Sunday, July 15, 2012

Exile in Meatspace

If ever there was a book title more calculated to appeal to me, it would be “Willpower:Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”  So when I saw it on Amazon, I hit the one-click purchase button before I was quite finished reading the title.  I couldn’t wait to dive in. 

If I actually had any willpower, it wouldn’t have taken me eight months to get past page 10. 

But I finished last week!  The book had lots of actionable advice, so I thought I would test some to see if they worked as well as advertised.  I devised the most difficult experiment in self-control that I could come up with: a week without the internet.  The only exceptions were email and bank/ billpaying websites.   I announced my goal on Friday at 5 p.m. (strategy: pre-commitment)---about three seconds after I decided to try.  Unintentional good move, that—by foregoing the usual pre-task agonizing, it didn’t seem so difficult.

Twenty-two minutes later, I was twitching.  But things quickly started to change.  

What Happened During Willpower Week

Friday evening:
Took child swimming.  Read a book on money management.  Made an elaborate dinner, including goat cheese and bacon mashed potatoes (amazing) and strawberry shortcakes.  And then, without quite realizing how, the kitchen was clean.  Every dish.

Pulled our credit reports, called to correct errors, called all credit card companies and started negotiating rate decreases and balance transfer arbitrage.  Got thousands of dollars in 30% debt down to rates from 0-10%.  Before lunch.  Intensive parenting and more elaborate meals followed.  By bedtime, kitchen clean again, and child’s room too. 

Ran errands—all of them.  Had a dealer in Magic cards come over and buy our old collections (B helped with this too).  Turns out that collectible card games are the only appreciating asset we’ve ever owned.  So happy with the money we got that I couldn’t even be bitter.  Folded and put away 137 loads of laundry.  The urge to check twitter, email, and news sites decreased in frequency from every 2 minutes to once an hour or so. 

Managed to stay offline.   Sitting in front of the computer and keeping away was difficult.  Really difficult.  Satisfied the urge by telling myself that it was only temporary and not trying to be overly disciplined in anything else.  And not sitting in front of the computer.  Kept a running list of things to Google on Friday evening.  By Monday night, I was exhausted from the mental effort of trying to keep offline.  It was especially hard because I didn’t have anything else to do with my hands away from the computer.  Because the house was entirely clean.  Every room.

Wait, every room clean?  At the same time?  That was a New Years’ Resolution!  I did it! 
Went to bed tired.  And thrilled. 

Got a ton of work done.  Made a financial plan.  Noted with pleasure that I’d lost another pound.  Had a telephone call with a career coach and got some great advice.  Thrilled at the anticipated new direction for life.   Talked to B about coach’s advice.  Stayed up late working out the ramifications.  And then because part of the new plan is to get back into home  ownership fairly soon, we went online very briefly to look at houses.  Just, just a little bit  . . .

Spectacular failure.  Rationalized it by avoiding usual virtual haunts, while scrambling deeper down the virtual rabbit hole hour after hour.  Was miserable and unproductive.  But newly sensitive to the actual feeling of surfing—the physical sensation of instantly satisfying impulses.  It felt good for the few moments after each click.  But not quite right, not the way it was before. 

Remorseful about my two wasted days.  By Friday at 5 – I was ready to be free of the commitment to stay off, but I didn’t really want to go on.   Spent the evening with family and read a novel (fifth book of the week).  It was a good day.

What I Learned From the Experiment

  1. I missed the sensation of clicking through my usual web loop much more than I missed the actual information.  Once I lost the habit for political, legal, and economic news, I lost the desire.   
  2.  Focusing on one goal brought discipline to many other areas.  That was one of the book’s insights, and it was fantastic.  My house was cleaner, my child better cared for, and our meals were tastier, without necessarily trying. 
  3. I think that aimless web surfing conditions you to a present-time orientation.  When I stopped focusing so much on satisfying short-term impulses, it became easier to focus on longer horizon problems during the time set for dealing with those tasks.  My attention span lengthened as well.
  4. Keeping a list of things to look up later made a huge difference.  Willpower fatigue is a big problem for me because I always want to do so many things.  The book said that you can preserve willpower by delaying gratification rather than denying it.  By having a discrete list of topics, I didn’t have to forego the benefit of having access to online information, just delay it a little bit.  But keeping it for latter helped to break up the instant-gratification conditioning.  When I finally did look everything up on Friday, I answered my questions and moved on to the next without wandering aimlessly.
  5. Don’t get cocky.  I was so incredibly pleased with what I accomplished in the first few days that I stopped taking care of myself so I could have more time to enjoy myself (mostly reading).  I quit taking meds and supplements.  I skipped meals.  I went from 8 hours of sleep each night to 4.  By the time I sat down in front of the computer to work on Wednesday morning, I was irritable, anxious, and glucose-deprived.  The book’s thesis is that people who most effectively display willpower are those who use it to set up effective habits, so that the need for willpower is lessened overall.  Even with the increases in happiness and productivity, it was always hard to stay offline.  By not taking care of myself, I made it much, much easier to fail.
Why I’m Going to Do It Again

I hereby declare Willpower Week a success.  I didn’t stay offline the whole time, but I accomplished a lot and I learned a lot.  And wasting two days clicking is a lot less than I usually lose in a week, so overall progress was made. 

The week certainly wasn’t perfect.  I stayed away from the computer as much as possible.  I let myself off the hook for both paying work and novel writing in service of the stay-offline goal (willpower succeeds best when goals are most focused), so I got little and none done on those projects.  I’m going to try to get better with these this week.  I also miss the interaction from social media, but the bright-line aspect of the goal made it easier to achieve, and I’m not sure how to integrate those back in without dooming the whole project.    

This week, I’m going to try again.  To prevent a catastrophic failure this week, I’m planning one midweek session of getting online so that I don’t have to delay gratification for quite so long.  When I want to go on for a specific purpose, I will instead keep the list of topics to look up so I don’t re-create the impulse-gratification conditioning. 

The most surprising result from Willpower Week is how much calmer and happier everyone in the house has become.  I’m happier for having met goals that I’ve never been able to achieve.  Everyone prefers the household order to the usual chaos.  H loves the increase in mother-daughter time.  And B is thrilled that, for the first time in a long time, we’ve made plans for a happier future instead of just worrying about how to get through the day. 

See you next week.