The Great Rewiring
How I am crawling away from the Internet; how you might be able to do the same
Like (most likely) every reader of this newsletter, I have a complicated relationship with the internet. I’ve been what might be considered a heavy user since the age of ten, when my family bought an unlimited data plan - I had my first social media, Facebook, by 11, and at 12 I upgraded from a pay-to-browse almost-brick phone to my first ever smartphone, at which point I simply watched as my previous reading habit died by the wayside. School holidays were spent as a full-time phone user. My phone occupied me after school and well into the night. When I started university and felt confused, scared or lonely, I reached for my phone.
I know from experience that the worst thing you can do to yourself is construct a worldview in which you are always the victim, but in truth, this is a structural issue, and we all are victims. My case is extreme because I grew up in a rural part of England, have exhibited ADHD symptoms since childhood, and have always had trouble making friends in real life, but the general side-effects of unrestricted internet usage are all-encompassing. Children are profitable for social media companies and porn companies and companies that shill ‘educational’ tech. I was five or six when the smartboards came. Newcomers to my old secondary school now have personal laptops, despite a terminal lack of evidence that these technologies actually raise educational achievement. Wait a few years - and the rest of us caught in this addictive storm will start to protest and file lawsuits and ask questions about what was done to us before any conclusive development of our prefrontal cortices.
Before there can be structural change (laws about the algorithms offered to children, for example) - there must be individual change. I started to change my own life at home, in lockdown, in May 2020. If the COVID pandemic had never set in, I would still be a nine-hour phone user. I would have gone to study abroad and spent the majority of the year in my room, refreshing social media and agonising about the photos sent back to friends. I would have gone through my degree without any sincere, specific interest in anything, because the quick lure of a timeline is much more powerful than the slow but genuine enchantment of a book. What I needed to do, and what I eventually did, was to lock my phone in a drawer for an entire week and then slowly work on becoming a person again for two years straight. My brain was hijacked. I do not claim to have overcome this hijacking in its entirety. I gain a little bit more control, and then Big Tech wrests it back, and then I hit Big Tech with a spanner and fly the plane again for about a month, and then Big Tech comes back, ad infinitum. But every time this happens, I get a bit better at hitting people and a lot better at flying planes. I will now proceed to tell you exactly how I am doing this, why I think it works, and what I would advise for anyone planning to embark on a similar journey of mixed 9/11 metaphors.
Do some paperwork
You need a paper trail to quit the internet! Here is mine.
I’ve been flirting with ideas of productivity, to-do lists, bullet journalling, et cetera, since first coming across studyblr/studytube/studygram as a GCSE student. At that point, I was doing absolutely nothing to counter an obvious internet addiction, and my focus was mainly on aesthetics and nice pens - now, rid of every aesthetic trapping, I am literally the most organised person I know. I would not be able to conquer the pull of the unrestrained Web without my current system:
One softcover lined notebook - one page for each week, and one general, vague to-do list written every morning. Each list is virtually the same, intended to be a basic, suggestive template of things that might earn me what I call ‘activity points’. Activity points are given on a one-hour-to-one-point basis (exceptions are made for particularly difficult or strenuous activities, such as job interviews, which get rounded up to one point). They are granted for virtually any activity that involves focus or delayed gratification. Yesterday I granted myself points for reading in Chinese and also going for a walk and also watching a film (one point per film), as well as six or seven other things (I’ve been doing very well recently). The APDT (activity point daily total) is calculated by means of addition, and serves as an extremely accurate Offlineness Index. While I also track my screen time on my phone, I find this system far more useful, constructive and meaningful for my current purpose, which consists of building a new life beyond the internet rather than reproaching myself for past wrongs - also, phone use is actually fine in this system if there is a goal, such as ‘read the Chinese news for half an hour’, at which point screen time is just a number which doesn’t mean anything. I also keep a weekly total of hours spent a) doing my part-time job, b) writing, c) drawing.
One note in a notes app used to keep track of what I call my ‘challenges’. The challenges were devised as a means of a) reducing my frequency of engagement with things I enjoy which are also bad for me, b) preserving some element of balance. For every challenge, I must complete a laundry list of long(ish)-term tasks within one timeframe - read five books, watch five films, listen to fifteen hours of Chinese, read Chinese until I have to look up 1,000 words, write 15,000 words (recently raised from 5,000), do three spreadsheets for work (long story), do fifteen hours of art. When a challenge is completed, I have one night where I am allowed to catch up on internet gossip and also engage with recently released K-pop music. If this sounds extreme then you don’t know me. Were I to continue doing either of these things on a daily basis, I would probably be dead as we speak.
One real-life post-it-note (likely one every three days - depends on the size of my handwriting, which is generally small). On this post-it-note I finally write my actual to-do-list, which is made up of actual things I have to do within a set timescale, and a select few tasks in which, judging by the parameters of my challenge, I have been falling behind.
It has likely now been established that I have reached a zenith of overplanning seen only in officially diagnosed obsessives and unhinged war strategists. The thing is - if you want to stop using the internet all day then you have to fill your time with other things, and a good place to start - full of regularity and routine - is admin. The time I spend doing this daily paperwork would otherwise be spent getting wrapped up in online drama, making myself angry and nervous and butchering my dopamine receptors (?).
Set a curfew
I am not allowed to use social media before eight in the evening. Rare are the days when I do not break this rule (the road to success is paved with failure), but it is immensely helpful to - take an example - wake up at eight in the morning, think ‘Twelve hours before I am allowed to use social media!’ and promptly think of ways in which these twelve hours may be filled. If I read a book for two hours then I have ten hours. If I work for five hours then I have five more hours. More subtraction. The time you spend subtracting, helpfully, is more time not spent being online. Also, it is quite a profound experience to wait all day to get online and then - when finally logged in - to realise that absolutely nothing interesting or important has happened.
Set a timer
Do you have issues concentrating on a book when your phone is right there? This is normal. There is a trick - think of a sensible, manageable stretch of time in which you can conceive yourself reading some part of the book, set a timer on your phone, put the phone some distance away (ie. on another piece of furniture or in a drawer, not right beside you) - and attempt to read. This half hour or hour-and-a-half is now yours. It is reserved for reading, and for concentration and introspection. You will be notified when it ends. If you stayed on the same two pages for the whole half hour then it doesn’t even matter - you also stayed away from the internet for a small but meaningful stretch of time and took back a small amount of your prefrontal cortex.
(BTW a bonus tip for reading with a hijacked brain - choose a book of short stories to fulfil your Netflix autoplay impulse. Also, if you can’t stop reading about certain topics online, do a Google search for ‘books about [x]’ and then pirate an ebook copy and read that instead.)
If all else fails, use randomness
Another trick. Look at your to-do list - number each article - Google ‘random number generator’ - pick one. This works because making choices can often be more difficult than actually doing the things implicated in those choices, and you may well be overusing the internet in an effort to avoid choosing anything for yourself, which brings me to my next point…
Listen to your body
Why do you resort to the internet? I have recently found that I descend to passive-browsing mode when I feel some element of discomfort that I don’t want to confront or deal with properly - hunger, thirst, tiredness, anxiety (huge!). It is possible that I have gleaned on a subconscious level that the internet is capable of fulfilling needs that it definitely cannot fulfil. I am not exactly sure how to tackle this for good, but ideas I’ve had include: doing yoga, saving emergency recipes, listening to podcasts in the dark, implementing a second nighttime social media curfew, deep breathing.
If anyone else is on a Puritan anti-Internet kick please let me know - I’d love to hear about it!
I love this!! Super important to address. I also was terminally online by the time I was 11 years old. Now, almost 24, I’ve made a lot of radical changes to how I use my smartphone and the internet in general. I don’t want to live my life online. I want the romance of reading books and listening to music in analogue, idk, the internet takes away so much…
this is so inspiring because in order to quit the internet i actually have to pick up legitimate hobbies if i want to follow ur extensive admin to-do lists. but i think i can do it..i want to believe in myself.