On The Importance of Going OFF the Internet

Going off the Internet seems a radical act, but for most people it’s essential for creativity. The Internet is inherently and continuously interruptive, and that’s not a good mix with creative work, or productivity in general.

I recently rewatched the movie The Hours, and found the many scenes of Virginia Woolf (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) sitting and thinking in her beautiful, quiet study inspirational.

I recently rewatched The Hours, and found the many scenes of Virginia Woolf (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) sitting and thinking in her beautiful, quiet study inspirational.

In classes, I quote Jonathan Franzen (“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”) and other famous writers on the importance of disconnecting. Then I urge students to disconnect by having two computers:

  • a stripped down, “vanilla” one without any Internet connectivity, games, or other distractions. That’s the one you write on. And,
  • a “normal” computer where you do all your other work

Alternatively, you could use a non-WiFi-enabled computer, and only connect to the Internet intermittently via a cable located far from your writing desk. You can do this even if the rest of your household uses WiFi simply by not saving the WiFi password in your computer. I did that for years–I had no idea what the household WiFi password even was–and it has the side benefit of encouraging you to get up and move around every once in a while to plug in.

I’m not a big fan of programs, like Freedom, that let you temporarily disable your internet connection. They provide too many decision points you can hesitate on (thus inviting procrastination), and they’re too easy to cheat by simply rebooting. If they work for you, fine, but for most writers the “two computers” and “no WiFi” solutions work best.

Although most coverage of “the disconnected life,” as it’s called, tends toward the superficial, this New York Times article goes deeper, and is really good. Excerpt:

Without my procrastination enablers at hand, I read Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” at breakfast every morning instead of looking at email and a panoply of browser tabs. I had tried to read the novel on previous occasions and put it down each time. Now, without distractions — or, equally important, without the threat of distractions — I grew deeply immersed. (Nice job, Mr. Roth.)

“We’ve known for some time now that multitasking does not work,” said Clay Shirky, a professor in journalism and interactive telecommunications at New York University. “People keep doing it because it’s emotionally pleasant to multitask even though it’s cognitively damaging. So that makes it parallelized procrastination.

For those with a libertarian slant (let others do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm me), Professor Shirky has an alarming rebuttal.

“There’s a secondhand-smoke effect from multitasking,” he said. “If one person at a table opts out of the conversation by looking at their phone, it affects everyone there.” As you might expect, in Professor Shirky’s household, which includes two children, no devices are permitted at mealtimes and screens are turned off after 9 p.m.

Taylor Ho Bynum, a musician and composer in New Haven, has so fervently adopted the disconnection model that he has written a manifesto about it on his website. In it, he observes that, for him, “it is so much easier to spend the day” doing administrative busywork “than it is to leap off the cliff into the terrifying unknown of ‘artistic inspiration.’ ”

“For composing music,” he said in an interview, being digitally connected doesn’t help. “Ellington didn’t have this,” he said. “Beethoven didn’t have it, Bach didn’t have it, and they all wrote a lot more music than we do. Particularly in the arts, both the creative engagement and solitude necessary are very much at odds with the expectations of the field now.”

I bolded Clay Shirky’s quote because it’s fantastic.

For years, I’ve been saying that multitasking is “a highly rationalized form of procrastination in which you procrastinate on higher value (but challenging) activities with less valuable (but easier) ones.” But I like the economy of the phrase “parallelized procrastination.”

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of publishing this article on line.

The right tool at the right time.

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