by J.T. Ellison
This is the second entry in an on-going occasional series I’ve dubbed "A Virtual Montparnasse." Click here to read the first installment.
The Internet is a devious little succubus, isn’t it?
By all accounts, it is a useful tool that enhances our daily lives. We have instant communication, instant access to our friends, co-workers and teachers. College courses are heavily Internet dependent now — hell, a lot of elementary schools have homework on the web.
And we writers know what an awesome tool the Internet is for research.
But it’s also a force of evil, a direct intravenous line into the procrastination vein.
Can’t write? Check your Facebook page and update your status. Be sure to spend at least ten minutes dealing with your notifications. Return good karma, play a move in WordScraper, read your other friend’s procrastination, I mean status, updates. Throw a sheep for good measure and get back to work.
Tappity Tappity Tap Tap. Tappity Tap. Tap. Tap… tap…
Still can’t write? Do it all again, only this time toss in a few emails, read the Wall Street Journal, run through Crimespot and RedRoom. Check your MySpace. See if Sarah Weinman has updated her blog.
I mean really, if you aren’t doing anything, millions of other people aren’t either. You can prove it to yourself in myriad ways. And there’s great comfort in that.
But is this particular aspect of our Virtual Montparnasse good for us? Is the Internet enhancing our creativity?
I’ll postulate the answer to that is a resounding NO! And I’m not the only one. There’s been a spate of writers addressing the issue lately. I read this article and smiled to myself — I NEED someone to trick me like this. And then my friend Jeff Abbott wrote about his own desire to be Internet free. I agree wholeheartedly with them both. We writers are over-utilizing our online time. It seems like something so simple, so easy. Just turn off your wireless and go. But it doesn’t ever seem to work that way, does it?
Do we need the Internet? Yes, it’s a brilliant research tool. Yes, we can keep up with our friends, blog, check our Amazon numbers. But do we really NEED the Internet?
If you answer yes, I can’t help you. If you answered no, but don’t know how to break free, keep reading.
There is an underlying problem here. It will take a bit of self examination to see why you’re using the Internet as a procrastination tool. And that WHY is going to vary wildly from author to author.
I’ve come to realize that I have an Internet addiction. No, I’m not addicted to porn, or online gambling. I just find myself almost unconsciously surfing, going to bookmarked site to bookmarked site, checking things out. There are times that I realize I’ve reread the same blog entry multiple times, just because there isn’t anything new out there.
I decided to undertake a candid examination of my problem. I’m not kidding when I say I think it is a real addiction. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sitting in my chair, utterly frustrated and stressed because I have a ton of writing to be done and a ton of reading to be done and thank you notes to write and, and, and… yet I’ll notice that I’ve left whatever I’m supposed to be working on and am on my laptop, surfing.
After some serious soul searching over the past few weeks, I’ve found my WHY.
Don’t laugh, but after a true and honest reflection I’ve realized that I’m substituting the Internet for cigarettes. I quit a couple of years ago, and still ache for the soothing, relaxing, take-a-break nature of cigarettes. I used to smoke a pack a day. Twenty cigarettes. Twenty little breaks. Twenty times a day when I consciously or unconsciously reached for that cigarette and used it to help me focus, to relax, to de-stress.
Twenty times a day… if I kept count, I daresay I’m probably on the Internet twenty times a day as well. I shared my great epiphany with a psychiatrist friend of mine. She laughed and said the Internet is much healthier than the cigarettes, and to give myself a break. Which I appreciated to no end, but I was left with a nagging feeling that there was something more that I could do. Something to lead me away from this. If I had the willpower to quit smoking after twenty years on the sticks, I can beat this too.
I don’t know about you, but I set millions of little intermediary goals for myself during the day. Finish this sentence and you can make a cup of tea. It’s been an hour, you can go ahead and check your email. No Internet after 5… 6… 7… 8… 9… No Internet when Randy is home. No Facebook before 4 in the afternoon, or after 10 in the morning. It’s the same way I quit smoking, in stages, little permissions here and there to make me think I had control over the situation.
None of that really works. It’s all well and good to say these things, but acting on them isn’t my strong suit. It’s like exercise or dieting for me. I can set all the goals I want, but I’ll quickly become bored with the "rules" and slip. I’ve stuck to some of my initiatives, like limiting my listserves (I’m down to two) and making sure I return email in a timely fashion. I stopped reading most of my blogs long ago – relying on Crimespot to alert me when something that might be of interest pops up.
It used to be we didn’t have wireless, so my laptop was a safe zone. I would work on business upstairs on the desktop, and when I was ready to be creative, shut that one off and come downstairs to work on the laptop. That system worked very well for me. But we’re tech geeks, so we got a wireless router, and my new laptop is built for it, so no matter what, I can plug in seamlessly from anywhere in the house. Great, right?
(Let me add, for the record, that all this shilly-shallying generally comes when I’m between books. When I’m working on a new manuscript, I have a much different focus level than when I’m in between. I made a decision that I needed to take a month off between books, and I’ll stick to that, but it’s these down times when I waste the most time. I could be really relaxing and refreshing my mind, catching up on reading, doing research, and instead I’m throwing sheep. Hmm.)
I don’t know how many of you clicked through on the link that Jeff Abbott had in his post, so let me put it here for you to look at. Kirk McElhearn has a wonderful idea for Mac users. There’s also a cool program for the Mac called Freedom. Just one problem. I’m on a PC, and I can’t find anything like this in PC land.
So I decided to use Kirk’s guidelines and figure out a way to make this happen on my laptop. It’s just as simple as setting up a new user account (in this case, Taylor Jackson) setting the parental controls so Firefox and IE aren’t allowed, and poof. Instant "Freedom." I took Kirk’s idea a step further as well — I don’t like moving files back and forth using a jump drive — I lost a major book synopsis that way. One of my many redundancies for my ongoing manuscripts is through email. So instead of moving files on the jump drive, in the new Taylor Jackson account, I opened an email for her with Windows Mail, and opened a gmail account in her name. I reset the parental controls to accept the gmail url, and activated the pop mail account dedicated to Taylor Jackson. Voila. When I’m done for the day, I email my file to my regular email address. Works like a charm.
I tried this new method on Tuesday. I was shocked to find myself working for three hours straight. No interruptions. No chimes to let me know a new email had come in (just a note, you have to log off your regular account to make that happen. And in the new user account, don’t get fancy trying to change icons around, etc — I nearly deleted my entire iTunes library accidentally.)
This may be second nature for some of you sophisticated techies, but I felt like I’d accomplished something major. I have freed myself from my Internet connection, albeit briefly. It’s such a pain to log off the new account, log in to the main account, etc., that I really did stay focused and productive.
I refuse to let the Internet compromise my creativity. I deleted my unused Twitter account Wednesday. I’ve unbookmarked Facebook so I recognize when I’m going there. I stopped accepted apps on Facebook ages ago, so that’s not a problem. If these steps aren’t enough, I’ll get more drastic. I hope that doesn’t happen though, cause we all know how much fun I have throwing sheep ; )
Will our Virtual Montparnasse be the death of us all? What’s your trick to avoid Internet procrastination?
And do you think there’s a way around the Internet sapping our creativity?
Wine of the Week: 2005 Chateau La Rame Bordeaux — simply delicious.