It’s Not About Quitting The Internet

When I first found /r/NoSurf we had about 4,500 members. I wondered why the number was so low when nearly everyone I knew in real life seemed to be hooked on the internet. Whether through Instagram, YouTube, news, or video games.

After talking to some people on reddit I realize that the impression people had was that NoSurf meant quitting the internet. Much of this impression comes from the fact that other popular online movements which append a”No” in front of something, advocate completely eliminating that thing from your life.

I want to clarify that NoSurf doesn’t mean eliminating internet use altogether but only negative types of internet use.

Here are a few examples of negative internet use:

Mindless browsing:

  • We watch video after video on YouTube or go on endless Netflix binges.
  • Before going to bed we open up Instagram or Imgur and scroll through endless pictures
  • We skim through the latest articles without really reading any of them.

Mindless browsing means that we use the internet without really thinking why we’re doing so. We don’t really have a clear reason or purpose for that behavior. This is a very dopamine driven activity that leaves us with vacant or zombie like expressions. We usually snap out periods of mindless browsing feeling guilty and ashamed at wasting so much time and spending our day unproductively.

Escapism:

There are many situations in life that can create negative feelings.

  • Sometimes we’re home from college or on summer vacation very bored with nothing to do.
  • We might have just moved to a new city and be feeling very lonely.
  • We might be very stressed from work.
  • Depressed from a relationship ending.

The dopamine high we get from the internet becomes a way for us to temporarily numb these feelings. We use it as a way to escape. The problem is that once we step away from our screens we’re still reminded of our feelings.

Procrastination:

There are often some really hard tasks in front of us. Projects for work, problem sets for class, deadlines to meet. During these times when we’re stressed about what lays in front of us is paradoxically when we’ll use the internet to procrastinate most. We’ll read news articles online, check email, scroll through social media all to distract ourselves from the anxiety of the hard, stressful tasks in front of us. Procrastination is really just another form of escapism.

Random googling:

Sometimes we get the urge to randomly google things.

In our recent commitment thread /u/kodezen comments:
“My commitment: no googling random, non-essential things that come into my head while I’m working. If I remember something that’s truly important, I will write it down on a sticky note on my computer and look over the list of things to get done/look up online after my work is done. No more interrupting my focus and working in scatter-brain mode. “

to which /u/thevillaincassiopeia replies:

i do this too much! some random thing that pops up and I google and click click click until I get lost track of time and get absolutely nothing done for the day

Endless research:

We might get interested in learning to program. We spend hours researching the best programming language for beginners to learn, what books to read on the topics, and even trivial topics like what’s the best keyboard for programming. We end up spending very little time actually practicing and writing code.

The same applies everywhere. If we decided to start photography, we might research and compare every detail about what camera is best to start with. We read endless reviews by users and watch videos by “experts”. But we don’t actually end up taking any photographs.


These are just a few negative use cases of the internet I’ve observed in myself and others. If you have any specific ones of your own or think I missed a one just let me know.

Going Forward

When we start to recognize our negative use cases of the internet and focus on chipping away at them we slowly refine our internet use until only the good parts remain. We might fire open Yelp to find a great restaurant and then use Venmo to pay a friend for our meal. We can use Khan academy to brush up on our algebra or Stack Overflow when we’re stuck programming.

In this way, the internet becomes what it always meant to be. A powerful tool to make life better and easier. Not an endless hamster wheel of mindless distraction and shallow entertainment.

Exercise:

Start to identify and separate your internet use into different components or boxes. You can do this mentally or on a piece of paper. You can ask yourself a few simple questions:

Which websites and apps make my life better? Which ones are actually tools that solve problems in my life?

Which websites and apps do I actually need for my life? Which ones could I not have a career or be a student without?

Which websites and apps make my life worse? Which ones make me feel like I wasted or a lot of time? Which apps and websites make me feel shitty after using them?

NoSurf vs. Adderall

On the spectrum of motivation, there are two poles. On the left, there is a rat laying immobile. Food is right in front of him but he is unwilling, no unable, to reach out and grasp it. On the right, there is a college student sitting at a desk. He has been there for 10 hours. In that time, he has completed a 5,000 word essay, submitted five internship applications, and completed two problem sets. He has enjoyed himself the entire time.

The rat on the left is now long dead. He lived in the 1990’s and was one of the participants in an experiment conducted by Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist from the University of Michigan. The rat had his brain modified so that he would no longer produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter that creates the feelings of motivation to pursue a reward, the desire to work for something, and the feelings of enjoyment we experience in the pursuit of those rewards.

The student on the right was on a drug called Adderall. Upon taking the drug his brain was flooded with dopamine, causing him to feel extreme feelings of motivation and desire to accomplish things.

On the surface, Adderall seems like a miracle drug. If it has the capability to make us superhuman why don’t people take it all the time?

Because Adderall, like all drugs, causes the brain to respond to its effects. In response to repeated exposure to high levels of dopamine, our brains will become desensitized to its effects. This means over time, the student will have to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect. He’ll start with 10 milligrams, then have to take 20, and if he keeps abusing it, eventually have to take 30.

The student remains unaware of the hidden danger of Adderall. He is mostly concerned with the side effects while on the drug but he doesn’t know that it can affect him when he is off of it.

His brain is now so used to elevated levels of dopamine that it will no longer be able to experience his ordinary level of motivation, desire, and enjoyment. His baseline levels of motivation, desire, and enjoyment are now lower than they were before he took Adderall. He turned himself into superman only to experience the effects of kryptonite. On the spectrum of motivation he has now moved leftward, closer towards the rat.

The only hope he has is to stop taking the drug and patiently wait until his brain rewires back and regains its sensitivity to normal levels of dopamine. Over time, he can slowly move back up the spectrum to where he was initially. Only then will he be able to feel motivated and energized again.

Most of you reading this will have never taken Adderall. However, you may have still been desensitized to the effects of dopamine.

The Internet & Dopamine

“The dopamine driven feedback loops that we’ve created are destroying society”

– Former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya.

The Alexa ranking is a metric of the most popular websites in the world. You’ll see that social media and pornography sites rank towards the top. Video games run on native applications, so they weren’t tracked on this list. But I’m willing to bet that if they were ranked, they’d enjoy the same status as social media and pornography.

These platforms are so popular because they intentionally give their users steady hits of dopamine.

Sean Parker, the Founding President of Facebook, recently admitted that Facebook was engineered to cause addiction. In his own words:

“That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

And it’s not just social media either. Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind games like World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, used techniques used in casinos to design the loot boxes in their new hit game Overwatch. Which means the teens playing the game are experiencing the same dopamine high that keeps adult gamblers hooked and shelling out money.

Dopamine is such a crucial component for success on the internet that companies are popping up in Silicon Valley to write code, specifically designed to cause dopamine release in their client’s apps. One such company even calls itself Dopamine Labs! (now called Boundless AI) To their credit, they stated that they work with clients that have a positive focus like education or fitness and they have also created an app called Space which helps reduce the addictive aspects of social media.

But the fact remains that tech companies have now become Big Tobacco. Their profit model is one built on getting their users as addicted as possible.

Over time their methods can cause us to become mindless zombies, being jerked like puppets. Be honest, we’ve all hit a point where we’ve watched several YouTube videos back to back, or caught ourselves scrolling through our news feeds before snapping out of it wondering…why am I doing this? Why can’t I stop doing this?

Beyond the vacant drooling expression we wear while mindlessly scrolling there is the compulsive urge, the borderline itch to check something, anything for that quick hit of dopamine. The tense waiting period between posting something and checking back nervously to see how many likes or retweets it’s getting. The need to refresh email just to see if anything popped up…even though it’s 2 am.

This is exactly what Chamath is talking about when he says “Dopamine driven feedback loops”. We are driven to perform these behaviors and chase their corresponding rewards, not through our conscious choice but through the release of the same neurotransmitter that drives all addictive behaviors whether cigarettes or crack cocaine.

Unlike the student on Adderall, users of these sites and apps get their dopamine in a steady stream. But steady streams can erode through sheer rock if given enough time. Likewise, these seemingly innocuous platforms can and will cause the same dopamine desensitizing effects in your brain.

That means if you’re a heavy user of certain areas of the internet, you’re slowly becoming less and less sensitive to the effects of dopamine. Over time, on the spectrum of motivation, you’re moving towards the left—closer to the rat that can’t reach out to grasp food.

Of course, you’ll never get to that point. Your brain’s functioning is still intact. It just won’t be able to perform at peak capacity. You’ll see the effects show up subtly in your daily life. The consistent procrastination on the work that matters. The decision to binge watch Netflix, when you know there are more worthwhile things you could be doing with life. The feeling that simple pleasures in the real world are dull and boring in comparison to what’s on your screens.

We all have a conscious awareness that something is off. That we have so much potential to do things in life but for some reason, the motivation to start doing these things, and keep doing these things seems to escape us. Occasionally motivation rises and lights a fire inside us. But it quickly sputters out and dies. The electric power of it that seems to surge daily in others is not to be found within us.

Before blaming our genetics, we should bring our attention to the hours we have wasted on the hamster wheel of social media, video watching, pornography, and video games. We thought that these things were merely harmless wastes of time but now we know that they’re not. They’re slowly leeching the life out of us. Our habits are slowly eroding and ruining our ability to create motivation for life in the real world. The desire to pursue the partner of our dreams, to cook a healthy meal and work out, or to create a great work of art has faded from our minds.

Unlike the rat, we have hope. Our capacity to experience the effects of dopamine remains intact, giving us the opportunity to recover from our stupor. Through our own capacity for thought and action, we can move ourselves up the spectrum of motivation, past the normal version of ourselves and towards a state that transcends our preexisting notions of what we thought we were capable of. Towards all the hopes and dreams that we had hoped to achieve but never thought were possible. The rat never had a choice but we do. Do we stay on the wheel, or get off to seek rewards in the real world?

Notes:
  1. The rat study I mentioned came from Chapter 3: The Biology of Behavioral Addiction in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
  2. When I mention Adderall use in this post, I am specifically referring to illicit use of the drug by those without legitimately diagnosed ADHD.

12 Lessons From Beating Internet Addiction

1. You’ll need more than willpower

Willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The problem is that like muscles, willpower can become fatigued when overused.

Exams, deadlines, and the other realities of daily life can chip away at our willpower leaving nothing left for resisting the devices in our pockets.

On top of all this you have to fight against the army of neuroscientists, designers, and engineers in Silicon Valley who are designing these things to break down any remaining willpower you have left.

This means that relying on willpower alone is a recipe for failure. You need to have a system in place that takes some of the load off your conscious mind. By giving your willpower a break, you can let it rest and come back stronger.

2. The Internet Is Just As Addictive As Cigarettes Or Alcohol

The tiny pixels on your screen are changing the chemicals in your brain just like real drugs. Social media, pornography, and video games can cause cravings that are just as strong as what a smoker feels for a cigarette or an alcoholic feels for whiskey.

3. Don’t Do It Alone. You Need The Support Of Your Friends And Family.

You need to talk to the people you live with about your issues. Until you do this they’ll have no understanding of what you’re going through and won’t “get it.” They’ll ask questions like “Why don’t you just stop going on Facebook or YouTube?” When you explain, and they realize it’s a real problem, they’ll be a lot more empathetic and understanding. They’ll be more than willing to take on a little inconvenience to help you succeed.

4. You’ll Have To Give Up Things You Like

The only difference between people who become healthy and fit and people who stay fat is that the former are willing to give up the foods they like to achieve their goal. Likewise, there is no way to have the conveniences, freedom, and ability of modern internet if you aren’t willing to give up aspects of it that you enjoy. You’ll have to give up to gain.

5. NoSurf Is A Lifestyle

If you want your brain to rewire then there’s no going back. You can’t take a break from Instagram or SnapChat for a week or so. All the negative effects return almost the instant you log back in. This means you’ll have to fundamentally restructure how you live your life and how you derive enjoyment. You’ll have to start reading books instead of watching YouTube. You’ll have to go out of your comfort zone and build a real social life. It’s a long slow process but the rewards are worth it.

6. People Will Think You’re Crazy

When you show up with a flip phone or tell people that you don’t use social media they might think your weird, different, or a little crazy. Don’t let the opinions of others prevent you from taking steps to a better life.

7. We’re all addicts

We think of internet addicts as pale, virgin, neckbeards but this stereotype no longer holds true. The internet has become so widely adopted that addiction to it affects nearly every segment of society.

I’ve always been an outgoing guy with good social skills. When I was at home though, I was always glued to my screen.

My best friend is a classic “Type A” guy who went to an Ivy League school and works on Wall Street. When we went on vacation, I saw him inside scrolling through his emails. I saw him wake up in the middle of the night to check his iPhone.

One of the most beautiful, popular girls I know confessed to me that she once took 74 selfies before posting it on Instagram. She said after finally posting it, she constantly felt the need to check how many likes it was getting.

These are the new addicts.

8. Software Helps. Use It.

Smokers have nicotine patches. We have web blockers. Use them wisely and they can really ease the burden of quitting. I recommend Cold Turkey.

9. Social Media Is The New Cigarette

In the 1960’s people smoked everywhere. In hospitals. In restaurants. At work. No one knew how bad it was for them. 50 years later we’ve all started using social media in the same absent minded fashion. We never paused to ask ourselves the question that smokers should have: Could this be bad for us?

10. Leave Your House

We do most of our mindless browsing when we’re at home. This trains our brain to associate our home with the rewards from browsing. As a consequence, we’ll start to release dopamine when we’re at home and find it much harder to kick our habit.

One way to battle back is to leave the house. Go to a coffee shop or a public library whenever you can.

11. There’s No One Size Fits All Solution

The internet is used by over a billion people. College kids, teachers, programmers, and a hundred other categories of people rely on it daily. Every one of these people has their own lifestyle and set of use cases for the internet. What works for someone else won’t work for you. You’ll have to be smart, patient, and creative in designing your own personal strategy.

12. You Don’t Have To Cut Your Internet Or Give Up Your Smartphone (But It Definitely Helps)

If you want to cut internet at home and switch to a flip phone go for it. It’ll make your journey a lot easier. However, don’t believe that if you can’t take such drastic measures that it means you can’t overcome your internet addiction. It will be harder but you can still win.

The NoSurf Smartphone Guide

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The NoSurf Smartphone Guide is a way to set up your phone so that you have all the essential conveniences of modern life such as Google Maps, Uber, Venmo etc. while reducing or eliminating the effects of addictive time sinks and mindless distractions such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. The methods outlined in this post have helped me cut my smartphone phone time by more than half, from an average of 3-4 hours a day down to about 1.5 hours a day.

I’ve divided this post into two parts. Part 1 is for those who want to adopt a mindfulness based approach to smart phone use. Part 2 is for those who would like to go completely minimalist with their use.

The steps in part 1 mainly focus on eliminating triggers and making your phone easier to moderate.

Part 2 will allow you to flat out block anything on your phone that you don’t want to have access to. It allows you to design a system which creates constraints on your devices so that all your use is positive use. Once you set up the system, you’ll never have to try and moderate yourself again, the system does the work for you.

Part 1

Step 1: Track Your Time

I recommend getting some baseline statistics on how much time you spend on your phone and how many times you unlock it. When you implement the later steps, you should see these numbers start to go down. Once they’re at a normal level, you can let these apps run in the background and check in every once in a while to see that you’re on track.

Step 2: Do Not Disturb

Every iPhone and most new Android devices come with do not disturb mode. Do not disturb mode allows you to set up a schedule where notifications are automatically silenced. You can configure it so that the people in your life who are important, family, significant others etc. can reach you.

  • For iPhone got to Settings then General then Do Not Disturb Mode
  • Set it to run via schedule
  • Turn allow second calls from the same caller off
  • Add contacts who should be allowed to reach you
  • Set it to turn on automatically while driving
  • Turn it on manually when working

On Android the process will be similar but will vary depending on which phone you have

Step 3: Set up NightShift or install Twilight

The better you sleep the more willpower you have. So you definitely don’t want your smartphone emitting melatonin blocking blue light at night.

  • On iPhone go to Settings then General then turn on Night Shift
  • Android: Install Twilight

Step 4: Stop Syncing Email & Set A Schedule

Most of the mail you get on a daily basis is completely meaningless. Cut down on the “busy work” and get back to real work.

  • On iPhone, change your email settings from Push to Fetch
  • On Android, turn off Account Syncing

These steps ensure that you have to manually refresh to check email. This tiny amount of effort slowly reduces total number of email checks everyday and ensures that you’ll check when you really need to.

Also consider abandoning email on the phone altogether and using a service like Inbox When Ready. This allows you to batch your emails so that they’re all delivered at a specific interval, like once every hour.

Step 5: Go Gray

Our brains love bright and shiny things. By turning your screen to black and white you make your phone boring.

iPhone:

  • Enter Settings then General then Accessibility
  • Select Display Accommodations then set Color Filters to Off
  • Go back to Accessibility and scroll all the way down to Accessibility Shortcut. Select Color Filters
  • Now by tapping the home button three times you can toggle grayscale on and off.

Android:

  • Enter Settings then scroll down to the bottom and select About Phone
  • Press Build Number 7 times
  • This should enable Developer Mode
  • Return to Settings and scroll down to the newly enabled Developer Options
  • Select Hardware Accelerated Rendering then Monochromacy

Step 6: Group Chats

Group chats are a great way to stay in touch with friends. They’re also really easy ways to get sucked into meaningless discussions.

  • Keep them on silent
  • Turn off notifications except for direct mentions with the “@” symbol.

Step 7: Manually Turn Off Notifications & Eliminate The Visual Cue

Notifications aren’t just harmless annoyances to swipe away. They’re how companies train you to use their app. You definitely want to eliminate all notifications from social media apps if you insist on using them.

Note: optimal notification settings will vary based on app. For some apps I turn off all notifications. For others, I selectively turn on some notifications and others off.

  • Go into iPhone and Android notifications settings and turn off notifications for individual apps
  • On iPhone, open Settings then select Notifications.
  • Turn off “banner” notifications, the ones that pop up while you’re in another app.
  • For some apps, consider turning off the badge icons, the red notifications on the corner of apps are a powerful trigger.
  • Move apps into a folder far away
  • Put your phone somewhere you can’t see or reach easily

Part 2

The advice in the previous sections are for people who want to maintain some level of connection. If you want to take a bit more minimalist approach and really cut down on screen time I recommend doing the following. It prevents you from engaging in ANY and ALL mindless browsing.

Step 8: Identify Tools, Delete Distractions

There a few apps that make life easier or solve a problem. Then there apps that cause mindless browsing and compulsive checking. Keep the former and delete the latter.
Install tools like:

  • Google Maps
  • Uber
  • Yelp
  • HeadSpace
  • Banking App

Delete or disable:

  • Social Media
  • Games
  • Web Browsers
  • News Apps
  • Video Streaming Apps

Step 9: Lock Yourself Out With Software

Lock yourself out so that even if you are tempted you can’t access the apps you know you shouldn’t be using.
Prerequisite: You need a friend to set a PIN or passcode for you and then write it down somewhere they won’t forget. You’ll need to get back in your phone occasionally to update your apps or install new ones.

iPhone

  • Go to Settings then General then Restrictions
  • Get friend to enter PIN and save it
  • Disable Safari, News, Apple News, and the App Store
  • Also disable anything else you want to

Android

  • Install AppLock by DoMobileLab
  • Enter the app and set an unlock pattern when prompted
  • Once inside select “Advanced Protection” to install
  • Enter settings again and change from an unlock pattern to a numeric password
  • Have your friend enter the password
  • Lock Chrome, Google System, YouTube etc. (Only 5 locks for free version)

Step 10: Lock Yourself Out With Hardware

This is my kSafe. It’s a cool little device that let’s me lock up my smartphone when I need a break. All you do is turn the dial to set a time. Then place your phone in and hit lock. The kSafe will now lock up your device until the timer runs out. It’s meant for use with junk food but I found it works just as well for smartphones. It’s a bit pricey but if you’re a student or a professional it’ll pay for itself in less than a week.

Hope you guys found these tips useful. Also feel free to share any tips you guys have too!

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