Like a lot of us, Kevin Fenton spends a good portion of his work life sitting in front of a computer. “Technology and the Internet are absolutely essential to what I do,” says the St. Paul, Minn.–based freelance copywriter. “It’s how I learn about projects, it’s how I do research, it’s how I compose the actual writing, and it’s how I send the writing to my clients.”
But his life online isn’t confined to the 9 to 5. He uses his Internet connection — or, increasingly, his hand-held — to complete routine household-management chores, like paying the bills, and to access a good portion of his social community.
In short, a good deal of Fenton’s life occurs online, and lately his relationship with the Web has him worried. “Not long ago, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, the day went by and other than walking the dog, I kind of lost my day,’” he recalls. “All the moments of the day that could have been good leisure moments — time spent playing tennis, out with friends or reading — were taken over by crappy Internet moments.”
Balancing time spent on the Web with time spent enjoying real-life experiences has become a challenge for many of us, says Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “This is the century of the economics of attention, and too many of us are squandering that resource,” Pychyl says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘How am I spending my most valuable resource?’”
That question is key to managing your online life, Pychyl and other experts say. When you have a clear picture of how you’re spending your time on the Web — compared with how you want to be spending your time there — you can learn how to use it in a way that makes your whole life more satisfying.
How Connected Are We?
Online activities have become so integrated into our lives (especially with the proliferation of Web-savvy hand-helds) that most of us don’t actually know how much time we spend on the Web each day. Until we do, says Julie Morgenstern, an organizational and productivity consultant and author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work (Fireside, 2005), we’ll have a hard time managing our hours effectively.
To take a survey of your own online usage, download the “Are You Too Plugged In?” PDF below. Next, consider these tips for finding a healthy balance between your online and your offline lives.
Time yourself. Ironically, Web tools can be very effective at tracking your online time. Firefox MeeTimer, for example, not only tallies your Web time, but also lets you reconfigure your browser to avoid distracting sites. Pychyl uses a program called RescueTime, which tracks users’ screen time both online and offline (it tells you how much time you spent in Photoshop as well as your time on Twitter), then you can compare the hours you spent doing something useful with the hours you frittered away.
Pick up on internal signals. Your body and brain will often indicate when you’ve had enough Web time, says Gwen Bell, a social-media strategist and consultant based in Boulder, Colo. “Check in with your body,” she suggests. “Do you feel drained? Do you need a tech detox? Take one. Just because the Internet is 24 hours doesn’t mean you are.”
Explore your intent. Bell suggests examining your motives for being online at any given moment. Be especially aware when you’re using the Web to disengage from work or face-to-face interactions. Doing so is a sign you’re using the medium for escape. If you discover that you are hiding behind your screen, schedule some offline time to reengage with family, a good book or your favorite hobby.
Set limits. A good way to avoid mindless surfing is to make a conscious decision about how you want to spend your time online before you log on. Make a list of what you need to accomplish online and the approximate amount of time it should take, and then stick to your plan.
You can also establish boundaries around checking your hand-held or computer, says Pychyl. If, for example, you feel compelled to check your email every time the alert sounds, try turning the alert off and instead designating a five-minute check-in every hour (or whatever makes sense for your work).
Create “free” zones. Consider designating places or times of day that are free of online intrusions. Some rooms in your home (bedroom, kitchen) might be places where online computing and hand-helds are banned. During breakfast and an hour before bed are also good times to make computing off-limits. At work, wait an hour before checking your email and devote that time to your most important tasks of the day, Morgenstern recommends. Likewise, instead of taking a Web-browsing break, try taking a physical break, such as a walk around the block. If you find yourself peeking at your hand-held during family time, silence it and leave it in another room.
Rediscover offline interests. Too much online time might simply be a failure of imagination, says Morgenstern. “The Internet is handy and it’s cool, but it sneaks up on you, and before you know it, that’s all you know how to do.” She counsels clients to think back to childhood to make a list of other ways to relax. “Come up with a menu of things that recharge you,” she suggests. “Take a walk, call a friend, or meet up with someone — these things actually do relax you.”
A Better Non-Virtual Reality
Over the past year, Kevin Fenton has embraced a variety of these techniques. He now uses a program to lock himself out of the Internet for uninterrupted chunks of work time, and he takes unplugged vacations of various sorts — keeping the computer off, using his hand-held only for voice calls, or limiting his email to one or two check-ins a day. “My mind is more rested,” he says.
Still, both for Fenton and many people like him, the reevaluation and finessing of life online remains an ongoing experiment. It’s a delicate balancing act, the goal of which is to leverage the Web’s useful tools, resources and engaging virtual realities as support systems for our real-life existence, and not the other way around.
Joseph Hart is a freelance writer in Viroqua, Wis.