According to a recent survey up to six percent of online users may suffer from internet addictions. Even though most of us rarely reach that level of obsessive internet, e-mail and forum usage, overusing the internet can be both time and energy draining. Because the internet and e-mail is crucial for many professionals today, it can be a double-edged sword. One the upside, the internet can make information easily accessible and readily available. E-mail can also allow for sending information effortlessly without interrupting the other person with phone messages. The downside is that many people find themselves unable to manage or control the huge amount of information at their disposal. Many professionals end up spending a few hours of their workday just keeping up with e-mail correspondence.
I am nearing the end of a 30-Day trial designed to optimize my own internet and e-mail usage. Although I can’t boast the incredible flow of e-mail messages many people receive, internet and e-mail usage was beginning to occupy far more of my time than was efficient. Checking your inbox, web stats or blog comments several times a day is both unproductive and inefficient. Although there may be a small opportunity cost caused by extending the time between checks, I felt that it didn’t warrant the time I had to use.
Internet and e-mail usage is a particularly difficult habit to quell because it operates on a variable ratio reward schedule. The power of this schedule can make a boring activities like playing the slot machines or roulette incredibly addictive. Sometimes when you check your feeds or inbox you will get a new message and sometimes you won’t. Because you will never know when you might get a little reward, you check far more frequently then the rewards actually come. Because of the addictive nature of the variable ratio reward schedule, reducing internet usage often requires the full force of a 30-Day trial to condition a new habit. Along with a trial conditioning period, I will offer my other suggestions for effective internet/e-mail usage.
Allocate Internet/E-mail Time Limits
When I started my trial I decided that thirty minutes was the period of time I felt warranted spending time for browsing on internet or e-mail. Allocating a strict limit for the amount of time you spend on the internet forces you to prioritize what needs to get done. When I first started the trial I noticed that it was impossible to read all of the blogs and check all the websites I normally checked each day and stay current. Strict time limiting forced me to dump any information source I didn’t feel was valuable. I now have a much smaller list of blogs I subscribe to that I feel provide the maximal value.
This time limiting also prevents you from sneaking a peek at your e-mail or feeds when you have a little down-time. Such exercises are wasteful and energy draining while sabotaging your efficiency. By stating in very precise terms when and for how long I could do all of my surfing and checking, I no longer checked my e-mail or feeds excessively.
During the first few days my e-mail surfing was rushed as I attempted to fit my old information gain into this narrower time frame. After cutting off the waste from my feed list and frequented websites I can now comfortably view all the information I need in the time limit. This may have the inadvertent cost of limiting information to me that could have been available but the price is worth it. Remember, you learn by doing, not by reading. I might lose a few opportunities but the extra time I save can be invested into some actual personal development and learning. Cutting off blogs that gave 5% value and 95% fluff saved me a lot of time.
Define Acceptable Exceptions
This strict internet usage parameters may be feasible for someone who’s job or work doesn’t require them to access the internet, but as I soon found, there were many pressing things that needed the internet that simply couldn’t wait until the next surfing period. Using google to find statistics or definitions for research in blog articles and projects is something that would cripple my progress if I had to wait an entire day. Similarly, software or technical problems often required searching for a solution immediately.
To overcome this problem you need to very explicitly and objectively define exactly what is considered an acceptable exception to your usage limit. For me this was research and referencing previously viewed material. Since my biggest problems had been with RSS feeds, e-mail and casual browsing I ensured that these items were specifically disallowed in my exceptions list.
Another exception I made was that longer articles could be printed out and read later. Steve Pavlina tends to write chunkier posts that take at least fifteen minutes to read, so they are best saved for printing later. I’m a real frugal guy when it comes to printer ink so this exception doesn’t get abused.
Making exceptions is an ugly process. Defining situations where you can or can’t do something works best when the rules are simple. Complex exceptions make conditioning a habit more difficult. This is why I only recommend this step out of necessity. Making very specific and objective exceptions beforehand is better than failing your trial because the reality of your work requires access to the internet more than once per day.
Cut Out Fluff
Most of the stuff you will read or see on the internet will be time-wasting garbage that has no meaning or value. Mildly entertaining, this is the garbage that shouts out at you to look at it even if it is absolutely useless. One of the reasons for setting your absolute time limit for casual internet usage and RSS/e-mail checking is because it forces you to really evaluate whether a lot of the blogs or sites you visit are really worth your time.
Avoid link blogs. You may notice that I rarely write a post as a reply to another blog. I don’t subscribe to any blog that I don’t feel provides at least 50% original content. I aim for 100% original content when the only links I use are to point towards things that stimulated ideas for me. Link blogs tend to have incredibly high posting frequencies and subscribing to more than a few and you tend to hear the same message several times.
Avoid cat blogs masquerading as content providers. I use my RSS feeds to get information that can help me, not to hear about boring details of a bloggers personal life. Although I think a few tidbits of information about the author make him or her more real, some bloggers seem to get the false belief that people actually care about their personal lives despite the fact that we have never met them before. I hope someone gives me a good slap if I ever start using this blog as a platform for a personal diary. Once again I use the 50% rule. If less than 50% of your posts are significant information and the rest are either links or boring personal details I dump the blog.
Avoid e-mail correspondence with people you can talk to in person. Writing has to be one of the slowest and most inefficient forms of conversation known to man. If you can talk to someone on the phone, do that. If you can talk to them in person, even better. Although e-mail doesn’t interrupt the person who you wish to talk to, it wastes a lot of time in responding back and forth. If you can’t afford constant interruptions just send an e-mail for when you can meet to discuss the issue and stop playing e-mail tag.
Never use online forums as a substitute for social interaction. Forums are great if you need specialized help or discussion on a topic that you can’t meet others to talk about normally but they are an awful way to interact with people. I don’t visit any forums because I simply found them to be such a poor substitute for real, human interaction. Don Playford, a friend of mine from Toastmasters commented that, “There are three things in life, the real thing, a similar thing and a substitution for. I want the real thing.” I don’t consider blogging to be a social activity. Although I respond to comments, this blog is primarily a source of providing information and content. Conversation is best saved for in-person. That is the standard I hold myself to here and the standard I expect from other blogs.
What is the Purpose?
Knowing the purpose of something is the key to being successful at it. This is true for every single thing you will ever do including life itself and the internet is no different. Why do you use the internet and check e-mail and RSS feeds? Once you know why you do it, you can optimize from that standpoint. If your answers involved something about feeling connected to the world I’d suggest going out and spending time with actual people and organizations instead. If your answers pointed to staying informed or receiving information, look into seeing how books and audio programs could supplement or replace some of your internet usage.
Rarely is the internet or e-mail the only way you can achieve the purposes they have. In many cases the internet, e-mail or RSS will be the most effective way to fulfill these purposes. In other ways there are far more efficient methods that don’t require the internet at all. Technology can simplify our lives only if we don’t use it when an untechnical solution would be preferable.
Effectively controlling your internet usage to achieve maximal benefits with the least time or energy investment yields rewards in other areas of your life. Cyberspace is a nice place to visit but let’s live in the real world. Set a strict time limit for your casual browsing, e-mail checking and blog reading. If necessary, explicitly define exceptions to these rules so your habit doesn’t break down in the face of circumstances. Cut out the fluff from your internet usage and replace technical solutions with real human interaction. Finally, know the purpose of your internet usage in order to optimize it. Careful harvesting of the resources the internet provides while avoiding waste can allow you to really get more out of your life.