How A Tech Breakdown Helped Me Reboot My Life

It’s Day Five of my internet vacation, and I feel like I’m slowly getting my life back.

Like many life-altering experiences, this one wasn’t undertaken voluntarily; it was foisted upon me by torrential rain that flooded the local telephone exchange, cutting off our phone line and, with it, my access to the World Wide Web.

Having spent the first few days railing and cursing, I eventually began to embrace the experience: for the time, energy and mental space it has freed up have had uncountable positive ripple-effects which I relate below.

Monday: After several hours’ internet-outage, I call the phone company in a state of extreme agitation. The operator assures me someone will come in the next 48 hours to fix the problem.

“48 hours?!” I screech. “This is absolutely terrible — I can’t do anything without the internet!”

My 15 year old is in shock too. He’s just got back from school and wants to chat with his Facebook friends and play an online game. His face turns ashen as I tell him there’s no internet.

“They’re working on it, right?” he keeps asking, checking the line every half hour for signs of life.

Meanwhile, I rack my brain about how I’m going to get documents to a client that I had promised for Wednesday morning. I also need to find a recipe, check directions, answer emails and buy a book. It feels as though my life has been put on hold.

Tuesday: My son sends me a text message from school: “Is the internet back up?” Afraid not.

I call my client and we agree that we I will print the documents and drop them off at her kids’ school, which is on my morning route. Surprisingly simple, really.

I still fret about all the work that isn’t getting done. But, realizing that fretting won’t help, I take a walk through nearby fields and even stop to meditate for 10 minutes. I return relaxed and somewhat cheerier. Back in my home office, however, I still feel rudderless and fustrated.

It occurs to me that I can check emails on my cell phone, though I quickly discover that this isn’t as gratifying as reading them on a computer screen, complete with links to seduce me into hours of web surfing. Smart-phone email is workmanlike and uninspiring; it gets the job done, but there’s little incentive to linger.

Come bedtime, there’s no temptation to surf into the wee hours and then toss and turn in bed as I digest the factoids I have just gleaned. I surprise myself by going to bed at a ridiculously early 10 pm, and sleep better than I have in months. The next morning, I feel unusually refreshed.

Wednesday : A phone repairman shows up. After poking about the wires he concludes that there is indeed a fault, but that he’s not the man for the job; a colleague will come the next day. My heart sinks further as I realize a third day of lost productivity lies ahead.

My son’s text messages from school are increasingly desperate: “Inet?” he inquires. Alas, no.

Back from school, he goes to the neighbors’ house to ask whether we can “piggy-back” off their internet connection. They get chatting about my son’s other passion: guitars. The neighbor, who collects high-end electric guitars, lends my son his finest Gibson to help him while away the hours of boredom caused by internet-deprivation. He returns home, beaming, plugs the guitar into his amplifier and strums up a storm; internet forgotten for a while.

Thursday: A different technician arrives. More poking; he tells me the problem lies in a flooded telephone exchange three miles down the road that needs to be drained; alas, a pump cannot be obtained until the next day.

At this point I’m past caring. I trudge back into my study and catch up on long-overdue filing and reading, uninterrupted by the “pings” of incoming emails and the half-hourly Facebook itch. Without constant internet distractions, I can focus more clearly and get more done.

One problem remains: I have scheduled a Skype call I cannot miss. What to do? I call a friend who lives nearby and ask if I might use his internet connection. He welcomes me warmly, sets me up and the call goes through smoothly. Afterwards, we sit on his sunny terrace, share a cup of tea and shoot the breeze; something neither of us would ordinarily make the time to do.

What does any of this have to do with cancer prevention, you may well ask? Quite a lot, I believe.

For while the internet offers a wealth of information, entertainment and support, it can become a curse, fragmenting our attention, distracting us from real-life relationships, and keeping us “switched-on” 24/7. And as research is increasingly suggesting, stress, poor-quality sleep, insufficient physical activity, and a feeling that we lack control over our lives may all increase our cancer risks. Conversely, a sense of connectedness with others and of control over our lives, joyful movement and calm mindfulness may bolster our physical defenses against disease.

These factors can even have nutritional implications, for when we’re stressed, rushed or tired we’re more likely to make unwise food choices that provide an environment in which cancer cells flourish. If, on the other hand, we can take time to plan meals, shop for and prepare healthy food, and enjoy delicious home-cooked meals — ideally with people whose company we enjoy — this can boost our overall health and well-being.

Friday: I’m back online; the fault has been repaired. As I watch 329 pent-up emails flooding my inbox, I realise my internet vacation is over. I also notice how few of these emails seem important. Turns out, I didn’t miss much these past five days.

Looking back over the week, I realize I need to change the way I use the internet. Of course I’m not going to swear off the web altogether; I need it to communicate with clients, to research and write, to stay in touch with family and friends, to keep up with news and views and to buy plane tickets and birthday presents.

But I do need to stop it running my life.

One way to do this – as suggested in this excellent article in the Harvard Business Review – might be to schedule specific times of day to check emails (plus Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and taking “mini-vacations” from these feeds during the intervening hours.

But can I muster the discipline? As with all unhealthy temptations – be they email-checking, sugary snacks or cigarettes – old habits can die hard and potential pretexts for digressions abound.

“The hardest part is resisting the temptation to check during your off-email hours,” writes the HBR article’s author, Peter Bregman. “My advice? When you have the urge to check your email, check yourself instead. What’s going on for you? What are you feeling? Take a deep breath and relax into an undistracted moment.”

Excellent advice that I am keen to apply. Though considering that I’m writing this post at 8 pm on a Friday, I may still have quite a way to go…