Lenten web fast

Last year I observed a web fast during Lent. It was really successful, so I’m doing it again this year. I want to share a bit about my thinking.

Most people are familiar with the Lenten practice of forgoing luxuries or fasting. The purpose of this practice is penitence, and to prepare the mind for Easter through contemplation. It’s this second point that really resonates for me. My mind is full of a lot of garbage. I want to spend more time on reflection, but instead I’m tapping the “j” key, powering through long lists of stories debunking the same dumb Apple rumour. Or I’m reading something political that’s tweaked to provoke outrage. Or I’m stuffing yet another interesting tutorial into Instapaper, where it will languish until I declare Instapaper Bankruptcy.

Last year I set aside time I would usually spend on these things to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, and Do Nothing and Change Your Life by Rev Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading. Both were very powerful, and directly related to my desire to be more mindful in how I spent my time and mental energy.

This year I am spending time in my mindfulness meditation (I’m taking the Headspace training programme), and journalling. The other time I free up will be spent blogging, and trying to make the most of my six-month membership in Learnable. It will actually be pretty challenging; I would describe mine as a “mind forever voyaging through strange seas of pointless kitten gifs alone”.” At the end, though, I know I will find it profoundly energizing.

The tools

The most important part of this is Mindful Browsing for Safari. This is an extension that allows you to add sites to a block list. When you visit a site on your list you first see a message telling you that you have chosen to block the site. After a configurable number of seconds (I’ve chosen 15), you have the option of continuing to the site. For me, this short-circuits the habit I have of popping to the offending sites whilst waiting for huge Photoshop file to open, or a git push or file transfer to complete.

I have a Concentrate license that I was going to try to use for this. Unfortunately Concentrate can only block entire domains (blocking happens with ipfw), which means that to block Google Reader, I’d have to block everything Google.

I really wish I could find a good, solid whitelisting tool that worked system wide. I have a Little Snitch license, I may try that.

The rules

Google Reader – This is the main offender, and it’s gone from Monday to Saturday inclusive. Instead, I’ve picked a few sites to visit once a day for important stuff. Important does not include Apple rumours, gadgets, indie games, or Cheezburgers.

Social Networking – I don’t visit Facebook or Twitter very often. Instead I interact through the Mac and iPhone’s built-in connections, and a fantastic summary service called NutShell Mail. I’ve suspended NutShell Mail.

Last year I had access to a thrice-a-day summary mail called Summify, but Summify is dead after Twitter bought it. I haven’t replaced it with anything.

I am allowing myself some access to social networking. If I receive a message, I can reply to it. I have some clients who contact me regularly through FB and Twitter, and I don’t want to go dark on them. I can also wish friends happy birthday on FB. That’s it.

Political sites – these need to go anyway. They’re information light, and manipulative. No access at all. I can read the front page of the Star, or the Toronto region page on the CBC.

As I mentioned before, I found this a really profound experience. Six weeks of not being able to indulge in mindless distraction had a very dramatic impact on my state of mind. I was actually happier, and felt more peaceful, and my ability to focus improved. You don’t have to be religious to give this a shot. I’d encourage everyone to set their own parameters for a web fast. When you’re done, hit me up on Twitter or App.net and let me know how it went.