I just accomplished the most difficult task of my life: I didn’t check my e-mail or go online for 19 days! That’s almost three weeks of no computer for this online junkie. I didn’t even read a newspaper.
After a friend told me he was going on a silent retreat for two weeks, I decided to do the same, except with two small kids and a husband in the background.
During this hiatus from the online world, I was able to breathe and stare out over the Chesapeake Bay and take day trips with the kids to nearby beach towns where they could make sandcastles and play miniature golf.
By the fifth day I realized that all the information I force-feed myself during a normal workday is as unhealthy for me as fast food. Now that I’m back to my desk, I don’t want to go back to my old habits of processing everything that appears on my screen.
I want to take back some control over this information overload so that I’m not sorting data from the many newsletters to which I subscribe while making cookies with the kids and growing impatient as I check my e-mail while supervising David’s homework.
How can I keep the mind clutter as manageable as possible? I’m trying these techniques:
1. Unsubscribe, or just don’t check my inbox. Do I really need to read the 402 most e-mailed articles of the New York Times? The entire New England Journal of Medicine? The top health stories of CNN.com?
NO. I don’t. I need to read the crime beat of the Annapolis Capitol to make sure it’s safe to play at the neighborhood park. And I need to review a few health newsletters from Johns Hopkins University for my Beliefnet blog "Beyond Blue."
If I have time I’ll read everyone’s opinion on Obama and McCain. But only if I have time.
2. Stop checking my e-mail like it’s a slot machine. I’m addicted. Boy do I know that now. But I can’t say goodbye forever to this way of communication or else I will lose all of my writing jobs.
So I am going to limit my access to e-mail to only those hours in which I am working. If I’m not working, the computer is off and in the bag. Maybe even in my bedroom closet, where I hid it for the 19 days I withdrew from the addiction.
3. Set boundaries. In order to protect my personal time and time with my family, I plan on shutting down at 6 p.m. every night and putting the computer away. Ditto goes for the weekends. After all, weekends (and especially Sundays) were intended for rest. It says so in the Book of Genesis.
4. Quantify my time and energy. I’ll often read an interesting story because I stumbled upon it while doing some research that is completely unrelated to the story. The unrelated piece leads me to another article, which is even more interesting, and before I know it, I have wasted half an hour of working time, which will be docked from my sleep.
However, if I consider my time and energy as a precious commodity, and quantify exactly how many minutes I have to work, then I can better resist the urge to read both boring and interesting junk that has nothing to do with the piece I need to finish.
Therese Borchard is a columnist for Catholic News Service.