valuable ... and I needed to make myself understand that. So I decided to apply some basic reward and punishment strategies to my internet use. The reward was money (effectively, pocket money I'd give myself to spend on anything I wanted - guilt-free) and the punishment was working extra time at work, unpaid.

I started by giving myself a certain number of checks per day; I tried to make this number quite large, so it'd be easy to achieve. So I started with giving myself 10 trips to the internet every day. Not only that, but I decided to be generous: checking the internet at lunch-time and between 7pm and 7.30pm would be ‘free’. They wouldn't count against my 10 trip limit.

I also introduced 'penalty zones', times when using the internet counts for double. For the first hour after I wake up, between 10 and 11, and between 3 and 4; these are the times when I really want to be working on my own stuff.

After two weeks, I dropped down from 10 internet visits per day to 9 (and then kept dropping it every two weeks after that). That's when the tension really began. I started feeling the limitation, but I also started to feel the habit breaking.

I discovered two things about myself through doing this:

+ a lot of my internet time is ego-driven; I'm checking to see if anyone's replied to a post I've made, or to an email.
+ I completely under-estimated the perniciousness of 'just wanted to check just one thing', that impulse to google a random piece of information and then be led astray into the glorious and seductive wilderness of the internet.

I'm at 5 internet visits a day now, and I'm going to keep it at that level for a while to consolidate the habit. This feels like a behavior I'm going to have to manage for the rest of my life, because I suspect it'll be very easy for the browsing and googling to slowly creep up if I don't pay attention to it.

Doing this has felt good though - I definitely have more disposable time, and I've been feeling less stressed.
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