The internet is overloading your brain. Here’s the solution

Seriously, this is good advice (Photo: Createblog) Seriously, this is good advice (Photo: Createblog)

What do you do when the power goes out? What happens when you can’t surf the web or watch TV, and when even the battery on your mobile phone runs out? After the initial shock dissipates into low-grade frustration, it’s common to feel a strange sense of liberation. When you can’t work or even procrastinate, you end up doing the things you’ve been putting off, whether that’s reading a long-neglected book or having a chat with the neighbours.

There’s a good reason why we sometimes look back on blackouts and blizzards fondly as times when we’re jolted out of our routines, so is it worth pulling the plug deliberately once in a while, and having a modern ’secular Sabbath

The increasing power and affordability of ever-connected phones and computers means that we can now access effectively limitless content at any time, anywhere. For some, this firehose of information is a curse rather than a blessing, largely because they feel that most online content is a useless waste of time (e.g. millions of cat videos).

Clearly this isn’t true. Putting new-fangled multimedia content aside for the moment, hundreds of excellent articles, interviews, essays and blog posts are published every single day on every conceivable topic, each worthy of note and deserving of readers. Even the most hardened luddite will appreciate how the internet gives us access to the world’s stock of newspapers, magazines,  blogs, and books – so whether you’re interested in the situation in South Korea, architecture in Pakistan, the impact of low cost space travel, or the history of the Atlantic ocean, you’re bound to find something good.

No, if there’s a real criticism of the internet, it’s not that there’s too little good content – it’s that there’s too much. Blogs like Arts & Letters Daily and The Browser can help us discover good content, but leave them for more than a day and you’ll begin slipping behind, wondering if you’ve missed something great. The same goes for the unremitting stream of Facebook and Twitter status updates and  emails that we all receive from friends and colleagues. We’re all cursed by a Sisphean struggle to clear our inboxes, but no sooner than we declare ‘inbox zero’ does it fill again with yet more to be processed.

The fact is, you can’t finish the internet. It’s not like a book or a newspaper where you can reach the final page and pause before beginning something else, you just keep on going, following chains of links to new articles and comments and videos forever. The internet appeals to the ‘love of the new’ that’s characteristic of all humans – we’re all neophiles, always curious to see what’s beyond the hill on the horizon.

If we all had better self-control, this vast array of choice wouldn’t be a problem, but as Barry Schwartz has written in The Paradox of Choice, an abundance of choice can be paralysing, whether for brands of food at a supermarket or for works of art.

Beyond a certain point, we actually get unhappier and more indecisive the more choice there is – we worry whether we’ve made the right choice, and what we might be missing. Online, you’re always missing something.

Armed with this knowledge, though, there is a clear solution – artificially limiting our own choices. It sounds odd, but it works. At Cambridge, a friend was having real problems getting enough work done when he was constantly being distracted by this new-fangled internet we all had in our rooms. After a week of fretting, he landed upon the simple tactic of unplugging his network cable whenever he wanted to finish an essay. I remember laughing at this – didn’t he have enough self-control to just not surf the internet? – but then again, he’s the one who got the First, not me.

The idea of limiting our access to technology and the work or distraction that brings is hardly new; the Sabbath has been observed by Jews for over five thousand years, with similar traditions among Seventh-day Adventists and others. Most people today don’t observe a day of rest, preferring to have the freedom to shop and party and watch TV seven days a week, but when I began learning more about the Sabbath, I struck upon the idea of a ’secular sabbath’ – a day without technology – with my friend Naomi Alderman.

On a particular Friday, I arrived home before sunset and instead of turning everything on, I turned it all off – my laptop, my TV, and after a pang of worry about urgent calls and emails, my iPhone. It felt tremendously liberating – not only had I shut off the firehose of information, but it wasn’t even worth worrying about work or chores because there was absolutely nothing I could do about them for the next 24 hours. Instead, we just talked and read books.

Without the bright lights and loud music of bars, I also realised exactly how tired I was from the week, and I ended up going to bed correspondingly earlier. In the morning, I read a book, went for a walk, and had some friends over to visit for lunch. I’d abandoned the treadmill of emails and constant work and blogs and was taking time to do things that mattered.

In the evening, the sabbath was ending and I turned on my iPhone again. Amazingly, the world was still standing – there were a few emails and Tweets, but nothing urgent. I was recharged and relaxed by the sheer lack of choice I’d imposed on myself for the day.

I don’t intend to have a secular Sabbath every week, but it’s certainly something worth thinking about whenever you feel overwhelmed. In 2011, the pressures and choices and distractions in our lives are only going to increase. Sometimes you just need a day of rest.

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