Three Powerful Lessons I Learned When I Got Offline

Harvard Business Review

I hadn't been offline for more than a few hours in two and a half years — and only then because I was on safari in Botswana and had no choice.

Typically, the first thing I would do when I got up in the morning was to get on my laptop to check a series of sites, including Twitter, Facebook, Google Analytics, and HBR.org, to see what comments my blogs had accumulated overnight.

All day long, between doing my main work, I found myself checking one site or another, or reading and responding to email. Far too often, I got right back online after dinner. The lure of email and the Internet had come to feel compulsive, irresistible, and increasingly uncomfortable.

On the evening of December 24th, I decided to see if I could shut it all down for nine days, cold turkey. To my surprise, it wasn't that hard. What follows are the three key insights I distilled from the experience:

1. Program for Success: I spend my life trying to help people make positive changes in their lives, so I started by relying on the advice we give.

First, I made the challenge more manageable by choosing to do it during the holiday season, when my office was closed and I knew I was unlikely to miss anything urgent.

On my away message, I invited anyone with an urgent need to call me on my phone. I also defined a stopping point nine days later, which gave me a clear goal rather than leaving it open-ended.

Next, I told as many people as I could about my intention, in order to increase my accountability — and my embarrassment if I were to fail. One friend bet me $100 I couldn't do it, and I instantly took the bet. Proving him wrong was one more incentive.

I minimized recurring temptation — and its drain on my limited reservoir of willpower — by turning off email on my phone, and leaving it closed on my computers.

Finally, I established reading a book as my default behavior for anytime I felt restless or bored, and tempted to get back online. In the process, I avoided burning down precious energy and willpower trying to resist the call of the Internet, or fracturing my attention by responding to it.

2. Depth, not Breadth: As the days passed, the biggest loss I experienced was that I couldn't instantly search Google for more information about something each time the thought occurred to me. I'd always told myself I did that only out of a desire to know more and go deeper.

In fact, I now realize, that was rationalizing. It was usually just trivia or gossip or a stray fact that I was after, and instant gratification. But indulging the desire creates a self perpetuating cycle. The more I allow myself to be seduced by distraction, the more distractible I become.

When I stopped acting on each impulse, I discovered that after a few moments, they vanished without a trace. This was something, I realized, that I'd long ago learned in meditation: thoughts, desires and sensations will always arise. Pay them no mind and they'll pass.

We need less information in our lives, fewer choices, and more depth.

Eliminating the urgent and Pavlovian pull of the Internet freed me to give priority to what felt truly important.

3. A Fine Balance: On my last afternoon offline, I began looking forward to getting back online. It struck me that the feeling was akin to ending a diet. Then I realized I was ending a diet — except the diet was information rather than food.

The solution wasn't to go back to my old habits — just as it isn't after a traditional diet — but to permanently change my way of consuming. In both cases — food and information — the challenge is to find an approach that's more balanced and healthy.

My plan — it's now been two days — is to turn off my digital life when I get home from work each evening. For me, that means not bringing my phone or my laptop with me when I head upstairs to my bedroom. I'm also planning to unplug on the weekends, and to use at least some of that time to reflect, and renew.

The Internet is here to stay, with all the conveniences, richness and seductions it provides. I just want to be less compulsive and more measured in the way I use it.

Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything. Become a fan of The Energy Project on Facebook and connect with Tony at Twitter.com/TonySchwartz and Twitter.com/Energy_Project.

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