Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

My Life Offline

Everyone wants to know how my month offline was. They ask it casually, like “How’s work going?” or “What’d you do this weekend?” But it’s not a casual question. It was a huge, incredible, transformative experience. Those 30 days felt like six months. My habits changed, my relationships changed, my identity changed, my personality changed — hell, the physical shape of my body changed dramatically. I went through four legal pads trying to describe what it was like. I’m still not sure I really know.

One thing is clear, though: my normal life style isn’t healthy. This doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that requires a break to learn. I imagine people with unhealthy lifestyles know they’re unhealthy. They come home after work and say “I can’t go on like this,” they cry randomly in elevators. But I didn’t know. Life online is practically the only life I know. Sure, I guess things were different when I was very young — I remember, after getting my first email account, wishing someone would email me so I’d have an email to answer (even then I knew I’d soon be missing those empty-inbox days) — but for most of my life, this has been it: a jumble of interruptions and requests and jobs and people, largely carried out alone. It never let up, so I never saw anything different. How was I to know there was anything wrong?

But the last few weeks have made it clear there was — is. These weeks haven’t felt that different my other weeks online, really — same jumble of work and people and interruptions as always. The usual sense that I’m never really here, I’m always worried about the million things around the corner: a todo list that goes for pages, a thousand emails to respond to, hundreds of blog posts to read, twenty open tabs, a dozen IM windows, a text message to answer, a Twitter stream to catch up on. I never used to think about these things as a benefit or a distraction — I didn’t think about them at all; they were just how life online was. This was the era of multitasking and I was its child. If I felt anything about it, it was pride — a kind of joy in (mostly) managing to handle a thousand different things thrown my way at once. But I never knew what life was like when things weren’t constantly being thrown at you. Until it stopped, I never knew how awful it really was.

I am not happy. I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person: a misanthrope, prone to mood swings and eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pajamas, too shy and sad to step outside. But that’s not how I was offline. I loved people — everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street. And I loved to go for walks and exercise in the gym and — even though there was no one around to see me — groom. Yes, groom: shower and shave and put on nice clothes and comb my hair and clean up my nails and so on, all things a month ago I would have said went against my very nature, things I never did before voluntarily.

But most of all, I felt not just happy, but firmly happy — solid, is the best way I can put it. I felt like I was in control of my life instead of the other way around, like its challenges just bounced off me as I kept doing what I wanted. Normally I feel buffeted by events, a thousand tiny distractions nagging at the back of my head at all times. Offline, I felt in control of my own destiny. I felt, yes, serene.

When I was very young, my parents introduced me to a book called Flow. It argued that people good at their jobs went into a sort of flow state — they were “in the zone” — where the normal stress of the world faded away and all their concentration was focused on the task at hand. It wasn’t “fun” the way ice cream or sex is fun — it didn’t make you smile, just look grimly determined — but it was somehow more than that. It was fulfilling. And that was even better than a smile.

I go into such states when programming or writing and they are indeed fantastic, but also weirdly hollow. When you come out the real world — with its mundane stresses and distractions — comes crashing back in, and the moment of flow seems like just another temporary escape, an elusive dream. And it’s a hard one to get back.

I still had flow states while offline — stronger than ever, in fact: I spent an ecstatic afternoon and evening writing longhand in a trance, pouring out the first forty pages of the book I’ve been researching; afterward, I was on a bigger high than I’ve ever had in my life — but they didn’t feel like escapes. Normal days weren’t painful anymore. I didn’t spend them filled with worry, like before. Offline, I felt solid and composed. Online, I feel like my brain wants to run off in a million different directions, even when I try to point it forward.

A friend asked me if I knew I was privileged to be able to take such a break. It seemed a silly question: I feel privileged every day. As I write, my best friend is broke and homeless, much of the world struggles just to stay alive. I feel privileged to own a mattress, let alone take a break.

I realize everyone’s lives are filled with work and people and distractions — the situation brewing at the office, the sump pump breaking down at the house, the family member who’s fallen ill. I realize it must seem like the greatest arrogance to think one could escape life’s mundane concerns, like asking to live on a cloud, floating above the mere mortals. But it was that arrogance that made me think I could contribute to adult mailing lists when I was still in elementary school, that arrogance that made me think someone might want to read my website when I was still just a teen, that arrogance that had me start a company as a college freshman. That sort of arrogance — not bragging, but simply inwardly thinking I could do more than was expected of me — is the only thing that’s gotten me anywhere in life. I see no reason to stop now.

I don’t know how I’m going to carve a life away from the world’s constant demands and distractions. I don’t know how I’m going to balance all the things I want to do with the pressures and responsibilities they bring. But after my month off, I do know one thing: I can’t go on like this. So I’m damn well going to try.

You should follow me on twitter here.

July 24, 2009


Posts like this are real gifts to people Aaron, because you are putting yourself out there and exposing yourself, so that others can think about their own experiences.

But a quibble: you never say what the difference is between the off- and on-line lives, and what makes one better than the other. I was unable to discern the source of your unhappy on-line life.

posted by David Shankbone on July 24, 2009 #

Sorry if that was unclear, David. I’ve added these lines to the post:

The usual sense that I’m never really here, I’m always worried about the million things around the corner: a todo list that goes on for pages, a thousand emails to respond to, hundreds of blog posts to read, twenty open tabs, a dozen IM windows, a text message to answer, a Twitter stream to catch up on. I never used to think about these things as a problem — they were just how life online was.

Does that help?

posted by Aaron Swartz on July 24, 2009 #

I relate to that. I register at social network sites like Twitter just to capture my name, but I only am “active” on one: Facebook. I have almost no time to keep up with it. Many e-mails that are of a chatty nature that I would like to respond to, now go unanswered as I feel a little overwhelmed. Part of the reason I stopped the photography for Wikipedia was because it was so much work, and I was never left feeling satisfied by it. That wasn’t true when I started, but it has become true years later.

I haven’t been successful at figuring out the happy medium between having a rich on-line and off-line life. If anything, it feels like people—not just nerds like me—are going more on-line, so that friendships only exist around bits and Bebo (or Twitter, or FB, ot whatever).

It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to, and I very much related to your post about the quandry: what’s substantive on-line vs. off-line? I don’t know what my Facebook friendships really mean to me or to the other people, and I haven’t been what people consider a good “Facebook Friend” as I don’t go on there that often.

It’s difficult to figure it all out, but it’s heartening to read someone else going through something similar. Thanks for the post.

posted by David Shankbone on July 24, 2009 #

Incredibly beautiful, honest, touching post. Thanks Aaron.

posted by Nat Friedman on July 24, 2009 #

Nice writeup. I spent a week or so changing pace when I left the Post, I think I felt a similar if less intense change. And this is going to sound all Lifehacker-y, but I’ve gotten a lot out of installing the Leechblock extension to Firefox. All the sites I like to spend hours browsing or chatting or poking around on are blocked every day except for a little time in the morning and evenings. If it doesn’t occur to me to visit in those short windows, OK, maybe I’ll remember tomorrow. These things don’t matter much, so why let them intrude on me all of the time?

It’s one little fix. There’s still IM and cell phones and IRC and feeds and and and… but knowing that these things exist to serve me rather than vice-versa is what lets me leave them all closed and off most of the time, to live my life at my pace and on my schedule.

Best wishes in rebuilding your life.

posted by Peter Harkins on July 24, 2009 #

Sadly, many of the “flow” states people find compelling, and the “ride” of being busy are called the “zen” of this or that, but mindlessness is quite different from mindfulness. I’ve been enjoying 2 weeks “offline” retreats for a number of years now — though I fear not this summer. Check out “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

posted by Joseph Reagle on July 24, 2009 #

Here via quinn’s twitter link. There’s much food for thought here, and I say that as someone who on the whole quite likes my multitask-y online life. (Still, when I go on retreat, I’m always amazed by how different things feel.)

In theory, I think what you’re talking about here is precisely why Jewish tradition mandates the observance of Shabbat. What would it be like to take one day each week away from the to-do lists, the obligations, the unread blog posts, the inchoate obligation to be witty on twitter or facebook or [insert online social space here]? In my line of work we say that even God rested on the seventh day, so surely we can too, but in contemporary life (especially for those of us who more or less live on the internet) that’s easier said than done.

I don’t have the inclination at this point to take Shabbat off entirely from technology. That’s not my form of practice, right now. But I do try to take the day away from anything that feels even remotely onerous. If that means I don’t open my aggregator or refresh my twitter homepage, great. (And sometimes I do pop in to twitter or irc because being there feels like a way of connecting with friends. It all depends on how I feel about it in that moment — which in turn means I need to be awake to my own needs. Also harder than it sounds!)

Anyway. Thanks for this.

posted by Rachel Barenblat on July 24, 2009 #

Aaron, this essay is splendid. I have been feeling these exact emotions, oscillating between thinking perhaps this is just a new phase in my brain chemistry, and that the monotony of web-work has sapped my life-force. So many people tout the joys of working at home. But I say to hell with it. Put me in a room full of my team-mates. Make us look and each-other and relate.

Have you read the book: “zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”? I think it might speak somewhat to the struggle that you are undergoing. It has totally changed the way I look at work and life. Take a look if you have not already.

(word to Peter for already mentioning zen)

posted by Woody Schneider on July 24, 2009 #

I had an experience very similar to what you describe above. I am only 23 and as such have spent the majority of my life online and in the multi-tasking world. Now I am married and have a job in IT and its still the same, having to do 80 things at once with millions of distractions nagging away at you everywhere. Even when I was off work life consisted of playing games online with friends or the wife where all those distractions were still constant. It was the normal for me and I didn’t know any better.

Then one day I decided to build a brick patio in my backyard with my wife. This was quite a projectm it required excavating a lot of dirt and doing may things I wasn’t used to. I ended up spending 4 hours every day after work, building it for almost a month. The amount of work, and the exhaustion after a full day of work plus 4 hours of manual labor, pretty much only gave me about an hour a day to be online. It was amazing.

Once I wasn’t online constantly I realized I didn’t need to be. I was happy working myself to the bone because it gave me time to enjoy fully focusing on less than 40 things at a time. No more checking my email while alt-tabbed from some game, while also worrying about my ebay auction and random IM’s from friends. Just me, my wife, a shovel and some dirt.

I also greatly enjoyed being outside in the sun and doing the hard work. After sitting all day exhausting myself mentally coding or scripting or doing any kid of IT work, doing something productive and physical was a wonderful change.

I can completely understand where your coming from, and while you obviously can’t continue your current profession and eliminate online activity, trying to find 4-5 hours a day where you don’t touch a computer or any device that allows pc like multi-tasking would be a good idea in my opinion.


posted by Chris on July 24, 2009 #

Ok, ok, I know there is something inherently twee about linking to a ‘This I Believe’ essay, but this one about the rest step I read years ago: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5316322 came to mind. I have been since I read it trying to learn to take the pace metaphor therein to heart. I feel like for me integration of these worlds is what I need- learn to rest completely in the moments between moments, and to be present completely in the moments between them, and to do one thing at a time. I am not saying I can do this. Well, I can, but I don’t keep it up. It’s just too enticing to be caught up in how Absolutely Important Everything is Right Now.

Thanks for this post, and I’ll be fine.

posted by quinn on July 24, 2009 #

Thanks for sharing this experience, Aaron.

Most people don’t get the opportunity to disconnect over such a long period of time, but everyone can practice disconnection in small ways every day. For example, when I go out to go eat or walk around the neighborhood for long periods of time, I’ll leave my phone behind. Also, I take time every so often to remove distractive cruft such as old to-dos and unnecessary habits such as a TV show or twitter that I don’t need to be consuming my life with.

It is also very important to identify where you are pressuring yourself to be too responsive (whether it is commitment tendency or perceived social reinforcement).

posted by Jamie Pitts on July 24, 2009 #

Hi Aaron, Thank you for a brave and honest post. This is the first I’ve read of yours, so maybe you are always so open. Good luck. If you listen to yourself and trust your instincts, you will be fine. Speaking as a person who likes the sound of his own voice too much, a person who thinks out loud and needs a sounding board to know he has value, I have found peace in practicing quietness. Again, thank you and good luck. ~Dave

posted by Dave Manningsmith on July 24, 2009 #


Adventures like the one you just had are valuable experiences. They help you find your left and right limits. However, I suspect that it is for you as it is for most, that the most appropriate path is one somewhere in-between. Each path was taken for various reasons. You will find comfort when you can integrate and balance those paths.

(Here via twitter http://bit.ly/8saTQ)

posted by Chaim Krause on July 24, 2009 #

Well said and thanks, time for a shower and a walk!

posted by One on July 25, 2009 #

Good article :)

There’s a small typo in the front page.

“whose brilliant idea was it to set off the file alarm the same day the building is doing fire alarm testing?”

I believe the first one was ‘FIRE’ alarm not ‘File”.

Please delete this comment!

posted by Anand on July 25, 2009 #

Please go read “For the New Intellectual”

You are obviously a smart person who is trapped in a world of people that have denied reality. You don’t feel that what you do makes you happy. You need to learn how to be happy, and it’s not some mystical thing that just comes and goes. I wish you the best.

posted by Tom on July 25, 2009 #

Sounds like a case of maturity, now if you find Religion, you can go back to things and have a purpose in life.

posted by George Scott on July 25, 2009 #

I don’t get it.

posted by saxon on July 25, 2009 #

It really sounds like addiction to me. I am a recovering drug addict myself. And I identified with your experience. Addiction is a disease and whether it’s to drugs, sex, gambling or the internet, the stories are always the same. Think about it.

posted by mister on July 25, 2009 #

your description of flow and finding a balance remind me of this ted talk by martin seligman on positive psychology.


posted by on July 25, 2009 #

I’ve been doing some serious investigation into this feeling of being scattered, performing various experiments, meditation, taking breaks, practicing <a href=”http://www.idellepacker.net/applications/dailyact/nondoing.php’>non-doing

with minor success.

I share the same perpetual, albeit slight, anxiety about the “thousand things around the corner” - email, rss, always remembering not to fall behind and it seems pretty unhealthy.

Anyway, it is fascinating hearing about your experience. I am really curious about what the roots of it could be and how one could have an online life without the negative parts.

posted by Todd Troxell on July 25, 2009 #

I found the link to Pomodoro technique on some website. I was really glad I saw it. Google for ‘pomodoro technique’ if you are interested. If you liked Aaron’s post, you’ll definitely like this technique.

posted by vikram on July 25, 2009 #


Web is such a good place to learn, and serendipity a good way to find your post ;)

I had the chance to have had a life before the web became central in my life (I’m in for more than 10 years because of my job) and to have the habit to be quite resistant to technology… I focus on uses/usability more than on technical aspects.

I agree with people who talked about addiction : in some points it’s all about that…

but it’s also about deep changes between generations and ways to appropriate one’s own life… Some of us can think that if they do have an “online life” they are alive, because you have to be “in”…

when I opened my first blog (lately ;) in 2006, I decided not to post as everyone, everyday or as often as I could, but only to post when I will have something relevant to say… A paradoxal habit for someone that was and is teaching about how to use the web as a professional ;)It’s a personal approach, indeed to take distance from a very time-consuming tool…

Now that I’m writing this com I remember a documentary I watched 10 years ago already about a young guy who’s life was online, Justin, it’s a movie of Doug Block “Better than mean guns” : http://old.d-word.com/journal/5-3-99.html. I wrote at this time a comment : “I do work as a “internet animator”. the relationship u describes in ur film was talking to me even if i am not totally net addicted”…

10 years later, I began for the need of a buzz a series of posts on my blog and on facebook (in French), I ironically titled “column (chronicle) of a net addicted which looks after itself”…;)

I knew when I bought my Blackberry that my life - what you call you “offline life” - was somehow over… of course, you always have the choice to switch off… but there is so much “life” in all that is moving every minute on the web (since RSS, FB status and twitter it’s always more true) that it’s difficult to resist to all that attractive “shining stars”…

it’s something close in my mind to “the gold rush” crossed with the humming of a hive ;)

So I try to balance my life (in fact you just have one life) between passing time around and out, sharing time with people I love, going to the cinema or to see plays or concerts, and when I’m online, I often try to translate/communicate/share this “real life” to/with my networks…

And I love to find and read what other people post to help, share, relate, … on the web… so to me web is only a new place where you can be, a new tool that you can use, you have the choice to decide how often, and what to do with… just as with work, chocolate, TV, money, whatever… you have to know you well and to define what is good for you, and act following these points.

Sorry to have been so long, but I found echo in your article, approach and comments of things I’m thinking about for a long time ;)

PS : sorry for my English… I hope to be “readable” ;)

posted by Tiffany on July 26, 2009 #

Two things: 1. “I remember, after getting my first email account, wishing someone would email me so I’d [have] an email to answer.”
2. Stay arrogant.

posted by Pablo on July 26, 2009 #

In your post announcing your experiment, you ask, “What if there’s an emergency? Has there ever been an emergency?” Yes, there has. “If something’s really an emergency, I’m sure you’ll find me.” Here’s the nub of the thing, as I see it. Constant connectedness is a form of risk mitigation. I pay the price of constant distraction to reduce the probability of rare catastrophe (e.g., my parents dying before I have a chance to say goodbye, or a hurricane hitting before I have my survival pack together). It sounds like your tradeoffs & preferences are different from mine; I’m not going to wait for others to find me so I can learn salient, time-critical information.

You compare avoiding the world’s demands and distractions to other things you’ve done, achievements that exceeded expectations concerning people your age. But all those achievements were social and contributed to the external world. Withdrawing from the things you’ve built and the communities you’ve joined breaks a different norm. No longer are you implying that you’re good enough to hang out and compete with other people; withdrawing implies that we’re not worth your time. So I’d quibble with your statement that it’s the same arrogance that underlies both attempts.

Good luck in finding a balance between solitude and connection.

posted by Sumana Harihareswara on July 27, 2009 #

Please tell me the 40 pages you are writing is a book about yet another philosophy disguising how to drop high tech addictions.

posted by El Rorro on July 28, 2009 #

If you are so enlightened why don´t you invent a new kind of energy, solve the world hunger or cure AIDS (or cancer)?

posted by Le Chuck on July 28, 2009 #

Thank you for your for your honest writeup of how your life feels now. I’m sure this can be wakeup call for some people. It’s too “easy” to be living in constant distraction and sometimes it takes what you did to notice even some of the things that were forgotten or not even noticed before.

Life offline might have limitations, but it’s still much better than life in prison of constant online addiction.

posted by Daniel Schildt on July 28, 2009 #

I don’t know if you’ll ever all of the comments, but I tweeted about this post, and this is what I wrote:

“I’m sorry, but posts like this one bring a tear to my eye: http://www.aaronsw.com/webl… ..what a masterpiece, I’m moved.”

Aaron, you’ve taken a lot of words that I was never courageous enough to say..


posted by Zigmund on October 7, 2009 #

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