Stop Mindless Browsing

You look at the time. 2 hours and 26 minutes. 2 hours and 26 minutes have passed since you originally sat down at your computer.

What the hell?

We’ve all been there before. We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling that follows the return to consciousness and realization of how much time was wasted online doing nothing.

You may have logged into facebook and scrolled through your newsfeed, you may have visited the front page of reddit, you may have gone to your favorite adult site, or you may have visited the trending section of youtube. You may have even done all of this in one sitting.

Chances are you don’t remember why you went on the computer in the first place. Think and try as you might, you also can’t remember the exact moment you strayed and ended up at the bottom of this rabbit hole of tantalizing videos, memes, and status updates.

We have a tendency to shrug our shoulders at this point and move on with our day, not thinking twice about what just happened. This is a big mistake. For it is our inability to remember that points to the problem.  


Mindless Persona: The Wanderer

A wanderer in the pedestrian sense of the word is one who walks aimlessly. In our case, a wanderer is one who goes on the internet with no specific purpose or goal in mind.

Instead of going on the internet for a set amount of time to accomplish a specific task, the wanderer connects not knowing where he’ll start, where he’ll end up, or for how long he’ll surf.

This tends to be done out of habit (a symptom of internet addiction) or as an escape from boredom. Browsing mindlessly for either of these reasons doesn’t do us any favors. Habit browsing only reinforces the existing neural pathways in the brain that were created as a result of past browsing, feeding the addiction and making it harder to quit in the future. Mindless browsing to escape boredom may satiate us temporarily but at too high of a cost. Boredom is a gift given to you by the god’s themselves and shouldn’t be squandered away so lightly. (Link here)


How The Wanderer Persona Promotes Mindless Browsing

Without the conscious direction of a purpose or aim, you surrender control of your browsing decisions to the subconscious. Giving your subconscious mind complete control over a mouse and keyboard is one of the worst things you can do. Under these conditions the internet is unchecked in its capacity to serve as an endless stream of novel content. Essentially an unlimited supply of cocaine for the brain.

If you’ve ever tried to quit going on a novelty-driven website chances are you’ve seen first hand how strong the pull is once you stop. I’ll never forget the day I decided to quit reddit. I entered www.reddit.com no less than 30 times into the address bar without consciously meaning to, completely on autopilot.

Browsing the web as a Wanderer can be likened to setting sail on a ship without a compass to guide it. We can picture the internet as if it were Indonesia, comprised of 18,000 islands, or websites. (There are over 1 billion websites on the web as of 2014) With your computer or smartphone as your vessel, it’s incredibly likely you’ll start island hopping, spending vast amounts of time on sites you never planned on visiting in the first place.


Tolkien once famously wrote “Not all who wander are lost.” Poetic as it may be in its original form, applying this quote to today’s fast paced, attention grabbing, and dopamine fueled internet environment requires the removal of the first word. When it comes to browsing without intent, all who wander are lost.


Mindless Browsing is Holding You Back

Bruce Lee is widely quoted as saying “If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.” It’s a sentiment that I believe we can all get behind. Your time is precious.

It’s likely that you have genuine interests, real passions, and goals that are important to you. Every hour spent mindlessly surfing the web is an hour that could have been spent doing things you actually enjoy and chasing after your dreams. If you could see how much time you spent mindlessly browsing with nothing to show for it I’m convinced the number would make you physically ill. It’s important to remember that every day, every hour, every minute is a gift. We owe it to ourselves to not squander them away.


Bringing Order to the Chaos

Hundreds of sites are in direct competition with each other for your attention, your clicks, and your time. They’ve gotten very good at putting novel, exciting content front and center, a trap sprung for any and all mindless browsers who have the misfortune of wandering on by.


It isn’t by coincidence that large numbers of people find themselves addicted to facebook, instagram, reddit, youtube, and countless other sites.

It isn’t a coincidence that you’re able to waste hours, even days on these sites.

They’ve been designed with these goals in mind.

When you fail in giving the task of navigating the internet the attention it deserves, your computer or smartphone becomes the gateway to an orchestrated chaos. Bright and shiny on the surface, you eventually come to realize that it’s only skin deep. Beneath lays a void, a bottomless time sink where there is little to no hope of finding any fulfillment.

At times it feels like the line “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave” from “Hotel California” by the Eagles is the most accurate description of just how dominantly the Internet has laid its roots in our everyday lives, and how compulsively it binds us. One is tempted to throw his hands up in the air, hang his head in a dejected manner, and admit defeat.


Ah, but not so fast.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Our chaotic experience online is largely a result of our the passive approach we take towards how we use it. With deliberate action and intent, we can bring order to the chaos.


Introducing Purpose Driven Internet Use

Understanding the problem and the conditions that allowed for its formation is crucial in determining a practical, workable solution for combating mindless browsing.

The result of defining and analyzing the Wanderer results in the construction of an alternate browsing strategy. We replace lack of purpose with purpose. We replace mindlessness with mindfulness. What results is something along these lines:


In order to browse the internet on my smartphone or computer, I must first define a concrete reason for why I am going online. If I can’t first name a valid reason for why I’m about to go online, I won’t.


This will serve as a general map used to orient yourself in our chaotic virtual world. Specific intent is the big red X denoting where you would like to end up at the end of your browsing session. It serves as both the “why” and the “what.” Why am I going online? What do I want to accomplish?  Purpose Driven Internet Use makes you answer these important questions.

Purpose Driven Internet Use is a self-imposed rule you place on yourself. It is not a rule placed on your browsing from the outside.  This distinction is highlighted because PDIU marks the beginning of your reclamation of self-control in the area of internet use. It is the systematic identification of purpose prior to every browsing session which is exactly what the Wanderer lacks, leading him to a fate of perpetual mindless browsing. With this consciously defined and imposed browsing strategy, a level of initial mindfulness and purpose is now present where previously there was none. Now we’re getting somewhere.


Is That All There is to Purpose Driven Internet Use? Initial purpose?


It’s definitely a big part. Defining your reason for going online before actually going on is huge, but it isn’t quite enough.

You’d definitely see improvements over your past browsing habits if you stopped reading here and started actively identifying purpose before each browsing session, but you’d also be putting yourself at risk of succumbing to a potential pitfall. This pitfall is the adoption of the Seeker persona.


Mindless Browsing: The Seeker

The Seeker has a destination, but he zigzags and goes completely off track, sometimes for long periods at a time. His journey to his destination (if he even makes it there) is not a straight line and could be significantly more efficient.

The Seeker is what the Wanderer may become after he has implemented a habit of only going online with a purpose. This is because: 

  1. Distractions are everywhere
  2. Your brain is used to a certain daily dose of dopamine and will try to get its fix

We’ve all experienced internet related distractions. You’re writing an essay and you feel the table vibrate. You pick up your phone and your best friend sent you a snap. 20 minutes later you look back at your computer screen after having exhausted all of the stories in your feed.  The blinking cursor hasn’t moved and your essay is in the same unfinished state you left it in.

Or you go onto youtube to look up a tutorial. Half an hour later you’re watching public pranks and guys picking up girls with cheesy lines after a chain of clicks on enticing looking sidebar thumbnails.

#2 is a result of past browsing habits. As a general rule:


The more one uses facebook, the more one uses facebook.


Browsing the front page of reddit for hours everyday resulted in the buildup of a dopamine dependency that was extremely difficult for me to overcome. Originally shiny and exciting, there was nothing particularly great about the front pages after a certain point. Reddit began to lose its appeal for me. But since my brain was already so used to the massive amounts of dopamine it was getting each day as a result of clicking on hundreds of novel threads, I would continue to spend hours on the site everyday. My brain needed its fix.

This becomes especially problematic when your reason for going online is a task that involves some level of mental effort, like writing a paper or researching something that requires deliberate digging. Mentally strenuous tasks cause most of us a certain level of discomfort, and I believe that in the face of this discomfort, dopamine urges occur more frequently and are stronger.

I experienced these urges while writing this blog post. There were times when I was stuck, experiencing writer’s block, and felt the pulls of reddit/youtube/spotify. Successfully being able to keep myself on track in the face of urges that would set me back is a big part of the reason why you’re reading this post today, instead of it sitting in a google docs folder halfway done as something I started and never finished. 

I was able to identify and resist these urges using an exercise I developed during my initial failed attempts at overcoming mindless browsing. This exercise made a significant contribution towards my eventual success at regaining control over my internet use. I’ve outlined it further down in the article so that after finishing you too can side-step the temptations that stand in the way of you accomplishing the things you set out to do. 

If the difference between the Wanderer and the Seeker is only going online if it serves a particular purpose, the difference between the mindless Seeker persona and the mindful Master persona is applying this same idea for each individual site you’re about to visit.


Mindful Browsing: The Master

Whereas initial purpose was the big red X on the map representing our destination, the intermediary purposes for each and every site we’ll visit are the navigational stars that’ll ensure we actually end up arriving at that X.


The Master persona is characterized by the successful implementation of both steps of Purpose Driven Internet Use. Initial purpose, and purpose of each and every site visited. The Master only visits a site if the purpose for visiting it is in line with the initial purpose for going on the internet in the first place.

For example:

If your initial reason for going online was to learn how to code for a few hours, stackoverflow.com, google.com, and youtube.com would be completely acceptable sites to visit. However, facebook.com, instagram.com, reddit.com, tumblr.com, imgur,.com or twitch.tv would not be.

The Master’s “on the fly” evaluation of each site he’s about to visit is characteristic of a level of mindfulness above that of the average internet user. Because he doesn’t browse at the lower, mindless level, he is able to recognize and let urges flow past without indulging. He is able to stay concentrated, waste very little if any time, and accomplish what he set out to do with efficiency. The Master is successful because by adopting Purpose Driven Internet Use, he has redefined the role he allows internet to play in his every life. He is always the one using the internet, never letting it be the other way around.


How You Can Become a Mindful Browsing Master

There is a simple, practical way to kick start your transition from mindless Wanderer/Seeker to mindful Master.

It’s important to understand that simple does not mean quick or easy. We hear the word simple and often associate quick results and minimal, painless effort. However, simple only implies lack of complexity. The transition requires discipline, desire, and daily application of the following technique. It will be difficult at first, but you will improve. If you stay committed and give it a real chance, you will definitely notice improvements in your relationship with internet browsing.

To begin the habitual shift from mindless browsing to Purpose Driven Internet Use, all you need are 2 things.

No really, that’s all you need. You can get started immediately.

Before opening your laptop, powering on your pc, or unlocking your phone, sit down in front of the paper and pick up your pen. Spend a minute reflecting on why you’re going online. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you going on to do homework? Are you going on to learn a new skill? Are you going on to watch porn? Are you going on for entertainment? etc.

Regardless of the reason, the next step is to write your “why” down at the top of the paper. This is your purpose for this browsing session. Be honest no matter what it is.

Then, compile a list of sites you’re going to visit to accomplish this goal. Write the lists of sites below the “why.” Try to make this list as exhaustive as possible. Really take the time to reflect on which sites you may need to visit. Be as specific as possible.

Lastly, write one sentence for each site you’ve list, explaining how you it will help you accomplish your initial goal.


Now place your sheet within reach, directly next to you or the device you’re using to access the internet. Every time you enter a website into the address bar, or are about to click a link, you must check the paper to see if you had written down the website you’re about to visit. If it’s there, you can proceed without a second thought. If it’s not however, you must add the website to your sheet and write a one sentence description of how visiting it will help you accomplish your initial goal. Just like before.


Here’s the catch. If you’re unable to come up with a valid reason for how visiting this site is going to help you accomplish what you originally set out to do…

This exercise forces you to turn what was likely a mindless activity into a mindful one. As long as you keep the log next to your device and start checking it as frequently as you remember to the process of building and strengthening your conscious mind with regards to browsing decisions has already begun. If you commit to the exercise and do it consistently, you’ll start to see greater control over your browsing decisions. Spending 3 hours online that you didn’t intend to spend will become a thing of the past and you’ll wonder how you ever did something like that in the first place.


You’ll be surprised at how often you’re going to catch yourself about to turn on your device of choice out of boredom/habit. You’ll be amazed at how often you’re going to catch yourself typing in a website into the address bar, completely on autopilot. You won’t believe how much of your time on the internet was spent mindlessly surfing.

This realization will help in bringing about a crucial paradigm shift. The internet is better used as a tool for a specific purpose, then used with no particular purpose in mind. The first way is what could be called responsible internet use, the second is not. I’m a proponent of responsible internet use.

Done properly and with persistence, you will save yourself untold amounts of time that could be spent on things you actually like doing (have any of us truly enjoyed a multi-hour mindless browsing session?), and become more aware of the things you previously did subconsciously on autopilot. Eventually you may become so good at Purpose Driven Internet Use that you will no longer need to the paper and pen exercise at all.


Done properly and with persistence, you can completely transform the role internet plays in your life. You can bring order to the chaos, you can stop browsing mindlessly, and you can become…


…  a mindful browsing master.