In May 2020, I partook in a month of digital declutter as described in Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism book. As the point of this exercise wasn’t just 30 days of digital detoxing but rather being more mindful about my usage of technology, I’d like to review its long-term effects—now, half a year later.
Usually, I check my email inbox once a day. I never check my emails on my iPhone; my Mail app is in some folder with notifications turned off. I’ve started this arrangement in May and have been happy with it since then.
However, I’m noticing some difficulties from time to time. For example, I don’t want to see all new messages because some service sent me a login code. Similarly, I don’t want to be distracted by other emails when opening Mail to reply to one specific message. I’m thinking of turning off any automatic refresh, so I can at least open Mail without new messages coming in.
Although rarely, I did have some slip-ups where I’ve read one COVID-19 news article too many or visited one tech news site after the next. Other than that, I’m still trying to only read tech news as part of my feeds and to only check COVID-19 updates once a week.
During some phases, that wasn’t even often enough. Some regulations were announced and enacted in shorter time spans. I’m now experimenting with “scheduling” checking for updates in advance. After all, as long as it’s not an impulsive stroll from one newspaper to the next, I’m not too worried. (I wish there was an RSS feed which spares me all the speculations and drama and just keeps me informed on any really important developments.)
I’ve completely banned podcasts in May. I don’t regret doing so but I’m also happy they are back. It was funny to open Podcasts for the first time after one month: animations went wild and years-old episodes starting showing up. It certainly didn’t expect me coming back after all this time.
Having withheld for one month gave me a clearer perspective on my subscriptions. Consequently, some podcasts I’ve unsubscribed right away and, after some contemplating, I even dropped one which I’d been listening to for almost a decade.
In general, I’m now less stressed about my “inbox”. Previously, I’ve set a strange benchmark: I’ve always tried to “work off” my list of unheard episodes but as soon as I’ve reached inbox zero, I became bored and looked for more episodes to listen to.
I’m never checking my Twitter timeline. However, I’m sometimes getting sucked into other parts of Twitter—either by coming across a single user’s profile or by receiving Twitter’s “In case you missed it” notifications. I still wish there was a setting to get rid of these emails and to actually receive emails when someone replies to you. However, my behavior probably just gives more weight to their supposed target: “In case you missed it” drives engagement.
To put it bluntly, YouTube has been my biggest downfall. While it took me over two months to actually open it again, it quickly ramped up from there and I found myself mindlessly spending evening after evening on YouTube.
My main mistake might have been not to set any clear rules. In comparison to my twice-a-week rule for feeds, I didn’t set anything specific for videos—perhaps because I foolishly believed I wouldn’t fall back into it. Finally, two weeks ago, I put an end to it and designated two days per week to YouTube. Funnily, I haven’t even made use of them since then.
Furthermore, I’m now prioritizing content with high production value. For example, it’s really easy to spend hours on Twitch streams and Let’s Plays because they are a second-by-second live stream, without any editing. In comparison, TV show episodes are edited tirelessly and are clearly constrained in their length. In other words, before spending an entire evening on Twitch, I now much rather watch a 40-minute episode on Netflix.
As with Podcasts, I completely abandoned my feed reader in May. Upon opening it for the first time in June, there were over 500 unread items. As not to check them too often and to avoid reestablishing its earlier role of the go-to application whenever I had a few minutes to spare, I set a boundary of two days per week. I also don’t mind as much if my inbox isn’t empty anymore; it’s rather a friendly nudge to get rid of some subscriptions.
While drafting this post, some changes came to my mind that I almost forgot were even a thing before May. For example, I’m no longer listening to podcasts when falling asleep. Previously, it’s been a frequent habit of mine to repeatedly rewind the sleep timer until I’ve dozed off. Similarly, I’m no longer distracting myself at meals. Previously, I’ve frequently put on some TV show or listened to a podcast episode while eating dinner.
For sure, I’ve also been reading more books this year than ever before. It’s usually my number one
time killer time-filler when my above rules won’t allow for anything else. I’m not sure whether that’s positive though. Who’s to say books are better than TV shows or video games? And shouldn’t I instead spend my time more intentionally on other projects? After all, Cal Newport put a big emphasis on “exploring and rediscovering activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful”. If I’m just restricting my use of technology for the sake of it, where’s the purpose in that?