It’s the same horrible cycle, again and again. I wake up and check my email. I go online for something specific to answer an email. I get sidetracked by a link and get sucked into reading multiple articles, each more inane than the last, as well as the increasingly offensive comment sections. I decide to glance at Facebook and end up scrolling endlessly down the screen. I look up a certain term and leap down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole until I’m reading about howler monkeys and have no idea why. And then I remember the email, and I go to answer it, and I realize it’s been five hours. And now I can’t remember the answer that I looked up, so I go back online.
And it never ends.
Any of this sound familiar, my friends?
I realized that I had to get my online habits back under control. The internet was starting to affect my behavior in real life, which was pretty scary. I was feeling more and more guilty about how I was spending (wasting) my time; I was becoming much more outraged and judgmental; I was getting headaches; and, worst of all, I would know I needed to get offline, I would want to get offline, and yet my fingers and eyes simply would not let me. That smacked of addiction, and that terrified me. After all the eye-rolling I did about my friends who can’t look up from their phones, here I was, addicted to the internet.
So I started making changes. I vowed to quit the site whose articles were designed to start firestorms and whose comment sections made me feel gleefully voyeuristic as the commenters tore others apart. I am a happy, pleasant person and sites like that could only make me feel angrier, more stressed out, or guiltier—none of which I need in my quest to fulfillment. When I broke down and went back, I realized I needed a better method. Here’s what I did.
1. Make a list of all your internet activity and categorize it into Productive or Unproductive.
The Productive category includes work and school resources and the news, of course, but also sites that fuel your growth. For example, I love to cook, and websites like Budget Bytes give me new (and cheap!) recipes to learn. That’s productive. I was also part of an extremely supportive bridal forum (before we got married last month) that offered me inspiration and advice, and was a creative outlet for me. I consider that productive, as long as my time spent there is in moderation. Minimalist living blogs also qualify, of course. 😉
The Unproductive category consists of the sites you know are only bringing you down. This is different for everyone, but for me, gossip sites that snark about celebrities, or sites with vitriolic tones or content, go here. They may be a guilty pleasure, but they don’t contribute positively to my life. Sites that could be useful but that you spend way too much time on are also unproductive (Facebook, Pinterest, and Wikipedia can often be this way).
2. Block or set limits on unproductive sites.
When I found myself going back to a site I swore I’d quit, I went into the bowels of my laptop and blocked it. I could take the block away, of course, but the visual reminder when I type in the website is enough to remind me that I’m focusing on a more serene online presence.
I also decided that I would only check Facebook twice a day. I tell myself—and other people—that I only keep a Facebook so that I can get ahold of people if I don’t have their contact information, but let’s face it, I use it as a stalling mechanism just like anyone else. Being able to connect with faraway family is important enough to me that I don’t want to delete it entirely, but nothing is going to happen on Facebook that’s so important I need to check it multiple times a day.
These limits are different for everyone, so do what works for you. Be honest with yourself about what you should tone down or eliminate, and even though it may be hard at first, you’ll be happier for it.
3. Speaking of Facebook…purge your friends list.
As part of setting limits, I thought that if I got rid of a bunch of Facebook friends, there would be a lot less content to read and thereby less of a reason to want to click over to Facebook. I also used my friend purge as an opportunity to get rid of the occasional person who I like well enough, but just posts a lot of negativity. So I downsized my friends list to about 90 people, either family or close friends who surround me with positive energy. Now, as I suspected, I run out of things to read and can’t waste too much time on Facebook.
So purge your friends, unfollow people on Twitter and Instagram…basically, do your best to cultivate relationships with the people who matter, and let go of the ones who don’t.
4. Stop commenting.
Trust me, I know how infuriating it is when someone type a rude, hateful, or just plain incorrect statement. The internet has given rise to a whole lot of people who think they can be awful because no one can see them. And I understand the full-body impulse to tell them off, to correct them, to make a point, to fix the problem…
But should you, really? Take a minute and think before launching into a keyboard war. Are you really going to change minds? Is more anger what this comment section needs? Is waiting for a response going to stress you out? Are you going to regret saying these things in an hour? Most of the time, the answers are No, No, Yes, and Yes. In almost every case, you’re going to make yourself feel worse without any discernible gain. It’s simply not worth it. If you must respond, type it out, then go away for ten minutes before coming back, rereading, and deciding if you still want to send the message.
Next, I attacked my email. Since we planned a wedding, we’ve magically ended up on a bunch of email lists, and I already was ignoring emails from websites I frequent. Not anymore. I went through all those emails, unsubscribed from everything, and, while I was at it, added my name to all of the do-not-call, do-not-mail, do-not-offer, etc. registries.
You can also use this time to deactivate accounts you’re barely even aware of. You know, like your old LiveJournals, old email accounts, sites where you signed up for trials, etc. Basically, do your best to keep your personal information from being spread around further.
6. Finally, delete your browser history and Favorites.
Your list of productive sites can stay. Other than those, purge your browser history and your cluttered favorites and toolbars and widgets. After doing this, you may not even experience the temptation to return to unproductive web use. You may entirely forget that some of those sites even exist! Even if you don’t, it’s certainly less tempting when they aren’t staring you in the face, and you’ll feel better when your computer looks clean. Plus, you’ll free up memory, which makes your computer run faster. Win-win!
You may have to reevaluate your web use every once in a while. In fact, I encourage it. Don’t get discouraged if you relapse or have to change things up repeatedly. It’s just like anything else in the pursuit of a full, simpler life: a process.