I’m not, nor rarely have been, much of a procrastinator. If there’s something that needs to be done, I try to take care of it in a timely fashion. Sometimes it’s easier than others, but on the whole I dislike putting things off.
To that end, I’ve used the methodology of Getting Things Done for years with the help of a couple of utilities, like Things, all of which are beyond the scope of this article.
You can read about the workflow in the article linked above. The purpose of mentioning it to show that even when I lean towards procrastination, I have a plan for how to tackle something.
To that point, there’s been book of which I’ve been aware for roughly three years that I’ve deliberate put off reading. Perhaps I’ve even avoided reading it for reasons that I’ll soon explain.
And that’s Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University.
Here’s the philosophy behind the idea:
[Digital Minimalism is] a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
The caveat, for lack of a better term, is that it’s used to support things [I] value (and there is a different between that things we value and the things we enjoy, but that’s another topic). Anyway, that’s the thing, though: I knew if I read the book, I’d commit what it was asking me to do, no holds barred.
And I finished it just before 2022 started. So here I am.
There are three principles that support this philosophy each of which are detailed in the book. The summary of each are:
Principle 1: Clutter is costly.
Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.
Principle 2: Optimization is important.
Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.
Principle 3. Intentionality is satisfying.
Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.
At the end of 2021 (or 2022, Part 1 depending on who you ask 🙃), I was at a point where I knew I wanted, and perhaps needed, to make a drastic change. Not because I was addicted to screens or social media. I think I’m okay with limiting myself on that stuff as it stands.
But I wanted to take steps in my personal life a step further especially as it came to things I’m interested in doing outside of work both with relationships and with hobbies.
And being the Type-A person that I am, it helps me to have a guide or a framework through which to make decisions on how to do this namely because I review said framework and determine if it’d work for me.
A Word About Social Deprivation
A point that the book mentioned that really resonated with me is the idea of social deprivation. This is defined as:
A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
As we become an incredibly connected society with our already busy personal schedules, work schedules, and family schedules, I think we may have some level of desire (or maybe even starvation) to get back to having this. It’d be a a copout to say that I suspect it’s just me.
Case in point:
As I’ve learned by interacting with my readers, many have come to accept a background hum of low-grade anxiety that permeates their daily lives. We need solitude to thrive as human beings, and in recent years, without even realizing it, we’ve been systematically reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives.
Humans are not wired to be constantly wired.
Low-grade anxiety, I think, could be a consequence of the very quiet but perpetual knowledge that there’s always something to check or to review or to see just in case even though it’s not necessarily required.
And the idea of having a consistent sense of background noise is not only a way to consider ourselves as being constantly wired, but it’s exactly a way to describe the feeling of having a low-level of awareness of being able to pick up our phones and check whatever it is about which we’re thinking.
To some degree, maybe we intuitively know this.
- Perhaps some are really good about managing it,
- Perhaps some some are not really good about managing it,
- And perhaps some want to be better about it but aren’t sure where to start.
I’m in the latter camp. I spend a few hours a week exercising and I spend a lot of time with my family (my wife and I have been intentional about orienting our life around this since we married almost 14 years ago).
But I know I have room to do better. not only with my kids, but also with my own pursuits such as music, reading, and other hobbies, too.
That’s what Digital Minimalism is all about. And here’s the three point framework it provides for removing the majority of software from your phone and then determining what to add back to it have a cold, hard reset.
Step 1. Define Your Technology Rules
The first step of the declutter process, therefore, is to define which technologies fall into this “optional” category.
My general heuristic is the following: consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.
Step 2. Take a Thirty-Day Break
During this monthlong process, you must aggressively explore higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you’re avoiding. This period should be one of strenuous activity and experimentation.
Step 3. Reintroduce Technology
The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards.
As of today, that is January 1st, 2022, I’ve reset my phone to the very basic set of out-of-the-box applications (think an iPod with a phone app).
I’ve removed a few of those applications and replaced them with preferred alternatives (think Spotify for Apple Music and Pocket Casts for Apple Podcasts). I’ve also kept applications that are necessary for two-factor authentication and security such as 1Password, and for maintaining some of the software required for our network at home including those for some of the devices our kids have.
Further, I’ve disabled all notifications except for those from Messages and have set up focus modes that are available as of iOS 15. There may be a few exceptions I’m missing from this list, but the gist of what I’ve removed generally includes:
- No banking,
- No reading,
- No food,
- No reviews,
- No news,
- No entertainment,
- No third-party browsers (just Safari with 1Blocker),
- No bookmarking beyond what the browser offers,
- No e-commerce.
If there was a time to answer a series of questions with “no,” this is it. And if I don’t answer with “no,” then I’ll have a justification as to why what I have installed either supports something I value or something that’s critical to not failing.
Always with the Why?
Perhaps this leaves a larger question – “Why?” And the short answer is that “it has to do with my value hierarchy.” But that’s a weird thing to say out-loud, isn’t it? Who talks like that?
And It’s easy to say “because I want to simplify my digital life.” It’s harder to say “I want to pursue things that are of value.”
This may sound callous. “Don’t you value talking with your friends?” Of course I do. I’m not shutting down all avenues of communication. Those who I’m closest with already know how to reach me and vice versa and those who I talk to casually I already have the ability to do so during the day.
But there are other pursuits I want to increase in priority in my value hierarchy and I cannot do that when I have the ability to fill my time by procrastinating with something of lesser value. So this is an attempt to remedy that.
Perhaps a more elegant way to state this is how it’s done so in the book:
The cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.
It goes something like this: Do the cumulative set of moments I spend scrolling through whatever social outlet or news site add up something that’s as valuable as the cumulative time I could spend in deep focus or working on something? Or even just spending time thinking about something?
For me, the answer is no.
But, even still, what happens at the end of the month?
It’s Just 30 Days
The idea is to essentially create a hard disruption in the habits I’ve developed by cutting them off for 30 days, but what good what it do if I just reintroduced them all again starting in February?
Remember the three principles above?
- Define your technology rules,
- Take a thirty-day break,
- Reintroduce technology
My response to each of these could probably be covered in their own follow-up post and throughout this month, maybe I’ll do exactly that.
Even if not, I’ve can share some initial considerations:
- I want to curtail all use of social media and news and entertainment consumption that I can get from my phone. The exceptions are podcasts and Audible, if I’m not reading a book, because these are things that are educational and things I can do when I’m exercising.
- I want to focus significantly more on studying music theory, song writing, reading, and perhaps mobile photography. I need longer periods of time to get into these topics so eliminating anything that gets in the way of this is necessary.
With all of that said, I’m sharing this because this is something I’ve been interested in doing for a long time and I’ve finally done it. There’s a since of accomplishment in finally moving forward with it but nothing feels that different at the moment (not that I’d expect it so soon), but it’s not even been a day – and that’s the point of where I’m going with this.
It’s not prescriptive and it’s not a call to action. This is something I’m doing and this is me writing about it and preparing to write about the experience.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to do at least two updates on this blog about how it feels to be where I am and how I’m managing with the usual set of applications I’ve since deleted.
My guess is that I’m going to be all-in-all satisfied and I probably won’t look back; however, I also suspect there may be a few things – given the framework outlined earlier – that I may add back such as things for mobile banking. You know the really exciting stuff.
With that said, here’s to starting off 2022 with digital minimalism and hopefully heading into the future with a higher focus on focus, quality, and value.