Digital Minimalism: Prologue

Almost since the Internet became a daily presence in my life, I’ve been–ironically–searching the Internet for ways to limit my screen time. I’ve probably read every tip, hack, plan, scare article, and book out there on reducing the amount of time spent on social media and mindless scrolling… and none of them have been effective.

I find this deeply embarrassing to admit. After all, I’m not someone you’d expect to have “an Internet problem”: I have a busy family, a good job, I even completed a PhD. I’m not depressed or isolated. I don’t play video games (I have never played a video game, ever, in my life). I’m not addicted to an online pursuit like pornography or gambling. I’m someone who really loves to read, too.

And yet to my deep shame, I spend too much time online. I’m not going to quantify how much, because it doesn’t actually matter: what matters is that I feel like I spend too much time online. I find myself itching to pick up my smartphone when I’m taking my baby for a walk, when I’m bathing my toddler, when I’m cooking dinner, when I’m trying to work, and, worst of all, when I’m trying to relax. Don’t mistake me for someone who thinks that we always need to “live in the moment,” or for someone who thinks that all leisure time should be spent being productive or generating income. I have no problem whatsoever with mindlessly zoning in front of the TV after a long day. I don’t even have a problem with texting a friend sometimes while I’m playing with my kids. What horrifies me is when, all too often, I turn on a favorite show like Inspector Lewis only to realize ten minutes later that I’m looking at two screens: I’m holding my phone in between my face and the television, and I have no idea what happened in the past several minutes of the show. Or, just as often, when I settle into a nice warm bath with a book I’ve been meaning to read, only to suddenly realize that the water has cooled off and I haven’t even opened the book; I went to “check my email first” and ended up falling down some Instagram tag rabbit hole for twenty-five minutes.

That’s how I know it’s a problem. I’m not comfortable with the Internet intruding on my leisure activities, on my relationships, or on my sleep. And I’m letting it.

Even more embarrassing, I’ve been letting it for a long time, since well before I got a smartphone in 2015. I’ve been mindlessly browsing the Internet on my laptop probably since I got one in 2006. And while not all of the time I’ve spent online has been wasted–after all, the Internet has been necessary for my schoolwork and for my professional work since that same date–that’s still over ten years’ worth of various amounts of free time that have definitely been frittered away on stuff that I’ll never feel was worthwhile when I’m on my deathbed.

Maybe that’s a morbid way of looking at it, but it’s also true. Think about it: will you be glad that you spent dozens of hours on Reddit when you’re leaving this world? Or would you rather look back and know that you spent that time doing almost anything else? Writing journal entries, making sourdough bread, reading mystery novels, petting your dog, even just staring into space… I’m sure not everyone feels this way, but to me, mindless scrolling has begun to feel like the quintessential waste of time. And not just waste of time, but waste of brain.

I know I’m not the only one who has noticed their cognitive powers dim from constant exposure to fresh content, however irrelevant, dumbed-down, or even boring that content actually is. I’ve lost my ability to concentrate on anything, even a good TV show like I mentioned above. My tolerance for boredom is basically nil. I find myself wanting to check Instagram at a long traffic light, much less over the course of an entire uneventful afternoon. It’s not healthy.

As you may have gathered from the title of this blog series, I’m reading Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Of all the less-screen-time pieces I’ve read–and there have been a lot–this is the one I’m finding most inspiring, mainly because it is entirely uncompromising. There are no tricks, no hacks, no easy scale-down plans: there’s just a solid philosophy of bettering yourself and your life by preventing social media and the Internet from preying on your time and attention. If you haven’t read the book, buy a copy ASAP. You probably need it.

One of the analog activities I want to fill more of my time with is writing, so I’ve decided to start this blog series to chronicle my digital minimalism journey. I know it’s not going to be easy, and it’s definitely going to be embarrassing, but I’m willing to lay it all out here to keep myself writing and on the off-chance that it might help someone else who needs to reclaim their time from the Internet.

Here we go…

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