Me, I disconnect from you
January 18, 2019 3:24 AM   Subscribe

I can’t use the internet in moderation, but it is functionally impossible to cut myself off entirely. Is there anything I can do to improve my situation here? I’m very open to tech solutions, if they aren’t easily defeated.

Here I am, 3 AM on a work night, can’t get off my damn phone. I constantly think about going back to a flip phone, but then I can’t use maps or look up when buses and trains are coming (which is vital).

Without my phone, I could still boot up my laptop in about 10 seconds and be on a website in about as much time as it’s taken me to write this sentence.

Disconnecting the internet at home isn’t an option. I don’t live alone, and besides, I can access the internet through LTE. I don’t currently work with a computer, but I may need to in the future.

I understand that part of the problem is compulsive behavior. But I’d rather limit my access to these things now than wait patiently for the day when I’m finally confident enough to rise above avoidant behavior.

I look at very little of substance or value on the internet, but I can’t throw out the baby with the bath water. When I need the internet, I need it right away: buying plane tickets, or looking up when the pet food store closes (or even just where there’s a pet food store (it’s in Emeryville)).

A good friend of mine recently quit drinking and said “it’s dumb to keep saying you’ll cut down on a vice, and then keep doing it as much as before.” Or something to that effect. As dumb as it sounds, I’m at that point with internet activity. Only it’s not so easy to go cold turkey on the internet without making life much more difficult.


Is it at all realistic to disconnect, and how can it be done without cutting off access to genuinely important things? Even if important stuff represents a fraction of my time spent online. I’m looking for concrete steps I can take to sever my ties to the web, not suggestions to “find joy in some other aspect of your life.” If getting a hobby would solve the problem, I wouldn’t be asking this question right now.

I’m open to complicated tech solutions — like, is it possible to set up a raspberry pi with some kind of blocker that I can’t easily defeat? Is there a way to limit my phone to only essentials, while preserving the ability to look stuff up if necessary? Is there a dumb phone option that isn’t expensive and trendy? No suggestion is too harsh, even if some may not be feasible.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Forest is an app that lets you grow little virtual trees on your phone. You set a timer and the tree grows. If you close the app before the timer is done, the tree dies. I find it really helpful during those times when I'm being compulsive about my phone. I set a lot of little 10-minute timers throughout the day when I find myself just cycling around doing nothing on my phone. I feel really bad when a tree dies, and the app has basically stopped my impulsive use.

You could also use a blocker like FocusTime, a feature on the RescueTime program, to limit internet use on the computer. You can use it to only block out certain sites, so you could still have access to things like Google maps or work email but turn off access to Metafilter and Twitter. It also works on a timer like Forest.

The Freedom app will also let you whitelist sites and works on your phone and your desktop simultaneously.
posted by sockermom at 3:36 AM on January 18 [8 favorites]

Delete time-draining apps off your phone. You could still go on them via a browser, but making it just that little bit harder helps make said apps a complete time hog.
posted by ryanbryan at 4:32 AM on January 18 [4 favorites]

Delete your problem apps.
Turn off all push notifications.
Set your notification sound to silent.

This will help a lot.
posted by phunniemee at 4:36 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]

I don't think this sounds dumb at all. I struggle too and I know we're not alone.

I think apps like Freedom are like a crutch, and I don't mean that in a pejorative way - they can take some of the weight of behavior change, though not all of it. If you have the desire to change, their blocking screens can lightly remind you - oh yes - I didn't actually mean to reload Twitter just then, I was just doing it out of habit. You can usually specify which sites you'd like to be able to access at which times, so for instance you could whitelist Kayak or Google Flights if you are worried about needing to get out of town on short notice. Freedom in particular is also nice because it can work across devices (and you can specify which blocklists are in effect on which devices, which may matter a lot). A week or two of this and I think mindless reloading will be greatly reduced. You may also be able to teach yourself to get the necessary web browsing (purchases etc) done at specific times, if that appeals to you, by cutting yourself off entirely during periods when you would rather be writing / exercising / meditating / cleaning / whatever activity you would like to be doing more of.

If social media sites are a big part of your low-value interneting, you might consider deactivating your accounts on the worst offenders. I did it for both Facebook and Twitter when I moved from a low-productivity work environment to a more demanding one. I still waste time on the internet, but in more controllable ways. I think plenty of people can get their internet habits under control without this step and I know it's a bit drastic - I'm just saying it helped me.
posted by eirias at 4:50 AM on January 18

If you don’t want Internet at home, the people you live with can change the password and not tell you. Then you’re limited by the data plan, at least.

Part of breaking a compulsve habit is figuring out what to do instead. Do you have a realistic plan for a different choice?
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:51 AM on January 18 [5 favorites]

I believe the latest iphone software (iOS 12) has built-in features allowing you to limit time on certain apps. Perhaps you could do that, whitelisting things like google maps, transit apps, yelp (for things like the pet store information), etc, and severely limiting the time you can use the web browser. And if there’s a code to get around it, have someone else be the keeper of the code.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:55 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

I'm in the same boat. I'm sure a lot of people are. My only regular internet access is through my phone so abandoning it and getting a brick phone isn't really an option.

What I have been trying to do is setting more of a routine to internet use - I'm trying not to use my phone except to turn off my alarm etc before 9 am or after 8 pm. I have found that just breaking the internet habit slightly, especially in the morning, has helped me step away from some of the compulsive looping behaviour of constantly checking and rechecking the same three sites. It also makes it easier to wind down before I go to bed.

I actually got this tip from a parenting discussion about screen time and toddlers - apparently some kids find it easier to understand a hard rule like "no TV after dinner" rather than a fuzzier one like "you can watch it for half an hour [or whatever, I'm not judging] twice a day". I figure I have about a toddler level of impulse control when it comes to internet use at this point, so why not try it?

Of course I am on here posting in the middle of the day so I can't say this is a solved problem. Good luck.
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 5:43 AM on January 18 [5 favorites]


Turn off Internet access on your phone, or put it in Airplane Mode, so that you have to go through annoying, multiple steps to get online. From the get-go I did this to save on battery time, so my phone never became a time suck. Yes, some friends and family members get annoyed that I'm "not using my phone right" or "don't know how to use a smart phone." They're wrong.

If you have work to tackle on your computer that doesn't require the Internet, go to a coffee shop but don't get their log-on password. If you have a college library nearby that doesn't allow you Internet access, work there for regular chunks of time.

Do you know about Caveday, an event for procrastinators who need a minder to keep off the Internet? I've only heard about Caveday, not experienced it. I believe they separate participants from their phones and limit computer Internet access for a big block of time.
posted by Elsie at 5:46 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

What about physically limiting your access to your devices during the hours you don't want to use them? Like, you could literally put your phone and computer in a safe and hide the key in someone else's room (or in a fake rock or lockbox outside). Of course this depends on you having the discipline to lock up the devices and hide the key every night, but you only have to do that once a night, as opposed to having to resist the temptation multiple times every night.
posted by mskyle at 6:05 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

Get an analogue alarm clock and wherever possible go back to 20th century solutions for anything you currently rely on aps for. Then do as mskyle recommends. As soon as you walk in the door of the house, put the phone in a lockbox or up on a high shelf in a closed room. Don't approach the area where the phone is unless you need it to check when the dogfood store closes or buy a plane ticket. Don't use it to call or text: get a flipphone for that stuff. Every time you find yourself tempted to go get the phone to use it to waste time, make a tick mark on a chart somewhere. (If you actually yield to the temptation, no tickmark.)

Expand this to when you're out of the house. You'll probably have to carry both phones. That's okay. Keep your tickmark tally outside, too. After you look up the bus schedule or check a map, where do you typically go online? Don't go there. Make a tickmark. (Again, only if you successfully resist do you get the tickmark.) At the end of the day, count up your tickmarks and decide on a reward system. Every five successful resistance efforts = a glass of whiskey? Every 20 = a trip to the movies? At the end of a week of this, reassess. Rewards should be ridiculously easy in the beginning and then get gradually harder to get as your tolerance for phonelessness builds.

Dump social media yesterday, obviously.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:25 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]

Does your public transportation system let you text for arrival times? Mine does; each stop has a number on the sign that you can text to know the next four buses arriving. If yes, you can switch to a flip phone for that. (You can keep the smartphone, with no data plan and downloaded maps, for other travel needs.)

If that's not an option, switch phone plans to one that has very little data, so you only use it when needed or risk being cut off before the end of the month. (Also have your housemate change the wifi password so you can't default to that.)
posted by metasarah at 6:40 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

When I first started using Freedom, I would assign myself these huge blocks of Internet-free time -- 6 hours! 8 hours! I wanted to be the kind of person who worked diligently for that long without checking my email. But it was too much, and I would always break down and find a way around the block. If your brain works like mine, you might want to think about not setting yourself up with a challenge so hard that you'll inevitably fail. I do much better with half-hour/45-minute blocks of focus. Other ways to interrupt your default scrolling:

Don't take your phone with you every time you leave the house.

Keep your phone in another room so it's not the first thing you grab when you get up.
posted by attentionplease at 6:53 AM on January 18

Something I've been meaning to try is changing my phone screen to greyscale; not sure if it's Actual Science but it seems worth a shot.
posted by castlebravo at 7:22 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

I do a couple of things. I turn my phone to greyscale which is good until I want to look at photographs. The setting is buried like five or six taps deep in the accessibility screen of the general settings, which makes it hard to turn on and off.

I plug my phone in and turn the ringer on as soon as I get home. That way it is not in my pocket to pull out.

I invest in paper products. I write lists and poems and journal entries in paper notebooks instead of on my phone or computer. There is no browser in a notebook to distract me.

I also make a concerted effort to read actual paper books. They don't have to be high literature or good self-improvement books; they can be utter genre trash (which I say with affection). An hour of reading a swashbuckling space opera is better for my brain than an hour of anxiously flicking through twitter. But you don't have to read, if reading isn't your thing: fold origami or knit something or build a scale model of your state capitol out of legos. Find something to do that you enjoy and that isn't being on the internet on your phone.

I avoid the news, for instance I don't listen to news on the radio because if I listen to the news then I want to go online and read all the clever and thoughtful and snarky things that people are saying about the news.
posted by gauche at 7:53 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

There are some suggestions in a recent Ask called "medium-intelligence phone". iOS has a screen time limit feature. For Android there are some apps or you can try a more extreme option and root the phone in order to edit the hosts file to restrict browser access.
posted by twoplussix at 8:00 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

Anything that has a badge should be OFF the main screen of your phone.
posted by terrapin at 8:02 AM on January 18

Some more specifics about your problem would be helpful. Is this just about idle web browsing? Or commenting? Apps? Particular sites? Brain hijacked by badges and metrics (e.g. retweet counts)?

Any tech solution can be circumvented with (often minimal) effort and/or money. It's really about introducing enough friction or a big enough reminder that you gradually adjust your impulses.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 8:41 AM on January 18

Turning off notifications (especially for texts! I’m in like five very noisy group texts) is huge for me. As is putting my phone on the charger when I get home. Slowly building habits that defeat the need for phone is best in my experience. So I get home, plug in phone, put on sport watch and work out (at home). At night phone is already plugged in with morning alarms set so I have no reason to touch it and I just crawl in bed and read. Etc.

The trick for me is to make sure I can do everything in my life I need you WITHOUT the phone. If I rely on it for workout apps, for reading, etc., then I’ll keep going back. So I just buy the separate gear I need for those tasks and then I don’t feel so dependent.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:58 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

If it's social media, I've had some luck by deleting the apps as mentioned above, but then also changing the password to something really long and random. (Ideally, don't save this one in your password manager.) If you have to go dig a piece of paper out of your wallet when you want to sign into Facebook/Twitter then it's a little easier to avoid.
posted by JDHarper at 11:00 AM on January 18

First, don't think of a pink elephant.

I bet you thought of a pink elephant. Maybe even pictured it in your head.

The thing is, it's very difficult to not do something (especially if you haven't first worked on de-triggering the trigger(s) and de-enjoyifying the reward(s)). Even though we call ourselves "human beings" we are really human doings (humans doing).

You are going to take action, you are hardwired to. If you're not using your phone, what do you see yourself doing? Find activities that fill the same purpose. If that purpose (relaxing, self-soothing, distracting from anxiety, or so on) is undesirable, then dealing with that is the issue, not your phone.

If the purpose is desirable to you, then you first figure out the activities that fulfill the same purpose and then go about making them easier and more appealing than futzing around on your phone. Work on the triggers, work on the rewards, and the actions will follow.

Make those other activities irresistible.

And, yes, this situation falls into the Life Box of Simple But Not Easy.
posted by dancing leaves at 11:25 AM on January 18

You need a smartphone less than you think you do. I bet you existed happily for years, decades! before you got your first smartphone. And yet living without one now feels impossible. We've convinced ourselves of the absolute necessity of the conveniences iPhones offer, but are these conveniences requirements for living a good life in 2019? And does your anxiety about being unable to get off your phone outweigh the benefits of the conveniences?

I downgraded to a flip-phone recently and will never go back. It's only slightly more inconvenient, but my mind is quieter and less frazzled already. I can't call an Uber, but I can still call a cab and the price of waiting a couple minutes longer than I might otherwise and having to pay in person at the end of my ride rather than just hopping out of the car is more than worth not having the internet on my body at all times, constantly calling for me to pull out my phone and check the news/social media/whatever at every little lull during all my waking hours.

If I need to check something online, I have a computer. But it means I have to go to the computer, sit down, do my business, then I close it and return to whatever analog thing I was doing. And when I leave the house it's just me and my weird flip phone.

Delete the apps on which you waste the most time. News, social media, anything. Turn off notifications. Have a dedicated space for your phone where you put it when you get home rather than carrying it in your pocket. As mentioned above, buy an actual alarm clock. Try leaving your phone at home now and then when you leave the house. Try these things out for a while and see how it goes.
posted by fso at 11:37 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

One major downside of Freedom on a phone is that it doesn't physically prevent access to most of the social media apps, which would have been my strong preference; rather, it just stops refreshing the content. In a lot of ways, that was WORSE for me because I would forget it was blocking and would just keep revisiting, thinking it was weird that no one had updated recently.

It works a treat on computers, but that's not what you're asking about. :-)
posted by anderjen at 11:49 AM on January 18

I’ve been struggling with limiting internet time too. Things I’ve found have had some effect are:

* turning off all notifications (as others have suggested)
* Turning off mobile data for all apps except for maps
* If I use a web browser on my phone I close all tabs after I’ve done what I needed — this is big one for me as it stops me getting distracted from my intent; when I open a safari I don’t immediately get distracted by the last distracting thing I was looking at
* Rearranging all my phone icons on a semi regular basis (once a week or so whilst Im on n the bus or something )
* always having a book or newspaper or magazine in my bag to kill time with
* keep my phone out of sight (keep it off the table in social situations, and I occasionally ask others to do the same) and at home have it charging in the kitchen overnight

The general idea is to put minor obstacles in my own way the whole time, it seems to be working ok so far, my usage is dropping slowly. I can’t check Instagram in the coffee queue (though I still try) so it reduces my habit of checking Instagram a small bit each time. I don’t get the tiny endorphin reward so next time (the theory goes) the urge to check wont be so great.

I hope this helps and good luck!
posted by tomp at 2:52 PM on January 18

When I need the internet, I need it right away: buying plane tickets, or looking up when the pet food store closes

I wonder if part of the answer is to push back on just how urgent most phone urges are.

Do the plane tickets have to be bought the moment plane tickets enter the mind at 7 pm during dinner, or can "buy plane tickets" be written on a to-do list?

At 8:30 pm when you wonder whether the store closed at 8 or will be open till 9 or 10, you'll see "buy plane tickets" on the paper list resting on top of the phone in the dresser drawer, and you can buy the tickets right after you either find out the store is closed or right after you get back from the urgent store trip.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:25 PM on January 18

Some more specifics about your problem would be helpful. Is this just about idle web browsing? Or commenting? Apps? Particular sites? Brain hijacked by badges and metrics (e.g. retweet counts)?

Sorry, I’ve been slow in looking at and responding to this thread.

The problem is idle web browsing, but I pretty much exclusively look at this site and Reddit. I could easily spend 6-8 hours compulsively switching between these two sites, which is why this is such a problem for me (according to my phone, I average about 4 hours a day). Commenting here on Mefi can take up a lot of my time, especially if I’m stressed and it makes for good distraction. My brain has been totally hijacked by favorite counts. I have no other social media accounts, and I don’t have a reddit account.

One obvious solution would be to disable my Mefi account again (as I’ve done many times before for similar reasons), but this is a great example of something on the internet that has value, but is also a problematic timesuck for me. I’m happy to talk to people, but at some point I have to wonder if there might be a better venue. It may be that my issues with impulse control nudge this site into “not worth it” territory.

Aside from that, I appreciate the suggestions here, and I think the first step will be buying a dang alarm clock.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:04 AM on January 19

Here's something that worked for me—I'm logged out of Twitter, and I only allow myself to log in with "private browsing" mode enabled. The key thing here is that closing the tab logs out automatically. Just randomly navigating to Twitter always shows a login screen, forcing me to decide whether to open a private browsing tab and log in for real or to close the tab and do something else.
posted by panic at 4:24 AM on January 19

(In your case, I'm not sure how well staying logged out would work for MeFi, but it could help with Reddit, and I figured I'd share anyway—it's been a really effective technique for me. Good luck figuring this out!)
posted by panic at 4:27 AM on January 19

I have various ways of staying off the computer (I have a shop, so if I don't need the laptop for work I can take the laptop goes to the shop for days at a time and I don't really have internet there to tempt me). That's good enough for now.
For phone use- my problem is the browser, not apps. So I just dug into this a bunch last night and this is what I found:
-iOS 12 has a feature called Screen Time which has all kinds of features to help limit app use. I believe you can update to iOS 12 on older devices.

-Android has this only in Android Pie (the latest update of Android) and it's called Digital Wellness. It's going to be more widely available sometime as some older phones get updated to Pie, but there's no getting around the need for the Pie update right now.

-various things with parental controls may do what you want. I decided to take a chance on Trend Micro, which is supposedly a mobile security app (there are drawbacks to this, I just decided that it was good enough for now). It's $20/year with a 2-week free trial subscription. I'm planning to try it out for a couple of weeks, feel free to ping me if you want this internet stranger's opinion on how that went. I assume that there are security risks to letting an app have this many permissions but I'm not too concerned about that right now.

-parental controls rely on a password to add and remove sites off a block list. I'm sure there's tons of similar tools available for laptop browsers as well. My plan is to use a random password and then either store it on a piece of paper somewhere else (that has worked well for me for avoiding Facebook in the past) or to make the same random password and give it to a friend for safekeeping, which would make it slightly socially embarrassing to ask for it back.
posted by twoplussix at 2:14 PM on January 19

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