“Checking your “likes” is the new smoking.”
This post is a follow-up to one I wrote back in August of 2018 about how I was struggling to find that balance between living life without being chained to technology. I love technology as much as the next person, even have degrees related to tech and lots of professional experience working in IT and adtech (maybe part of the reason why I know how bad it can get), but for a few years, I couldn’t help the feeling that technology was taking over my life and it wasn’t for the best. Since last year, I’ve practiced a lot of the tips I mentioned in the original post and have successfully kept my phone out of the bedroom for almost 99% of the time, stuck to no cable for another year (going on 7 years now) and have kept a minimal set of tech at home. With the exception of the Nest, no new gadgets have entered our home. I still couldn’t help the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough. I still felt distracted and not as focused. This past week, I finally picked up Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and found so many interesting strategies in there to help find focus amidst the chaos of the digital attention economy.
First of all, I love that this book was written by a computer scientist because it’s not just some luddite (someone who is opposed to tech) wanting all of us to get off our technology, but to really hone in on where the value is. Cal Newport is also making the rounds in the podcast circuit and his insight into focused work is resonating with me right now. The book doesn’t provide quick tips and tricks on how to get off Instagram or Facebook or Reddit, but offers strategies to get you to focus your time on more value-added internet browsing and participation. It asks you to experiment and try things out for 30 days and you know I love these 30 day projects. Check those out here if you need monthly project ideas.
The book is set into two parts. A Foundation part where he lays the groundwork early on the current state of technology, what digital minimalism means and how to do a digital declutter. The second part is called Practices where he provides strategies on how to further lock down your digital minimalism practices.
This post contains affiliate links. See Disclosures for details.
Digital Attention Economy
Before diving into some of the strategies for executing a successfully digital declutter, let’s talk about the current state of tech. We are living in a digital attention economy meaning that companies everywhere are vying for our time, eyeballs and money in order to become successful and make a profit. The easiest example of course that come to mind are Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. because these are easily companies that we interact with on a daily basis and with market caps in the billions, they require our attention to survive. The one thing we have to understand is that all of the tech that we see today has been engineered and designed to be addictive. They are the new tobacco of our age. A great read into this is the book: Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. I would highly recommend this book if you want to learn some of the ways today’s apps are being engineered to keep us scrolling and liking for hours on end. The secret is to play with the reward system in our simple brains to release small dopamine hits without us ever realizing it (or maybe we do but just don’t want to admit it). “‘Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business.’ Attention-catching notification badges, or the satisfying way a single finger swipe swoops in the next potentially interesting post, are often carefully tailored to elicit strong responses.”
Part of my frustration with all of technology apps is how unproductive it makes me. I’ve succumbed to the compulsive need to check my feeds, to scroll and to take out my phone at any instance where I have free time. Of course, a lot of it I can control, but a lot of it has also been designed to us to be on all the time and if we aren’t on, we are seen as a social media outcast. The more I do read about how to leverage today’s current tech for more added value work and leisure, the more convinced I am that a digital declutter is the right move for me personally.
Strategies and Practices for a Digital Declutter
In the book, the author goes right into the act of Digital Minimalism and Declutter. The second chapter is all about how to go about doing this. I think deep down, he knows we know why we need to do it. So what exactly is Digital Minimalism, Newport defines it 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.” If you read carefully, it’s very much inline with the definition of minimalism. People sometimes mistake minimalism as about being about stuff, but it is not. It’s about focusing on the things that you value and removing everything else. Sometimes, we don’t know what we value until we get rid of all of the things (the distractions) and hone in on what makes us happy, alive and truly connected.
3 Principles of Digital Minimalism:
Clutter is costly.
I’ve written about this often about how clutter, especially in the context of things/objects not only costs us money, but time, freedom, and mental energy and the same goes for digital clutter too. We live in a noisy world and it is easy to get distracted with everything vying for our attention.
Optimization is important.
Whether it’s a new tech product or application or a new object brought into the home, we have to think about how it will be used. Will it be useful 2 weeks from now. There’s a question I often ask when I bring something into my home “How will this item affect the way I use my time?” It’s a spin on understanding if this really adds value.
Intentionality is satisfying.
We need to understand that everything in our lives should have a purpose.
The Digital Declutter Process
Put aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
During this break, explore and rediscover activities that you find satisfying and meaningful.
At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technology back into your life starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and maximize this value and utility.
Newport goes on to provide examples of how others have weaned off some of these technology and how others reintroduced it. I encourage you to read this portion carefully and find your own ways to rediscover a more meaningful relationship with your tech products. I’ve listed some of what I’ve done for my declutter process below.
One of the things that I love about this book is that it just doesn’t stop at the decluttering portion. The big call to action in this book is actually #2 of the Digital Declutter Process in which he encourages the reader to rediscover an activity that is satisfying and meaningful, essentially asking us to replace all of that time we spend on tech, apps and social media with an activity that provides more value to in the long-run. He goes in to describe a few practices to follow such as “Spend Time Alone” which another former techno-geek highly recommends. You can read more about that in this post Making the Case for Solitude. Second is the call to engage in real-life conversation instead of passive “Likes.” Meeting someone for coffee and lunch for a life update it turns is more meaningful than liking all of their life update posts. Thirdly is to be OK with leisure. Leisure can lead to more productive pursuits which in the long-run lead to happier lives. Instead of spending free time on passive consumption, let’s focus instead on using our skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. An act that many of us no longer do because we are too busy consuming instead of producing. You can’t build a $500 billion business like Facebook if you are constantly on Facebook. This also goes back to a bit about frugal living and instead of outsourcing all of our lives to someone else that we reclaim them and do things ourselves so that we can learn new skills, meet new people and learn to navigate the world in a more self-sufficient way. Lastly, it’s being OK with doing nothing or doing something simple. Busy is a choice so we have to be mindful of that.
What could you do if you replace all of the time you spend on social media? Could you start a business? Could you learn a new skill? Could you find a new job that pays more and that you love? Could you spend more time with your spouse or children?
Ready to reclaim your space and time?
Join Project: Be Minimal
FREE program hosted via email to try out Minimalism
The Financial Independence Community
I was surprised to see in the book mention of the Financial Independence Community. Disclaimer that I also write and own another website called Sisters for Financial Independence that focuses on educating women on strategies towards financial independence. Newport even mentions Thoreau in the earlier chapters where Thoreau shares his expense table and contrasts the costs of his basic needs with the hourly wages he could earn with his labor. The question comes up: “How much of his time must be sacrificed to support this minimalist lifestyle? The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long-run.”
Being constantly on our phones and social media has its implications. Instead of doing, we continue to be passively consuming. Instead of changing our lives or in this case, figuring out how to optimize our finances, we numb ourselves with scrolling instead of actually taking action. We compare ourselves to others. We automatically think things are impossible instead of trying it out ourselves. In the case of those who are in the FI community, many after working and saving to have a sizeable nest egg find themselves being productive on pursuits that they might have never thought to do. Instead of replacing the free time with scrolling content, many have opted to start second businesses that they are more passionate about, that provides not only a continuous income but also better connections and conversations. So its interesting to see how interrelated everything is.
Personal Action Items I’ve Taken
After reading the book, I immediately started taking a few action items. This is in addition to my original list here. I’m hoping the upside is more focused work which will allow me to write more and spend more quality time with people.
I use Mozilla Firefox for most of my internet browsing and Firefox has this feature called Pocket which suggests interesting articles for me to read based on past interactions. I used to spend a good amount of time clicking through this, going down the rabbit hole of similar articles. It would be 10-20 minutes before I navigate to the very reason why I opened the browser in the first place. I’ve turned this feature off so that it loads a blank tab with no potentially distracting articles to click on. Seems so simple, but an easy workaround.
Facebook has been installed on and off on my smartphone for the past year. I have finally deleted it once and for all. If you also have noticed, Facebook is heavily promoting the use of Groups so for a period of time, my News Feed was inundated with posts from the groups I belonged to. After carefully reading through some of them, I now found that a lot of the groups no longer provide me value. While there was apprehension of missing out on a good topic discussion, the larger the group becomes, the more the topics seem to circulate on the same thing and many topics are now very elementary and basic to me that I no longer feel it adds value. So the next step for me with Facebook was to leave Groups, unlike Pages and mute Group activity to see if I am missing out on it. So far it’s kept my feed clean and only to the ones I want to see so I am not spending too much time scrolling which I also only do when I am on my computer. The added upside too is that I now see more of my friends updates which before were lost in the cluttered chatter.
I’m now in the process of carefully deciding if I should keep or even downsize my social media use for my business and this blog. I’m weighing the value derived between how much time I spend on it and the returns. That I think is the essential part of all of this is to run your own cost-benefit analysis to see if social media really provides the returns that you expected and are looking for.
Motherhood and Digital Minimalism
As I am also entering into a new stage of motherhood with the arrival of our first baby in July, I’m now more conscious of how I use technology. I don’t want it to replace the time that I have with the baby or be so bogged down with the need to share and document that I actually don’t stop to enjoy the small moments. Digital minimalism is an exercise I am trying to practice now before the baby arrives so that I am better prepared.