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February 18, 2019

My quest for digital minimalism

Decluttering my digital life from all the nonsense

Around December I sat down and made a personal roadmap for the new year. It was essentially an overview of:

  • Goals for my career
  • Hobbies I want to explore
  • Financial checkpoints to reach
  • Travel plans
  • Bad habits to keep on check
  • Stuff I want to address in my relationships
  • Much and more

Then for each domain, I created smaller tasks to track my progress. Not in a robotic kind of way - when I say I want to blog more, I have a note where I brainstorm ideas and put myself into deadlines.

The thing with new year resolutions though is that plans start to fall apart when the enthusiasm fades.

Now my question is the following, is it really my enthusiasm for growing, fading, or is it getting sucked out of me?

I think the latter.

Constant distractions

Turning 1-hour of home tasks into a 3-hour odyssey of picking up and checking the phone over and over again, is problematic.

There's literally no reason to scroll through the Facebook timeline at 2 a.m. or Instagram first thing after waking up. But it happens.

Many times I would start listening to an audiobook, only to switch my focus after the first notification. The audio would keep playing, but eventually, I would end up on Reddit, stop listening and lose track of time. Well there it goes, precious time in my middle twenties - flushed down the toilet.

First measures

I decided that I should turn off the notifications for every social media. Then dictate some specific times that I would be checking for messages and notifications.

Here are my findings, this doesn't work. All these applications are specifically engineered to make you want to come back. It's hard, the world needs me, why would I distance myself?

We crave for attention. The notification sound makes us think that someone, somewhere was thinking and caring about us. Now the urges are far too strong, craving this dopamine boost overwhelms logic.

But what stops us, or specifically me from deleting these applications?

The fear of missing out

I work from home. So I need to be in the mix, I need to be even more connected with people.

So it was obvious to me to be present on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Viber and What's up. I can't risk losing people from my life when I'm missing watercooler conversations or talks with a co-worker on the subway. Anyone should be able to reach me.

Now here's the thing - I hate social media.

I despise Facebook, but it's easy to connect with people I care. Local stages exclusively post their events there. A community group I follow coordinates through a Facebook group. I leave Facebook, I lose them all.

But these are just excuses. I should normally be allocating around 20 minutes - every two days for these. Why am I wasting hours every week?

Do seriously these positives, outweigh my control over life? Is worth keeping some weak ties with people from Facebook, or a DJ set from doing the things I love?

Carl Newport's take

I was listening to a recent Art of manliness podcast, called Becoming a Digital Minimalist, which heavily inspired my post.

In this podcast, the guest and best selling author Carl Newport, makes his case about all these Attention engineered platforms and suggests a formula to declutter our digital life.

I particularly like his analogy with fast food. When these processed foods started getting popular, obesity and heart diseases went up. Now the same way I tried to turn off my notifications, people obsessed with this diet tried simple hacks.

But walking more or limiting their intake couldn't help much! They are too small given the powerful appeal of these foods and the cultural pressure that comes with them.

So Newport states, that you need a very strong philosophy to turn your back and resist these urges. People went Vegan, Paleo and/or identify themselves as exercise fanatics.

The same goes for the digital world. People should have a strong philosophy. This is how I manage my digital life. Everyone should have a plan, otherwise, we risk turning into notification junkies.

Decluterring method

So here's Newport formula.

  1. Start from zero. Wipe clean your devices.

    What we do wrong, is that we are too lenient against these triggers. Maybe there is this one off-chance that this app might be helpful. And that's true, in a very specific context it can be. But most of the times it offers no value. Off you go.

  2. Ask what is truly important for ourselves.

    What is that we care for in this world and what do we enjoy doing? How do we want to see ourselves in due time? Let's make a list.

  3. Think of how technology could assist our goals.

    For a creative individual, an artist, it makes sense to have an Instagram account and follow certain people for inspiration. For me it makes no sense, it's only a matter of vanity. I might be tagged in a photo during training but that's it. It doesn't help me at all, it's clearly a time-sink.

Make time and invest in it properly

Alright, so it's 8 a.m. Sunday morning and we established that diving in social media is worthless. What do we do?

The question is what don't we do. How many years have I postponed picking up another language? Why did I stop hiking and taking photographs or playing the guitar?

The bottom line is that it doesn't matter. When someone stops wasting tons of time scrolling through feeds, they face the truth that they really haven't invested in high-quality activities.

Now that's tricky, it's very easy to relapse like with all the additions. Saying "what's the point, I might be 40 before mastering this" is common. But you will be 40 nevertheless. That's what made me pick up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and stick with it. I might be well in my 30's before getting a black belt, but I can also be a 35-year-old craving for validation through my Tinder profile.

It will be hard

Well, of course, I hate every second of stopping writing this piece and asking myself whether to check my phone or not.

But here's the thing, it's Sunday and I'm doing something I enjoy. Why would I need to disconnect myself from this moment? There is clearly a problem here. I get no value from checking social media, there is nothing 'social' there. The only acceptable use, would be to invite someone to join me for a coffee when I'm done writing.

So yeah, it's hard and the fear of missing out is a burden, but looking back and regretting not doing enough in your lifetime is tormenting.

Further concerns

This isn't the whole story. Me being unable to make most of my time isn't the real tragedy. All of our personal information, interests, photographs and more, are stored in the private servers of a selected few companies.

We came to a point where we don't visit the Web, but a very small curated subset of it. We're too dumb to explore and navigate through a decentralized web. Everything is contained within these 4-5 major platforms, our patterns have been analyzed and we will get the content that suits us. No worries.

But really this is frightening for our future as a society. Having people who are so easily manipulated and consume extremely curated content doesn't sound optimistic.

Wrapping up

I strongly suggest listening to the aforementioned podcast. There is some great insight with much better delivery than mine.

Taking control of our digital life is essential. We are social creatures and vulnerable. Looking for approval in 'thumbs up' and 'hearts' would seem innocent at first, but goes a long way to alienating and dehumanizing us.

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