Digital Minimalism Week 3: Ease of Distraction

I’ve been slipping this week, both at work and at home.

The biggest problem with social media, at least in my case, is that it’s the easiest available means of entertaining myself or passing a short amount of time. This might be fine… if it didn’t also suck me into spending more time than I’d like, increase my anxiety, and dull my brain. For instance, if I actually just glanced at Instagram for the 30 seconds it takes for my toddler to choose a book to read, it might be okay. But I inevitably end up scrolling for several minutes or more, wasting time that I could be spending with my family, fueling completely misplaced feelings of FOMO and impatience, and then regretting it later. Such a bad feeling and, I know, unfortunately familiar to a lot of people now.

When I only have a few minutes of time to pass, it’s not enough to delve into a book or article I’ve been meaning to read, which means that I have to get comfortable with simply being bored in those small spaces of time. And when I have more than a few minutes of time to spend, delving into the book or the article often feels like work. (Remember what I wrote about my brain feeling dulled? Yeah.) Why go to the effort of reading when I could mindlessly absorb non-information and non-entertainment on my phone? It’s like junk food: so simple, so tasty, so craveable… and often so regrettable.

I’m finally finishing Laura Vanderkam’s book Off the Clock, and she gets into this issue pretty thoroughly, albeit not directly concerning social media and the Internet. She writes about how we privilege the experiencing self over the remembering self or the anticipating self:

The anticipating self thought it would be fun to go to the art museum on a Friday night… and the remembering self will fondly recall the masterpieces, and maybe even a new friend made in line for chardonnay, but the experiencing self is tired after work. The experiencing self is the one who will have to brave the cold and the rain and the Friday night traffic.

The experiencing self resents this division of labor. So she throws a tantrum. She ignores the anticipating and remembering self and justifies her betrayal with statements that are certainly true: I’m tired. The museum will be there next Friday. So I’ll just watch TV. Immediate effortless pleasure wins out over the more effortful variety.

This rings so true for the Internet trap.

So this coming week, I’m being extra strict. I’ve set my Flipd app, I’ve set Screen Time, I’ve got my London Review of Books set out, and I’ve got my Kindle app stocked up. Let’s see how much time I can reclaim.

Digital Minimalism Week 2

I’ve been reading and re-reading some time management books by Laura Vanderkam. Starting Monday, I’m doing two weeks of hardcore time-tracking. I’m not exactly looking forward to it… I know it will reveal a lot more chunks of “watching Netflix” and stuff than I’d like it to. But those chunks of time that I feel bad about represent chunks of time that I can repurpose towards things like writing and reading.

The only issue I see with this method of revealing free time is that with a young baby, you can’t count on exact spans of time at exact clock-times. For example, one day the baby might take a midday nap from 11:55am to 1:30pm. But today, he has been asleep for more than two hours starting at 12:20pm. Had I known that he would sleep for this long, I would have chosen to spend my time differently than I did! However, his consistency is rapidly improving and his sleep is becoming somewhat more reliable. If the next two weeks of time-tracking don’t feel relevant a couple of months from now, I can repeat the experiment.

I’m also focusing on three key elements of digital minimalism suggested by Cal Newport:

  1. Identifying how I can use the Internet to feel connected without using it as an excuse to browse. Towards this end, I’ve used an app and some phone functionality to block social media apps on my phone every day from 1pm until 8pm. I plan to expand this timeframe as it gets a bit easier, but it has already improved my evenings. Now I can’t look at social media until after both kids are asleep.
  2. Leaving my phone somewhere in the house when I get home rather than carrying it with me. This sort of happens by itself when most of the apps are blocked anyway. But there are times when I feel I need my phone available, like when I’m working from home with one kid at daycare; they could need to reach me at any time. Luckily, in an emergency I expect a phone call and not a text, so I’ve been turning the ring volume up and leaving my phone in one place. Knowing that social media isn’t available to browse has reduced my anxiety.
  3. Re-engaging with quality leisure, and perhaps finding local, physical community involvements. Community involvement is a tough one for me, given where we live. But, I have been reading on my Kindle when I would normally browse my phone. I’ve also downloaded and made available the Kindle phone app. I’ve scheduled time at the gym and working on our yard this weekend, and next week I am having dinner with a friend. Tonight, my husband and I have set aside time to make a good, healthy dinner together and split a bottle of wine. I also still need to make one phone call to a friend; I’ve been struggling with this because phone calls make me nervous. I’m out of practice.


Digital Minimalism Week 1

I’m finding it very difficult to give up “browsing” my phone.

But I’ve also realized something interesting (and depressing): a lot of the anxiety, frustration, and lack of patience I feel is caused by my phone habit. I noticed this over the weekend, when I was home with my kids a lot. I usually think of my phone as a little escape from my kids when I’m alone with them: I can grab my phone and talk to my moms’ group, text a friend, browse Instagram. But as I picked up my phone again, and again, and again throughout the day, I realized that the false sense of urgency I feel when checking social media, email, and texts–the false sense that I might miss something if I don’t look rightnow–was just making me more anxious and shortening my patience with my children.

It started to feel like I was waiting for breaks in my childcare duties and activities just to look at my phone. I wasn’t in the moment at all. I was treating whatever was happening on that little screen like it was more important, even more real, than what was happening in my own living room.

I doubt this is a very unusual experience. Doing something like caring for little kids can be very tedious and sometimes pretty frustrating (toddlers!). I think it’s totally okay to admit that. I also think it’s totally okay to encourage your children to amuse themselves while you make a phone call, read a book chapter, cook something, or even watch a little TV. But it’s not okay, for me at least, to be seen sneaking glances at Facebook when I could be engaging with my kids, or at least giving them an example of “mom is busy” that’s healthy and positive, like reading a book, doing a workout, or making my own lunch.

This is probably the most motivating realization I’ve had about my phone/Internet/social media use. I’m hoping it makes this process that much easier.

Digital Minimalism Day 1

I’ve deleted most of the social media apps from my phone. Facebook is gone, Twitter is gone, and, after much debate, I’ve also deleted Facebook Messenger. I don’t use it to keep in touch with any “real-life” friends, which means that it’s highly unlikely anything time-sensitive will come through on that platform. It can stay relegated to my laptop, which I only open at work, never during my family or leisure time. I have kept the Slack app, which I use to keep up an ongoing group conversation with graduate school friends; for whatever reason, I have no problem checking this app only occasionally.

The biggest remaining problem is Instagram. This app is cleverly designed to only be truly accessible through a mobile device. It doesn’t display well on a desktop browser, and I don’t think you can post to it that way. The “stories” function makes it incredibly addictive, because unless you follow only a handful of people, there’s almost guaranteed to be new content every time you open the app, even if you open it every twenty minutes. It’s insane.

Should I delete Instagram? YES. YES I SHOULD. But I find that I can’t. Instead, I’ve moved the app to a hidden screen and set an alarm for when I can check it each day: 1pm, when I am either eating lunch at work or when both kids are napping at home.

In addition to deleting several apps, I’ve also downloaded a couple of new ones. These are Flipd, an app you can use to temporarily disable all other downloaded apps on your phone for set periods of time, and Calm, a meditation app that I’ve been using for guided meditation sessions and sleep. It is unconnected to social media, and its single-use nature makes it uncompelling to scroll through mindlessly. There’s nothing to do on it if you’re not going to do a meditation session.

My biggest realization is that I need to bring a book with me to work. I have periods of downtime, while I’m waiting for someone to send a task back to me or complete their part of a project, and I’m used to filling those little gaps of time with social media or random online scrolling. I could fill them with a few pages of a book I’m reading instead. I bet I could make significant additional progress on whatever I’m reading that way.

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…