How I Use the Internet Intentionally

Two to five hours. The exact amount varies wildly depending on which news source you ask, but the gist is the same: We spend a huge amount of time staring at our smartphones every day and that figure is probably increasing.

That’s pretty crazy. When I heard that figure about half a year ago, I was incredulous. Surely that couldn’t be me, too. Definitely not. Right? Right?

So, in the interest of science (and a fair amount of guilty premonition), I searched around my phone’s app store and found a nifty little app called (OFFTIME). (OFFTIME) does two things, and it does those two things really well:

  1. Lets you lock your phone down so that only a few apps are available for a specified amount of time, hence the app’s moniker.
  2. Keeps track of your phone usage so you can see how much time you spend on your phone, how many times you unlock your phone each day, and which apps you’re spending the most time on.

Offtime Insights (OFFTIME)’s monthly phone usage reports.

Needless to say, I came face to face with reality very quickly after only a day or two or tracking my phone usage with (OFFTIME). I found that I was spending about three and a half hours every day looking at my screen. As it turns out, all those little “I’m just gonna check Facebook for a minute” moments add up!

After that harsh gut check, I tried all sorts of ways to reduce my screen time. I tried quitting the whole thing cold turkey — which didn’t work because smartphones are far too useful to go full Luddite on. I tried quitting just the social media bits — which didn’t work because I really wanted to keep abreast of all the live music shows near me. And social media is, by-and-large, designed to keep us hooked, which made it really difficult for me to use social media for the good bits without succumbing to a dopamine-fueled scrollfest.

I’m not ashamed to admit that this was not a particularly strong point in my life. I knew that I was hooked into the machine, but felt powerless to overcome this addiction. I kept trying, and kept failing. It turns out that all of those app and website designers are really good at getting us to come back for more.

Well, just a few months back I stumbled upon a subreddit, /r/nosurf, and I found that I wasn’t alone. As of the time of this writing, there are some 14,000 other users struggling to cope with this same realization. And, I suspect, there are probably millions of others using their phones to the same extent and wondering where all their free time went.

Unfortunately, knowing others were having the same trouble did nothing to actually help me kick the habit. I kept trying, and kept failing. Only— now I had good company. I tried reaching out to others, you know, in real life, but nobody seemed to have an issue with their smartphone use.

Just as I was really starting to dig in and feel the blues, I stumbled across a reddit post that made reference to a book by Jeremiah Overland, which had a title that leapt at me from the screen. It’s called Checking Out: How Searching More and Checking Less Can Save You From Your Smartphone.

If you’re not keen on spending $3.49 on an e-book about saving you from your smartphone, let me give you the Cliff’s Notes of the Cliff’s Notes:

The most important distinction is that Checking is passive and Searching is active. Internalizing that distinction was the key that set me free from my smartphone addiction. The book, I feel, is still worth a read even if you grasp this primary concept. Jeremiah is a little long-winded and wrote some things that made me cringe, but the book is still worth a read just the same.

At any rate, with that key concept in mind, let me share some ways that I’ve been able to use that distinction to make better use of the Internet and my smartphone.

I reduced my social media usage.

First off, I removed every single social media app from my phone. This was super important for me, because each app is a very quick — and very frictionless way to enter the world of social media. Given that social media companies are incentivized to draw us in and keep us looking at advertisements, I needed to actually make it more difficult to check my social media.

Instead, I installed Mozilla’s amazing new smartphone browser, Firefox Focus, and use that to access my social media accounts.

Firefox Focus Firefox Focus’s starting screen.

Just look at that beautiful starting screen! Every time you start Firefox Focus up, you are immediately pushed into actively searching the Internet. And, as an extra inducement to cause you to make the choice to use social media intentionally, you have to login to those sites each and every time. Talk about adding friction!

I’ve found that, at least for me, the extra time it takes to open the browser, type in, and type in my email address & password is enough to cause me pause and ask myself, “do I really want to look at Facebook right now?” Most often for me, the answer is “no.”

But what about when I’m on a regular computer where typing isn’t as much a hindrance? There’s a pretty neat solution for that, too! There’s a browser plugin called News Feed Eradicator (available for Chrome and Firefox at the time of writing) that removes the most addictive part of Facebook, the newsfeed.

Facebook Screenshot My Facebook homepage while using the News Feed Eradicator browser extension.

Now, instead of scrolling and checking the newsfeed, I need to actively search out a friend/music venue/band page or post something. For me, this is enough to salvage the useful bits of Facebook while separating it from its addictive qualities.

I eliminated my video game time.

This was a hard one for me. I’ve actually battled video game addiction in the past, but had found a happy medium where I was enjoying a healthier amount of gaming each week. I found games that were fun distractions but didn’t suck me in the way that competitive gaming used to. (Side note: I actually have a tattoo of Neo being unplugged from the Matrix to represent breaking this addiction.)

Anyway, giving so much thought to the *ahem* ethical practices of the social media companies made me remember a piece that Jonathan Blow, the designer of such games as Braid and The Witness, wrote for MTV back in 2007. That article is well worth the read, in my opinion, but the gist is that ethical game design means giving players unique experiences without wasting their time with things like grinding.

The recollection of this article was the catalyst for reviewing my casual game use. I’m not swearing off video games by any means. I most certainly won’t call them a waste of time. Just like I won’t call watching TV or even scrolling through social media a waste of time. The important part, I’ve found, was that I moderate my consumption of all of these forms of media and intentionally make the choice to enjoy that media.

I found other things to do.

And to wrap it all up, let me just say that I’ve found other things to do. By explicitly choosing what I do with my smartphone and the Internet, I’ve rediscovered boredom and a wealth of free time that I didn’t know I had lost to my smartphone. I don’t know exactly what sort of things will fill that gap, but writing this post (and discovering how to make a website with Jekyll) is one of those things! I can think of a bunch of other stuff I want to do, but this was a good first step. I hope that you found this post useful, especially if you’re fighting in your own battle against smartphone addiction.

Thanks for reading!