The Digital Declutter

This is the first of two blog posts about my digital declutter. Make sure you read Part Two for my conclusions and reflections after completing the experiment!

I’ve been on a bit of a kick with resetting my life lately. The cause might be my desire for a little spring cleaning, or maybe it’s because I’m changing my antidepressants—maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s psych meds!—but I’ve been dusting off and tuning up my habits. I’m currently halfway through a no-refined-sugar month, which hasn’t been nearly as difficult as one might expect. I haven’t really had any revelations as a result of kicking my vegan chocolate chip habit, but regardless, I’ll report back after the experiment ends on May 15th. I’ve also been working on setting boundaries in many of my relationships, which has already been life-changing in ways that are too personal for me to share on the good old interwebs.

But the reset that I am most excited to tell you about is the impending Digital Declutter. Basically, I’m stepping away from any and all “new” technologies (like Facebook and Netflix, not my electric toothbrush) for a whole month. The exception is technology that I need to do my job, because a digital detox definitely won’t hold up as an excuse if my boss fires me for refusing to check Steve from Finance’s email. Curious? Me too! Wondering if I’m bonkers? Same! Gonna try it anyway? Challenge accepted.

The Origins of My Experiment

Over the last couple of months, one book appeared again and again in the newsletters I receive from my favorite writers: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, Georgetown computer science professor and author of the wildly popular productivity manifesto Deep Work. My aversion to what I like to call “productivity porn,” the genre of modern writing that glorifies work product above humanity, meant that I have had absolutely zero interest in reading Deep Work since it first came out a few years back. Newport’s new release intrigued me, though. The subtitle, Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, spoke directly to the sense of overwhelm I’ve been feeling lately at the sheer volume of information I consume through a variety of technological platforms.

Newport’s use of the term “minimalism,” also piqued my interest, given that I made my first forays into the blogging world through the online minimalist community of the late aughts/early 20-teen years. As an aspirationally bohemian college student who also happened to be living in dorm rooms smaller than the average Angeleno’s closet, I liked the simplicity that minimalism promised. I read all the major blogs, devouring post after post from Becoming Minimalist, Zen Habits, The Minimalists, Be More With Less, you get the picture. I counted my possessions, I whittled my wardrobe down to thirty-three items, I preached the gospel of decluttering. In other words, I drank the Kool-Aid, and given that I started my minimalist deep dive back in 2010, I was way ahead of the Marie Kondo curve.

As my college years wore on and I became more aware of the world and generally a less self-absorbed and more thoughtful person, I fell out of love with minimalism fast and hard. The minimalist “movement” has a number of problematic traits, but there were two in particular that turned me off for good First of all, minimalism as it is often preached in popular culture is classist as hell. The Minimalists’ much-touted “20/20 Rule” is a telling example of this: “Anything we get rid of that we truly need,” they write, “we can replace for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from our current location.” I can almost imagine Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus sniffing virtuously at each other as they penned that sentence. Try telling that to the guy living on $20 a week, or the woman who has to take several bus lines just to get to the nearest strip mall. Secondly, and this is related to the rampant privilege running amok in the minimalist community, I just lost interest. Shit gets boring after a while, you know? I can only listen to people extol the benefits of owning four t-shirts so many times before they start to seem inauthentic and out of touch. I’m by no means immune to pleasing images of tidy wardrobes or sparsely decorated white walls, but now minimalism as a whole just feels…unimportant. I no longer believe that it is a necessary or even necessarily good philosophy with which to shape my life.

There was one element of minimalism that I always struggled to adopt, however, and funnily enough it is now the one part of minimalist ideology that still interests me: digital minimalism. Some bloggers called it that, some didn’t, but all of them were in agreement that minimalism and its attendant decluttering shouldn’t stop at physical stuff. As a natural introvert, I was able to follow their advice about scheduling time to do nothing and embracing “JOMO,” the obnoxiously-named response to FOMO (JOMO = the joy of missing out). I even got my email inbox down to zero. But I would not—could not—imagine ditching social media or leaving my iPhone on Do Not Disturb all day long. Just the thought of it made me shudder.

As I’ve grown and aged along with these new technologies, though, I’ve found myself in a state of information overwhelm more and more often. Tech companies have only gotten more adept at figuring out new ways to keep us on our phones, and I’ve only gotten busier as the demands of managing my own adult life have increased. Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a hamster wheel of informational despair, always consuming data via the Internet but never actually feeling more informed or better connected. Minimalists, for all their flaws and blind spots, seemed to have gotten this one thing right. Enter the digital declutter.

What is a Digital Declutter?

As I mentioned when I introduced you to this seemingly radical (you’re not wrong) idea, a digital declutter is a set amount of time in which one abstains from most or all optional technology. What is optional looks different for everybody, of course, because we’re all human beings with complex lives. I can totally delete Facebook, but my friend in communications can’t. Someone else might be able to ignore text messages for a month, whereas I would get fired and also likely hunted down by furious friends and family members.

Newport proposes the digital declutter as a way of quickly embracing digital minimalism, which he defines as the following:

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 logic of the digital declutter is that it’s incredibly difficult to achieve the distance from these technologies needed to reevaluate our relationship to them in any sort of lasting or meaningful way. Much ink has been spilled on tips, tweaks, and hacks to minimize our screen-time, but the reality is that these rarely work. As I’ve mentioned, Newport is quick to point out that it’s not our fault that these incremental attempts to shift our technology use typically don’t work; the “attention economy” is designed to keep us attached to our devices, which makes it tough for us to disentangle ourselves from their grasp without taking more drastic measures. The human brain is wired to find extra pleasure in unpredictable rewards, and the New Balance-wearing techies in Silicon Valley know that. Why else would you check your Instagram eighty-seven times a day to see how many of your friends double-tapped your latest thirst trap? Newport quotes a tech company whistleblower who describes the smart phones as a “slot machine” in our pockets. Every time we post an update to Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat/whatever else the kids are using these days, we’re gambling.

My personal experience has certainly reflected the addictive nature of these new technologies. The addiction is behavioral rather than chemical, so no, I don’t crave YouTube the way I might a cigarette (kicked that habit, thankfully). There’s absolutely something to be said for the comparison of technology to more powerful stuff, though. No amount of app limits in the screen time function of my iPhone or disabling of notifications has been sufficient to keep me off the damn thing. That’s why I became interested in the digital declutter in the first place.

So, back to digital minimalism. After the dressing-down I gave other forms of minimalism earlier in this blog post, you might be wary of Newport’s proposal. Even though I decided to buy in to the concept, I admit that a “philosophy of technology use” still makes me want to roll my eyes a little. Now that I’ve reached the halfway point of my digital declutter, however, I think Newport is on to something here. The following are the primary principles of his philosophy, the pillars of digital minimalism, if you will:

  1. Clutter is costly. (Translation: time/effort = money.)

  2. Optimization is important. (Translation: technology use has diminishing returns.)

  3. Intentionality is satisfying. (Translation: there’s a reason Thoreau was such a smug mf; he found a great deal of meaning in his Walden Pond adventures.)

When broken down into these three basic ideas, I find it hard to argue with the foundational premise of digital minimalism. All of this makes sense and, perhaps more importantly, feels true to me.

What Are the Rules?

Digital minimalism and the attendant declutter may seem intriguing (or maybe not and you’d rather get a root canal, but I digress), but the thought of deliberately disconnecting in our hyper-connected world sounded more than a little daunting to me, and likely does to you too. Getting specific about the rules of my own personal digital declutter was what convinced me that I could, in fact, give the experiment a try. 

Here are Newport’s guidelines, verbatim, for anyone looking to do a digital declutter:

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. [Regarding the definition of “optional,” Newport says, “consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.” Many of us would likely place the same technologies in the optional category, but it will look a little different for everyone.]

  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.

  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

In a nutshell, the purpose of the thirty-day declutter is to:

  1. Give you sufficient perspective on these technologies to decide whether and to what degree they actually serve you

  2. Afford you the opportunity to see what you’re missing out on when you’re not intentional about your technology use

  3. Provide a fresh start with any technology you do want to reincorporate into your life, so that you can do so in a way that supports rather than drains you.

I don’t know about you, but I never really thought about whether each of the technologies I was using before was the best way to meet any particular need. I adopted them automatically because I saw some value in them, without considering their cost to me in time, or, to put it more dramatically, “life” (see Digital Minimalist Principle #1 above). I just collected apps and platforms and websites as I went until the weight of them all started to crush me and I ended up here. 

So, without further ado, here are the rules for my digital declutter:

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BANNED

  • Facebook and Messenger

  • Twitter

  • Instagram

  • Netflix, Hulu, and any other binge-able streaming services (except when watching with others)

  • YouTube

  • Snapchat

  • Podcasts (except when listening with others)

  • Pocket

  • Shazam

  • Safari (on my phone)

All of these technologies fall into the optional category for me, meaning their absence won’t take a toll on the important elements of my life. You’ll notice a few caveats, which Newport terms “operating procedures,” whereas most are outright bans. A couple of notes:

  • I wanted to preserve the social elements of watching movies and TV shows, which I occasionally do with others, since I get a lot of value out of that shared experience. The harmful effect of streaming services in my life really only occurs when I’m alone in my PJs and binging Season 143 of Grey’s Anatomy rather than doing something more meaningful with my time. 

  • Podcasts were the most hotly debated (in my head) item on the list, because I do find a great deal of value and meaning in them. I’ve found that I listen to them compulsively, though, and so in the spirit of breaking my tech addiction, I included them on the list. And I do mean compulsively. In the shower, walking to/from work or literally anywhere else, while running, as I cook, the list continues. As I made this list, I realized with horror that I am NEVER NOT listening to podcasts, and I see that as a problem. The exception is when I’m listening to a podcast with someone else, another social experience I cherish, especially since we usually have a great conversation about it afterwards. 

  • Pocket is an app that allows you to save and download links, and it is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s a handy way to save articles I want to read later, and a curse because it’s a handy way to accumulate hundreds of articles that I feel obligated to read, get completely overwhelmed by, and then delete from my phone in a panic. Part of my information overload prior to the declutter was due to the sheer amount of online writing I was trying to read, and deleting Pocket and unsubscribing from (almost) everything is my attempt to regain control over my digital media consumption. I can’t read everything, after all.

  • I am still allowing myself to use personal email and the Internet during my declutter, but I chose to delete these apps from my phone. I found myself constantly reaching for my phone just to search something online and would quickly get sucked in, looking up ten minutes later to find I’d been ignoring the person/place/task that was right in front of me. Personal email was a similar story; I would compulsively check my Gmail account throughout the day for no reason other than to have something to look at when I wanted a distraction. Also, Safari is an easy sideways entrance into many of the apps I’d deleted from my phone—Facebook, Twitter, email—and I wanted to remove temptation as much as possible.

ALLOWED

  • Text messages, Signal, Whatsapp

  • Internet (computer only)

  • Personal email (computer only)

  • Al Jazeera English & NPR

  • News in Slow French

  • Killing Eve (on Amazon Prime)

My explanations and qualifications for these:

  • Some people in Newport’s book banished text messages and similar messaging apps, but I am not about that life. I understand the logic of pushing us to higher-quality forms of connection like phone calls and in-person hangouts. If I stopped texting, though, I would have no social life, if only because I use it to coordinate so many social plans. Also, I use texting for work sometimes, so texting really isn’t optional for me.

  • Internet and personal email are important tools in my life and allow me to do many fulfilling activities (like writing this blog!) so those stayed, just not on my phone.

  • Twitter and podcasts are how I usually consume the bulk of my news, so I needed something to replace these in order to avoid becoming an out-of-touch rube during my declutter. I already listen to Al Jazeera English on occasion, but now I’ve turned it into my daily news ritual. I don’t like NPR as much, but kept it in case I wanted more of a focus on local or national politics.

  • News in Slow French is a fantastic audio app of two Very French Frenchpersons named Catherine and Guillaume who recap the news in, well, slow French. It’s a great way for me to keep practicing and also to attempt to understand the French sense of humor.

I’m more than halfway through the experiment now and have plenty of thoughts to share on my experience so far, but I’ll save them for my recap post at the end of the month since this one is already quite long.

Read Part Two of the digital declutter and find out how the experiment went.