Remember when all that mattered about the internet was how fast it could go? I do — those days when I cursed the tortoise-like speed of my connection, or even those early days when I felt like I'd read "everything" online for the day. (I confess, I was an early and ardent internet junkie.)
Now, the opposite is true; it would be mentally impossible to get through all the new writing that's made available every hour on the web, let alone each day. At the same time, the internet is literally built to encourage you to click — between sidebar stories, related links and video content — not to mention the never-ending Facebook and Twitter streams, which are engineered to provide new content as long as you keep scrolling. If you have any tendencies toward being a completist, you'll never be satisfied. For the rest of us, that desire to get "just a little more" not only keeps us scrolling and clicking longer than we intend to, it also gets us to open up our phones when we shouldn't — like before bed, at a red light or at dinner with other people.
The fear of missing out — or at least the fear of missing something important — is real, especially in these news-obsessed times. But we're all missing out on our own lives, missing things going on right in front of us while we're absorbed in a politician's latest tweets.
But I'm not going to suggest unplugging, because I don't think technology is all bad, and frankly, it doesn't work that well unless you're on vacation. Most of us need to be online for at least some portion of our days for work-related reasons. But how can we maintain being involved, educated and engaged citizens while taming the constant firehose of information the web delivers to us?
The slow web concept is one way to keep the convenience and usefulness of the internet, while reducing the time it sucks from your life. The video below — by the delightfully slow-talking Ryan Freebern — spells out the argument for taking the slow approach:
So, if you find yourself agreeing with all this, how should you approach it? Here are some of the tricks and hacks that self-proclaimed slow webbers utilize:
One of the simplest ways to get offline is to go somewhere it's not available. This is a favorite tactic of mine: I often take work to a coffee shop that doesn't offer an internet connection. I drink my coffee, and just write on my laptop, or read saved articles that I've left open on my browser and take notes. If I really need to look something up, I can always use my smartphone's connection via mobile signal, but I purposefully keep my phone in my bag.
Hide your phone
As above, putting your phone somewhere that's hard to find — or at least difficult to get to — is another trick I use. I often leave my phone under a notebook at my desk at the end of the day, and go through dinner and hanging out with my partner (in another room) without it around. If it's there, I tend to look at it. If it's away, I don't.
Schedule time for fun surfing
I found that when I limited my internet time to work-only, I really missed one of the really beautiful things about the internet: the serendipity and silliness. Clicking on something that looks interesting shouldn't feel like sneaking candy when you're on a diet; for me, I know that's not a sustainable state of being. Now I schedule time most days where I take 20 or 30 minutes to just glide around. I read stuff that's not what I normally write about. I often find myself on heavily visual sites for home decor, design and art, as well as fiction sites or ones with odd essays and other ephemera, and I'm more relaxed when I do it. By scheduling this time, I don't feel the need to look at every interesting tidbit that I come across while I'm on-task. If it's that interesting, I will usually remember to look it up later, and if not, it probably wasn't that relevant to me. I use a timer to keep track of minutes spent. When it goes off, I close the tab and all the windows I have open and that's it. (If there's anything truly amazing I want to look at again, I can always bookmark it.)
Especially if you need to use the internet for work, one way to slow it down is to sit down with pen and paper and decide what topics you need to keep up with for your career. How much time should you spend networking online with others in your field? (That can be quite beneficial to your job, after all.) How much time do you want to be reading industry-specific news? General news that can impact you or your work? Decide in advance how much time you want to spend on those topics, in light of the rest of your work, and schedule it in.
One of the challenges to doing this is that many of us have social media accounts for both personal and professional interests. One way to slow down is to open a second account on, say, Twitter, for your work interests. That way when you go there, you have a tidy, distilled feed that's not distracting you with celeb gossip or whatever it is that sends you down an internet wormhole. Or you could choose a platform for personal stuff, and one for professional. I choose Facebook for personal stuff and Twitter for professional, but it could be the other way around. That way, when you jump into your social accounts, you know exactly what you are going to get — fun personal stuff, or necessary updates on your industry.
Use your tools
As far as keeping you from getting distracted while you're working on your computer, there are all sorts of apps to facilitate slow webbing it. America's Slow Lane is a call for "inaction" and a Chrome extension that will slow down your scroll bar and your mouse.
Another option is SelfControl for OS X, which is for those who can't or won't set timers. You set the app to block access to mail or certain websites for a period of time — and you can't get out of it, no matter what.
"For example, you could block access to your email, facebook, and twitter for 90 minutes, but still have access to the rest of the web. Once started, it can not be undone by the application, by deleting the application, or by restarting the computer – you must wait for the timer to run out."
StayFocused for the Chrome browser and Freedom for a variety of systems, can block the entire Internet. Focus is another app that specifically "... blocks distracting websites (like Facebook and Reddit) on all browsers (Safari, Chrome and Firefox). Focus can also block other Mac applications like Twitter, Skype or Mail."
More ways to disconnect
If you need encouragement to get off the computer, refocus on a task (or do offline stuff like flossing, meditating, stretching or drinking a certain amount of water during the workday), the Budge app will give you subtle reminders throughout the day.
Like Facebook's "On This Day" flashback posts (one of my favorite parts of the site, since I've always posted a lot of images and it's fun to see them again) Timehop slows the web down by showing you old social media posts across various platforms. “The app makes you confront the past [and] gives you a space to reflect inside this battlefield that the Web is becoming,” Timehop’s chief operating officer, Rick Webb, told Ozy.
Need something simpler? Close your computer at the end of the workday and don't open it until you start work again the next day. I find this works well for me; once my laptop computer is closed, I put some books on top of it so I can't see it and I try to go outside to the garden or go for a walk. Once I return to the house, I find there are many other things in real life that keep my attention.