How to stop mindlessly surfing the web for hours?
January 17, 2015 12:22 AM   Subscribe

This question is kind of hard to phrase. I've gotten into the habit of relying on my laptop for stimulation, especially since I started working from home and am at my computer most of the day anyhow. I'm not talking about looking at porn or online gambling, but just being online. I get bored so easily now when I'm not online.

At least before I used to visit a few websites that interested me (music, food), now I find myself on facebook pretty much mindlessly scrolling through new posts and refreshing the page much of the time. I don't really get much out of it but it's sort of become my main, very lame "hobby." More like huge waste of time.

The other day I said screw this and closed my browser. And then I sat there for a few minutes thinking, now what? The thing is I have hobbies and interests but I spend less time than ever pursuing those and spend so much time just killing time online and not even really getting anything out of it. I don't think it's a serious problem (ie see a therapist) but I feel like I'm wasting my life in front of the computer instead of doing worthwhile things. But now I get sooo bored when I try to do anything like read a book or play the guitar (I started learning but have been terrible about it), or even sit through a movie, or exercise.

I've noticed a lot of people compulsively check their phones when I'm out and about.. it's kind of like that. I've also gotten lazy because it seems like the more time I spend sitting in front of the computer the more tired I get, too tired to do anything that involves effort. I even feel this boredom when I'm doing "fun" stuff with friends and constantly feel like let's go somewhere else, let's do something else, let's invite someone else here, etc.

What can I do to help me spend less time in front of the computer and more time enjoying the simple things in life or whatever without being bored that there's "nothing new" constantly? I have heard before that overstimulation and dopamine cause the boredom I start to feel so any insights into that will be very interesting to hear as well.
posted by atinna to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What's wrong with being bored?
Sometimes, you gotta acknowledge the boredom and stop fighting it (with the internet and other devices). Sit with it; label it...fascinate yourself with your boredom.

Maybe this from Jack Kornfield is relevant:

Naming Boredom
When boredom arises, feel it in the body. Stay with it. Let yourself be really bored. Name it softly as long as it lasts. See what the demon is. Note it, feel its texture, its energy, the pains and tensions in it, the resistances to it. Look directly at the workings of this quality in the body and mind. See what story it tells and what opens up as you listen. When we finally stop running away or resisting it, then wherever we are can actually become interesting! When the awareness is clear and focused, even the repeated movement of the in- and out-breath can be a most wonderful experience.

Kornfield, Jack (2008-10-14). A Path With Heart: The Classic Guide Through The Perils And Promises Of Spiritual Life (pp. 92-93). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
posted by wallawallasweet at 1:31 AM on January 17, 2015 [15 favorites]

I would suggest cutting facebook out as completely as you can. Except for the very few people you seriously can only communicate with via facebook, there is truly no actual content on the site. Anything of interest online is somewhere else first. I use this nifty website, you may have heard of it, called Metafilter, to point me to interesting stuff all over the web, instead. (I kid, I kid, only I do not kid whatsoever.)

Seriously though, there are a lot of fantastic creators online that are all clamoring to share their content with you. Follow specific artists, subscribe to things like podcasts and use RSS to read sequential comics and individual blogs. Subscribe to individuals on youtube, make a point of finding the people who inspire you and following them on their own specific places. The culture of linking to other people one's fans may be into is very ingrained online, so without following nearly any general sites you'll find yourself with a plethora of interesting stuff that's much meatier than your random facebook friend's link to some corporate article.

Anyway apart from cutting facebook out of your life like a suspicious looking mole, the boredom appears to be a symptom of contemporary life, and something everybody handles differently. I think that there's a problem of inertia all of us face. Puttering around online is just so much easier. But like with anything, doing stuff IRL should get easier with practice and some fortitude and some planning ahead. If you're really trying and it's still just as hard or harder, that's when you get some professional help and look into therapy.

But for example, you say you get really bored when you exercise. You'd rather be online? But online doing what? Find some creators that work in a medium of sound. Podcasts, musicians, audiobooks... if you're a fannish person you might like podfics, which are like audiobooks of fanfics read by fellow fans. There are podcasts for nearly every interest under the sun, including very random ones that change topic every episode, collections of stories, or curated music programs. Anyway, pick something to listen to during your online time, and exercise while listening. Start small, just go for a walk while you listen to a short podcast. Next time try some yoga, or whatever you used to like to do, but combined with the new content you've found that interests you. That way, the boredom is kept at bay, but you're still making yourself do something else you'll be happy about. It's the kind of thing that gets easier the more you make yourself do it. Not just because your body will be getting into shape but because you'll get into the habit of collecting content for listening to later.

As for your need to always be doing something else when you're with friends, that's a failure to live in the moment and I agree is part of the whole online thing. Find the content online that you have to engage in more deeply so you get used to being present even in some of your down time. A tv show that you really have to sit down and watch. A complex article about a very interesting problem. Beautiful fashion with production images and videos. Art with enough complexity to grab you. Whatever really interests you, go looking for it. The more you get used to enjoying what you're currently doing online, the more naturally you'll be able to give your friends the attention they deserve.

I guess my advice boils down to being proactive with your online browsing. Don't wait for content to come to you, because people want your eyeballs and they don't deserve them. Go looking for what interests you yourself.
posted by Mizu at 1:55 AM on January 17, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Here's what has worked for me: More intentionally seek out interesting information, and download it for offline use. I still get all the fun stimulation of the internet but in a much more directed and in-depth way.

Read offline: Let the Longform and Longreads sites identify interesting essays or magazine articles, and save the ones that interest you to Instapaper or Read Later. Also use Instapaper or Read Later to save articles you stumble upon. Then download the saved stuff as a batch to a Kindle or other offline reader, and go to a friendly coffeeshop to read.

Listen offline: Download podcasts and convert informational YouTube videos to MP3s for listening on your phone while you hike, work out, clean the house, and pursue some new fun hobby that needs your hands and attention but not your ears.

Finally, consider using one of the many distracting-site blockers to make Facebook and similar sites completely unavailable to you for some block of time. I work at home and use RescueTime to track my time automatically. I've set up a rule (as an alert): Once I've spent 30 minutes dinking around on distracting sites during work time, RescueTime blocks my access to those sites for a chunk of time. That chunk can be as little as 15 minutes because sometimes all I need is a nudge, or I could set it for much longer if I suspect I won't resist temptation.
posted by ceiba at 2:26 AM on January 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

A few years ago I realized that I was barely reading any books anymore, and was spending most of my reading time on Facebook, metafilter, etc. I decided I wanted to read more, and also decided the way to make that happen was to give myself permission to only read books I really wanted to read. So I read some pretty cheesy books, and some not so cheesy books, but I really enjoyed it and it got me back into reading books.
posted by lunasol at 4:57 AM on January 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

I'd set a reading goal for 2015. Good Reads will help you track it. As many books as you think would be manageable. Then you have something to go to instead of Facebook.

Read books on topics you think might lead to further hobbies, too.

You could also consider taking up an instrument?
posted by backwards guitar at 5:11 AM on January 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Welcome to my world!
For 2015, I decided that I would become more mindful as to how I was spending my time online.
Maybe some of it was work related, but hey - let's admit it - probably 90% of it isn't.

My first step was to install the Web Timer Extension in Chrome.

I told it the sites that I NEEDED to access on a regular basis for actual, real work and then let it go about its business.

If I'm on a time wasting site like Facebook or Reddit or even Metafilter, then the clock she is a' tickin'.

Looking at that pie chart on an hourly or even daily basis lets me know where my weaknesses are and I think about getting those times DOWN.

For me, that is key - that mindfulness and focus and feedback - to spending less time on those sites. Hopefully, the less time I spend, the less I will feel that unconscious, knee jerk reaction to be there.

Good luck on your journey!
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 5:16 AM on January 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's so easy to slip into that kind of pattern - I think you have to intentionally break it up. We've become so used to being overstimulated the non-digital world feels flat. I think it's about taking back control. So deecide to sit down and read for 30 minutes even if your brain keeps trying to redirect you to more stimuli. You have to practice. You're not used to it anymore but once you decide to devote yourself to an activity without interruption it'll be like riding a bike.
posted by Aranquis at 5:17 AM on January 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Make a clean break by going camping in the woods for a few days. If it's too cold, go explore another city and leave your laptop and smartphone at home. It may feel horrible and you may feel a physical withdrawal, but it will pass, and your brain will reset. I completely disagree with using blockers or timers or otherwise gradually cutting down. You will always find some excuse to defeat these.

Basically you need to shake up your routine and force yourself to do something different even if you don't enjoy it at first. You do lots of things in life that you don't particularly enjoy - for example, your laundry - but you do them because they must be done and you'd be worse off if you didn't do them. Boredom will not kill you and eventually you'll stop feeling so restless.

Unless you have ADHD, in which case this is a different problem and you should probably seek professional help.
posted by desjardins at 7:14 AM on January 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think it helped me focus w/my RSS reader (Inoreader) vs just flipping through reddit or tumblr pages. I like how I can read info/news that I know I have at least 75% interest invested in it vs random photos or text. Still fairly time consuming once I hit the 400+ site mark but it's less boring imho.

Also, I have Pocket installed on my smartphone and tablet as the free edition works fine for me since I rarely store articles for archival. For social media I do have accounts but it's mostly to follow interesting people or companies who post coupons/sales occasionally. FB never really had much of a appeal but I joined because there's a few niche hobbyists there too.

Email/IM and phone calls are distracting but I don't think I can completely cut them off. I like to set notifiers in Chrome/tech so I'm aware I've received new messages but not required to reply just this min.

I like to read ebooks on my N7 as I can adjust the typeface and background colors to read at night or dim settings too.

Agreed with everyone saying it's fine to be bored as for the most part unless you're constantly working (very stressful too) you will experience some level of boredom. OK maybe spending 3+ hours on that video game a few days ago wasn't my most productive day ever.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 9:46 AM on January 17, 2015

46 favourites and counting - it's not just you. I'm thinking of putting Jacqueline's suggestion into action if I can figure out how to do it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:07 AM on January 17, 2015

Best answer: I struggled with this. I still struggle with this -- particularly failing to be 'in' the moment when I'm around other people.

The following has provided some help for me. Maybe it would help you too?

In order to prevent myself from immediately jumping on the internet (and thus usually wasting my whole day), I make a list of things I want to accomplish for the day. I then force myself to complete at least one item on this list before I allow myself to even open up/power on my laptop. When I'm mindful enough to do this, I can sometimes get the whole list done and don't end up playing around on the internet until much later in the day. And because I've accomplished some items on my list, I don't feel as much guilt for the time I then spend playing around online.

To mitigate the time I was spending on click-bait sites, I went through and began to severely restrict what media/websites I was consuming. I blocked anything with content predominantly provided by advertisers or those for whom views, likes/clicks, and/or data collection seems to be the priority (ie: no more HuffPost, Slate, FB, Slate, etc.). This left me with far less sites to visit, but sites which had more useful/educational content that I felt better about reading (ie: scientific journals, MF, Coursera, etc). The lack of click-bait and gimmicky articles made browsing the internet for hours not as exciting, which has resulted in my naturally turning away from it and seeking books instead.

Speaking of books... returning to them was really helpful for me. It started with self-helpy stuff -- generally MeFi recommendations on mindfulness and Buddhism -- and now I'm picking up dystopian sci fi/cyberpunk novels (in addition to regaining my passion/motivation to work on my own webcomics and novel). Keeping attention on the books has been problematic though (especially at home), so I find going to a place where there's no easy access to internet to be helpful for that.

Also, really identifying my interests and focusing mostly on those helped. Like you, I have some projects and interests (that should be eating up my free time), but find it sometimes difficult to work on them when faced with the option to mindlessly browse the internet instead. Further identifying all my real interests (instead of just trying to do/see it all) has helped me narrow down what I want to be looking at/reading about on the internet, so rather than having a bunch of content tossed at me while browsing (with little sticking), I'm actually learning specific things and retaining. Now the 'mindless browsing' doesn't feel so mindless.

Finally, when it comes to being "in" the moment, I've found mindfulness to be increasingly quite helpful here. The moment I start to feel as though I'm on the outside and not really present, I focus on something moving that's in my immediate vision -- someone's hand gestures or mouth usually. This tends to get me out of my head long enough to recognize that I need to do something. If I want to go somewhere else, I might suggest that. Or if I'm feeling bored and as though we should be 'doing' something, then I might suggest board or video games. I've suggested inviting people over when I feel others should be present too. When I work up the confidence to do this, it generally goes well. Do you feel comfortable suggesting things to your friends? What would you have your friends do/go? If so, why not express these thoughts to them? Perhaps they'd be down to go somewhere else, or do something else, or invite other people over. Though it's possible they may not. But that could then allow you to think about why you feel unfulfilled in their company and whether finding more compatible friends to spend your time with would be helpful to you.
posted by stubbehtail at 3:26 PM on January 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Coming at it from a different angle, you may want to approach surfing as a more active activity: things like keeping short notes on the sites you like, what you find interesting about such site, etc - basically, before clicking on the next link, take a step back and try to write one sentence or two about something interesting in that last page - you can keep that to yourself, or share it with others (I tend to keep most of it private).
posted by motdiem2 at 12:04 AM on January 18, 2015

What really helped me to cut down on computer time was using apps to limit it. I use Timeout by Romaco (discontinued but still functional), which automatically blocks the internet for the day after an allotted period of time has passed. It can also block certain websites if you like, or even your computer. If you really want to force yourself to committing to keeping to its limits, I would recommend getting a partner or friend or something to set a password on it without telling you.

You can also use extensions like StayFocusd for Chrome or Leechblock for Firefox for similar effect, or the writer's favourite tool Freedom to completely block the internet for a set period. I would also recommend a timer app alongside whichever one you use, just to get a sense of which sites eat up the most time for you daily. Something like John Kennedy's recommendation above, or RescueTime/ManicTime if you want to track across browsers and get a sense of how else you use your computer.

Being forced out of it may help you somewhat, and hopefully give you no other choice than to take up reading/exercising/playing guitar again. It should be a good first step towards it, if nothing else - best of luck!

(Oh, and also, if in doubt, consider the marshmellow. That article really did help me to re-evaluate how I spent my time with regards to instant internet gratification vs. what's more beneficial in the long run for me. YMMV, obviously, but I hope it helps!)
posted by MonsieurPsychosis at 3:05 AM on January 18, 2015

Figure out what you're anxious about or running away from by mindlessly surfing the internet. Learn how to live with the higher anxiety of non-mindless-internet life and the desire to mindlessly browse will decrease.
posted by sninctown at 6:03 AM on January 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Zen teacher Cheri Huber talked about something related on a recent episode of the Open Air podcast, although it was in the context of "I have so many things I want to do I can never decide which one, so I wind up wasting time idly clicking on the net."

Her suggestion was to choose 5 things that you want to do — for example, "knit, practice my ukelele, study Italian, give myself a manicure, organize my recipe clippings". Write each one on a slip of paper or a card or something, then put them in a hat or something you can draw from. Every day, choose one and do that thing… "and as you do, watch how conditioning goes NUTS trying to keep you from doing it." By the end of the week, you'll have spent time doing all these things you want to do, or you'll have spent time watching how conditioning talks you out of it. (I find that it tries to spin a narrative of "ehh… I don't wanna do that" — except, excuse me, who made the list of things I want to do? I did! So who, exactly, doesn't wanna? It's interesting to observe.)

The important thing is not whether you "succeed" (spend the time knitting or playing ukelele or whatever) or "fail" (plunk around on the net all evening), it's observing how you do it, how conditioning tries to keep you from doing it, what happens when you're done, etc.
posted by Lexica at 7:54 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

1) Make a list of things to do. When you think of something that you'd like to do, put it on the list. When you don't know what to do, pull something off of the list and start on it. If you like lists, you can add sublists here with the things you need to do in order to do items on the list, for example:
  • Origami
    • Buy origami paper
    • Get origami book from library
(On a side note, this kind of "put something on a list whenever you think of a new thing" kind of list is really powerful for breaking ruts where you can't think of anything when under pressure.)

2) Pick an easy weekly goal to do something off of the list for x (small number, like 20) minutes y (suggest 4) days a week. Set a timer, once the x minutes is up you're done and can go back to mindless surfing, if you want to. The trick here is that once you start doing an interesting activity, you'll probably want to keep doing it most days, so you'll actually end up putting in a lot more time. You just need to commit to starting.
posted by anaelith at 8:22 PM on January 20, 2015

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