After having finished Part 1 of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, I wasn’t entirely sold on the concept. Still, I didn’t want to write it off before giving the digital declutter a full and fair chance. I went a bit back and forth with myself before committing to it. I’ve mostly questioned the timing. Should I really reduce my digital presence in the midst of a pandemic? Wouldn’t some later point in time work better? In the end, I’ve drowned out these thoughts and ultimately committed to a full month of digital decluttering in May 2020.
In Chapter 3, “The Digital Declutter”, Cal Newport defines the process as such:
- Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
- During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
- At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.
Step 1 requires you to define your technology rules, in particular, which technologies you deem as “optional” in your life. What did I come up with?
My technology rules
I’ve prefaced all my technology rules with the following escape hatch: I’ve allowed myself to adjust any rules or to completely stop the experiment every Sunday, with the changes taking effect on Monday. In the end, I didn’t even come close to this scenario but it made me feel quite a bit more comfortable about embarking on this month-long journey.
I didn’t encounter many technologies I haven’t defined rules for but I wrote down the following questions to evaluate them when necessary: Would its temporary removal harm or signifcantly disrupt the daily operation of my life? Is it delivered through a screen? Does it entertain, inform, or connect? Does it support an offline activity (for example, using digital maps to plan a bike tour)? Does it solve a problem that would exist even without technology (for example, maps existed before phones did)?
I’ll check my email inbox once a day, in the evening, by opening Mail on my Mac and processing all emails. I’ll immediately move unimportant emails—especially those that don’t require any action—to my “Digital Declutter” folder. I’ll check my spam folder only once a week, on Sundays.
Most importantly, I’ve completely moved email off my iPhone. I think my account is still set up but I’ve moved the Mail app to some folder and haven’t opened it in a month. The processing part went well in the beginning but I began to slip halfway through. I still treat email a bit too much as my to-do list. This is probably exacerbated by the fact that I’m still unhappy about my task management situation.
I’m allowed to use text messaging, including iMessage and WhatsApp, as usual. I’ll mute a WhatsApp group for eight hours whenever I receive an unimportant message.
I didn’t use messaging services very extensively before but I also don’t fully buy into Cal Newport’s advice of always preferring face-to-face conversations or video and audio calls. About a year ago, I’ve tried completely turning off WhatsApp notifications, but I did actually miss out on stuff I would have liked to know about. I’ve remedied this in the past by purposefully and regularly checking WhatsApp but felt that this was a worse outcome than just having notifications enabled in the first place.
I won’t seek any news articles, both tech-related and otherwise. I’ll check coronavirus updates through ORF’s dedicated page once a week, on Sundays.
I never followed mainstream news much at all, however, the same cannot be said for tech news. Furthermore, various events have triggered an absurdly increase amount in consumption. For example, I’m not proud of checking several COVID-19 news tickers as often as multiple times an hour around the middle of March. As not to completely miss out on any developments, especially ones that do actually affect me, I’ve checked ORF’s dedicated page once a week.
I won’t listen to any podcasts.
I can’t definitely say whether podcasts have been some kind of issue for me in the past. It’s hard to fairly judge something when it’s been with you for over a decade—seriously, of some podcasts I haven’t missed a single episode in ten years. Other leisure habits, like watching TV shows, tend to ebb and flow and naturally take a back seat when on vacation. In contrast, podcasts always stuck with me.
Furthermore, I’ve noticed myself putting in my AirPods on more and more occasions. I’ve felt more comfortable taking a walk with an episode in my ears as opposed to being alone with my thoughts. Therefore, it only felt right to include podcasts in my digital declutter, even if they are not delivered through a screen.
Ironically, Cortex once covered the same topic where CGP Grey made similar arguments.
I won’t seek social networks such as Reddit and Twitter. I’m allowed to use Twitter for the sole purpose of responding to notifications I’ve received or posting a tweet of my own.
Over the last few years, social networks have been an up and down for me. In the early days of Twitter, I was actually a completionist and regularly caught up on every single tweet in my timeline. In recent years, I’ve significantly scaled back my Twitter usage but fell into a downward spiral from time to time. It usually started with one block of boredom here and there and quickly turned into extended scrolling sessions each evening. It didn’t hapen too often, though, and I’ve pulled myself out of those pretty easily, too.
Interestingly, I’ve started to browse Twitter again in the few days leading up to the start of this month of declutter. Talk about the psychology of wanting something you can’t have (or rather, something you’ll lose soon).
After a week or two, I’ve started receiving Twitter’s “In case you missed it” emails which “helpfully” notify you of tweets when you haven’t been on Twitter for a while. On top of that, you can’t even receive emails anymore when someone replies to you like you could in the good old days. It’s more than obvious where Twitter’s incentives lie with this design choice.
I won’t watch any videos of YouTube channels I’m subscribed to, any algorithmically recommended videos based upon my YouTube subscriptions, any Twitch video game streams, or any movies and TV shows. I’m allowed to watch videos with people I know and to support other activities.
Video is pretty easy to classify as “optional” and I wanted to specifically avoid falling into any kind of rabbit hole which YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is so good at serving up.
I won’t play any video games unless I’m playing with people I know or I’m playing for the purposes of fitness gaming.
In recent months, I haven’t attended my gaming hobby as much as I’ve used to but I felt like including it in order to cover all bases and to avoid replacing one lost technology with another. For example, I didn’t want to spend all my previous television time playing games instead.
If you’re wondering about “the purposes of fitness gaming”, I did pull out my virtual light sabers a couple of times as a fun alternative to a tradional workout.
I won’t read any web feeds through a feed reader.
I’ve been reading RSS feeds on and off ever since Google Reader has been a thing. I don’t necessarily subscribe to a huge amount of sites but I did notice how I tend to fill small slices of time with opening Reeder. Sometimes, doing so felt like tending to a dreadful to-do list. Moreover, I’ve stayed subscribed to some feeds simply because they wrote that one great post two years ago.
All things considered, my adherence to the above technology rules went pretty great and easier than assumed. On the downside, I don’t feel too exhilarated about any supposed upsides. In other words, while step 1—taking a break from optional technologies—worked out quite well, step 2—exploring and rediscovering satisfying and meaningful activities and behaviors—didn’t go quite as planned.
I am very much interested in step 3 though: reintroducing optional technologies, starting from a blank slate. I’m looking forward to not just end some kind of digital detox but to deliberately and consciously reintroduce specific technologies. For example, by not subscribing to feeds which don’t add more value than attention they draw or by continuing to check my email inbox just once a day.