I recently returned from seven solid days of vacation at a cabin on a lake in Northern Idaho.  It was also a vacation from work, home, and the internet.  I brought my computer along in case I was inspired to write or had an emergency the internet could solve, but after a few days had no desire to turn it on.  Being completely disconnected for a week was great.  If it sounds scary, try it.

I like activities like this because they give perspective, re-clarify where I’m going, and provide quality time with people that are important to me.   There were a number of great opportunities to talk, read books, journal, and simply “be.”  At times the “being” part was uncomfortable because so much of my regular work and life is focused on rapidly consuming electronic information and responding to it.  There was a noticeable shift after three days.

One realization I had was how much time I unintentionally give to the internet–a lot easier to see when you don’t have it.  I see a lot of empty time going there, usually in a little chunks, and often as a procrastination technique.  Ten minutes here, five minutes there, and fifteen minutes there.  Added up over the course of a day or a week and it can amount to a lot of time.  I wondered how possible it would be to re-channel those blocks of time to more meaningful things.

The other night I was planning to to be in bed at a reasonable hour so my routine 5:30 AM wake-up wouldn’t be so painful.  I knew I shouldn’t have gone to Google Reader when I did, but I rationalized that “five minutes wouldn’t be a big deal.”  Forty minutes later I had wandered down a number of different rabbit trails–all interesting, and all telling me something I didn’t know before, and yet none of them contributed to my current goals except a funny YouTube video I used for a blog post.

Earlier the same evening my wife had Facebook open as I walked by.  I noticed that one of my friends had become her “friend” on Facebook and there were links to his kids whom I hadn’t seen in a long time.  So I stopped “for a minute” to look at them.  Twenty minutes later we had clicked through to all kinds of different people and I saw the Facebook time sink others have described.  I’ve had the same experience on LinkedIn, but Facebook seemed to do an extra could job of presenting “next things” to click on.  Maybe that is why some people think it is the internet.

This isn’t to say there can’t and shouldn’t be time to relax, play and wander on the internet–lots of good things can come of out that too.  Yet when there are no boundaries around this “wandering,” the grand sum of time ends up spent in ways I wished I’d used for other things.  Chris Brogan suggests setting a timer when using Twitter.  Depending on the situation, that might not be a bad idea for other internet activities too.

Image by ShamballaLady will be back soon via flickr used under a Creative Commons license.