The loon’s wail mixes with the sounds of my keyboard. My typing is interrupted by a rustle in the leaves and as I glance outside, I see lightening across the lake. A storm is coming.
I turn my attention back to my computer. My paper is due in the evening and the deadline will not wait for me to watch the storm. I scroll through the pages, rereading and rewriting, revising and editing, preparing the final draft.
Finally, the paper is finished, and I save it before shutting down my computer. I drive to the community center, the one place within 30 minutes that has cell service. I quickly use my phone to turn on the WiFi hotspot and send my paper through cyberspace to my professor.
My home for the last six months has been a fewer-than-300-square-foot space in Northern Minnesota shared with my partner and dog. We have no Wi-Fi and no cell service, and we didn’t have running water for two months this spring.
However, what we lack in indoor amenities is compensated for by our access to wilderness. Our little home is nestled among old-growth white pine and cedar trees, and a pristine lake sits just outside our window.
It has been difficult to be a medical student in 2020. Nearly all medical students have been moved online for a portion of their learning. Lacking Wi-Fi and cell service, I’ve found daily Zooms and online modules to be a bit more challenging to complete than they are for other students. I often sit in my car at the community center with Zoom on my phone while I take notes by hand with a notebook propped up against the steering wheel. I have inadvertently honked at others in at the center more than a few times!
It can be frustrating when I have to drive 30 minutes round-trip just to turn in an assignment or when I have to explain why my Zoom background doesn’t look professional. Other days, I have been expected at a Zoom session, but the limited cell service isn’t sufficient, so I either miss the session or am significantly late as I have to drive the extra 30 minutes into a more reliable coverage area.
The pros that outweigh the cons
Despite these challenges, I have loved every moment of my semi off-grid life.
Not having cell service is quite magnificent. Suddenly you feel free. Without notifications to pull your attention away from the task at hand, your focus becomes more intense. I answer emails during a specific time of the day, which means I avoid constantly replying to nonurgent messages that could easily wait until tomorrow.
Instead of disappearing into endless blue-light entertainment, one can disappear down a hiking trail, bike trail, or into a good book. Your ears are filled with bird songs and the sound of the wind rather than the theme songs of bingeworthy TV.
My time without cell service has shown me how reliant we are on our phones and how we place too much urgency on technological forms of communication rather than appreciating the current moment. It may not be feasible for all medical students and physicians to only have their phones on for a few hours a day, but I bet we all could turn our phones off for a few hours each day, or even a few hours each week.
I invite you to experience the lightness and peace that accompanies being free from all else but the current moment. We could all benefit from a few hours in the woods alone, or at least from a few hours without the constant vibration of technology.
A powerful study tool
In addition to helping me feel more relaxed and centered, not having internet has also been a powerful study tool for me. When I was living “on the grid” and studying for my initial boards, I deleted my social media accounts to avoid distractions. Now, there are no such distractions as I study for my upcoming exams. I download my study materials so I don’t have to rely on Wi-Fi.
If I’m going to lose my focus, it will be because a moose is walking through our driveway or because the thimbleberries growing in my yard are calling to be picked and eaten.
Without the distractions of social media, Google, texting, online shopping and everything else on the internet, I’ve felt my priorities shift and my time begin to widen. I tend to complete my work more quickly now and have more time to enjoy my day. And instead of craving a mind-numbing break, I find myself craving more and more time outside.
I will be moving soon for rotations and will have Wi-Fi and cell service again during residency interview season, but I am planning to continue using the internet as minimally as possible even when I once again have 24/7 access to it.
I realize that my lifestyle will not be feasible for most of us, but if you’re trying to focus on studying or a project, I recommend that you experiment with turning off your Wi-Fi and your phone for a few hours while you work.