Not a week goes by that I don’t think about how much that computer fast I did back on October has benefited me. Going an entire week without the “noise” of the internet gave me the space I needed to take a good look at where I was in my life, think and pray more, reorganize my days to put my computer-related activities in their proper places, and recognize the ways that my computer (the internet in particular) was both positively and negatively impacting my life.
As Lent approaches I’ve heard some other people say they’re considering doing something similar, so I thought I’d offer my suggestions for having a fruitful internet fast:
1. Consider expanding the fast to include all texting and computer use
At first I was only going to fast from the internet, but I realized that I tended to get way too sucked into my computer any time I was on it, even if I was working offline. Shutting down my computer altogether really helped give me the mental space I needed to focus on other things for a while. (Obviously, those of you who have jobs that involve computer use wouldn’t be able to do this completely, but it might be worth considering not using the computer outside of business hours, not using it at work for recreational purposes, etc.)
I also included texting from my phone in the fast; that kind of constant influx of information and incessant communication was the main thing that I was trying to get away from.
2. Push the limits of how long you think you can be offline
When the idea of not using my computer at all for a whole week first came to mind, it sounded impossible. Maybe it’s because of my high tech background, but my computer is like an appendage of my body. My primary method of communication with friends and family is email, I keep up with current events through news websites, I like to keep my blog updated, I read other blogs to relax every day, etc. But more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that maybe — just maybe — the world wouldn’t fall apart if I didn’t have a computer for a week…and that I desperately needed a reminder of that fact.
A week might not be the right time period for everyone, but whatever amount of time seems right for you, I recommend challenging yourself to go a little longer than you think you can go.
3. Set reasonable exceptions
Since the goal of the fast was to reduce stress, I decided to set some reasonable exceptions. The infrastructure of my life assumes that I have computer and internet access, so there were certain situations in which the stress caused by not using my computer would outweigh the benefits. For example, our entire bill-paying system is set up to run through Quicken; I decided that if I needed to pay a bill during the fast I could get on my computer for that since it would cause me a lot of stress in the long run to have to go back and re-enter the data from bills I’d paid manually.
The two parameters I recommend for exceptions are: 1) Set the exceptions ahead of time and try not to add new ones on the fly, and 2) if possible, try to use another computer (i.e. one that doesn’t have all your stuff on it so you’ll be less likely to get sucked in).
4. Plan ahead
As your fast approaches, make note of any key information you have on your computer or online accounts that you might need. Before going offline I printed out some recipes and phone numbers, and sent an email to friends and family members to give them my phone number in case they needed to contact me that week.
5. Be open about it
One of the things that made it work for me was that I was open about what I was doing. As I mentioned above, I sent an email out to people with whom I regularly text/email and told them that I was going to be offline for a week, and gave them my alternate contact information. I happened to go to a social event during the fast, and when someone I met said she’d follow up with me by email, I explained why it would be a few days before I could get back to her. (As an aside, I was amazed by the positive responses I got. People were very interested to hear about what I was doing, and many enthusiastically commented that they’d like to do something like that themselves.)
6. Keep a journal
I found that keeping a journal was key for articulating what I was learning, and then implementing those lessons once the fast had ended. Some suggested questions for reflection:
- What are the circumstances during which I’m most tempted to get online? What does that say about how and why I use the internet?
- What am I doing with the time I normally spend online? What are the fruits of those activities compared to the fruits of being online?
- When the fast is over, how can I restructure my life to minimize the negative ways that the internet impacts my life while maximizing the positive?
I also found this to be the perfect opportunity to do a lot of high-level life reflection, e.g. examining whether or not I was really living according to the values I claimed to hold dear, how I was doing as a wife, mother and Christian, etc.
7. Consider including other types of “fasts” as well
While you’re unplugged from the internet, it might be worth considering unplugging in other ways as well. Especially if you’re not fully able to get away from computers and the internet because of work, you might want to consider:
- No artificial lights after sundown. We did this once, and I was amazed at how much I grew from the experience (I wrote about it here).
- No television.
- Limiting phone calls to certain times of day.
- Any other suggestions?
Again, I can’t recommend some kind of computer/internet/texting fast highly enough. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here’s my post about all the cool things I learned during my fast in October.
While we’re on the subject of Lent and fasting, I’d love to know: Have you ever done a “fast” (broadly defined) that was particularly fruitful? If so, tell us about it!
Some people have asked if there was any one last straw that led to my sudden internet fast a couple of weeks ago. Others have asked for details about the nature of my hysterical tweets from the afternoon of Friday, October 2nd. In this post I shall address both inquiries.
The afternoon of Friday the 2nd started out perfectly lovely. I’d put my youngest two children down for naps and had set up my three-year-old daughter and five-year-old son for a little quiet time. All day I’d been drifting over to my computer, checking email here, reading blogs there, and I couldn’t wait to finish up all the things I’d started in my sporadic computer time throughout the day. Just as I was settling down into the couch and opening up my laptop, I heard the worst four words that could be uttered in this house:
“Look, mommy, a scorpion!”
My three-year-old daughter was pointing to a scorpion. That was about six inches away from her leg.
I tossed my computer onto the couch and jumped up to confirm that it wasn’t some new scorpion gag toy that some soon-to-be-ex friend had planted in the living room. Nay, it was real. And big — one of the largest scorpions we’ve seen in the house to date. I didn’t want the kids to panic, so I said, “Run! Run to the couch NOW NOW NOW before it stings you! Hurry! It’s going to get you! Run! AAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!”
The commotion prompted the scorpion to saunter over to the middle of the living room floor. And this is where the story would end for most people. Most people’s internal dialogue would go something like:
“I will grab the nearest heavy object and drop it on the menacing arachnid.” Boom. “I’m glad that’s over with.”
But we’re talking about me, and nothing can be that simple, especially where scorpions are involved. My internal dialogue went something like:
“I will grab the nearest heavy object and drop it on the menacing arachnid. But WHAT IF IT DOESN’T WORK?! My ‘killing scorpions on carpet by dropping heavy things on them’ success rate is 0%! And what book should I use anyway? Is my husband’s Corporate Finance textbook big enough, or is this an Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary job? I know, I could ask the internet! If I want to seek advice from people on Twitter, how could I summarize this in 140 characters seeing as how I’m going to need AT LEAST 100 characters just for exclamation points?”
Meanwhile, as I was standing around analyzing my situation from every possible angle and thinking of how I could turn it into a clever tweet, the scorpion moseyed on over to a location under our long walnut buffet. This was bad. This was very bad. The buffet stands less than a foot above the carpet, making it impossible to get a book on top of the scorpion as long as it was under there. And then, just to make sure the suck-o-meter was dialed up to a 10, the scorpion crawled onto the side of a large book under the buffet.
The situation had gone from bad to worse. There was no way I could get it.
I seriously considered just staring at it for three hours until my husband got home from work, but the scorpion was headed toward the dreaded toy pit. To fully understand the ominousness of this trajectory, you first have to understand that my husband and I are both the only people of our generation to have children on both sides of our family. The result is that our children are blessed with many, many toys. Many. Like, I sometimes have dreams about frantically writing thank-you notes only to have dumptrucks overflowing with new packages addressed to my children come and pour their entire contents down upon me as I write. The result is that it looks like a Toys R Us exploded in the southwest corner of our living room; we’ve given up on fancy organizational techniques like throwing toys in boxes when the kids aren’t playing with them, and just kind of rake everything over to one part of the living room at the end of the day.
And I knew that if the scorpion made it into the toy pit, it would be all over.
“All over” as in I would never in a thousand years be able to find it, and if I did it would undoubtedly involve being stung. “All over” as in despite all my “ha ha I’m moving” jokes I would NEVER SET FOOT IN THIS HOUSE AGAIN if that scorpion got lost in the toy pile. I had to get it.
“I have GOT to get this thing before it goes into the toys and I lose it and then it stings one of us when we least expect it!” I thought it a blind panic. To calm myself down, I decided to call my husband for reassurance. It would be nice to hear the voice of someone who could just laugh at the whole thing and point out how silly I was being. When I described the situation to him, he responded:
“You have GOT to get that thing before it goes into the toys and you lose it and then it STINGS ONE OF US WHEN WE LEAST EXPECT IT!!!!!” Or something like that. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as frantic as I perceived him to be through the lens of my scorpion-induced mania, but suffice it to say that his answer was not to chuckle and tell me that it would be fine.
My husband did have a good practical suggestion though: Since it wasn’t in a good smashing position, I should use bug spray. I went and grabbed the last can of Raid from the laundry room, aimed it at the scorpion, went to push the plunger…and hesitated. Not pushing the plunger right when I had the nerve was a fatal mistake. I’d psyched myself out. The problem was that I had major hesitations about using wasp spray for scorpions. I mean, seriously, THESE THINGS DON’T DIE. If the fancy exterminator chemicals only get them to pretend to be dead, why on earth should I believe that some namby-pamby grocery store wasp spray would do anything at all? Shoot, for all I knew maybe that’s what they like to drink for breakfast! This train of thought ended up with me imagining spraying the Raid only to find out that it actually gives them more speed and strength, the angry arachnid now running right at me as I trip and fall and find myself unable to move as it stings me over and over again while I scream and the children come to my aid only to be stung themselves and…yeah. Suffice it to say I psyched myself out.
After some all-caps Twitter updates, Google searches to find out if wasps and scorpions are in the same genus, countless prayers requesting the support of the unknown patron saints of both scorpion killing and neurotic wimps, and rearranging the living room furniture to make the ottoman and some couch pillows into a scorpion-proof bunker behind which I could hide, I got ready to spray. For real this time. My finger was on the trigger again, but then I thought: What if this doesn’t have the range it says it does?
In what I would later come to think of as famous last words, I said to myself, “Ah, yes, I should really test it first!” So I went outside, picked out a threatening blade of grass and showed it who was boss with my Raid spraying skills. Then another one. OK, good, this stuff definitely had some range. I went inside, moved my bunker back a couple feet to give me even more room in case this spray only made the scorpion mad, and got ready again. Then I decided to test it inside the house. You know, in case it, uhh, spayed differently in indoor air. After squirting it at a blank spot on the wall, I was ready. Well, just one more time. OK, now I was ready.
But wait! Maybe what I needed was some music to help me get up my nerve. I put my iPod on shuffle and got back down behind my bunker just as some Matisyahu song was finishing up. In a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up moment, the next song that came on was the ultimate “one chance to prove yourself and win a great struggle in a David-and-Goliath sort of way” theme song, Eye Of the Tiger. As those first DUNH…DUHN-DUHN-DUHN guitar riffs started (OK, that’s hard to write, but y’all know what I’m talking about, right?) I focused my eyes on the scorpion 12 feet away, aimed the can, and sprayed.
And to my abject horror, I heard only a weak phhhhhhhhhh sound as a light cloud of chemcials came from the can.
I’d used up all the spray in my many tests. The can was basically empty.
In the split second it took for a couple of minuscule droplets to float over from the can to the scorpion’s hideout under the buffet, the thought flashed through my mind, “This isn’t going to be good.” And it wasn’t. One of the drops was a direct hit. The scorpion was unamused. And when scorpions get unamused, they get fast.
In a flash it got down from the book and took off, its stinger ready to take someone out. I instinctively started running the opposite direction, in the back of my mind thinking that I would eventually stop, perhaps somewhere around the U.S.-Canadian border. But when I glanced over my shoulder I saw to my horror that it was not running in my direction, but towards the toy pit. And it was only about a foot away.
“Get it, mommy!” my son shouted as the distance between the scorpion and a toy tractor closed quickly.
The awareness that I would literally never sleep in this house again if I lost that scorpion flashed through my mind, and — with Eye of the Tiger still blasting — I turned around, slammed open the childproof gate and ran back into the living room, knocking over a stack of laundry and kicking over a pile of children’s books that were in my way, stepping on a baby doll and reaching out to within a few inches of the scorpion to douse it with the last few dribbles of Raid.
In one of the more anticlimactic moments I’ve experienced lately, it just died. Instantly. The spray worked just fine.
I’d just thrown a book over it to stall any sneaky coming-back-from-the-dead moments until my husband got home, when I heard my two youngest children waking up from their naps. I went to get them, and when I came back downstairs it smelled like…well, like some idiot had sprayed Raid all over living room, so I announced that we were all playing outside until daddy got home.
A while later my husband walked in to behold the dismantled couch, the ottoman bunker, the scattered laundry and toys, the chemical residue dripping from the wall. To say that it looked like thieves had ransacked the place would be to imply way too much of a feel of order or purpose to the mess; to say it looked like thieves intended to ransack it but decided to stay and get drunk and just thrash around for a while would be getting closer to reality.
When my husband asked me how my day was, I said with a sigh, “It’s been tough — I haven’t had any time to relax and do stuff on my computer today!”
He looked back at the house, looked at me, and observed: “Today one of the kids came close to being stung by the biggest scorpion we’ve seen around here in a while, you stared at it in agony for the better part of an hour, hosed down the house with Raid, finally killed the scorpion, somehow tore the living room apart in the process…and your take is that it was a bad afternoon because you didn’t get enough computer time?”
And that’s when I decided it was time for a break.
- Brother Scorpion, Sister Mosquito
- 20 things I learned in a week without my computer
- Greetings from the House ‘O Scorpions
Thanks to Emily for suggesting the word “Scorpionator.”
A conversation my husband and I had a day into my experiment:
ME: I’m keeping a notebook to write down notes of what I’m learning this week.
HIM: That would make a great blog post!
ME: That’s so funny you mention that, that’s exactly what I was thinking!
HIM: [Gives me a look that makes me immediately realize that it was a JOKE, along the lines of "wouldn't it be ironic/unbelievably nerdy if you were thinking about blog material as you make handwritten notes about being completely unplugged?"]
So I just spent an entire week without my computer. I did it because 1) I felt overwhelmed with all I have on my plate right now (kids, schooling choices for kids, blogging, book writing, trying to keep the house in basic order, etc.) and felt like I needed to really clear my head in order to figure out how/if I could balance it all, and 2) I was starting to have a hard time detaching from the internet, regularly getting sucked into online stuff when I was supposed to be doing other things.
The week ended up being more fruitful than I could have imagined, and below are 20 things that I learned. Most are related to computer stuff, the internet in particular, though some are general life lessons that became more clear during my week of “silence”:
- Your priorities are the things you plan for. This was actually what sparked it all. My husband made this comment week before last, noting that you can tell what people’s actual priorities are by looking at what they plan for. I looked at my life to see that I had intricate plans for when I was going to spend time on my computer, but was always winging it when it came to the more boring/humble tasks related to my primary vocation.
- Planning is a critical element of having a peaceful life. I realized that it’s almost impossible for me to make optimal choices once the chaos of the day has begun; if I don’t have a plan, I drift into survival mode where I just do the bare minimum to get by. Preparing for each day in the evening before by getting things ready and visualizing my goals makes a huge difference in my life.
- You are much more checked out from the people around you when you’re consuming interactive information (talking on the phone, email, Twitter, commenting on blogs, etc.) than when you’re consuming static, one-way information (reading books, writing with pen and paper, etc.)
- You are much more checked out from the people around you when you’re looking at a glowing screen. During my free time this week I watched TV more than usual. While it left me more present to the people around me than when I was on my computer, I was still much more checked out than when I read books or wrote with pen and paper.
- It’s easier to interact with people online than in real life. This week I was forced to actually pick up the phone and call people for social interaction. It’s much less efficient to interact offline because you’re forced to engage with people rather than getting directly to the information you need (such as the typical “how are you doing?” pleasantries when you haven’t spoken to someone in a while), but I found it to be a good thing to have to really engage with my friends and family members rather than just dashing off quick emails or direct messages.
- I was much more tempted by junk food without the internet. This was the most surprising turn of events this week. The first Monday without the internet I chowed down on junk food like I haven’t since the beginning of the Saint Diet nine months ago. I realized that I use the internet as an escape mechanism when I’m feeling stressed, and without it I was tempted to turn to something else.
- The internet tempts me to over-value my own opinions (especially micro-communication tools like Twitter and email). This week I caught myself hanging on to every single opinion I had about anything, a habit I’d formed from constantly emailing and tweeting friends with every little thought I had. When I wrote the ideas down on paper to express later by phone or in person, I realized that most of them were pretty inane, things that I would have forgotten about altogether in the days before I had an internet connection.
- The internet brings out my snarky/judgmental side. Similar to the above, I realized this week that I wasn’t in “judging and making snarky comments” mode nearly as much as usual. Something about the interactive nature of the internet makes me feel like I must comment on every single thing I see, and I’m always thinking of witty remarks to email friends with throughout my days. When I thought of picking up the phone and calling people to tell them all the thoughts I’d normally email, it made me feel like a blowhard.
- The internet brings out my gossipy side. I realized that part of what draws me into the internet, blog reading in particular, is a desire for drama — who’s disagreeing with whom, who wrote something controversial, etc. Life felt a little more boring — in a good way — without the internet.
- Music can completely change the mood of a house. Being offline made me rediscover the joy of adding music to our daily routine, and I was amazed by what a difference it made.
- I use the internet to escape challenging convictions. I found it interesting that the only moments that I was overwhelmed with temptation to go get online were when I was thinking/praying about my life and came to a conclusion that I didn’t like. I realized that I’ve unconsciously developed a habit of drifting over to my computer and getting online as a way to distract myself from hard truths.
- Email is my biggest source of computer-related stress because it requires constant decision-making, which is difficult for me.
- Getting on my computer makes it very easy to forget what my goals for the day are. Especially because I have tendencies toward ADD, I go into “monkey with shiny object” mode with all the great, interconnected information available on the internet; I all too easily get sucked in and completely forget what I was trying to accomplish in the day.
- Computer work always leaves me feeling like I wasn’t finished. Similar to the above, there is always one more thing I wanted to do/see/read on my computer, especially if I’m online. Whether or not I accomplished what I sat down to do, I’m left with this chronic, dissatisfied feeling that I didn’t do everything I wanted to do.
- A big step towards giving my home a “domestic monastery” feel is limiting internet use. Ever since I read this fantastic article a couple years ago, I’ve yearned to make my house feel like a true “domestic monastery.” Never have I come so close as I did this week. In the silence of an internet-free house, I felt like I was on some kind of spiritual retreat, even when I wasn’t praying.
- I have lost the concept of waiting for information. Years of daily internet use has left me with this feeling that I have some kind of right to know whatever I want to know, whenever I want to know it. For example, on Wednesday I was trying to think of the name of an actress who was in a certain movie, and I realized that, without the internet, I either had to connect with another human being to get the information or patiently accept that I couldn’t know it right now. It was surprisingly irritating.
- The same force that drives people to slot machines is what drives me to my computer. I realized that when I mindlessly get online, every time I click it’s like pulling the lever on a slot machine and hoping to hit the jackpot. I’m hoping to hit a virtual jackpot — a blog post that changes my life, an email that blows me away, a hilarious video on YouTube, etc. And the truth is that there’s enough stuff online that if I clicked on enough links or spent enough time on email I would get that payoff I’m looking for. But, just like with slot machines, I need to be careful about spending endless amounts of time just sitting around pulling the lever.
- The next day starts at sundown. Having a productive day starts with waking up feeling well rested…which starts with making good choices about what time to go to bed. This week I found it really helpful to embrace the ancient Judeo-Christian understanding that sundown prayer ushers in the next day.
- If my computer is in front of me, I will get sucked in to wasting time on it. It’s prideful for me to think that I’d have the self-restraint to not get lured into wasting time online if my laptop is right in front of me all the time. I need to remove the temptation by removing it physically when I don’t need it.
- I love blogging. This week offline made me realize how much I love having a blog. I missed crafting posts and, especially, I missed hearing from you guys. I need to be careful about not letting myself get attached to traffic numbers, but that other than that my blog and my wonderful commenters are really great parts of my life.
This fast was a great thing for me. It really helped me clarify both the benefits and the pitfalls to being online, as well as just giving me some silence to think about life in general. In a Part II to this post I’ll list some of the practical changes I’m making to my life based on what I learned from the fast.
Anyway, it’s good to be back. I missed you guys!