How the Internet Can Hurt Your Freelance Writing Career

by John Soares on December 10, 2014

As a freelance writer and a human being, productivity and happiness are top priorities for me, and I was already aware of the negative effects of the Internet on my own cognitive processes and ability to feel fully alive when I read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains in the summer of 2010.

internet-data-overload

But The Shallows crystallized my thinking and convinced me to spend a lot less time “plugged in.”

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsNicholas Carr’s book, a 2010 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, details the many scientific studies that show how the near constant bombardment of our brains by information from electronic media is literally changing the structure of our brains and altering our lives – and not for the better.

As a freelance writer for higher education companies, I need to concentrate for long periods of time. But it’s gotten harder over the last decade, harder at the same time I spend more of my life on the Internet for work projects and for what I’ve chosen to do online, like write this blog and my other blogs, have an active Twitter account, interact with friends on Facebook, read the news, follow a few stocks… the list goes on and on.

I often compare myself over the last few years with how I was in graduate school getting my master’s in polisci from 1987-1989. Granted I was younger then and highly motivated to succeed, but I was able to concentrate so much better 25 years ago than I can now.

A Question for You

If you remember a time before the Internet and smartphones, compare your ability to concentrate then with how well you concentrate now.

Well? Read on…

Key Points for Freelance Writers… And Everyone Else

These are excerpts from the notes I took on the book. I use the term Web broadly. It includes anything that connects you electronically to remote sources of information or stimulation, primarily the Internet itself and cell phone technology, whether it’s a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone. I use “we” and “us” primarily to refer to people who spend too much time on the Web and don’t focus on what they specifically need to get from it before getting off as quickly as possible.

1. When we are on the Web, we keep searching for new information to entertain us, to stimulate us – we keep clicking links and watching and listening. We set up e-mail alerts and obsessively check social media and other sites frequently, wanting to get that interesting tidbit as soon as possible. Often this becomes addictive behavior.

2. Using the Web decreases our ability to concentrate deeply for long periods of time. It instead trains us to want new stimuli all the time, making it difficult to focus for more than a few minutes. This is “the shallows.”

3. Web time decreases our ability to think deeply about an idea or a concept. Our brains can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes.

4. The Web physically alters our brain structure, affecting areas that deal with cognitive thinking and long-term memory storage. We can’t think as deeply, and we can’t remember very well what we were thinking about anyway.

5. The more time we spend on the Web, the more we train our brains to deal with information quickly and with little or no attention to wider connections. The result is that very little of this information makes it out of our “working memory” and into our long-term memory.

6. High levels of Web time decreases our ability to empathize with other people. Our connections with our friends and love ones weaken, and we miss out on a crucial emotion that binds us together and makes us human.

7. Computers and the Internet allow us to perform certain cognitive functions far more efficiently, but we make a Faustian bargain for those gains, and most people are not aware of exactly what they are trading away.

Conclusions

Nicholas Carr is a freelance writer like I am, and like many of you are. Freelance writers mostly work alone and can much more easily disconnect from the Internet, or cut connection time way back. Other people have jobs or lives that require them to be more connected.

Even so, no matter who you are, I hope you’ll examine how you use the Internet, and smartphones, and tablet computers, and all the other forms of technology that encourage your brain to be in a “shallow” state.

And I hope that you’ll discuss these ideas with your loved ones, particularly your kids and grandkids – they are the ones who really need to be at the top of their game if they are to deal effectively with the many challenges the future holds.

And think about what life truly means for you. Does your time on the Web make you feel more alive? Or less?

Read The Shallows – and give it your full attention.

Your Take

Thoughts? Suggestions? Please share them in the comments below…

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lori December 10, 2014 at 7:14 AM

John, how bad is it that I couldn’t concentrate on this post? Not your writing at all — my ADD brain on three cups of caffeine.
I see the changes in me since just December even. That’s when I got a smart phone. I’m now one of those “connected” people, though I consciously fight daily to remove myself from the screen. I don’t want to be one of THOSE people who are with others yet not really there.
I was trying to think back to when I was freelancing prior to the Internet. I had the latest gadget – a word processor – which seemed to make my life so much easier. But I found sources via library magazines and periodicals. I used the phone a lot more to get in touch with people, and even a few articles were written from face-to-face conversations. Things were more localized, as was my career.
Now my concentration is gone. Often I’ll drop off in mid thought. Why, this post is the longest I’ve written in a wh

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2 John Soares December 10, 2014 at 7:25 AM

I think smartphones are a major reason why so many people are in “the shallows.” With the smart phone you’re never away from the Internet and text messages and everything else.

I’ve seen young couples on dates, both sitting at the table in a nice restaurant fiddling with their phones. Not a good foundation for a quality relationship.
John Soares recently posted…The Top 27 Ways to Boost Your Writing Willpower

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3 Rosa Lee Jude December 10, 2014 at 8:23 AM

This is powerful information, John, thank you for doing this post. I agree completely and have wondered how future generations will adapt to this constant bombarding with stimuli. Those of us who remember the time before the Internet I think often look back at that time with longing. As much as I enjoy having a world of information at my fingertips, there are handcuffs that come along with that. It is hard to “turn off,” especially when your professional life dictates that a certain amount of every day be spent utilizing it. While I have been writing my recent fiction series, I have made myself allocate blocks of time where I do not go online, period. It has amazed me how different my brain feels afterward. Thanks for sharing.

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4 John Soares December 10, 2014 at 8:41 AM

Good for you for blocking out time with no Internet. I do that also, usually for the first two hours in the morning before breakfast. It’s my most productive time.

I’m also concerned about what the Internet is doing long-term to humans. When I was growing up in the pre-Internet days, I didn’t even watch much television. I spent my free time outside, reading, or visiting with friends.
John Soares recently posted…Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone

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5 Gene Burnett December 10, 2014 at 9:55 AM

I actually spend a decent amount of my internet time writing and/or generating content, blog posts, Facebook, videos, etc…So it’s actually helped my concentration because I take writing seriously and work to say exactly what I want to say. I also love not having a cell phone, smart phone or pad. Whenever I leave the house I am off-line and I really like that a lot. I will never have a mobile computing platform. I like having a distinct break from being on-line. I have noticed this lack of focus in other people though. I very rarely see anyone under 30 do anything for more than 10 minutes without checking their phones. It’s like reaching for a cigarette…a little anxiety alleviation, that creates the next round of anxiety. I don’t blame the web at large so much as how we use it, particularly these smart phones. Once people could be on-line constantly without a break…that’s when focus really started to deteriorate. One reason kids can’t concentrate in school is that they all have phones. My sister is a college professor and she docks her kids one quiz worth of points from their grades if they text in class and they still do it. I don’t know if it qualifies as a full blown addiction, but it is a dependency and a habit. And I have witnessed a few people who lost or forgot their phones when they left the house and well, they do seem to be going through a kind of withdrawn where they really freak out. To me the key is balance. We are adapted to live in the physical world and if you spend more time in the virtual world than the physical world, your health will deteriorate. There’s already a condition called “text neck” that comes from too much stooping when texting. To which I say, Good. That’s our bodies speaking to us: Look up from the frickin’ phone and be where you actually are.

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6 John Soares December 10, 2014 at 10:06 AM

Gene, I agree that smartphones are a major problem. Besides the fact that typical users are more likely to get killed because they aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them, the smart phone chips away at concentration and the ability to just be where you are right now.
John Soares recently posted…When and How a Freelance Writer Should Hire Help

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7 John Soares December 10, 2014 at 10:06 AM

I haven’t taught college since 1994, but I would sure hate to have to compete with smartphones during lecture and have to deal overall with students who are distracted and can’t concentrate well.
John Soares recently posted…How to Coauthor a Book

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8 Marcie December 10, 2014 at 10:36 AM

In order for me to focus on anything, I have to turn the computer off. Once it’s on, the internet is my temptation. My concentration and productivity are distant memories in mere seconds…kinda like now.
Marcie recently posted…Read My Interview with Internet Marketing Guru, Nancy Badillo

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9 John Soares December 10, 2014 at 10:45 AM

Marcie, we turn our wireless router off at night, and then I don’t turn it on the morning until I’ve done a couple of hours of work. I’ll also unplug it during the afternoon for 2-3 hours while I work on my freelance projects.
John Soares recently posted…Time Management and Productivity Twitter Hashtags

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10 Anne Wayman December 10, 2014 at 11:04 AM

Interesting… I finally got a smart phone and spend no time on it at all… should have stuck with a simple cell. I use my tablet instead of tv in the evenings and my internet is connected all day long.

I haven’t found it more difficult to focus or concentrate… as for thinking deeply… not sure how I’d tell. I may read the book just to find out how he did his science.
Anne Wayman recently posted…The Real Reason I am a Freelance Writer – Well, One of Them…

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11 John Soares December 10, 2014 at 11:11 AM

Anne, you have good self-discipline! The book’s a great read and is probably available at your local library.

I just bought a Kindle Fire. I’ll use it primarily when I travel and don’t take my laptop.
John Soares recently posted…Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone

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12 Melissa Crytzer Fry December 10, 2014 at 4:24 PM

John,
This is so darn scary… but I’ve noticed it, too. In fact, a year after hopping on social media to “build my platform” for fiction in 2010, I noticed the very things the book talks about… a shorter attention span, an inability to recall facts, and just general “frenzy” in my mind. It became so alarming that I deliberately cut back. I notice, on days when I avoid social media altogether, I can concentrate and focus. I need to train myself to do the same thing with email because I DO have a Pavlovian response to the dings. It is all SO distracting… And I do lament the day I got my smartphone as well.

I have grown worried that age — at 42 — was the problem, but knowing (as I’ve read in other articles) that the brain physically changes as a result of all this ‘connectivity’, I’m beginning to wonder if the Web truly is the problem. Thanks for an insightful article and reminder. I think creatives – the very folks who were told to “get online with gusto” – may be the ones who suffer the most, and – as you said – children. Ugh. It scares me to think about social skills of the future.
Melissa Crytzer Fry recently posted…Nature Nerd

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13 John Soares December 10, 2014 at 7:05 PM

Melissa, I have all notifications turned off. I only check email or social media when I want to. And as I said above, I try to have several hours a day when the Internet itself is turned off. I can’t get on unless I go upstairs and turn on the modem and the router.
John Soares recently posted…The Top 27 Ways to Boost Your Writing Willpower

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14 Jesse Logister December 10, 2014 at 7:48 PM

I tried to solve this problem by avoiding non-work related (online) stuff that can distract me. I stopped watching TV and I avoid checking any news (online and offline). I do have a cellphone but I rarely use it for anything other then texting or making a call. I also made a commitment to use social media only to keep in touch with my readers. The amount of information that I avoid by doing these things is huge. It feels great. My energy is not wasted on a constant intake of information and I never have the feeling that I miss something important.

However, work is a different story. I also work as a freelance writer. My main problem is that I have to do research online, and there it go’s wrong most of the time. It becomes increasingly harder to concentrate and not being distracted. This post reminded me again about how big this problem is for so many people. Especially for those of us who are not only using the internet for relaxing time but also for work. We face a battle at two fronts. An exhausting one, because we are already online for such a long time. Forcing some offline time, especially in the morning is a great idea. I will try to implement it in my daily routine.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this topic John.

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15 John Soares December 11, 2014 at 4:48 AM

Jesse, it sounds like you do well most of the time, especially with television and your phone. (I do watch a small amount of television, mostly Modern Family reruns.)

When you’re online for freelance work, consider giving yourself a reward of 5-10 minutes of social media every time you’ve completed 90 minutes of actual work.
John Soares recently posted…Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone

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16 Jesse Logister December 12, 2014 at 5:15 PM

That is a nice idea John. I always strive to give myself some sort of reward for every batch of work that I am doing. So I will try and see if this is a satisfying one.

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17 Jane December 10, 2014 at 9:53 PM

The internet is a place of distraction – no doubt. And freelance writers need just the opposite kind of situation. We want to be distraction free when we work and the internet is not going to let us do that!

With distraction and trying to stay disciplined, one can add up a lot of stress – trying to work in a distracted environment is no joke. It puts a lot of stress on the brain and you have to work really hard to do the actual work.

Thanks for bringing this up John :)
Jane recently posted…Top 20 Blogging Mistakes That Keep Visitors Off Their Site

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18 John Soares December 11, 2014 at 4:50 AM

Jane, that’s why I keep the Internet turned off whenever I can. I find I get so much more done.
John Soares recently posted…When and How a Freelance Writer Should Hire Help

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19 Cathy Miller December 11, 2014 at 6:44 AM

I find this topic so fascinating, John. Perhaps it’s my *ahem* age that provides me with a glimpse into the vast changes over time with communication. I have always been a strong proponent of communication. I think the lack of communication is at the center of so many of our problems. Professionally and personally.

So, on the one hand, the tools that make communication easier are to be applauded. As writers, we crave learning. I love that we have access to so much information. However, John, I certainly agree, there is a system overload with that information. Just wading through to separate fact from fiction is an enormous undertaking. Sadly, too many individuals do not take the time to filter fact from fiction. We accept posts, tweets, soundbites as reality when we should be questioning their validity.

And as I’ve often expressed, for all of our means of communication, are we truly connecting? We text instead of speaking. We post when we could easily call.

I readily admit to changing since purchasing my smartphone a few years back. I jokingly (okay, not so jokingly) refer to it as my brain. But I do draw boundaries.

I have my smartphone at my hip when I walk but only for use in an emergency. If it rings, I allow it to go to voicemail. I shut down my smartphone every night at 8 PM and only turn it on when I start work.

Like many tools in life, the web/smartphones, et al, are just that. Tools. The voice of reason needs to be our own.

Stepping off my soapbox. ;-)
Cathy Miller recently posted…Knock Off These 10 Quick-Hit Business Tasks

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20 John Soares December 11, 2014 at 11:43 AM

Cathy, you have an excellent attitude toward technology. You use it when you need it, and then you put it away.

The power here was off for 5 hours because of 60 mph gusts from a big storm. I got a lot of work done on my laptop: nothing to distract me at all, except wondering when the power would come back on.
John Soares recently posted…The Top 27 Ways to Boost Your Writing Willpower

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21 William Ballard December 11, 2014 at 8:41 AM

Hi John,

Great post!

I do agree that the Internet and all of our mobiles devices are taking us away from the joys of life that are all around us.

However, some of the points you made I can’t necessarily relate to. For example, your fourth point, I don’t find that I have any problem with concentration or focus when it comes to working on a project. And you can ask my wife, she will tell you that I can’t stop thinking deeply on things. In fact, I am a very deep thinker.

I don’t know if you have ever heard Dan Kennedy, but he has said time and time again that on a personal level, he completely despises the Internet and all of its mobile devices. Dan is a legend when it comes to copywriting and direct response mail marketing and will shut down every device that he has when working on a project and give that project 110% of his full attention.

I do the same when it comes to working on my writing projects.

Now, with all that out of the way, I will admit to your sixth point about be detached from people. It is like we are no longer present mentally and emotionally with people during social gatherings. This is where I struggle a bit. I don’t always give my full attention to the person I am with. Now, if I am with a client then of course I am 100% present when I am talking with them, say at a coffee shop, but for some reason, I am not that way with friends or family when I am at a coffee shop with them. And that is something I do not like about myself and I am working to improve.

Again, thanks for this post! Good stuff.
William Ballard recently posted…The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Dominating Your Writing Market – Part Four

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22 John Soares December 11, 2014 at 11:47 AM

William, I’m glad you still have strong powers of concentration. Perhaps you don’t spend all that much time bouncing around the Internet?

I also find that I do my best work when I remove all distractions, including electronic devices, people, and pets.
John Soares recently posted…How to Coauthor a Book

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23 Raspal Seni December 11, 2014 at 4:20 PM

I’m glad, I do not watch TV at all, nor any movies – be it in theatre or on the Internet. I also don’t read the newspaper. Why stuff my brain with violence and crime news daily, or what happened with someone, etc?! There’s a certain degree of programming these things and such news do within us, believe it or not. And, this is one of the reasons of incresing crimes in this world, since the last few decades, especially in the last decade.

I will have to rethink how to lessen the use of the computer and Internet since writing isn’t the only work I do, I have another niche – tech/web development.

But, as far as writing is concerned, I’m thinking of getting an old laptop (the one I had is almost half-dead) and never using it for e-mail or the web – just for writing, and even offline coding.

Cathy Miller in a comment above, refers to a smart phone as the brain. I say, a smartphone makes use of its brains to make our brains dumb. It’s true, isn’t it? Thank God, I don’t have the latest Android/Windows smartphone but an old Nokia smartphone, or things would have been worse.

Some commenters here and in your post about you not using the smartphone, have mentioned that they don’t have concentration problems. Not everyone will have concentration problems early. The ones who have weaker minds compared to those who have great concentration are the most affected/distracted by the Internet and smartphones.
Raspal Seni recently posted…How to Start a Blog/Website on a Shoe-string Budget?

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24 John Soares December 11, 2014 at 5:16 PM

The concentration issues build over time, and they are dependent on how much time we spend on the Internet and likely also how we interact with it.
John Soares recently posted…The Top 27 Ways to Boost Your Writing Willpower

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25 Manolis Athanasiadis December 13, 2014 at 3:34 AM

I don’t own a smartphone so I am on line only when I am at my laptop, which is good. I also do freelance writing as a part time job because my main profession is counseling as a psychologist (and that demands a lot of emotional awareness and being there with the other person…).

However, I have to admit that facebook takes up a lot of the time I could spend with friends and family and this is quite worrying… What I am trying to do to solve this is to just make sure everyday I spend plenty of hours away from the internet. I just turn off my laptop and that’s it. Also I believe reading books is a good way to increase somebody’s attention span, learn new ideas and enrich the understanding on various topics.

Maybe the situation in Greece is not as bad as in USA from this perspective because people still live in more traditional societies and communicate more face to face but this is changing fast especially in big cities…

Thanks for the great post John!
Manolis Athanasiadis recently posted…Introduction to Solar Energy

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26 John Soares December 13, 2014 at 7:16 AM

Manolis, I also read books quite a bit. Whenever possible, I’ll get the print version of a book rather than the Kindle or ebook version.

I’m fairly active on Facebook, but I usually limit it to about 10 minutes a day. It’s a good way to stay in touch with family and friends and to find out what’s happening in their lives.
John Soares recently posted…When and How a Freelance Writer Should Hire Help

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