Help me get over my decade-long addiction to the Internet.
May 13, 2012 6:55 AM   Subscribe

I've been addicted to the Internet for a decade now and every aspect of my life has been affected. Help me rejoin society, get past this, learn time management skills, develop a work ethic, and piece my life back together.

My addiction to the Internet typically eats up 10-18 hours per day and I generally have no time left to complete homework, study for tests, write papers, and get out of bed. To be clear, the addiction is still a problem even after being in therapy for two years and taking (a lot) of medication for my ADD and depression.

I've always been something of a dreamer and an escapist due to an unfortunate family life; the historical novels of my adolescence became the never ending scientific journal articles of my adulthood. Despite coasting through grade school with minimal effort, I've found college challenging because I lack the self-discipline to wean myself off my laptop and the Internet to study for even thirty minutes a day. Even when the material is easy and I know I can bust out a paper in 6-7 hours, I always choose to spend more time surfing the web and reading random articles.

That said, my questions for y'all are:
1. What is the best way to break my addiction to laptop and the Internet when I need to write papers, to print assignments, and to do projects on a regular basis? Going cold turkey would mean that I'd be unable to finish the huge mountain of work I've needed to slog through for years but continually procrastinate to read random articles.

2. How can I hold myself accountable for the time I spend at a computer and on the internet? Please keep in mind that I have NO concept of time, never follow through on the elaborate to-do lists I make for myself on Google Calendar, ZERO self-discipline, and no friends/family to help me out.

3. How can I stick to a regular sleep schedule and start exercising, developing relationships with my peers and family, and starting to integrate myself into the "normal," offline world after spending my youth staring at a white screen? Is there any hope for me?

4) How can I develop a work ethic after doing what I please and reading what I like for so many years? I recently decided that I wanted to become a lawyer and have found the shift from reading books online to actual hardcovers quite difficult. I want to get back on track!

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not that technical, but I think there are timers you can get (that lock you out of the internet). Why don't you give yourself 30 minute windows (with timer) to get online, download/copy/save the articles you need. And then get back to using your computer just for work-related stuff.

Will leave entire topics of law school and focus for others to answer.
posted by bquarters at 7:10 AM on May 13, 2012

Perhaps the internet is incidental here. You are procrastinating, first and foremost. You are avoiding doing what's important. The internet is just the most accessible means of avoiding the important tasks. Creating elaborate to do lists or reading random articles is just another form of avoidance. Whether that is on paper or screen is perhaps not the biggest issue. You have to decide whether the task at hand is important to you or not. If it is, do it.
posted by choppyes at 7:15 AM on May 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

1) Check out SelfControl. It lets you block the internet for blocks of time. So say you want to work on a paper for two hours. Turn it on, and you're locked out of Facebook, Google Reader, etc. until the set time runs out. Personally, I lack the self control to turn it on...

2) Check out RescueTime. It will tell you where you waste your time, and the Pro version will lock you out of your most time wasting websites when you want to focus. Again, doesn't really work for me...

3) Sell your laptop and get a desktop, with an uncomfortable chair.
posted by User7 at 7:23 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Something that helps me during crunch times is making my bedroom a sleep-only-zone. Basically make your bedroom single-purpose. Only keep your bed & clothes in it. If you use your phone as an alarm & you can get internet on your phone, go buy an alarm clock. It really helps me structure myself better, and if I'm lying in bed, wanting to check my email (or mefi) one! last! time! the extra step of getting up & bumbling in the dark out to where my computers are will often do the job of helping me stay put (and hopefully fall asleep.) Basically in the process of standing up I can convince myself to lie back down.

It's too bad you can't find a way to make internet non-essential for a few months in your life. If it's at all possible (I don't know, can you finagle some sort of sabbatical?) I think that's what you should really do. Change your surroundings and live somewhere sans-internet for a season, to help your health and your ability to get through daily tasks. You would also give yourself the time to get used to reading physical books. Oh well.

For the random articles issue, would it help you to instantly save the contents for reading later? Like, as soon as you catch yourself reading something that isn't immediately relevant to your current task, you could bookmark it or do some kind of newfangled pinterest thing or export it to an ereader format. Then, close the tab! If you really do want to read the article, you'll remember to go back to wherever you're saving the content and settle down with it. But if you were just using it to waste time you can easily identify really old articles by the saved-by date (or whatever system you're using) and occasionally delete batches of them.

For me when it came to developing any sort of self-discipline for college, the only thing that REALLY worked was having other people depend on me. I forced myself to join study groups and committed to helping other people, and it was the only thing that kept me on-task and going out to meet up with folks. Would that help you at all, do you think? It might be kind of irresponsible if you really can't commit to even half an hour of study a day, but it might also give you the push to get that much done, or slog through your part of a project.
posted by Mizu at 7:30 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wrote almost my entire PhD thesis on a laptop with a broken internet card, which someone understanding kindly lent to me. Although my issues with procrastination weren't near yours, I'm familiar with the problem of internet distracting you from academic work and here are some of the things that worked for me:

* Not turn on the internet in the morning - you can turn off your wifi completely or you could just not open your browser. A friend managed to get through his thesis once he set his homepage to a big sign saying 'STOP! You have to write your thesis' I had good success with making myself write a page or so before I was allowed to access the internet in any way.

* Do what you can physically away from a computer - go to a coffee shop to read papers (print them out), plan essays and even physically write with a pen and paper. It's only wasted effort if you would have done it quicker if you'd been sitting in front of a computer, and let's face it, you wouldn't have done it if you were in front of a computer. Bonus points if there's someone you can meet up with for this time because it forces you to actually go.

* Reduce the barriers to starting the tasks you need to accomplish. That means opening all the appropriate programs and having all the appropriate papers physically open or there on your lap. That makes starting less painful. When I was avoiding turning my internet on in the morning I used to start the tasks (promising myself that I would only do 2 mins) the night before so that everything was ready and I just needed to crawl out of bed, put on my glasses and start getting on with it.

* Accept that it's going to take me a much longer time to do an academic task than it would for another person and plan accordingly. I used to sit down in the morning promising myself that I would finish a task that would take 3-4 hours of solid work by the end of the day. I then didn't go to bed until it was done. This meant I could procrastinate away for the whole day if I chose, but then that meant I had to stay up 3 hours past my bedtime. Usually I eventually bored myself into getting it done.

* Use physical discomfort to motivate myself. This meant having to write at least 3 paragraphs before going to the toilet next, or not having lunch until the page was finished. Yes, my work was often suboptimal but getting that first draft finished was the important thing.

Lots of people above have suggested timers and lockout programs and suchlike - they never worked for me because I wouldn't start them. For some reason my resolve is better in the mornings!
posted by kadia_a at 7:34 AM on May 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

The people I knew in college who seemed most carefree about the internet were those without computers of their own. I know it sounds like the biggest pain in the ass there is, but not having a laptop will not make it impossible to do research, complete projects, or print papers. Your college will have a computer lab or library with computers you can use, and if you're desperate you can use a friend's. Plenty of people make it through college like this.

I'm not suggesting permanently getting rid of your laptop - but mailing it home or stashing it with someone (even an RA) for a few weeks could give you some time to break the habit. I've found that I'm more productive and happy when I'm around people, even if I'm just working by myself in the library, and being watched makes it more likely that I'll actually get stuff done. Having more artificial constraints like limits on computer use or a library that's not open all night is helpful for me. I do more stuff by hand and end up with a list of things I actually really do need the computer for, so that it's more of a tool than a hindrance.

Good luck! You really can do a lot of things by hand.
posted by ke rose ne at 7:35 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of issues here but I think I would start with your body.

Get up from your desk. Get centered. Go for a brief walk, do 10 minutes of yoga, or sit on the floor and meditate for 5-10 minutes. During those visualize your actual goals.

Then, just tossing out ideas: Move from that to your work with your wireless disconnected, or do it by hand as suggested above.

Keep a time log, and share with someone you trust (your therapist?). Meet a friend for two hours of work at their house and don't let them give you the password for their wireless. Work at a diner with no Internet. Set yourself up for success.
posted by Zen_warrior at 7:39 AM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really sympathize with using the internet as escapism, I have a similar story.

I also have a hard time controlling myself through any of the browser-based blocking extensions (I just open a private browsing window, or install a different browser, or browse using my phone.. pshhh). But I don't believe the internet is all bad. If you used it to study rather than to read random articles, it would be less of a problem I imagine. For example, I've had some fun with studyblue for studying when I'm bored and on the internet.

But I think you might also want to reassess how much added value the things you do do on the internet are giving you. No really, a good HARD look, maybe tally up the time you spend on certain sites and then try to figure out how useful that time was in accomplishing whatever you wanted to do. I gave up Tumblr after realizing that, while it gave me pretty pictures to look at, it didn't really offer anything that would help me get ahead in life. For the many random interesting articles that caught my eye, I am trying to use something similar to the 'reading list' feature of Safari (like this); that way I know I won't "miss" it later but I can get it out of the way *for now*. Those articles will always be there! You won't.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 7:54 AM on May 13, 2012

Hello fellow internet addict. I tend to procrastinate, then get anxiety caused by this procrastination which makes me procrastinate even more. It doesn't help that the internet makes it so easy to browse my days away and most of my freelance work is about making webpages so internet access is a must.

It also doesn't help that most advice on the internet about procrastination feels like this.

Lately I have been actively trying to stop this cycle and some things have worked better than others.

a) The hardest thing is to start. There are a lot of tools to manage your time and your tasks and a lot of people talking about GTD, work ethic and time organization but they can't make you start working. It sucks but that's how it is, only you can sit down to study or work. Some way to track your chain (like a wall calendar or Joe's Goals) may help.

b) Start small. Very small. It sounds really stupid ("I should be able to work/study more!") but the important thing here is, again, to start. Tell yourself that you'll only work 5 minutes today. And then do that. If it worked, commit yourself to 10 minutes tomorrow and so on. Sooner or later you'll find the perfect amount of time to get you "in the zone" where you'll stop watching that timer like a hawk to stop working.

c) The Pomodoro Technique has been incredibly useful to me more than once. 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, repeat. It's totally okay to work only 25 minutes and then stop for the rest of the day but if you need to finish something for yesterday that timer can be life saving. I use Focus Booster but there are a lot of apps that do the same job.

d) About tracking time. I used RescueTime for a month or so, I even paid for the PRO version for the focusing feature (it blocks distracting webpages) but in the end I let my subscription lapse because it didn't feel that useful to me (I know how I waste my time, thank you!). I guess you could try it if you really have no idea how you spend your time in the internet, it may work as a eye opener. It has a 14-day free trial if you want to try the focus feature.

There are a lot of tools if you want to purposefully track the time you spend doing task X (either work or study). I used Klok for a long time but they got annoying about buying their paid version. Right now I'm using Grindstone (Windows only) which is incredibly full featured for a free software.

e) It's incredibly easy to procrastinate by researching ways to stop procrastinating. The same applies to task management tools. Sadly, there is a huge amount of them (from simple ones like todo.txt to complex ones like Remember the Milk, Toodledo, Astrid or Asana) and the only way to find the perfect one for you is to try them. On the other hand, it's okay to settle on a mediocre one for the time being because chances are you know what you should be doing anyway and the important thing is to start working.
3. How can I stick to a regular sleep schedule and start exercising, developing relationships with my peers and family, and starting to integrate myself into the "normal," offline world after spending my youth staring at a white screen? Is there any hope for me?
HealthMonth gamifies those things by giving you points if you achieve your goals each day. There are a lot of options, like exercising, sleeping enough, going out and socialize, etc. It also works as a 'Don't break the chain' app. A lot of mefites are there and they are awesome, with lots of support if you need it. Just one advice, start small. The idea is to create habits and most people have a very limited amount of willpower for that kind of thing. I had to crash and burn before I realized that.

Feel free to send me a memail if you have any questions. I still have a procrastination problem but most days I can say 'I was productive today' and that feels really good.
posted by Memo at 8:47 AM on May 13, 2012 [12 favorites]

I had a similar issue for a long time.

Change the emotional connection you have to your computer. Re-connect with how you feel as a person. Make decisions based on how you feel. If you have that constant awareness in the back of your head that the computer is available to please you, you have to remember why you're moving on and what it means to you to move forward.

Get F.Lux to set your screen colours to a warmer temperature as it gets later in the night. This won't make you want to go to sleep immediately, but it will help slow you down.

Change your reward schedules. The computer gives very constant "always-on" rewards for it's action(s). Choose rewards that move you forward. Getting used to real life rewards that are more unpredictable takes time.

Make sure your chair posture is following health & safety guidelines. Tension in your knees, lower back and shoulders will largely go by unnoticed. You will funnel that tension into getting more reward out of your computer activities rather than dealing with the cause of your tension.

Your muscles are probably weakened from being behind a desk for 10 years. Work on your core muscles and focus on breathing exercises. This combined with relieving posture tension will make you feel much better.

If you're anything like me that stuff will help. Good luck! (from 8 years behind a computer)
posted by Submiqent at 8:48 AM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm addicted to reading tech blogs. The Verge, Engadget, Intomobile, Ars Technica, Lifehacker, etc. What I've come to realize is, do I really need to stay that much in the loop? Do I really need to know about the next new phone, even though I'm not due for a new one for another year and a half? When I go phone hunting than yea its not a bad idea, but seriously, the amount of time I waste is ridiculous.

The only solution I see for you is a drastic one. Because, lets be honest, you could probably rephrase your question to be "how can I read all my science articles for hours and hours but still have all my work get done". You have tried to schedule yourself, you have tried exhibiting self control, but its not working. You need to cut internet science articles from your life. Install netnanny or something similar and block all your favorite websites, and give the password to a friend to hold onto, and tell them to pretty much lose it on purpose.

But I think you might be able to handle print material. Go buy subscriptions to science magazines and read those instead, and don't allow yourself to read them in your dorm, or anywhere remotely close to your computer, because that could lead to you sitting at your computer desk with a half finished paper open and with a magazine over the keyboard. Keep the two worlds completely separate. Stopping the problem at the source is what you need to do.

I'm on the same path as you, but not as far along, this is my solution for myself if I find myself too far down the rabbit hole.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 9:10 AM on May 13, 2012

This article was helpful for me: Overcoming Procrastination Instantly Using Self Talk.

When you think about all the stuff you want to do instead of using the internet, it feels overwhelming and you get anxious, so to deal with the anxiety you go back on the internet. I do the same thing. What helps is to find one tiny thing that you want to do that doesn't overwhelm you and then just do that one thing. Repeat as desired. Eventually all the tiny things add up.
posted by callmejay at 9:31 AM on May 13, 2012 [12 favorites]

Cold turkey. Get rid of your computer, or lock it away. Use your school's computer lab to type papers. Enjoy life again. Give it at least 30 days. Good luck!
posted by curtains at 11:07 AM on May 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. What is the best way to break my addiction to laptop and the Internet when I need to write papers, to print assignments, and to do projects on a regular basis? Going cold turkey would mean that I'd be unable to finish the huge mountain of work I've needed to slog through for years but continually procrastinate to read random articles.

Only use computer lab at school. Reward yourself with internet surfing (30 minutes) only after your work for the day has been completed.

2. How can I hold myself accountable for the time I spend at a computer and on the internet? Please keep in mind that I have NO concept of time, never follow through on the elaborate to-do lists I make for myself on Google Calendar, ZERO self-discipline, and no friends/family to help me out.

I find that a good old paper planner is best for me to see what I need to do and manage my time. It's also really rewarding to be able to check off the tasks and see how much I've accomplished that day.

3. How can I stick to a regular sleep schedule and start exercising, developing relationships with my peers and family, and starting to integrate myself into the "normal," offline world after spending my youth staring at a white screen? Is there any hope for me?

Keep your room a sleep only space. No TV, Internet, allowed.
Sign up for a running race. Don't worry most people just jog or walk through these. Then have a training schedule. For example, run 3-4 days a week at increasing increments. Then you will have a final "run" at the end of a 3 month training period. At that point the exercise healthy habit should be fully formed. If not, repeat the process.
There is hope, I would say join a volunteer organization or just say "hi" and smile at people who you pass on the street. Although not everyone will smile back just know this is building relationship skills and better self esteem with a more positive energy surrounding you.

4) How can I develop a work ethic after doing what I please and reading what I like for so many years? I recently decided that I wanted to become a lawyer and have found the shift from reading books online to actual hardcovers quite difficult. I want to get back on track!
This is where you need to suck it up and cold turkey it. I would get a library card and spend time finding paper books that interest you. You can also practice your smile and hi techniques in the library. :)
posted by MyMind at 12:15 PM on May 13, 2012

I find it easiest to break a too-much-internet cycle by doing something really nice with family or outdoors, like taking a day hike in a beautiful place, or going away with a few friends on a ski weekend. (YOptionsMV if you are a college student.) "Oh, THAT is how much more fulfilling real life is." Then, make commitments for other fulfilling real-life activities that you make an ironclad promise to yourself to attend and that bring you joy (e.g., improv classes are super fun). If you know you have an hour before you have to go to Fun Thing, you'll either do homework, or you won't, but it won't stop you from living your life and getting off the computer. Also include little victories, like cleaning part of your room. Then with your increasing freedom from the addiction, you can work on why you don't want to study. The tldr is to lure yourself off the computer by realizing how much more satisfying everything is than Refresh Refresh Refresh.
posted by salvia at 12:41 PM on May 13, 2012

You need someone to hold your hand. Your mouse hand.

I know that may be a lot easier said than done, but that's really the answer. Alone, you are going to use the internet. With help (study buddies from law school?), you can force yourself into face-to-face situations, study sessions at real tables covered with real books, walk-and-talk discussions in the park, no-electronics lunches and snacks at the cafeteria, etc.
posted by pracowity at 1:53 AM on May 14, 2012

I'd like to think that, though I've had a similar problem, it was not as bad as yours. I am not completely sure, though. And, of course, now I'm in Metafilter when I should be writing a lecture for my students.

Something that has helped me a lot, though, is to almost dispense with to-do lists. Instead, I write every day a list of what I've done that day, a list I jokingly call my 'from-done list'. I send it to a friend and to my wife. At first, I did it daily, now that I am getting more things done, I send a weekly summary, with sections that sometimes relate to work/study, sometimes to personal goals ('code every day'), sometimes to important things I don't want to forget or stop doing in the name of work, like how many times I cooked that week, or how many times I took my daughters to the park.

In matters of self-organisation, everybody has their own system, and I think that a big mistake we sometimes make is to try and implement the system of a very organised person we admire. I know I have done that. What's good about my from-done list is that it's just a little bit of yourself nudging the other parts of yourself forward. It's not a big change that upsets all of your life in the name of Productivity and Diligence. It's just a tiny thing you can do that will help you feel better and do a bit more the next time.

My other 'little that helps' is getting together with my friend, and working alongside each other. Sometimes we gripe about how little gets done, sometimes we boast of a little something that got done. Again, this may or may not work for you, but it helps me.

Good luck.
posted by kandinski at 2:20 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

ZERO self-discipline

Here's a big secret: most people lack self-discipline. In general, if you're trying to break bad habits, the best way to go about it is by finding alternatives that are more appealing. This is especially true if you have ADHD and/or depression, both of which mess with the reward centers in your brain. So maybe spend the next year working on finding things to do that you genuinely enjoy more than spending hours on the internet.

no friends/family to help me out...developing relationships with my peers and family

This jumped out at me. Do you have friends? If so, how often do you see them? I have a tendency to get sucked into the internet as well (don't all mefites?), but nothing breaks that cycle for me like a good afternoon spent doing something fun and active with friends. You need to give yourself a compelling alternative to lying in bed and reading every metafilter thread. Make plans now to go for a hike or some sort of urban adventure this weekend. You could do this with family members, too.

If you don't have many friends, then I can understand why you would spend so much time online. It's a balm for loneliness. But maybe you could use the internet to find friends - ie, find meetup groups, or interesting groups on campus. If you're depressed, that might not sound very appealing, but you might just need to force yourself to go to some meetings.

The other thing that broke me out of a long internet rut was getting a kindle. I bought it because I missed reading books and it did get me back into my love of reading, but it also helped me get out of my internet cycle. It retaught me how to focus on something long-form. I have ADHD too, and even though it's treated, the internet is the WORST for ADHDers. Totally indulges the part of our brain that wants lots of little bursts of gratification. For some reason, the kindle seems to be retraining my brain - I think because I tend to have a few books on it that I'm reading at once, so I know I can jump around if I want to, but I often don't.

Oh, and one other thing that's been great lately for me is yoga. I've been taking a few classes a week, and I find that, after class, I have no interest in the internet. And in general, I find that I'm more interested in moving than sitting around. I suspect this is true of any form of regular exercise, although there's some research showing that yoga has some extra benefits for mood and concentration. And another great thing is that yoga classes are a group activity. So maybe try yoga (there are probably classes offered through your school) or another form of exercise that you are interested in - but only if it's rewarding!
posted by lunasol at 6:15 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

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