On Digital Minimalism

In an episode of the 1960s era Twilight Zone, a career criminal named Henry is killed in a shootout with police. He awakens in the afterlife in the presence of a smiling man who guides him to a nearby casino. The casino is full of beautiful people, an abundance of delicious food, and a roulette wheel that always lands on Henry’s number. Initially, Henry is overjoyed at his luck, but after a month of wining, dining, and winning, he becomes unbearably bored and remarks to the man, “if this is Heaven, I’d almost rather be in the other place.” The man replies, “This is the other place.”

We’re faced with a similar dilemma in 2019. We find ourselves in a paradoxical time in which we have an abundance of connections to anyone in the world via our smartphones, yet simultaneously feel distant from each other, distracted, and overwhelmed. Recently, I read Cal Newport’s book, “Digital Minimalism,” and I decided to rethink my relationship with technology. Newport emphasizes prioritizing a few strong connections over many weak ones with people in our lives, pursuing activities that require a deeper sense of focus, and generally being more mindful and intentional about our use of technology. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the problems I was trying to solve in my own life, how I solved them, and what the results were afterward.

To start off with, hi, my name is David and I’m a technology addict. If you look around my small apartment, you’d see 3 Alexas and at least 7 screens. I’m not quite to the level of camping out at the Apple Store when the new iPhone comes out, but I’m close. I’m known to use Google to fact check in the middle of a conversation. I spend at least 9 hours of a typical day in front of a screen just for work, and countless more beyond that.

After reading “Digital Minimalism,” I realized that my relationship with technology had become dysfunctional. I often felt overwhelmed and distracted. If a coworker sent me a message at work, I would immediately drop whatever I was doing to respond, and then I’d forget what I was working on previously. I was not immune to getting a sense of FOMO every time I looked at my Facebook news feed. I was prone to spend a not insignificant amount of time compulsively refreshing Facebook to see if anyone else liked my most recent post. During any downtime in my day, I engaged in tons of mindless scanning of headlines, retweeting, and checking Gmail way too often. And yes, while spending time with a friend, I would sometimes pull out my phone as a crutch during a lull in the conversation. A consequence of all of this was that my brain never got a break. At the end of many days, I’d feel drained, even though it sometimes felt like I hadn’t accomplished a lot.

In essence, the problems I identified around my use of technology were that I didn’t have clear boundaries around how quickly I would respond to messages, I was unsatisfied with my ability to focus at work, and I was feeling distracted and overwhelmed. I employed several strategies suggested in the book to address these. One suggestion that Newport makes is to do a “digital decluttering,” in which you aggressively cut out distracting technology from your life and add back only what’s useful. I deleted Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, and Twitter from my phone. I installed them on an iPad at home, so I could still use them if I felt a need to, but in a more limited manner. I exported my Facebook events as a subscription in my calendar app, so I could still get the benefit of knowing when events were happening without having to log in as frequently. I did keep Facebook Messenger so that I could stay in contact with people; I was primarily trying to avoid mindlessly skimming my News Feed.

Another suggestion Newport makes is to batch up distracting activities. Instead of responding immediately to coworkers and text messages, I decided to batch those up at regular intervals. I came up with a contract with myself where I would respond to text messages within two hours, and Slack messages from coworkers within 30 minutes. The rest of the time, I put my phone and computer into “do not disturb” mode, and I would periodically check messages during breaks from working. Most of my coworkers are in the office, so if it’s genuinely an emergency they can just walk over to my desk. And the “do not disturb” mode on my phone allows calls from contacts through, so if someone does need to get ahold of me sooner, they’re able to.

These changes were all fairly recent, but I’m pleased so far with the results. I feel like I’m more productive, mindful, and present with the people around me. I had some concerns initially that I wouldn’t be keeping up with friends as well if I cut down my news feed consumption, but those were unfounded. It’s just as easy to find out what someone did last weekend by talking to them, and many of the friends I follow on social media I see regularly in real life.

Early on, I’d find myself wanting to know how many people liked a recent post I’d made, but then I’d remember that I didn’t have the app on my phone. That pause was enough to give me room to realize that it didn’t matter that much to me. It’s amazing how easy it is to tame an impulse like that by just making things a little less accessible. Google did a recent study in which they found that employee consumption of M&Ms decreased by 3.1 million calories when they just placed them in opaque containers. I do still log into Facebook, but once every few days on my computer and mostly just to check events. As for messages, I learned that probably 99% of things do not require the urgency I was giving them. Not responding right away has allowed me to concentrate on what I’m doing for longer periods of time, and I’ve felt much more productive at work. Less frequent switching of activities and checking of my phone seems to have given my brain a break. At the end of the day, I feel a lot more relaxed.

The world is only going to continue getting more connected. 5G networks are rolling out, Elon Musk is launching 12,000 Internet satellites into orbit, we all have more and more smart devices on our wrists and in our homes. There is fierce competition for our attention, and that will only intensify in the coming years. I’m glad I took the time to evaluate my relationship with technology, and I encourage you to consider the role you want it to play in your life. To conclude with a quote from the book, “we cannot passively allow the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel. We must instead take steps to extract the good from these technologies while sidestepping what’s bad. We require a philosophy that…prioritizes long-term meaning over short-term satisfaction. A philosophy, in other words, like digital minimalism.”