In late February I abruptly decided to give up the Internet for a month,* and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was such a good experience that I’ve threatened to delete all of my accounts and go live in a shack in the woods with a generator powering a single electric lightbulb, but I’m sick of moving and pretty sure it wouldn’t be possible to get such a place within walking distance of BART. In all seriousness, mystics have long claimed that you have to spend some time away from people in order to learn how to love them, and I’ve found that this has definitely been true for me and the Internet.

Initially, the most surprising thing was how little my absence mattered. I’ve always been one of those people who religiously answers e-mail within 48 hours, and my decision to drop out was so abrupt that I didn’t have time to e-mail my family or put up a vacation responder. When I came back that first Tuesday, I expected to find hundreds of e-mails from angry people. While those closest to me were puzzled and a bit concerned, my social life didn’t go up in smoke because I didn’t answer my e-mail for a week. There wasn’t a mass exodus of Twitter followers (until I unfollowed dozens of accounts, but that makes sense). Blog hits went down slightly, but the quality of the refers went up, and I was able to go a week without news (other than what I was able to glean from physical newspapers I picked up in coffeeshops) without feeling like I’d dropped out of the world.

So, what did happen?

I was able to focus. The first day I tried to work without the Internet, I timed how long I could go while working on a project without reaching for my phone to check my e-mail (and remembering that the shortcut was gone.) My record was two minutes. Seriously. Two minutes. My current record? Eight hours. Enough said.

I got shit done. Since March 1st, I have read eleven books, written ten short stories, created three text adventure games in Twine, learned how to solder, started making actual progress on learning how to code, and did (with a ton of help from Leander) my first Arduino project, a board that detects the moisture in my sage plant and turns on an LED when it’s time to water it. (Because I am a serial potted plant killer.)

I stopped hiding. Checking your phone is an incredible way to avoid awkwardness. Sitting alone at a restaurant? Check your phone. Crazy dude who’s muttering to himself sits down next to you on a bench? Check your phone. Waiting on the sidewalk for a friend to meet you? Check your phone. The story you’re writing feels uncomfortably true? Check your phone. Eventually, I installed some puzzle games on my phone, so I would have the ability to look busy when just standing there was clearly making the people around me feel uncomfortable, but for the first week I made it a point to just sit there feeling awkward. And, you know? It wasn’t so bad. I learned things. Such as this: Did you know that little old ladies will stop and talk to you if you’re sitting alone with a cup of tea and don’t look occupied? Dropping my phone meant dropping my defenses. I am vulnerable to eye daggers from workaholics on the train now, but I also receive kindness from strangers on the street and (try to) give it in return.

I feel better about myself. Telling people how they don’t meet up must generate a lot of clicks because going without the Internet felt like a chorus of thousands telling me how much I suck went silent in an instant. I am never going to read (or write) a numbered list of things I should do ever again.

I am more picky about what I read. A month ago I was tracking over 200 RSS feeds. Today, I track 18. I had three screens of channels in Flipboard. Today, I have four channels (Google+, Google Reader, Twitter, and Tumblr). The number of accounts I follow on Twitter has gone down by half, and I mute most of the rest. I don’t read things I “should” anymore. I read things I enjoy.

So, what now?

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.

Doing a lot of things is a great way to convince yourself that your life is worthwhile. A month ago, it was easy for me to think that if I have a ton of e-mail, it must mean I’m important. The truth was (and continues to be) incredibly humbling. When I don’t check my e-mail for a week these days, it takes me less than an hour to get to inbox zero, and most of that time is spent swearing at spam and writing to my family.

I don’t want to just go back to the way things were. I don’t even want to think about the frantic posting schedule, the hurried e-mails I wrote subjected everyone to because I was tired and pressuring myself to perform. I was a giant ball of stress and anxiety.

And yet, I have room now for what the Internet is good at. I can’t wait to catch up on my friends’ crazy adventures and, because I took some time and stepped away, I have things of my own to share.

*Technically, I have been without the Internet for more than a month, but I set aside Tuesdays as Internet days (mostly for e-mail and making sure Paper Tape didn’t catch fire) and spent a few days obsessively refreshing the Google Play store giving moral support to Leander when the Instructables app he built was released. So, saying that I’ve been without the Internet for a month is probably the safest bet.

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