Here’s a question worth pondering: Has the internet had an overall positive or negative impact on your life?
As you read and hopefully enjoy this article, take a minute to reflect on all that you appreciate about the internet and its benefits in your life.
- Do you have any favorite blogs that you follow?
- Does the internet help you to keep in touch with distant friends or family?
- How has the internet helped you to save time or money?
- Have you watched any good movies or TV shows lately?
Now, take another minute to think about times when your relationship with the internet has been less than ideal.
- Do you ever find yourself compulsively checking for emails or news updates?
- Have you ever spent way more time than you expected scrolling on social media or watching videos?
- Has the internet ever fed into any addictions by making them easier to access?
I think many would agree that the internet is an amazing and powerful creation—capable of delivering great benefits. They would also agree the internet can trigger behaviors that are difficult to tame.
Digital Versus Physical
As someone who is curious and loves learning, I completely resonate with the appeal of the internet as a source of knowledge. That part of my personality is the reason I feel a wave of happiness when I walk into a big, beautiful library.
But something is fundamentally different about my relationship to the physical world of books and magazines than the digital world of blog posts and videos. And I think that difference is a key to unlocking a healthier, more mindful approach to using the internet.
So, what are some of these fundamental differences between the digital medium of the internet and the physical medium of a library or bookstore? I can think of three:
The digital world is limitless, the physical world has limits.
The digital world has hyperlinks, the physical world does not.
The digital world is anywhere, the physical world is somewhere.
Too Much Consumption
One theory on the rise of obesity is that we are being powerfully re-shaped by our physical environments. Delicious, convenient, and affordable junk food combined with significantly less need for physical activity has led to the global health challenge that we now face.
But what if something similar happens when you give humans limitless access to the internet? The content we consume from social media to videos to news is enjoyable, accessible, and virtually free. An hour of social media might not be “bad for you” in the same way that excess sugar consumption might be, but the struggle to control it is similar. Even those of us who wish we would spend less time “consuming” on the internet struggle to do so because the pull of the internet is just so strong. Just as those larger factors led to the deterioration of our bodies, might the internet be something similar to our minds and spirits?
The Internet, Mindfully
My approach to this modern challenge has been to create a set of “rules of engagement” that allow me to enjoy the internet, but mindfully.
I do enjoy the internet, after all. Without it, the blog I keep wouldn’t exist (nor this article). My job also wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t have discovered nearly so many cool places on Google Maps.
But I know from experience that the internet will take and take and take—unless I draw a line. The temptation of easy, instant pleasure too often overrides the delayed gratification of meaningful work and long-term goals.
That is why I need rules.
My personal rules operate with one simple principle: to decide in advance how I want to approach the internet so I don’t have to rely on willpower alone to know when enough is enough.
Of course, you still need self-discipline to stick with your self-imposed rules. But I’ve found that somehow the rules make it easier, as if I am listening to a wiser, more mature version of myself offering timely advice. It’s easier to stick to a commitment that you already made than to battle the compelling logic of “just a few more minutes” in real time.
My 6 Simple Rules
Below are the rules that help me to use the internet more mindfully. Take them and make them your own. Review them daily until they become habits and maybe they can offer you the support they have offered me. And it might be obvious, but these rules generally apply to my personal, recreational use of the internet. For work, my only rule is to stay focused on one thing at a time.
Have a plan with every click. One of my most important personal rules is not to “surf” the internet. Around 90 percent of the time, I decide in advance to read or watch just the thing I’m looking for, and not allow myself to click on other interesting links.
Set a timer. For the 10 percent of the time that I’m browsing the internet more leisurely—perhaps checking Twitter, I will set a timer and stop when it rings. By now, my internal clock has gotten much better, but setting a timer is a wonderful way to start out.
Create self-imposed limits. I have other rules, too. For example, I set my phone to notify me when certain people in my inner circle email me. Other than that, I try to only check my personal email only about once a day. I have written down other simple rules that are now second nature to me.
Be convinced that less is more. Like a little child, I used to act as if more and more of my favorite things would bring me greater pleasure. Of course, I was wrong about that. Just like the first piece of dessert delivers joy that quickly falls with overindulgence, the same is true for my use of the internet. I found that by leaving myself wanting just a bit more, I am able to savor the fewer bites that I do take. Truly, I am happier for it.
Take your leisure offline. You might be thinking that I am anti-leisure by these rules. Not at all. I think rest, curiosity, and entertainment are part of a good, balanced life. But the internet, unlike other offline forms of leisure, is just too easy. Think of it as the difference between eating a candy bar and baking a gourmet cake. The cake is an experience and it slows you down to enjoy more. I find the same to be true for offline leisure such as books, magazines, and even going to the movies.
Create more and consume less. If all you are using the internet for is to consume, you are missing out. Creating a blog with my wife has become one of our favorite shared hobbies. Sure, the pleasure of creating involves more effort than consuming, but once you’ve created a daily habit like we have, the momentum helps to push you in the right direction. One of the internet’s great gifts is that so many of us can now create in so many new ways.
This article was originally published on This Evergreen Home.