The Internet, Your Brain, Your Writerly Self

PhotobucketI listened with great interest to an NPR radio show recently called ‘The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online. I highly recommend the 7-minute program, as the author of The Shallows, Nicholas Carr, warns us of something I think we all need to hear. As much as we’re online–for research, for platform building, for visiting our favorite blogs (koff), for promotion of our work–we need to spend time offline too. A lot of time. Let’s put that on its own line because it’s important.

We need to spend a lot of time offline. Alone with our thoughts. Steeped in life.

Because if we don’t our brains may very well adapt to the zing and zang, the slam and bam world of the Internet, where information is processed quickly, links are readily available, and interruption is king, and forget how to think deeply. Lose the ability to concentrate on one thing and one thing only, to be contemplative. And if we do, won’t that hinder our ability to create thoughtful works?

Said Robert Siegel, host of NPR’s All Things Considered:

(The Internet) is changing the way we read and conditioning us against the very activities we associate with the acquisition of wisdom: deep reading, solitary concentration.

Nicholas Carr expanded on this thesis in the interview, citing his own problems after spending too much time online:

A few years ago I found I was losing my ability to concentrate. I’d sit down with a book or a long article, and after a couple of pages my brain wanted to do what it does when I’m online: check email, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page. That got me looking into what was going on and looking into the science of the brain, and how important it is to be able to pay attention.

It’s an addiction to technology that can change the way our brains process information, literally, at the cellular level, because our brains our malleable, adapting to whatever they’re exposed to. We need them to concentrate only for five minutes at a time? To richochet from email to Internet to Facebook to Twitter and back again? They will deliver. That’s what brains do.

Said Carr of the web habit:

It follows us even after we turn off our computers. So the more time we spend surfing and skimming and scanning online, and multitasking and processing lots of interruptions, the more adept we become at that mode of thinking. But at the same time, we begin to lose the capability to pay attention, to concentrate, to be contemplative and introspective.

Scary, yes, but here’s what hit home with me.

If you look at a lot of recent research on multitasking, it shows that in fact as people optimize their ability to multitask online, they become less creative in their thinking.

Less creative. Ouch.

Does this mean you should turn off the computer, invest in a nice old-fashioned typewriter? No, but it’s probably smart to keep tabs on how much of your time is going to high-speed activities every day compared to how much of your day is dedicated to the slower gears.

Set your limits. How much time can we spend online, interacting with the world of the Internet, without risking our ability to concentrate and be creative? The answer is probably an individual thing, though Carr suggests spending more time in contemplative mode than in online mode.

“If in fact we spend an hour or two online or sending text messages and then shut that off and spent three hours reading Moby Dick, that would be one thing,” he said. “I think the brain is very adept at doing both of those things.”

Know yourself. How do you work best on a daily basis?

I’ve noticed that I set the tone for a good creative day when I begin at my kitchen table, with whatever I last wrote staring up at me, a pencil in hand. I make notes, let the story take up residence in my head. Only after that ritual is over, do I turn on the computer. I can check email then, do my momma duties with WU, approve comments, Tweet a little. And then I can open up my Word document and work. I can toggle back and forth between my work and Twitter throughout the day, check in on the blog, too, but the wip is foremost in my mind. For me, starting the day off on the proverbial right foot is key to keeping technology in its place.

Aim for quality, not just quantity. One of the best posts I’ve read online lately was at Zen Habits, called The No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People. “Creativity flourishes in solitude,” wrote blogger Leo Babauta. “With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.”

Seems obvious, right? Be alone with your thoughts in order to create your best story. But how often are you alone, without interruptions? And how often do you use that time for deep, creative contemplation? Consider how your quiet time compares with your offline/not-so-quiet time as well as your online time.

Recognize a problem. If you’ve noticed an upswing in your inattention and think it might be linked to your technology time, try taking a step away from it for a while. Sink into a good book. Write with a notebook and pencil in a park. Meditate if you like. Then, when you’re ready, establish new daily habits for better balance.

That’s the key: balance. Know Yourself. Set limits. Protect your mind. Protect your creative spirit.

What sets you up for your best writing days? How does technology fit into those days? What is balance to you?

Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Migraine Chick


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    This doesn’t surprise me in the least. The scariest aspect is that some kids are growing up so attuned to the instant response of electronic media that they may be losing the ability to think deeply and analytically, to take TIME to ponder, to reason, to let ideas brew in their imaginations …

    On a more personal level, this suggests to me that I should revert to a simple trick I’ve employed to effect before – switching off the modem for several hours in the middle of the day so I can’t check email or flip over to Facebook when I’m supposed to be writing.

  2. says

    When I’m writing, I like to just write and not toggle between e-mail, google, Twitter, etc. To that end, I always ENJOY most those sessions where I don’t have access to the internet. At home, where I usually write, it is a little harder for me to ignore the call of the internet for a couple hours. But the days that I do, are always my best writing days.

    I’ve also learned though that I do my best brainstorming offline. So when I am stuck, I know it’s time to get out the notebook and off the laptop.

  3. says


    My writing days begin each morning (except on weekends) around 3:00 a.m. with a strong cup of Vietnamese coffee in hand. I am at my computer. I check my emails, a few blogs, my website, Twitter, and the news. I respond to a few emails. Then I turn to my work in progress and begin my writing. As you wrote: For me, starting the day off on the proverbial right foot is key to keeping technology in its place.

    It’s usually when I am stuck in my writing when I toggle between the Internet and my work in progress. The Internet is addictive, and I am trying to cut back my time on it. I continue my search for balance.


  4. says

    Theresa, it’s like you are reading my over-multi-tasked mind! Thanks so much for a great round-up and suggestions. I am currently work to write my own “manifesto” for using social media. You’ve helped tremendously.
    ~ Lisa

  5. says

    I *definitely* notice a difference when I’m not online (like I was this weekend — maybe an hour each day, vs. the constant connectivity during the week). I’m happier, more relaxed, and more able to focus. So I need to bring that into my regular work week somehow. I’ve made a start, but I’m looking forward to getting even better at it, and thus getting even more balanced and productive. :)

  6. says

    This is such a great, great post and something I totally needed to hear. I have a toddler and a (teething) baby in my house, and blocks of interruption free, silent time are RARE. But because I’m set on ‘constant interruption’ mode, it’s horribly easy for me to interrupt MYSELF when I do get time by checking e-mail, blogs, etc. etc. until I realize an hour of my ‘writing’ time has gone by and I’ve not written a word.

  7. says

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’ve seen other bloggers post about similar topics recently, too.

    I definitely have a short attention span. And I’m definitely a part of the ‘technology generation’ – my addiction to the internet started when I was about 13 and spent hours on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer forum!

    I think there is a lot of truth in Nicholas Carr’s theory. I can see how much the distraction of the internet has had on my education. And now in my working life too (I’m sitting at my desk at the end of a working day writing this).

    Definitely something to be aware of, I think.

  8. says

    This issue is exactly why I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone. Until I purchased it, no matter how undisciplined I was at home, I could be sure of finding my grounding again on my walks. But, oh, the temptation to just check e-mail when I change the song I’m listening to…

    This sounds terribly wasteful, but necessary: I have a pay-and-talk phone for my coffee-shop writing or walks. My laptop does not have Internet access. There *are* solutions, but the first step is to take the time away in order to notice you’re not taking the time away.

  9. says

    Ugh, this is hitting home. I do find that I need a “hit” after about 20 minutes. Maybe a cold-turkey approach (my upcoming beach vacay, yo!) to get my brain off the junk is what’s needed.

  10. says

    Interestingly, when I began my days working on my WIP for several hours, I was able to focus on other tasks for the rest of the day and get lots done in all areas of my life.

    Since my WIP has been marinating “in the box” for a couple of months, I begin my day on the internet and I’ve had no focus whatsoever. This time when I thought I’d get all sorts of other tasks accomplished–writing and otherwise–has been ridiculously nonproductive.

    The WIP comes out of the box next week (yay!), and I’ll go back to spending hours per day on a single endeavor. While I’m most excited to work on it for its own sake, I’m tangentially curious to see if my productivity picks up in other areas of my life as well.

    I love the internet, but there’s something to be said for turning it off sometimes.

  11. says

    This is why I was so bummed when Starbucks announced that they are going to begin providing free wifi in their stores. Up to now (or whenever this will be implemented), you had to pay for the service through the provider. I specifically went to Starbucks so I wouldn’t be tempted by the free wifi at other cafes! Not that I wrote that much at Starbucks anyway, but still…

    Since I began writing on an eight-year-old desktop computer without Internet capability in a small, secluded room on the second floor of my house, I have found that I enjoy writing more. I love to escape to my room and have no distractions. (I even made the clock at the bottom-right of the screen disappear so I don’t sit and obsess about how much more time I have or how much time I’ve wasted just staring out the window.) If I don’t spend at least some time there during the day (or night, if necessary), I feel a little lost.

  12. says

    This was a very timely post for me. I’ve been very frustrated at the passing of an entire month in which I’ve finished nothing that I’d hoped. Now it’s time to go back to the day job and I was despairing that I will never have the chance to work on my projects. However, almost every day I’ve realized I’ve been on the internet all day with nothing to show for it. I’m going to try some of your suggestions and see if that doesn’t help the situation.

  13. says

    Don’t just avoid the Internet, cut off the music, the phone, etc. All this is a filter to the real world and other people in the flesh, and a massive amount of static between you and your writing.

    Younger people think they can do everything well with all the multi-tasking and multimedia going on at the same time, but they can’t. Friends who teach are seeing the effect on their students who can’t hold an idea for two paragraphs, and studies are starting to appear saying the same thing.

  14. says

    So many good points about the impact of focusing too long at the various online tools so readily available.
    It seems to me that it is an ongoing concern, one that bears monitoring.

  15. says

    Wow — great timing with this! I just did a post today on how I’m experiencing “Reader Burn-Out,” and I can see how this could be directly related to my recent up-swing in all things internet. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to affect my writing time, but I do miss my books…

  16. says

    Yes! To be honest, I don’t think it’s just that we need to spend time away from our computers; I think it’s that we need to spend time engaging in life so that we have something to write about. We can’t recharge our creative energies if we’re cooped up all day, either in a manuscript or on the Internet.

    (Note: I’m not advocating not working on your manuscript! I just think it’s important to take breaks once in a while. It’s very important to be diligent about writing as well, but it can be draining if you do it 24/7 and never have time around real people or environments to stimulate you.)

  17. says

    How sad is it that this very article stayed open on my computer for the entire day while I kept coming back to it throughout the day. I couldn’t focus long enough to finish this ONE article until nearly 11 p.m. I’ll log off on this note and maybe not log on first thing in the morning …

  18. says

    Therese —
    You said it. (Or you and David Carr said it, or was it David Carr? That was several lines up and now I’m not sure because I was on the phone while I was reading…).
    I feel everything you describe.
    Ouch is the word.
    Thanks for the good advice.

  19. says

    Of all the comments here, Kristin’s and Juliet’s hit home for me. Life is the most important thing, for how can you write an engaging novel if you don’t engage with life? And solitude, be it through meditation or walking the dogs or just plain quiet time, is amazing for generating deep-seated thought processing.

  20. says

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone.

    Juliet, Christina and Jan, you tapped into something I’ve been thinking about too: We have to set ourselves up for success. Unplug the Internet ahead of time, refuse to carry the phone that beeps us whenever someone sends us an email or a Tweet, work on the computer that doesn’t have Internet access, etc… I apply this rule to my life all of the time when it comes to grocery shopping. I am smart at the store, because if I have a bag of chips on the kitchen counter, I will eat them. I think this situation is a little like that, too.

  21. says

    I think if I can think about the internet as a tool (and as a writer of historical fiction, I use it A LOT while I’m writing) rather than a social outlet or something to do, things go a lot better.

    I write with five kids in the house or not at all, so ‘Multi-tasking R Us’, but at the same time, I don’t have to check my email every 10 minutes on top of everything else. The days go better when I fire up the manuscript first thing and tell myself to check email later. Unlike today, when I allowed myself one small peek and look what happened . . .

  22. says

    While I absolutely agree that our current brain connections grow more spastic and unfocused and I myself will lose certain threads that I am working on as I click from tab to tab, I do think that worry that our brains are changing for the worst is misguided and the doom and gloom from Nicholas Carr is silly. Yes, our brains are changing as we learn how to quickly filter a horde of internet trash to find the useful bits, but our Brains are incredibly powerful organs and adaptable, which is why our evolution as humans make us such an oddity as a creature.

    Children today will learn much faster than we did (if we ever do completely) how to turn it on and off, how to be creative with the constant flow of information still coming at them, how to be relaxed and focused while the white noise grows louder. These are skills they will learn.

    Do you know that most parents/teachers/mentors can’t actually prepare children for the jobs that will be available in the future. We have no idea what those will be, because they don’t exist yet. All we can do is teach them what we know and then support them as the learn more and more quickly than we ever will.

  23. says

    Holy hot cakes. I REALLY needed to read this. My attention span has become truly horrific lately. I think it’s because when it’s slow at work, I just mindlessly surf. GAH.

  24. says

    Although I haven’t read Carr’s book yet, I absolutely agree with what I have learned of his ideas and with the points made in Therese’s post. Yes, the Internet is a useful tool, but like all tools, it’s only helpful if used purposefully. Writers have always struggled with procrastination, but when we procrastinate by doing something physical (washing the dishes, petting the cat) our minds are free to mull over whatever we’re working on. The Internet claims the same verbal parts of our brains that we need for our writing, often exhausting them so that we no longer have the energy and focus we need in order to write. Setting limits to Internet use is key for anyone who wants to do creative work.

  25. says

    For me, being productive means leaving giant vats of time to wander through my own mind, through six or seven books all on the same subject, sitting in my backyard, letting things brew.

    It means staying away from the Internet until after lunch, and I’m trying hard to give up my iPhone habit (“I’ll just take a quick look”) because it does disturb the deep flow of book stuff. I really cannot let the world in before I work. I need to be as close as possible to the subconscious, unguarded, dream state, and I really don’t want to think about business or publishing or other opinions before I tackle my work.

    It’s hard, but for me, it’s worth it to keep the Internet and all that implies to a very, very small part of my day. Life is where the material is, so the more I’m living, the more I have to write about.

  26. says

    Thank you for this post. I thought it was me, losing my concentration! I am going to set limits on my computer time instead of being on and off it all day.

  27. says

    Thanks for sharing this! What a great wake-up call for me! I try to write first thing in the morning while the kids are sleeping or at least still in their groggy, unneedy state. Then I catch myself checking Twitter, (Oh, who else is writing right now?), then I will post that I am writing. There goes fifteen minutes with my open manuscript and no words written. I DO save a lot of tweets and their links on Instapaper so I can go back and read when I have more time. At night, after kids go to bed, I try to wrap up my writing and use that time to read blog posts. Then I will read a couple of chapters before my eyes surrender. I dream about long days of doing nothing but writing and reading. I think I will try to make it more of a reality. Thanks again for sharing!