Monday, January 9, 2012

Why the internet is a trap - and how this writer deals with it

If you're a writer, I imagine you are familiar with the problem of the internet trap. You turn on the computer to start writing, and an hour later you're still on the internet. You think of the pages you have still to write and you want to scream, Why is this happening? How can I stop it?

So I thought I'd begin this week by talking about why the internet is such a trap, at least for me. And also, thinking about how to manage the whole thing. I hope that my thoughts may help those of you out there who experience something of the same thing.

Internet Trap #1. Small flashes of wonderful in a torrent of irrelevant

I've heard partaking of the internet compared to drinking from a fire hose. I don't quite agree with this, because it suggests that if you could manage to take a sip, it would be good water that you were getting. To me it's more like a baseball game: you'd better have good friends with you and be doing something in the stands, because most of what's going on is stuff you don't care about anyway (in this I reveal my bias against baseball - sorry baseball fans!). Each critical play is buried in a ton of waiting around. On the internet, sometimes I'll have a day where I find tons of links I want to pass on to my blog readers. Then I'll go for weeks without encountering anything to care about at all.

Internet Trap #2. News

Yes, this is where I get the vast majority of my news about the world. And though I spend a lot of time in worlds of my own, I do care about what's going on. So I find myself clicking through to read about current events when I should probably be writing, or at least not reading my sixth article in a row about a particular issue. Even one I really care deeply about.

Internet Trap #3. Small tasks

This is a big one for me. Going through emails, making sure to check up on social networks, etc. It feels quick - each email takes very little time to process, either to file or look at or throw away. Each part of the stream goes by quickly. But the tasks pile up, and you can easily lose a half-hour or more in increments of two seconds.

Internet Trap #4. Reminders and notifications

By this I don't mean going to one site or another and checking news streams etc. This is about when your computer beeps to tell you someone is inviting you to chat, when you hear the tone or see the flicker that indicates a new email has come in, etc., etc. It's like when the phone rings. Your first instinct is to stop whatever you're doing and check it. When I'm really concentrating, I don't notice this stuff half the time. But when I'm not super-absorbed, I can get pulled right back out of whatever it is.

Internet Trap #5. The desire for distraction/the risk of missing something/the desire to have "something happen."

Who among us does not procrastinate? Even when I'm not being beeped at I feel the temptation to go on the internet. I might see a cat photo, or a picture of a cool cake, or the face of a friend. Related to this is the sense that something important might be happening (either in the world or with a friend) and I might be missing it. The worst thing I find myself doing is rifling through the internet hoping that I'll run across something that will change my life for the better (like discover that I've sold a story or find out that someone has said something nice about me).

Internet Trap #6. Sense of community, the importance of internet presence

These are actually good things about putting in time on the internet! But they contribute to the draw of it. The internet helps us feel like we're not just alone in a room writing, and for many of us (like me) this is a very good thing. Besides which, we would like to increase our visibility by maintaining an internet presence, and have been told this will help us to succeed. Surely being active in blogging and social networks will make this happen. But how much will it really contribute to the bottom line? And how much will it take away from the critical time we need to spend actually writing? Those are hard questions to answer.

Internet Trap #7. New networking opportunities

How many times have you been invited to a new networking site? There are so many out there, and being a part of one has both good aspects and bad. I have found that if I start participating in a new networking site, it reaps benefits because I get better chances of quality interaction with the frontline participants. On the other hand, it takes on far more importance than it deserves, and thereafter one of two things will happen. Either it will not retain my interest and I'll have to drop out because I just don't have that much time in the day, or it will be worth participating in and I'll have to spend a bunch of time balancing it against my other networking commitments.

Whew! So at this point I'll talk about how I deal with managing these problems. Believe me when I say that my solutions are not perfect. If you have good ideas in this arena, feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

Solution A: Give yourself meta-time, and manage actively.

This is a pretty simple thing, but I can't recommend it enough (that's why it's solution A!). You know you're on the internet. You know it's sucking your time. Take a step back and look at what you're doing, and when. That will allow you to evaluate it and make decisions about changing it. This is what I do to deal with the problem of new social networks - I step back after experimenting with them and ask how I want them to fit into my whole internet picture.

Solution B: Schedule yourself.

This is my way of dealing with many of the issues above, including the fire hose/baseball game problem, the news problem, the small tasks problem, the sense of community/internet presence problem, and the networking opportunities problem. I try to fix, and to limit, the times when I'll be using the internet. Blogging time is limited to during the weekend, or before I get my kids up for school. Networking I often do while the kids are home, since it requires less concentration. Small tasks time I limit by fixing the amount of time I'll spend on it - and this includes networking and news stories time. To keep myself from losing track I'm going to try setting myself a timer with an alarm. This is also going to help me remember to give my eyes a rest every so often.

Solution C: Disable the evidence of notifications

Now, I don't mean that you should dig into preferences to disable all notifications. However, your computer has a mute button for a reason. If you must have your email and internet browser open while you're writing, make sure to take the word processing file you're using and expand it to fill the screen so you don't see those little telltale flashes and such. You just don't need those little sensory distractions.

Solution D: Cultivate a detached attitude

This is, I suppose, the trickiest. It took me quite a while to realize that I didn't need to read every notification of everything on every social network, but just to dip in and sample each time I was there. News stories will wait for you. Every service or game that you are involved with is designed to convince you that you must never leave it alone or you'll miss something absolutely critical, but this is not generally the case. If you do happen to be involved in a game (Farmville leaps to mind) that requires attention at particular intervals, consider stopping for a while when you have a project to complete. Be aware that you need to be the one running your use of the internet, rather than letting it run you. Muses are fickle enough, and we're already trying to fit them into the compartments that other parts of our lives offer us - we shouldn't ask them to bow to internet "needs" that are being cultivated in us by online marketers.

Solution E: Realize that you get out of the Internet what you put into it

This is what I say to myself whenever I find myself searching for something meaningful, or searching to make "something happen". When I put effort into my online presence (mostly by blogging), then I can feel the rewards. When I write a story and get it out there, that also has an effect on the internet - and I like that effect better. So there's no point just surfing around looking for something good, I tell myself. Go create something, and that will make something good happen. If it's time to get my blogging done, then I'll do that. But if it's time to write, I'll either hide the internet or turn it off completely and try to create something fantastic. Because that gives me something even better to talk about.

Am I perfect in my execution of this? Well, of course not. I began this post saying that I do have trouble with the internet taking more time than it deserves. However, this post is going to help me put into words what I'd like to be doing going forward, and I hope it will help me take the strategies I already use, and make them more effective.

So what do you do to keep the internet from taking time it doesn't deserve? Feel free to comment because I'm sure everyone would be interested to hear.


  1. Great advice! I loved this post. I will organise my day along these lines just as soon as I get off the internet ;)

  2. Good stuff. I would add multitasking distraction syndrome, which for me is the idea that I can do several things at once, but which often just means I get distracted on the internet. Also, when I have the kidlet I find it hard to write because of frequent interruptions, but instead of doing useful tasks I surf. What it comes down to is re-centering on your priorities; for me, when I grasp that center and the objectives I need to accomplish, it is much easier to get out of the trap.

  3. Elaine, thanks! I know exactly what you mean. At least the mute button one is easy to accomplish for me. :)

    Eruditeogre, thanks for your comment! You're absolutely right about multitasking. That's one of the things I've really been clamping down on lately. Re-centering on priorities is what I do during my meta-thinking time. Great points.

  4. I turn off the internet. Close browser windows. The siren song is too strong. Just write my turns or book review or whatever.

  5. Hand write!!!! That is my solution. I write at night and it looks like scribbles mostly, but that is how I'm getting my novel done. I'm on Chapter 11 this week and it is ONLY because I have handwritten it. :) Archaic, I know.

  6. Paul, that's a workable model. For periods when you are actively writing, it's a great suggestion. Thanks for your comment!

    That's definitely one solution. I admit, not one that has ever worked for me (I tend to feel like I can't revise as easily until I have the draft on the computer. I'm spoiled by technology, I know) but it can be great for some people. Thanks for the suggestion!

  7. I tend to gauge how well my project's going by how often I want to stop and check Twitter. If I'm always itching to pull up the internet, I step back, look at what I'm doing, and ask myself what isn't working.

  8. Wow, Twitter as a measure of writing success! There's something I hadn't thought of. Thanks for the comment, MK.

  9. Great post Juliette. I have to set timelines or I get lost in space.

  10. I use a piece of software called 'Freedom' which is surprisingly effective when it comes to focusing on my writing. It turns off your internet connection for anything between ten minutes and eight hours. You can get past it by just restarting your computer, but the thing I find - and that other people apparently also find - is that you don't, and I've experienced a kind of mini-high at the sudden realisation I've got no choice but to write for the next one hour, two hours, or whatever.

  11. Gary, thanks for the recommendation. It sounds very interesting, and may appeal to quite a number of people!

  12. I've been adding estimated times for tasks to my to-do lists. When I realize I have 6 hours worth of work I want to put into writing, it reduces my inclination to say, "Well, I'll start writing after my cup of tea. The day is still young." In reality, I don't have plenty of time. But if I don't map it out, I tend to think I can do more with my time than I can.

    1. I like E: Realize that you get out of the Internet what you put into it. Be a participant, not a spectator. Otherwise being on the 'net is just as mind-numbing as turning on the TV and channel-surfing.

  13. Kate, that's awesome - I wish I knew how to estimate times, but my life is full of lots of distractions. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Rabia, I'm glad that spoke to you. Thanks for the comment.

  14. Very excellent points. I've found that I need to avoid my trigger points, like Tyne urge to sit down and check email, because once I'm in front of the computer, hours can go by. So now I make myself work first for a solid block of time before taking an Internet break (my work is mainly art so it's not at the's definitely harder when I switch to digital work).

  15. Sylvia, thanks for your comment! Starting with work rather than the internet is a good idea.