What I Learned from One Man's Year-Long Internet Fast

On April 30 of this year, tech journalist Paul Miller made a bold move: He announced that he's going offline for an entire year. He's forsaking all Internet-related activity, and even went so far as to give up his smartphone! He detailed everything he plans to give up by saying:

"Internet use" includes web browsing from any device, asking anyone to web browse for me, surfing the internet over someone's shoulder, and enjoying entertainment streams like Netflix, even if started by someone else. I won't sync my devices over the internet, download software (even operating systems), use internet-verified DRM, or anything like that. I won't manage my bank accounts over the internet, and will attempt to pay my bills manually or over the phone. Unless I'm doing it unknowingly, I won't use VoIP. I'll avoid even having my Wi-Fi on in order to avoid accidental internet use.

Additionally, I'm going to attempt to eliminate my text messaging, at least as far as that's in my power. I know it's not over the internet, but I'm trying to eliminate ambient distractions, and I think SMS tends to be one. To help lower my temptations, I've switched to a dumbphone.

He's a senior editor at The Verge, and has been sending in regular updates about life offline. They're all interesting to read, but the post in this series that most caught my attention was one where he talks about the short-lived high of disconnecting (which he distinguishes as being much different than being disconnected). Miller points out that there's an omnipresent sense of novelty when you first go offline. You've been jolted out of your entrenched routines, and everything in this new life without Facebook status updates and Twitter mentions is fresh to the point of being almost exotic. As I remember from my own internet fast, there's a certain thrill to pulling a book off your shelf in the middle of the day, simply because it's been so long since you've done that kind of thing.

It's like arriving in a new city: It's easy to see the possibilities, since no elements of your normal routine and your old baggage are here in this place. Your mind is energized by unfamiliar sensations and experiences. But then, if you stay in that place long enough, the novelty wears off. What was once exciting becomes routine, and the old habits start to creep back in. They may look different than they did in the old city, but they're motivated by the same forces.

And so it goes when we work to detach from the online world. As Miller mentions in his post, there are plenty of ways to waste time offline (he gave the example of watching four hours of water polo by himself while eating 7-11 donuts). The Internet may be our most alluring distraction, but there are plenty of other ways to throw away endless hours out of our lives -- just ask housewives of previous generations about the lure of soap operas in the '70s and '80s. Miller hits this point home powerfully when he writes:

People ask me if I recommend taking a break from the Internet. I do, but I don't think there's a rubber stamp-able routine...Ultimately, it matters more why you take time off than how you do it. It's not about taking an hour long break from Twitter; it's about what you want to do during that hour that requires you to avoid Twitter. The novelty of cutting the cord only has so much mileage on its own.

I'm a big fan of occasional Internet fasts, and Miller's insights on the subject have given me a new perspective on them. To build on what he says above, even just one day offline -- or even an afternoon avoiding the sites and social media networks that are the biggest lure for you -- can be fruitful if you're doing it in an intentional, thoughtful way in which you direct your energy toward asking what you should be doing with your time, rather than assuming that being disconnected is a solution in and of itself.

I do believe that social media and other distractions borne of the age of hyperconnectivity are more addictive than the distractions available to previous generation. I think that there are special concerns that come with living in Facebook culture, especially for Christians. But I'm reminded by Miller's insights that it's also folly to focus too much on the symptoms (e.g. spending too much time online) and not look at the deeper issues that drive us to, say, check Twitter 20 times a day. Miller emphasizes throughout his updates that now that he's settled into a new routine, he has many of the same struggles he did before his fast; they simply manifest themselves in different ways. As he points out, life offline is "just, you know, life."