Being offline

The need for being offline. Constantly being online shatters your attention. It makes it hard to get real, creative work done. It also makes it hard to relax.

Recently I've found myself glued to my screen in the morning and late at night. Usually my phone, and I'm stuck reading some inconsequential, but addictive, news. Or I'm talking with people, also usually about not very important or urgent matters. For example, yesterday evening I was having a conversation on Telegram 11pm, just before I went to bed, and then I read a long (somewhat interesting) Twitter thread when I woke up at 5am.

Sometimes I get into a routine of being offline the first and last hour around sleep. Whenever I've been in such a state I've generally found myself to be happier, calmer, more focused and more productive. I have time to read physical books, maybe meditate or journal, be more present with people in person, or even just start my day earlier.

The time spent online during those hours appears to be particularly destructive. At night, spending time online can make it difficult to fall asleep, as your mind is racing and you are unable to unwind. This can significantly impact the day after. For the morning, it leads to a generally sluggish and/or panicky start of the day. Not a day on your own terms, but on someone else's. Reactive state of mind.

There are other times where being online is a negative. And sometimes it isn't just about being online, but about addictive technology more generally. Cal Newport writes about this in his book Digital Minimalism (2018?). Especially on the dangers of things like social media and how it is hijacks the body's reward system. They often act like slot machines, with variable reward and social approval ("did someone like my post"). This is biological in terms of dopamine hits (N.B. at least it appears that way phenomenologically, even if this might not actually be the best scientific explanation).

What is desirable here? It is clear there are benefits to these technologies. But they can also be harmful. Furthermore, we can't rely on in the moment monitoring and action, since these things are addictive and hits us on a more primitive level.

Instead, it calls for new rules and habits. Rules and habits to deal with a new kind of world. Especially of the via negativa variety, where we remove bad stressors.

It strikes me as similar to what happened, - or what one could imagine happened with - alcohol and tobacco. Initially, people were drinking all the time. There's something here with the story of industrial revolution and so on and replacing beer with coffee, but that's for another time. In any case, a common solution most societies settled on is not to stop drinking completely, but to not do it during day time, and not to do it excessively. Naturally, these norms are different for different groups of people, and some people even choose to abstain completely. But a more normal case is to allow for it in moderation in evenings and weekends, as a form of social tool.

Paul Graham has also written an essay about acceleration of addiction, where he talks about rather living in a society with wine than without.

In the case of tobacco, it turns out it is quite dangerous, on top of being addictive. And most people would agree it is best not to do it at all. So in that sense the solution was to abstain completely, or not even try in the first place.

What does this look like for the Internet and social media? We are still in the process of finding that out. Cal Newport has this idea of having a clear demarcation between "any benefit" technology and "best benefit".

Essentially, instead of finding any reason to use tool, we identify what we want and then the best way to achieve that. That might mean using Twitter as a tool, for example.

We need some slack in the system too. We could say, we want to be healthy so the best way to achieve that is to only eat maximally nutritious food. But too strict of an interpretation here would not work for most people. If you go to a party you might want to enjoy the food and have dessert or whatever without worrying about "eating perfect". This is also a common fallacy in the diet world, especially for the more extreme proponents.

Sometimes extreme methods can be justified. Especially if it a slippery slope pattern. Hence the quit cold turkey approach. It isn't what things need a more moderate approach and which require cold turkey approach. It might be individual as well. E.g.: FB, YT, Twitter, Telegram and so on. I suspect there's something deeper here in terms of what pushes our buttons in what ways.

The goal is to find a way to re-orient ourselves to the tools we use. In a way that is the most useful for us, while still being robust and not negatively impacting the rest of our lives.

In terms of more direct trial and error, we have a clear enemy in sight: online around bedtime. Instead, envelope it with books and so on. How?

1) Put the phone and computer in a different room, in airplane mode.
2) Ensure you have a plan for what to do without, for the first and last hour.
3) Ensure there are other ways to accomplish time sensitive things, such as finding out the time, taking down notes, and so on.
4) Have a set period (say, 10-12h) during which you can't be online.

Formulated as a more concise rule:

No Internet one hour before bed and the first hour of waking up

Calling it 'No Internet' as opposed to no 'No devices' as I often use my tablet to read, especially when traveling. That's a potential vulnerability, but so far so good. It is dangerous to read on my phone though, since the toggle for airplane mode is so close, and I often find myself succumbing to its temptation.

Another subtlety here is in terms of bed time, where it implicitly assumes there's a specific bed time. That's another thing to watch out for, especially when it might change depending on your schedule. This type of rule gets easier if we have a clear bedtime.

Now, it is certainly dangerous to put this out there before knowing the effectiveness of said remedy. The nature of trial and error is that we don't know which of our trials will work. But I'm going to do it anyway. I've had partial success with this in the past, but I've gotten out of practice. For habits to work and be effective, they have to be constantly reinforced, lest entropy takes over.


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