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Saying No to the Net

The Internet is a great thing; I'm so happy I invented it. Oh, wait, that was Al Gore. Or was it Thomas Edison? Well, whoever paved the information superhighway, I must say thanks: it has had a Godzilla-sized impact on the way IPs of every make and model do business.

The Net's such a central part of freelance life that we've forgotten how revolutionary a technology it is. Let's reboot our memories and recall that the Internet has given freelancers direct access to business resources unprecedented in the history of self-employment. (Before going online, they had to do everything by post, phone, or getting out of the office. How slow! How dull! How exhausting!) Today IPs use the Net to engage in near-real-time communication with clients all over the world; to find the most up-to-date information about their fields; to generate new business through their own Web sites; to talk to other IPs in online chats; to connect with -- and ask questions of -- all kinds of experts; to order supplies; to set up business travel plans; to get tech support; and to deliver client products faster than you can say, "Pay up, Bub." While I often go online to do research for books and articles, a graphic designer or illustrator might use it as a way to find source materials for illustrations. It's like the Internet was made especially for IPs.

But while Net surfing provided freelancers with some bitchin' service, it has also caused some problems to wash ashore. The Net boasts a Baskin-Robbins-like variety of dangers -- and I'm not just talking about insulating your kids from cyber-porn, online Nazis, and Web sites that give blueprints for cooking up the odd atomic bomb. The Net is so wide-ranging, so potentially distracting, that a little bit of intellectual curiosity can lead you far from the original target of, say, a business-related Yahoo! search (if the first paragraph of this column took you 15 minutes to click through, you know what I'm saying). In fact, the Net has become the premier excuse for IP procrastination. While an occasional trip to the World Wrestling Federation Web site won't harm most freelance careers, fooling around with the Net can become a serious addiction for some IPs.

Am I a Net addict? I just may be.

As a writer, I log a lot of time on the computer, and when I hunker down in front of my keyboard each morning -- raring to write my heart out -- there are certain rituals I find myself performing, and then periodically repeating, throughout the day. I absolutely have to check email, see what's happening on cnn.com, look in on my eBay bids, follow a few links here or there, update my Web site, and on and on. Before I know it, I've lost the first hour (or two or three) of my workday screwing around on the Net.

Yep, I think I'm a Net addict; what about you? And if we are addicted, how can we kick the habit? To help answer these questions, I surfed over to the Center for Online Addiction's Web site and found a handy -- and somewhat frightening -- list of questions. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate your next online session)? Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use? Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of any significant relationships, jobs, educational or career opportunities because of the Internet? Have you lied to family members, your therapist, or others to conceal the extent of your involvement with the Internet? Answer "yes" to five or more of their questions and, according to the Center for Online Addiction, you just might have a problem, Bucko. And you wouldn't be alone. According to Dr. Donald Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine: "The problem is far more common than people are willing to acknowledge in terms of loss of productivity or damage to the economy, as well as harm on a personal level." Some estimates put the number of Net addicts in the U.S. at about 15 million people -- more than a few of whom are IPs.

No Means No

After taking the Center for Online Addiction's test, I decided to make an effort to break my surfing habit. I'm going to become a Whole New Economy. For starters, I will no longer keep a browser window open all the time (if I'm not actively using it for business, that sucker's closed). And I've established separate email accounts -- one family and friends, and one for business -- and I put a moratorium on checking personal messages when I'm doing the IP thing. (Now if I could just establish a separate email account for all my spam -- and then lose the password -- that would be a real victory!)

Unfortunately, I didn't think that my above resolutions would be enough to put my addiction to rest. So I went searching for more information -- you guessed it -- on the Net. There I found Internet addiction expert Kimberly Young of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, who told me that there are a number of ways to curb the urge to merge with my computer. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Use external stoppers. Set definite times to log off the computer each day, and then use an alarm clock, an egg timer, or some similar item to physically remind you to do just that.

  • Set goals. If you're on the Net 40 hours a week, for example, set a goal to reduce your online time down to a more reasonable 20 hours a week, and then schedule definite times to be online. To decrease the pain of Net withdrawal, make your sessions brief, but frequent.

  • Abstain. If you find yourself hooked on chat rooms -- to the exclusion of productive Net activities, for example -- then just say "no," and refrain from chat rooms altogether.

  • Join a support group. Believe it or not, more and more hospitals and clinics are offering treatment programs and support groups for Net addicts. If your obsession with the Net has gone beyond reasonable limits, then you just might want to check out this option.

So: If the Web has hijacked your business, or if you spend more time doing anything but your work while you're online, take a close look at the way you use the computer, recognize what you're up to, and stop wasting all those non-billable hours. Say no to the Net.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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