The Case for Disconnecting: How Going Offline Helps Us Stay Productive

As I write this, my computer is not connected to the Internet. No, my laptop isn’t broken. And I’m actually within range of several usable WiFi networks, typing away at the cafe down the street from my house. I’ve just made a conscious choice to work with the WiFi connection switched off. As a result, I’ll finish this article much more quickly – and with a clearer head – than I would have if I had been connected.

The Internet and mobile technology have vastly improved our ability to get things done. We have remote project management apps, cloud-based, cross-device-syncing task lists and CRM platforms. Even old-fashioned tools like email and chat are quicker than a phone call, while Skype and GoToMeeting let us consult colleagues without wasting precious hours and money on travel. You can even send a telepresence robot into the office if you don’t feel like going yourself.

All these radical enhancements come, as we all now realize, at a cost. For every task that the Internet streamlines, it offers up a dozen potential time sucks: hilarious Tumblrs, nostalgic BuzzFeed lists, breaking news, Facebook updates and links on Twitter are all begging for our attention as notifications buzzing across our arsenal of devices, which, of course, are always on.

It’s enough to drive you crazy. In fact, the Internet’s impact on mental health was the subject of a Newsweek cover story earlier this year. It’s not a new topic, but recent research has pointed to new evidence that the Internet is having deleterious effects on our brains. Indeed, Internet Addiction Disorder will make its first appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders next year.

Your brain may or may not be headed down the path toward hypertext-fueled lunacy, but either way, the first thing to go is almost certainly going to be your productivity. In his book, “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done,” Dave Crenshaw explains how our brains actually aren’t able to focus on more than one thing at a time and how our attempt to do so damages our ability to be productive. Crenshaw’s book resonated with many in the business world, where the always-on, hyper-connected lifestyle is most prevalent. It was also written in 2008, well before the explosion of smartphones and tablets in which we are now awash.

As the number of social distractions, apps and devices proliferates, there is a growing need to occasionally distance ourselves from it all, if only for a brief period.

For me, writing without the temptation to check email, Twitter and various news feeds has become a necessity. So I grab what I need from the Web, pull my notes together, turn off WiFi and keep my phone out of sight. It’s the only way I can sustain my focus long enough to finish the tasks that help me pay my bills.

Some have taken far more drastic measures. Author and blogger Joshua Fields Millburn felt so distracted and unproductive that he turned off Internet at his home. He says it has vastly improved his focus, productivity and has transformed how he spends his down time. Not only does he write more and with greater efficiency, but the lack of an Internet connection has freed up more time for reading, exercise and maintaining the kind of real-world relationships that Facebook just can’t replicate.

“Since I got rid of the Internet, my life has been better,” writes Millburn. The time I wasted before is mine again — I was able to reclaim that time. No longer am I taking unconscious breaks from my life to watch YouTube videos or movie trailers or look at funny pictures on some random site.”

When he does go online, Millburn says he is much more focused and deliberate about how he spends his time there, often keeping a list of things he needs to do on the Web.

One of the advantages Millburn cites is an ability to think more clearly. I bet. As much inspiration and knowledge as we can find online, sometimes our clearest thoughts – and best ideas – come to us when we’re nowhere near one of my many screens. Some mornings, I’ll scour the Web trying to find story ideas, but it isn’t until I’m in the shower or walking down the street to the cafe that the best ones come to me.

Like so many things in life, it’s all about finding a balance. The Internet legitimately improves and enhances our lives, at home, in the office and in between. But it has its limitations. To make the most of it, we have to disconnect every now and then.

John Paul Titlow
John Paul Titlow covers trends in new media, digital music and tech culture. His work has appeared in Fast Company, ReadWrite, Billboard and The New York Times. He also teaches journalism at Temple University.
John Paul Titlow
Tags: Business,Downtime,Productivity,Tech Culture