Digital Minimalism Week 4: Addiction

I did meet my goal of reading a lot more this past week.

However, I’m still feeling what I think are some really strong effects of the Internet habit that trains us to expect fresh, entertaining, yet very low-stakes content on a minute-by-minute basis. Even when I pick up a book, I want to be instantly entertained. And that isn’t how books work. Because I’ve been trained to experience content in the “endless scroll” and “perpetual refresh” styles of Instagram, Facebook, and even Reddit, it’s difficult to make the attention investment necessary to get really stuck in to a good book, article, or sometimes even podcast or TV show.

Think about it: when you open Instagram, you’re hit with a new piece of easy to read, visually attractive, unchallenging content every few seconds as you scroll down. If you “catch up” on your feed, there’s Instagram stories. If you finish all of those, you can pull down the page and refresh for more. If you finish all of that, you can go to the “search” page and find what may as well be infinite fresh, easily consumed, just-entertaining-enough content to keep you occupied for pretty much as long as you’ll let it. You don’t have to concentrate, you don’t have to think, time just passes without any effort on your part at all.

It’s no wonder that this kind of Internet offering is, well… addictive. What I just described is a little scary, and my own reaction to it is even scarier. I remember when I used to be able to sit and read a book–often a challenging book, even one that I didn’t particularly love, maybe one that challenged my beliefs or made me think quite hard–for hours at a time. Now, I can’t remember the last time I did that, at least not without constant “breaks” to dither around with my phone, preventing the exact type of concentration required to achieve the state of pleasurable reading that I value highly.

I have to add that this issue is exacerbated by the fact that I haven’t been completely well-rested since my second child was born in November. He’s not a bad sleeper by any means, but nevertheless it’s been months since I slept from 10pm to 6am without any interruption, and that does begin to take a toll.

Luckily, though, he’s beginning to sleep for longer stretches, and I think I can stop babying myself with easy entertainment and start working on my ability to concentrate on more complex things.

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.