Disconnecting Shouldn’t be Radical!

(Excerpted from my book Productivity is Power. The original contains many citations, which are omitted here for brevity’s sake.)

One of productivity work’s big divides is between those who try to work while connected to the Internet and its many distractions, and those who have figured out that that’s a really bad idea. The second group understands the benefits of disconnecting at least part of the time, including not just increased productivity, but less stress, better health, and more enjoyment of life in general.

Yes, of course I know that you need to be on the Internet sometimes. But you probably don’t need to be on it as much as you think. You can, for instance, organize your work so that you do all your online tasks together in a batch, thus freeing you to disconnect for a while. And you can also train yourself to save minor online tasks—like looking up a date or writing a quick email—for your next online session, instead of constantly letting them interrupt your flow. (I keep some scratch paper near my computer so that I can write down such tasks as they occur to me.)

Another great technique is to download lectures and other videos so that you can listen to them offline. Doing this also gives you more flexibility, such as the ability to listen to lectures while driving or on the bus.

Ditto for reference materials: if you think you’ll need certain formulas or constants to do your work, then download that information and organize it into a document before starting. (This, itself, could be a good learning exercise, so long as you don’t overdo it and slip into Quasiproductive Procrastination.)

Even many people who think they must be online constantly for their work can cut back some—and, often, a lot. After writer and consultant Gregory Ferenstein started using timers to limit his social media use, for instance, he realized that: “[T]here was hardly ever a time when I needed to constantly monitor social media. Even when I posted something that was popular, I rarely needed to spend more time than a few minutes on the app to meaningfully engage. The marginal utility [meaning, the additional value – HR] from minutes 5 to 60 on Facebook and Twitter wasn’t much more than the first 5 minutes.”

You don’t hear much about it, but many people do disconnect regularly. Some only go online in the afternoons or evenings, after finishing their creative work; while others limit email and other online work to just once or twice a day; while still others shun certain applications—e.g., some social media platforms—entirely. Still others abstain on weekends, or go on multiday “digital detox” retreats. Novelists Zadie Smith, Isabel Allende, and Jonathan Franzen are famous “disconnecters,” and so is Cal Newport, who’s written two books on the topic: Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email. Programming legend Donald Knuth is a disconnecting pioneer, and in 1990 famously explained his decision to almost entirely dispense with email this way: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

Let’s be clear, however, that even many who need to “be on top of things”—like, say, many activists or entrepreneurs—benefit from limiting their online time, both because their work does indeed have an intellectual or creative component, and because a lot of our online time is spent on low-value activities like social media and watching videos. Yes, of course, it’s okay to do some of that! (And I allocate some time for it in Chapter 49’s sample time budget and schedule.) But too much is problematic, not just from a productivity and effectiveness standpoint, but a mental and physical health standpoint.

If all this sounds extreme, please remember that the choice isn’t a dichotomized “always online” versus “always offline” one: it’s about seeing the Internet and social media as the tools that they are, and figuring out how best to use them. It’s especially about recognizing that the apps are designed by experts to suck you in, and that being sucked in is actually a form of disempowerment that, like all forms of disempowerment, you want to avoid. By the way, that “sucked in” experience has a name: a ludic loop. The classic ludic-loop-generating technology is the slot machine, which uses fun and flashy displays—plus the lure of the occasional small win, and the possibility of a (very rare) big win—to “hook” people and suck their time and (more importantly) money out of them. But many social media apps, television shows, games, and other escapist diversions are also designed to generate ludic loops. (In social media, the feeling that you’re “winning” often come from people “liking” or “following” you, or responding to your posts.)

Once you do decide to limit your online time, you’ve got three main choices:

  1. First, you can try a WiFi /social media blocking app, like Forest, Freedom, or Cold Turkey. If one of these works for you, that’s great. But it’s easy to get sucked into procrastination before and while using them, and also easy to “cheat” and restore your access. (No, I’m not going to say how.)
  1. A better solution, in my view, is to work in a space without WiFi. Some of the top artist residency programs, including Yaddo and MacDowell, use this approach to support their visiting artists’ productivity. They limit Internet access to just a library or other common area, leaving the rest of the campus, including the artists’ studios, disconnected. Similarly, you can probably find a WiFi-free library, café, or other study space on or near your campus, where, like those pampered artists, you can work in luxurious disconnected peace and freedom. As a bonus, you’ll probably find yourself working alongside some highly productive others who have also discovered the benefits of disconnecting. (Which should further boost your own productivity.)

  2. The best solution to online distraction is to do the bulk of your work on a computer from which you’ve deleted not just Internet connectivity, but (obviously) all games and other distractions. In practice, this usually means using two computers: the disconnected one, on which you do your writing, programming, problem sets, and other work that requires sustained focus and concentration, and the connected one, on which you do your research, social media, gaming, etc. (In many cases, the disconnected computer can be an old one that you repurpose.) This two-computer system can not only boost your ability to concentrate, it can also help you create some empowering new options for yourself.

One of my own most effective productivity tricks, for instance, is this: every night, before going to bed, I shut down my “connected” computer while leaving my “disconnected” one on. That way, when I return to my office the next morning, it’s the disconnected one that’s “alive” and beckoning to me, and not the connected one. This simple-but-powerful ritual almost always ensures that I start right in on my work in the mornings, instead of getting waylaid by social media.

If you do most of your work at home—or at an office, assigned library carrel, or other fixed location—working with two computers is pretty straightforward: you leave your disconnected computer at that location, and carry around your connected one (swapping files between them using thumb drives). True, the juggling gets more complicated if you’re moving around a lot and/or working at multiple locations. Still, try to use a disconnected computer whenever you can. You could, for instance, bring your disconnected computer to the coffee shop, and use your phone for periodic email checks and other “urgent” online activities. (But keep your phone shut off most of the time, or you risk losing the whole benefit.) Then, when you return home, you can boot up your connected computer and do the bulk of your online work or play.

Ultimately, you want to leave your connected computer off at all times except for those when you intentionally go online. Although it is probably harder to practice this kind of “digital minimalism,” as Cal Newport calls it, in some fields than others, keep an open mind, and also keep trying out new ways to work—and play—disconnected. (See Chapter 44 for more tips on limiting your online time, and social media use in particular.)

Again, we’re talking about a big divide here. Some people, when I suggest that they disconnect, understand why. But others are aghast, as if I had suggested that they disconnect an arm or leg while working. A college-aged reader of the manuscript for this book called the advice “peak Boomer,” not realizing that many Boomers hate it, too! People of all ages have come to find the idea of disconnecting, even briefly, unthinkable. But ask yourself why that’s so—and, also, who is benefiting from your spending long periods online in either low-value activities or corporate-engineered ludic loops.

Especially if disconnecting seems unthinkable, that’s reason enough to give it a try. Few habits have as much potential to improve your productivity and life.

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