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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Working Mom Diaries: Power Hour

One of my favorite things to do lately is have a power hour. I know that for some people, power hour is when they accomplish all of the nagging professional tasks that have built up over the course of the past week: answering backlogged emails, listening to voicemail, maybe going to the post office. For me, power hour is when I catch up on the household tasks that I just don’t have time for when I’m at home with one or both kids.

Once or twice a week, I come home either for an hour at lunch time, or an hour early at the end of the day. I choose days when both kids are at daycare, so I’m the only person in the house. Here’s what happens during power hour:

  1. Dishes. I empty the dishwasher, load the leftover breakfast stuff from the morning, and hand-wash bottles, pump parts, and other baby items that need special care.
  2. Fridge. I go through the fridge and throw away any older leftovers, then rinse and load the Pyrex containers into the dishwasher. I also throw away any older leftover produce or dairy items, and every week I choose a condiment or two to say goodbye to, since we seem to accumulate them at a crazy rate.
  3. Laundry. We have laundry going pretty much all of the time, because I prefer to do lots of small loads of laundry rather than a few huge batches. I de-wrinkle whatever is left in the dryer, fold it, put it away, and start drying whatever is left in the washing machine. I start a new load of laundry if any of the baskets are even halfway full (aside from my husband’s–he does his own laundry).
  4. Pick up. There are always clothes, toys, and other random pieces of crud lying on the floors after even one weekday morning, much less two or three. I go through the whole house and get everything off the floors and put away.
  5. Beds. I make the beds. I try to do this every day, not just on power hour days, but it’s especially convenient when I’m by myself.
  6. Floors. This is the most important aspect of power hour, because when you have two little kids and a dog, you can only really get the floors done when no one is home. I vacuum the living room, kitchen, and dining room thoroughly, and sometimes I run the dustbuster on the living room furniture too.
  7. Mail. Finally, I handle any mail that has built up. I throw away stuff we don’t need, write and stamp any checks that need to be sent, and set aside anything that my husband needs to handle.
  8. Bath. The best part of power hour! I end it with a soak on the tub, since the house is empty for once.

So far this is the best hack I’ve found for keeping the house livable during a busy week. It just can’t all be done without finding a way to add another hour or two to the week!

Working Mom Diaries: Back to the Office & the Second Week(end) from Hell

February 11th was my first day back in my office in person. And it went so well! While I was gone my desk was moved to an even better location, and the nursing mothers’ room, which I think I’m the only person in the whole office using, was repainted and got new furniture. I trained a new content manager on my first day back, and enjoyed seeing all of my coworkers again.

Our baby spent Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at daycare and had no problems at all. I was worried because he often refuses to take a bottle at home, but in a new setting with new people, he ate well and didn’t put up a fuss. The girls in the infant room are very sweet and send me frequent updates and at least one cute picture every day.

Things did go downhill, but luckily not until Friday afternoon. My husband picked our toddler up from daycare and was told that within the past hour he had started crying and had a fever again. I assumed that his ear infection must have returned, but when he vomited twice overnight and woke up on Saturday with a 102.3 fever, I took him to the doctor. That seemed a little high for an ear infection or a stomach virus.

The doctor tested him for strep, flu, and diabetes of all things, because apparently it can present that way in children. His blood sugar was fine, but he tested positive for flu, and for Influenza B of all things, which only 4-5% of flu-positive people are getting this year! Because we have an infant at home, we were immediately prescribed Tamiflu for both kids, and they’ve been on it since Saturday around noon. It seems to have worked like magic, because by Sunday evening our toddler was fever-free and energetic, if still grumpy, and the baby has had no flu symptoms at all.

So it’s been another weekend of divide-and-conquer, keeping the kids as separated as possible and being trapped in the house since we don’t want to spread this around. Everyone will be back to work and daycare on Tuesday, since thanks to Tamiflu no one will be contagious anymore.

As my mom keeps reminding me, having two kids 22 months apart is an immersive parenting experience! We are learning a hell of a lot.

Working Mom Diaries: The (First) Week From Hell

Last Wednesday afternoon, now a full week ago, our toddler had had a regular old toddler cold for several days. It had just reached the “hacking cough” stage, and my husband was out of town overnight. When I walked in the door of his daycare facility, I heard the ominous words, “We were just about to call you.” He was running a 101.6 fever and was clearly miserable.

If you know me as a parent, then you know that my most crippling fear is that my kids will get sick as really small babies. So being solo with a feverish toddler and a 10-week-old brought me close to a panic attack: my hands went numb, I started sweating, and I knew I’d need help. I called my husband and told him he needed to come home first thing in the morning, no waiting for the weather to warm up.

In the middle of the night I woke to another ominous sound: my newborn coughing.

That kicked off several days of doctors’ appointments and anxiety so bad that I’m sure it took years off of my life. To make a long story short, our toddler developed an ear infection (his first) that’s being treated with antibiotics and responding well, and our baby apparently caught the original cold virus despite our absolutely fanatical hand-washing, disinfecting, and keeping-the-toddler-away measures. Everyone is now on the mend: the newborn is still coughing and while it sounds absolutely terrible, it’s not harmful and he’s now probably out of the woods. He was seen three times in the past week to have his oxygen saturation and lungs checked, and everything was fine every time, so at this point it’s expected that he is fighting off this virus without help.

I learned a few things from this episode:

  1. Having two sick kids home with you for four full days is awful.
  2. Parents of chronically ill and/or seriously ill children are heroes and I don’t know how they do it.
  3. I need to work on my anxiety about this stuff, because this will not be the last time this same scenario plays out in our house.

With two little kids who will both soon be in daycare (one full-time, one part-time), we’re going to get our fair share of illnesses, and I can’t keep reacting this way. Based on a friend’s recommendation, I ordered an anxiety and phobia workbook and am going to start sorting through my issues with this. On the one hand, I won’t deal with a sick newborn again because he’ll be twelve weeks old in two days! On the other hand, he very well might become ill again before he is six months old. He might become seriously ill at some point, for all we know. And I need to be able to handle any of those scenarios without becoming a total anxious wreck. My mom and husband were more worried about me than about the baby: that’s how bad it was.

We were also really lucky. It wasn’t the flu (knock on wood), it wasn’t RSV (knock on wood), and both of our kids are extremely healthy and therefore able to recover from this type of thing. We’re also lucky enough that we both took two full days off of work to care for our kids. We didn’t lose any money (although we may have earned some gray hairs). We were able to take our kids to the doctor three times without worrying about the cost, how we would get there, or how we would make time for the appointments.

I have so much to be thankful for. I want to reframe this kind of thing that way, and try not to indulge my anxieties too much.

Working Mom Diaries: 2019 Goals (aka Improvements)

2019 began with my family, including my mom who had been with us for over two months, flying back to Florida. All of a sudden, we were really a family of four, instead of a family of four + grandma. My husband and I both returned to work on January 7th (luckily I am still working from home!), and our older son returned to daycare after a long holiday break.

The start of the year has made me think about what I want to change in 2019. Usually I’m thinking about what I want to accomplish, but with two little kids, I’ve decided not to make any big goals for myself until 2020. Cool things might happen for me, but I’m not pushing it. Instead, I have some problems I’d like to correct and some improvements I want to make.

  1. Reconnect with friends. This is huge for me, and I struggle with it daily. I have no girlfriends who I can see regularly in person since we moved to Utah, and between having kids and working full-time, I have really, REALLY struggled to stay in touch with the people who are important to me in other parts of the country. It isn’t that I don’t want to give people a call, it’s a combination of things: being a little phone-shy, being tired by the time I’m free to talk, and having something like friendship imposter syndrome. Are we really close enough for me to call you to talk? Do you really want to hear from me? Do you feel the same way about me as I do about you? This can be so bad that I won’t pick up the phone when a friend calls me. So I want to start picking up the phone every time, and I want to start dialing it a lot more myself. I never, ever regret it.
  2. Reconnect with my husband. There’s nothing like kids to make you feel like two ships passing in the night (sometimes literally). Between the sleep deprivation of a new baby and the constant attention-grabs of a talkative toddler, there is not a lot of time for uninterrupted adult conversations that aren’t about the logistics of daycare pick-up. I remember this becoming a lot easier once our first child was 5-6 months old, but I’m hoping to make some time for us to connect as two adults and not just as parents well before then.
  3. Control the scroll. I decided before our baby was born that during my maternity leave, I wouldn’t worry about how much time I spent on my phone. When you’re on the couch with a newborn and you haven’t slept much, it’s a lot easier to scroll through Instagram than to crack a book, and I decided to just let myself have the phone as entertainment for a few months. But now the baby is over 10 weeks old, and I think it’s time to start limiting my phone habit again. I’ve charged up my Kindle, downloaded Flipd, and I’m planning to get serious about it this week. I don’t want my toddler seeing me stare at a screen this much. I’d honestly rather have the TV on in the background than have my head down in my phone.
  4. Return to exercise. I totally fell off the workout wagon about halfway through this last pregnancy. I just didn’t have the energy to parent a toddler, be pregnant, and exercise. Now my energy is returning, and I want to get stronger again too. I’m currently three weeks into GlowBodyPT’s 12 Week Post Pregnancy Plan, and I’m loving it.

I think I can handle these four improvements, especially since they’ll all serve to make me happier and more fulfilled in 2019. Can’t really go wrong with that!