My Intro to Digital Minimalism
I didn't plan for this weekend at the end of September to be a time of self-reflection. It was supposed to be a nice break away from the city to enjoy some trees. However, the book I decided to take along for the weekend was Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
This book ended up speaking to me in a lot of ways, not because I knew I had any kind of problem with social media (I don't use it a huge amount), but because I had started to have a mild feeling of general anxiety. I wouldn't say I'm anxious, but I would say that I don't feel at ease in my day-to-day. The way Cal describes the problems that people have with connectedness and the lifestyle that people who are disconnected have spoken to me and made me want to try this thing called Digital Minimalism.
I'll start by recording some of the motivating quotes that attracted me to the idea (if only just for me to be able to refer back to and re-affirm my goal). While reading this book, I highlighted 41 sections. Some of them are describing issues, some of them are describing solutions. Either way, I'll try to limit the quotes to the most impactful ones to me.
The following quote is in a chapter on solitude, and why it's an important quality to regularly obtain for both mental health, and deep thought:
Solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen.
Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.
- Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (p. 94). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
I can quite confidently say that I have almost no solitude at any point in my life. During the mornings I often read the news or Reddit, during work I regularly check emails and Slack, at lunchtime I watch YouTube videos, and in the evenings I spend time with my lovely wife and watch more YouTube or movies or play video games. Even while exercising, I almost always listen to music to distract myself from having a moment of boredom, which brings me to my next quote:
The failed fight against cell phones in movie theaters is a specific consequence of a more general shift that’s occurred over the past decade: the transformation of the cell phone from an occasionally useful tool to something we can never be apart from. This rise of cell phone as vital appendage is supported by many different explanations.
Young people, for example, worry that even temporary disconnection might lead them to miss out on something better they could be doing. Parents worry that their kids won’t be able to reach them in an emergency. Travelers need directions and recommendations for places to eat. Workers fear the idea of being both needed and unreachable. And everyone secretly fears being bored.
- Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (p. 113). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Fighting this sense of boredom is definitely a common starter to smartphone use for me, often in a sequence of events as described later in the book:
Many people now consume news by cycling through a set sequence of websites and social media feeds. If you’re interested in politics, for example, and lean toward the left side of the political spectrum, this sequence might go from CNN.com, to the New York Times homepage, to Politico, to the Atlantic, to your Twitter feed, and finally to your Facebook timeline. If you’re into technology, Hacker News and Reddit might be in that list. If you’re into sports, you’ll include ESPN.com and team-specific fan pages, and so on.
Crucial to this news consumption habit is the ritualistic nature of the sequence. You don’t make a conscious decision about each of the sites and feeds you end up visiting; instead, once the sequence is activated, it unfolds on autopilot. The slightest hint of boredom becomes a trip wire to activate this whole hulking Rube Goldberg apparatus.
- Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (p. 238). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Cal relates this back to the "digital attention" economy which involves all the businesses that profit due to our habits of checking our phones incessantly. I definitely relate to this "hulking Rube Goldberg apparatus" of my attention-sink.
On a more philosophical note, late in the book Cal asks whether this behaviour was ever really what we wanted:
As noted in an earlier chapter, Henry David Thoreau’s reaction to the telegraph boom that followed Morse’s 1844 demonstration was to remark that we’re so eager to build a line between Maine and Texas that we never stopped to ask why these two states needed to be connected in the first place.
Though dated in its particulars, this same sentiment applies well to our current age of social media and smartphones. First Facebook, then the iPhone: compulsive communicating and connecting—supported by mysterious, almost magical innovations in radio modulation and fiber-optic routing—swept our culture before anyone had the presence of mind to step back and re-ask Thoreau’s fundamental question: To what end?
- Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (pp. 251-252). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
This resonates with me, because I don't currently glean some deep satisfaction from the time I spend on my phone or watching YouTube. So, to what end am I doing these activities? Is it because I actually want to do this things, or because at each moment I'm too lazy or afraid of being bored in order to either allow my brain time to process it's own thoughts or come up with something more engaging and satisfying.
I'll cover later the activities I want to replace this low-quality smartphone time with, but for now, I'll just mention that one of Cal's largest objections with social media is that it's a low-quality way of communicating with other human beings which is almost entirely what "social" media is trying to make you think it's doing. The following section resonated with something that I'd personally like to spend more time doing: speaking to people.
The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call—so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions.
Anything textual or non-interactive—basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging—doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection. In this philosophy, connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.
- Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (pp. 147-148). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
So, those motivating quotes out the way. I'd like to try and quantify my starting point. Just how much time do I spend on these activities, how many interruptions do they cause, and just how "cluttering" are they?
Social Media Platforms
The social platforms I currently regularly use are:
- Facebook and Facebook Messenger
- Hacker News
- Twitter (2 accounts)
- Slack (Work)
Additionally, other common resources filling similar spans of time are:
- Google News
- BBC News
- The Economist
- Email (Personal and Work)
My unintentional use of all of the above is fairly unbounded. I can flit between these apps for as many hours in my day as need filled. All of them are available from the homepage on my phone, and all of them are regularly used (to varying degrees).
Let's take a look at what causes the most notifications on my phone using the Digital Wellbeing feature on Android:
- Google (~44 notifications per day). I believe this is primarily the persistent "weather" notification that gets automatically updated (~26 notifications per day), although there are also ~12 "topics of interest" notifications per day and ~1 stock price notification per day.
- Google Play Store (~41 notifications per day) Primarily "app update" notifications that come and go automatically, telling me what is currently being updated.
- Podcast Addict (~18 notifications per day) Primarily "podcast update" notifications giving me update/download progress for all my followed podcasts. This also provides ~2 "new episode" notifications per day on average.
- Facebook Messenger (~14 notifications per day)
- Camera (~13 notifications per day) This will be recently inflated due to my holiday, but each notification is a transient notification telling me that HDR processing is in-progress.
- Google Maps (~13 notifications per day) Mostly "offline maps being updated" notifications, but there are many other types in here, such as suggestions to leave reviews, or uploads photos.
- Discord (~11 per day)
- A further 21 apps that give me at least one notification per day
- And a further 15 apps that give me at least one notification per week
Including the real numbers for those 21 apps I skipped over, each week this adds up to... 1457 notifications per week! That's 1457 unnecessary intrusions in an average week, with work apps adding another 91 per week. Now, this number is somewhat dramatised as I mostly keep my phone on silent, so each notification does not amount to a new distraction (thank god) - however, this does indicate that there is a lot of "eye candy" for my brain to get distracted by every time I look at my phone.
My personal email isn't a huge time sink, but it's definitely non-zero so I'll at least try to quantify it (my work email, on the other hand, is a monstrosity). With a couple of clicks to sign up for a free trial, emailanalytics.com can give me the past 7 days of data visualised for my Gmail accounts - which is a lot more than I can say about Gmail's interface. The real piece of information I'm looking for though is the number of emails received in the last 7 days, which is 61 for one account, and 25 for the other.
As I said, I don't think it's that much of a problem, but it is something I regularly check to see if there are any new emails I need to deal with, and I check this far more often than I need to.
Using the "Time Watched" feature in the YouTube app, I can somewhat quantify my YouTube usage over a week (excluding the videos watched on my wife's account). This shows in the last 7 days I watched an average of 1 hour 25 mins of YouTube per day, which was down 91% from the previous week (likely because I didn't watch anything during this weekend at a farm). Let's call it 2 hours per day average. That's 2 hours every day I could be doing more high-quality leisure activities, or being more productive in the non-work areas of my life. I don't watch YouTube during working hours, so I expect this time has little-to-no effect on my work habits.
Turning My Phone Into A Tool, Not For Content Consumption
The first step I'd like to take is to make my phone purely a tool for accomplishing specific tasks - and not a portal into endless content consumption to fight away boredom. This means uninstalling any apps that don't have a utility and feature primarily content consumption as their usage:
- EVE Echoes (a game)
- Materialistic (Hacker News)
- RIF Is Fun
- The Economist
- YouTube (which unfortunately you cannot uninstall, but I can remove it from my home screen)
- Facebook (Browser shortcut)
- Twitter (Browser shortcut)
- BBC News (Browser shortcut)
- LinkedIn (Browser shortcut)
After cleansing all these from my phone, it's battery life has shot up - but also it has become much more boring. No more bleeps and brrrs from the myriad of recommended content I go watch, articles I go read, memes I go peer at. It now just sits there, showing me the time and my next work meeting. Excellent! Just what I wanted.
Scheduling time to "deal with things"
I can't quite just ignore all notifications and emails - otherwise, how will I know why the Roomba didn't run this morning. So I think it's important to try and schedule notifications, as well as schedule time to read/reply to personal emails (note that I'm ignoring work in this discussion).
With this in mind, I originally wanted lunchtime (12 - 1 pm) to be a time to "expose" myself to notifications, and then 6 pm until bedtime in the evenings. This keeps large chunks of the day distraction-free while allowing time to deal with anything that comes up in a reasonable time frame. However, Focus Mode on Android only allows you to schedule 1 time period per day to allow notifications from "distracting apps". So I'm going to set this to allow these non-urgent notifications between 6 pm and 11 pm every day. I'm not including messaging apps in this (which is likely controversial), but most other apps that simply tools go into this category. I expect this to be something that will evolve over time - so I'm not putting too much thought into it. 5 hours of notification-time is a lot less than 15 hours.
In terms of personal email, I'm thinking of again keeping it purely to evenings. So I'll put email notifications in that Focus Mode schedule. For social media, I don't quite want to go completely blank on it - so I'm going to plan in some time to check the sites that most interest me: Facebook (for family), LinkedIn (for colleagues), Hacker News (for tech). I'm thinking to schedule some time each weekend to do a catch-up on all these, maybe at a local coffee shop in order to get a change of scenery and begin to disassociate my home from these sites. I've booked this for 10 am to 12 pm on Saturdays, we'll see how it goes.
Filling in the rest of my newly found time
The biggest change in available time comes from cutting out unintentional YouTube watching, which as I documented earlier was eating up several hours per day on average. I need to find new things to spend my evenings/weekends doing, to avoid slipping back into the same old routine (a requirement that was emphasised in Digital Minimalism). So I'm writing a non-exhaustive list of the things at this stage I hope to fill my time with (in no particular order):
- Writing blog posts (this one is the product of that desire)
- Personal coding projects (the GitHub kind)
- Taking the time to do chores as they need doing (e.g. washing the dishes before they pile up)
- Reading books (Digital Minimalism and Deep Work were a good start to this!)
- Learning piano (something I've been neglecting for many months)
- Spending quality time with my wife (not just consuming content next to each other)
- Speaking to family and friends over voice or video (or in-person when local law allows)
- Exercising (I've done more cycling this week at lunchtime than most weeks)
- Streaming on Twitch (something I've been dabbling in, and enjoy)
- A craft of some kind (still to figure this out, but some kind of artistic pursuit would be interesting)
- Joining a club of some kind (sports, crafts, software, anything really, just something to get me out meeting new people)
And I think that's about it for now. This post was intended to mostly be a brain dump for my thoughts this week, and for me to refer back to in future in-case I forget what motivated me to make this change in the first place. The me that is writing this hopes that future me thinks it was useful and continues to improve upon leading a more intentional life.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out my other blog posts.