I recently finished reading Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
Cal Newport describes Digital Minimalism as:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
Explained in more detail, Newport writes:
This process requires you to step away from optional online activities for thirty days. During this period, you’ll wean yourself from the cycles of addiction that many digital tools can instill, and begin to rediscover the analog activities that provide you deeper satisfaction. You’ll take walks, talk to friends in person, engage your community, read books, and stare at the clouds. Most importantly, the declutter gives you the space to refine your understanding of the things you value most. At the end of the thirty days, you will then add back a small number of carefully chosen online activities that you believe will provide a massive benefit to these things you value.
I work in technology and found it very easy to justify a lot of online activities. I had to dig deeper to look at what was “really” essential. I would get distracted by a news headline automatically popping up on my browser when navigating to a work website. A lot of people’s jobs require them to be doing computer work most of their day. The news organizations, corporations, and politicians know this and take full advantage. They help perpetuate a cycle of addiction that you may not realize you’re a part of.
What is this cycle of addiction? One of the big unique selling propositions of NX is something we call the NX Analysis. It’s a consulting product that utilizes neurobiology to reverse engineer the strategies companies like Facebook or Venmo used to get people to become addicted to their apps. The app and internet world, the news cycles, and the big media companies all utilize similar techniques to tap into how your brain operates to better sell to you or get you to engage with them. These cycles of addiction, like quitting cigarette smoking, need to be broken. The way to break them is through Digital Minimalism.
In my 30 days, I agreed to do the following:
- Remove work email and other trivial apps from my phone
- Delete both Facebook and Instagram from my phone, to stop the habit of “checking”
- Twitter use for 30 minutes a day, professional only. Check other notifications at this time too.
- Remove the News App from phone, no following public news
- Netflix/TV doesn’t start until the last hour of the day
I couldn’t safely delete all social media or turn off social media for 30 days (since a lot of work revolves are some social media websites). I also couldn’t completely turn off the laptop every day, since programming without a computer is pretty hard. I did want to focus on only using technology for the necessities, and the results were pretty crazy!
The First Week
The first week was pretty eye-opening for me. I was surprised at how often I found myself mindlessly trying to find one of the news apps I had deleted. Or absentmindedly pulling out my phone to log into Instagram. I didn’t realized how often I’d get lost in “work” emails or (more accurately) mindlessly scrolling through social media while waiting for a meeting to start. Removing those apps from my phone meant I had to sit down and do things (like email) in batches. It meant I had to be more focused on my time, and I couldn’t just feel productive by swiping furiously on my phone to feel “caught up.”
I did get nervous about looking like I wasn’t working. I work in a culture where people expect near instant replies to emails. It was good to find that exactly 0 people of the hundreds of emails I get a day noticed. I spent far less time in the email inbox (since it was in batches) and overall felt freer. I was able to focus on getting projects done, and not get lost in the day-to-day interruptions that come in the form of emails or Slack messages.
- In my professional life, I was more nose-to-the-grindstone and working on projects, rather than responding to trivial matters via text or email
- In my professional life, I noticed I spent more time being more meticulous about the endless and incessant meetings we fill our days with.
- In the personal life, I didn’t realize how much time my wife and I spent in the last 2 – 3 hours of the day just milling around, doing minor work stuff, watching TV shows, and not really being present. This time instead was filled with reading, more engaged time, and more time to work on hobbies and projects
The Second Week
In the second week, I found that I was losing the habit of using my phone for mindless time spent. I didn’t just pull up my phone to mindlessly scroll through Instagram subconsciously, and I quit trying to see the latest headlines every time I opened my phone. I kept my phone on less, and my screen time was reduced by almost 50% compared to the prior week. Like emails, I responded to trivial text messages in batch, and wasn’t always on my phone.
If I had a few minutes to spare I’d pull up a book I was reading on my phone instead, and enjoyed getting more light reading done. My wife and I both noticed the increase in productivity and “finding the time” when we cut down our Netflix time to the end of the day. Here, however, the extra time started to get replaced poorly. I found myself lost in trivial clerical items at work and realized I needed to make use of the time at the end of the days better. I started reading more and spending time on music (my favorite hobby).
Third Week, and Forth Week
By the third and forth week I woke up with a similar feeling of when I actually had quit smoking. I suddenly realized it’d been a while since I needed any of my addictions. I realized I was no longer a smoker. I realized that I didn’t have the need to go onto Instagram or Facebook. I just politely laughed and told people “I don’t watch the news, can you tell me about it?” when asked for my opinion on a favorite story. I found out that I was still completely involved in current events, and didn’t really need the news to hear about what was going on. I started to look at politicians a lot different when reading their websites or sales pitches without it being bombarded at me. Not being a slave to the constant notifications was nourishment for the soul. I knew that when the 30 days was up, there were going to be some changes.
As with most sudden shocks to a system, after the second week and after being done with the digital minimalism, some things stuck and some things went back to normal. I still have a self talk every few months to remind myself the “inbox” isn’t the be all end all of whether or not you’re successful. Even though I kept the app notifications turned off on my phone, I found myself replacing that with the desktop version of the inbox. I’d leave it open at all times and every time that familiar “ding” came in, I dropped what I was doing to reply to an unnecessary email.
I slowly added back all the apps and a few months later found myself exactly where I was before.
This time, however, I made some more permanent changes. Much like the gal who decides that, while the crash diet didn’t work, healthy eating and daily exercise was a mindset, I changed my mindset towards apps once and for all.
Here is what has stuck:
- I am very selective at what apps are allowed to send me notifications. Basically, no apps send me notifications after working hours. During working hours it’s few and far between
- At the end of every work day, I turn off all notifications for emails and all notifications for instant messaging systems (Slack or Teams)
- I don’t use Twitter anymore. I mean what the hell even is Twitter? How did we let an app with such a toxic culture and vibe control so much of how we think and feel?
- I have removed all news delivery apps from my phone and don’t check the news on any medium. If I install a new browser or app that displays headlines, the first thing I do is remove that
- I have kept Facebook deleted and was able to reign in my Instagram surfing to a few times a day to check up on messages or do some funny posts. I log into Facebook once a week or so to clear notifications
- I stick to an hour or less of Netflix/TV 99% of the days
- I process all work email and personal email in batches a couple of times a day
Updated in 2021 Note:
I re-read this article after 2020, and the importance of controlling what you are fed every day is higher now than it ever has been before. I highly recommend reading Digital Minimalism, as a way to combat this ever growing 24/7 technology connected cycle. If there is one thing we all did in 2020, it was treat our phones and access to the internet as a form of life support.
It all seemed so important to be plugged in, but it really isn’t. The months leading up to World War II were terrible for Leonard and Virginia Woolf as they “helplessly and hopelessly” watched events unfold. In Leonard Woolf’s memoir, Downhill All the Way, he noted that one of the most horrible things was listening to Hitler on the radio—“the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful.”
One afternoon, he was planting purple irises in the orchard under an apple tree.
“Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window.”
Hitler was making another speech. But Leonard had had enough.
“I shan’t come!” he shouted back to Virginia. “I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.’”
And he was right. Leonard noted twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those purple flowers still bloomed in the orchard under the apple tree.
As Newport wrote in Digital Minimalism:
Most importantly, the declutter gives you the space to refine your understanding of the things you value most.
The media cycle we buy into is created in a way to make us feel fearful. When we are fearful and click on their articles, share their outrage porn, and buy into their narrative (whichever side you support) you are giving them what they really want. The money to keep feeding you fear, outrage, and shock. Right at the start of the Civil War, William Sherman said he laid the blame of the war, “…at the feet of politicians, north and south, who pandered to the prejudices and ignorance of their constituents and placed the interests of self and party above the well-being of the nation.”
We are at a time where the prejudices and ignorance of our work leaders, our politicians, our friends, our family, and the whole collective is readily accessible to you 24/7. If you don’t set boundaries to control and and filter where your attention is going through the philosophies of digital minimalism, you will allow all of their opinions and drama to reach you at anytime.