Turning off the internet at home

January 27, 2014

When Clef moved to Oakland, we decided that that we’d experiment with something new: no internet at home.

Today, five months later, we’re calling an end to the experiment and turning on our internet.

Over the last five months, I’ve learned a lot about how I use internet, how it impacts my relationships, and the power that comes with better understanding my addiction to constant connection.

This essay attempts to pick apart those learnings—the goods and the bads—and comes to no conclusion, just a better understanding.

Why we decided to turn off the internet

Working at a startup, the internet is the channel to our business. Wherever there’s internet, there’s the potential for work—we check our email, we respond to support issues, we fix bugs, we deploy code. With internet practically everywhere, this means that work creeps into every aspect of our lives.

Our old home in San Francisco still has the 3rd most production deploys of any location in Clef history (behind our two offices). I read and sent more emails in bed there than in all my years prior to starting a company. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for me to wake up in the middle of the night, see an email on my phone, and fix a bug before going back to sleep.

In many ways, this constant connectivity is wonderful. It allows us to do everything faster: faster email replies, faster bug fixes, faster recognition of potential issues. This speed is one of the things that’s enabled the current startup boom.

It’s also extremely draining: when all you care about is the success of a company, and you’re constantly in a position where it feels like you can work to make that success more likely, it’s easy to irrationally ignore the need to disconnect.

When we decided to turn off the internet at home, we did it to actively combat this uncontrollable urge. Newly disconnected, our goal was that conversation, relaxation, and social connection would become the default at home, rather than the subconscious pull back towards our inboxes and editors.

We’d still be able to work as much as we wanted, but our work-times would be distinct and discrete, rather than abstract and eternal. We’d be in control.

It was a thesis that we decided was worth testing for a week or two, so we delayed setting up internet in our new home. A week turned into a month and a month turned into five.

The good things

At the core, our thesis proved entirely correct. At home, even though I still had my internet connected phone, I was consistently more disconnected and relaxed. It felt really good in so many ways.

I got more sleep. With internet, it was easy to stay up late on my computer—over the summer, I went to bed between 12 and 1am every night. Without it, I went to bed between 10:30pm and 11:30pm. Those extra hours of sleep helped me switch to an earlier wake up and more productive mornings.

I watched less TV. With, I spent somewhere between 5 and 10 hours a week in front of a television at home [1]. Without, I trimmed that intake to zero and replaced it with more writing, thinking, and reading.

We traded screens for conversation. With, it was normal for the three of us to sit at our kitchen table for hours with our computers open. Without, long conversations on our couches about non-internet things are the nightly norm.

Not having internet at home taught me how addicted I am to continuous connection. As I started to understand and feel this addiction, and as I practiced moving from a connected to a disconnected space, I was able to translate the things I learned at home to my behavior in other, connected, places (i.e. everywhere). Over the last 6 months, I’ve significantly improved my ability to keep my device in my pocket and engage in a meaningful way with the people around me—no matter what’s going on online.

Really, I just felt more in control — like I could decide when I wanted to tune in or tune out. It felt empowering.

The not so good things

Unfortunately, like every decision, turning off the internet at home had it’s downsides.

Turning off the internet forced constant, hard, choices around when to work or not work. Not being able to just connect at home turned tasks that might have taken 3 minutes before (like fixing a bug) into a serious decision: is this issue important enough that I should leave my home, head to our office, and resolve or can it wait until tomorrow. This consciousness is exactly the reason we opt-ed to disconnect, but that doesn’t make it any easier to process. Constantly making these decisions is exhausting, especially when guilt can often accompany the non-work choice.

Coding at home (for fun or profit) is much harder without internet. When you’re experimenting with a new technology, the internet is your best friend —having to look up questions on my phone can be really frustrating [2].

Without internet, eating schedules for long work days are harder to navigate. Mark, Brennen, and I cook and eat 90% of our dinners together. When we had internet, this usually meant heading home around 7:30pm, cooking dinner, then returning to work or watching some TV. Without internet, when we left for home, we eliminated a huge number of post-dinner activities. This meant that we cooked nearly 100% of our meals at work. Our setup there is awesome [3], but it meant we spent nearly all of our waking hours in one place. No matter how many breaks we interspersed, spending that much time in any once location is exhausting.

Turning off the internet put a negative stigma around going home. The reasons above are part of it, but there was also just kind of an X-factor that is hard to describe—perhaps it’s just that we were there much less. It wasn’t serious, but in a high-stress environment, after 5 months, all three of us could feel that there was a bad vibe forming around being home. And, when we all felt that, we knew that we needed to make a change.

Reconnecting, for now

Spending nearly 24/7 with the same people is really hard. No matter how much we love each other (and I love Brennen and Mark very, very much), there are constantly interpersonal issues that we need to process [4]. Any external stresser that can complicate this equilibrium is something that needs to be identified and addressed.

The combination of problems with not having internet proved to be one of these stressers—so we decided to flip the switch (the other way).

Just like our decision to turn off the internet, though, we’re making this one with a provable thesis in mind (that it will relieve an unnecessary stresser). We don’t have a long term contract, and none of us are particularly attached to the actual idea of having internet, so if our thesis proves incorrect, we’ll just switch back. Essentially, we’re experimenting with our environment to see how we can optimize for peace and happiness.

Because the internet

Flipping the internet-on switch feels shitty. It feels like a failure. It feels like I set out on a cavalier adventure—a struggle to be different and act different—and came back with my tail between my legs. Like the internet is just sitting somewhere in some data center cackling.

But, especially after writing this, I’m starting to realize that the adventure isn’t even close to over. It continues with our newly created internet-enabled home, where I’ll be able to apply everything I’ve learned in the last five months to a new environment—hopefully making me a more conscious connector. But even that is just scene .02 of act .01.

The internet is going to consume literally every part of our lives. I’ll hate it and love it and tell it to go away in certain contexts, but then switch tunes and wrap my arms around it and hug it till it gets too big to hug.  I’ll try one thing, then try another and it’ll sneer its strawberry-sized internet face and call me a hypocrite (and I’ll happily whisper to my wireless router that, yes, I’m a hypocrite, but at least I’m not a shitty wireless router named ATT63200).

As the internet changes what it means to be me, I’ll try to change what the internet means to me.

Jesse Pollak is someone you’ve probably never heard of and maybe want to follow on Twitter

[1] Cutting television out of our lives hasn’t been all good. I’ve never been very into TV shows or movies, but Brennen (and Mark, though less so) is a huge pop culture buff (and movie lover). With internet, he was able to share this love with me and this was really valuable. Turning off the internet eliminated this shared experience, which sucked. I loved not having TV, but I hated losing a real way to connect with one of my best friends.

[2] That said, I’m fairly certain that coding without internet has made me a much better programmer. It forces me to spend a lot more time thinking through issues before turning to Google for help and it has helped improve my memory of language-specific syntax. Dash has proved invaluable for this.

[3] One of the nicest kitchens I’ve ever used—huge marble counter top, 6 burner set, dishwasher, big refrigerator, walk in pantry, and tons of kitchenware (and anything that isn’t there, they are more than happy to purchase for us). I can’t express how thankful I am to Michael and Joel (the owners) for creating such a wonderful environment—none of the last 6 months would have been possible without them.

[4] Over the last month, we’ve actually committed to taking a much more proactive approach to processing these sort of issues. This topic deserves (and will get) a full essay, but essentially, we’ve started doing daily check-ins on the state of our personal relationships. Every night, we sit down and talk about how we interacted and felt each day—what was good, what was bad, what was just really hard. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but it’s also proven to be more powerful and educating than I could ever imagine.

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