It’s fair to say that when I write about the Internet or digital devices, my tone tends toward the cautionary, which is probably understating the case. But, as my wife would be quick to confirm, I don’t always practice what I preach. I wanted to do something about this, so I created a list of digital disciplines (obviously couldn't resist the alliteration) that I’ll be trying to stick to in a serious, but not quite puritanical fashion.
Of course, I don’t think these digital disciplines will be universally applicable. You may find them entirely implausible given your own circumstances, or you may find them altogether unnecessary. All I'm claiming for them is this: given my priorities and my circumstances, I've found it helpful to articulate and implement these disciplines in order to achieve what I would characterise as a healthy relationship to Internet culture.
Here is the list. Remember, I am the primary audience for this advice.
1. Don’t wake up with the Internet. Have breakfast, walk the dog, read a book, whatever… Do something before getting online. Think of it as a way of preparing physically, mentally, emotional, morally, etc.) for all that follows.
2. Don’t remain ambiently connected to your email account. Close the email tab/app. Check in two or three times a day for a fixed period of time. The same holds for FB, Twitter, etc.
3. Sit on a link for a few hours or even a day before sharing. If it’s not worth sharing then, it probably wasn't worth sharing in the first place. Don’t add to the noise.
4. Don’t take meals with the Internet. Log off, leave devices behind, and enjoy your meal as an opportunity recoup, physically and mentally. If you’re inside all day, take your lunch outside. Enjoy the company of others, or take the chance to sit in silence for a few minutes.
5. Breathe. Seriously.
6. Do one thing – one whole, complete thing at a time whenever it’s reasonable to do so. If writing an email, write it all at once. If reading an article, read it straight through. If a task can’t be completed in one sitting, at least work on it for a reasonable amount of time without interruption. Resist, in other words, the allure of the multitasking myth. It’s the siren song of our age, and it will shipwreck your mind.
7. Clear the RSS feed at the end of each day. If it didn’t get read, life will go on. This is a hard one for me; I want to read it all, stay on top of things, etc. If I don’t clear the feed, though, I end up with a pile of information that eventually snowballs to unmanageable proportions anyway. What’s more, deleting potentially interesting, unread items each day functions as a happy, cathartic gesture of liberation.
8. Turn off all notifications that threaten to interrupt or distract. Mentally, we tend to respond to these with Pavlovian alacrity. Emotionally, they are not unlike our own little versions of Gatsby’s green light. In either case, it’s a ruinous habit.²
9. Turn devices off when spending time with others. Also, shut the laptop when speaking to another person. This may seem quaint or reactionary or nostalgic or antiquated or judgemental or curmudgeonly. I see it as a way of remaining minimally civil and decent, whether or not I'm accorded the same civility and decency in return. If you must attend to a call or text, politely indicate as much and do so. Better that than surreptitiously attending to your device while still attempting to give off the impression of attentiveness. That’s a meaningless charade, and everyone involved knows it.
10. Log-off of social media sites after visiting them. The extra step to log in makes it slightly less tempting to click over when a craving for distraction strikes. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of these little digital speed-bumps.
11. Don’t go to bed with the Internet. Here’s why.
A few years ago, Umberto Eco said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” Perhaps that’s a bit too melodramatic for this particular list. Certainly, I’ve attached no death-defying hopes to it. But I do think following through on these digital disciplines will help me make better use of this life and take more pleasure in it.
Michael Sacasas is the author of a book of essays on technology and culture called The Tourist and the Pilgrim. He blogs on technology and culture at thefrailestthing.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @FrailestThing.