Internet Palate Cleansers

You ever internet too much?

I do, all the time. And yet, the internet is my productive zone. I’m a scholar of online culture, exploring esoteric corners of the internet to learn how technology has changed the ways we think, live and work. I can’t avoid crossing distracting internet streets.

Predictably… I lose my focus. Learning is hard. Dedicating brain power to an article full of critical thinking or processing a singular art project strains my mind and saps my willpower. And since everything on the internet must compete for attention with everything else on the internet, I often turn to familiar time sinks.

“What a smart and provocative headline this is,” I think to myself as I tab over to a roster of sites I count on to make me feel intellectual, while displaying exactly the content I expect. Within these sites, I trust that my ego and preconceptions will remain safely unchallenged. But spending all day in a familiar internet neighborhood is a waste. Sure, I occasionally discover a newsworthy item on a site where I am a regular, but it’s tough to miss a genuine news story online. I don’t care about specific events online. I’m interested in ideas, community and culture.

I recognize my weakness. I admit defeat. I’ve found the best strategy to keep out of an internet k-hole is to take frequent breaks. I set a timer and physically step away from all internet machines. Breaks help me understand the meaning of a specific URL, instead of getting sucked into just the act of internet browsing.

So, what do you do to make mental space by taking a brief internet break? I like to think of these activities as internet palate cleansers: quick and painless, yet powerful at strengthening attention:

— Really listening to music: When did you last listen fully to a song? Pick a bite-sized (3 minute or so) tune and try to pick out each instrument or vocal track. Pay complete attention as the song progresses, instead of relegating it to background noise.

— Stretching / getting up for a moment: We all know it’s a good practice to periodically step away from our desks, but it’s too easy to let this become a chore. Try to deeply enjoy the physical sensation of inhabiting your body — feel each joint flexing smoothly, breath deeply, soften your shoulders, jaw and eyes.

— Play with a pet: Working with an animal companion is a powerful way to remain mindful. Pets have a natural focus on the present they’re willing to share when you spend time with them.

— Exercise: Take a moment to build hand-eye coordination without a mouse. Swing by your office’s lonely ping-pong table, or commandeer the scooter your colleague keeps by their desk.

— Send a nice note to a friend or introduce two friends: You know a lot of people who would benefit from an introduction or a quick note to brighten their day. At first brush, it might seem that you’d run out of people to contact, but I’ve discovered my list grows longer each time I make a focused effort to appreciate the friends in my life.

— Writing with pen and paper: Typing your thoughts on a computer seems to speed them up, faster and faster, while writing by hand slows one down, building deliberate focus. Don’t let the days insights pass you by — take a moment to put your thoughts into words and savor their meaning.

As knowledge workers, it’s strange we dedicate so much of our days to internet operating with so little discussion of how we consume content online. Your mind becomes filled quickly without a conscientious approach to browsing.

Insight, creativity, and productivity aren’t the result of endless input. They come from making mental space for calm and reflection. Sweep aside internet chum content before opening your mind to the best of what the net offers: new skills, personal connections, cross-cultural exchange and humorous pets. Set aside a moment for an internet palate cleanser.

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