A month long challenge to remove all optional digital distraction from my life and document the psychological effects in the following diary. To learn more about the project see the description at the end of the post or see my Top 5 Takeaways immediately below.
Top 5 Takeaways from the 30-Day Digital Declutter Experiment
1. Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean you’ll miss it when it’s gone.
I’ve never been the person who was constantly checking in on Facebook or Snapchat, or plugged into the news cycle 24/7. But I did have several compulsive tech use weak spots, most notably Instagram and ESPN. On an average day, between the two of them, I probably “checked in” 10 or 15 times. I rationalized this to myself because neither one seemed as “hooky” as, say, Facebook or Twitter. They were “simple pleasures” that didn’t lead to lots of outrage commenting or negativity. I just saw photos of my friends’ kids and checked in on how unreal Tom Brady and LeBron James were each week.
What I’ve learned after the declutter, though, is that even though I enjoy both Instagram and ESPN, and even though they’re arguably not as addictive or negative as, say, Facebook, I didn’t miss them when they were gone. At all. 0%.
If I don’t miss something when it’s gone for a month, how valuable can it really be?
2. We don’t check because we’re bored; we check because we’re addicted to busyness.
In the first part of the experiment I realized how often I would reach for my phone to check something, seemingly for no reason and without much intentionality. I just did it.
After a week or so of observing this and thinking about it, my first interpretation was that I was checking as a way to relieve a sense of boredom.
But the more I thought about it, the more dissatisfied I was with that explanation. For one thing, I’m not sure that boredom strikes us so quickly. If my wife and I were watching a movie and she paused the movie to use the restroom for a minute, I would immediately—within seconds—reach for my phone to check my email. That didn’t feel like boredom.
What I eventually started to realize is that for 95% of my waking life I was the opposite of bored—I was stimulated and busy. And overly so. Which means that in the brief times when I wasn’t, my mind instantaneously went into a kind of busyness withdrawal. And checking was a way to reduce that aversive feeling of not having some interesting, novel thing dominating my experience.
The combination of the internet plus smartphones means that we’re constantly being fed a constant stream of at least superficially interesting information. And consequently, we’ve habituated to this reality to the point where—like an addict—we quickly go into withdrawals when we can’t get it. And so we check. Compulsively.
This also means we’re increasingly dependent on the internet and technology to keep us passively stimulated. The opportunity cost of which is that our muscle for productively generating our own sources of stimulation may be atrophying. This is concerning but hard to appreciate unless you can step out of the flow of things with an experiment like this.
3. Emotions can be subtle triggers for compulsive tech use.
A good step toward reducing any kind of unhelpful behavior is to look for its antecedents or triggers. A compulsive gambler might realize that the monotony of sitting in traffic after work on a certain stretch of freeway near the casino is a cue for thinking about the excitement of gambling, which in turn leads to the action of pulling into the casino and gambling. As a result, they might try to rearrange their schedule to avoid traffic by leaving an hour earlier or later.
But behavioral triggers aren’t always physical or environmental. They can be emotional. And emotions triggers are often more subtle and harder to pin down that physical things or environmental conditions. We’re trained our entire lives to pay attention to things and ideas—but emotions… not so much.
During the experiment, I realized that many of my cues or triggers for distracting technology use were primarily emotional in nature.
- I felt mildly agitated whenever I—even briefly—didn’t have some novel piece of information to chew on or think about in my downtime.
- I felt anxious that I would lose a valuable idea if I didn’t instantly pull out my phone, open the notes app, and jot it down.
- The excitement of seeing how many hundred of new people had read my article in the past hour pushed me to check my article’s stats.
If nothing else, being aware that shifts in how I felt emotionally could be triggers for distracting technology was helpful in anticipating them and to some degree heading them off.
It’s also a good example of how doing some form of digital declutter like this shows us how dominated our lives are by automatic stimulus-response associations. Something happens, we respond. At least in terms of my technology use, this experiment has been a good reminder to try and be a little more mindful and create some space, when possible, in between the stimuli and the responses. Tends to make for more intentional behavior.
4. The Importance of planning to fail.
About three weeks into the experiment, one of my articles went viral on Medium and I completely fell off the wagon in terms of the digital declutter experiment. I was checking email and Medium stats seemingly constantly for two or three days, all my best intentions out the window. I recovered, eventually, but I’m really glad it happened because it’s shown me the importance of making a plan for failing.
When I started the experiment, my default assumption was that I would be able to do it. Sure, I’d have a few slip ups here and there, but in general I was confident and optimistic that I could do it. But this is a classic Nassim Taleb Black Swan, mistake: Failing to understand and plan for the fact that completely unanticipated things will happen.
So, while it’s impossible to know ahead of time what these black swan type events might look like in particular, and therefore impossible to plan for them specifically, we can still have a general plan for what to do when something majorly disruptive happens that threatens our good intentions.
In terms of digital minimalism, this means anticipating possible situations that would make it very difficult, then having a general outline or plan for what to do when they do happen.
For example, If I have another article go viral, I’d like to be able to “enjoy the ride” but also not get thrown off my game for so long. So a basic plan might be that if my work ever gets really popular again, I allow myself a day to relish in the excitement of it all, but plan to get back on the wagon the following day.
5. The centrality of FOMO and negative reinforcement in digital distraction.
We all know that much of the internet (and certainly social media) is intentionally designed to be addictive. And a big part of the reason something like Facebook can be so addictive is because it’s positively reinforcing. The behavior of checking the Facebook app gets rewarded (and therefore reinforced) by the small hit of dopamine-driven pleasure we get from seeing that hilarious cat video our great aunt Gertrude posted.
A less obvious but arguably more powerful mechanism for our internet addiction, however, is driven by negative reinforcement. The though crosses mind, “I wonder if it’s going to be cold again tomorrow?” This thought creates an ambiguity which is inherently uncomfortable: “Will is be cold or not? I don’t know. I don’t like not knowing things. I should find out…” And so we end up checking the weather app in order to—and this is critical—reduce the uncomfortableness of ambiguity. So we check, we find out that it will indeed be cold, and our uncomfortableness with not knowing diminishes. This reduction in an aversive feeling reinforced the checking behavior. Textbook negative reinforcement (which, btw, is usually what drives severe addictions: Positive reinforcement gets it started, negative reinforcement strengthens and sustains it).
Participating in the digital declutter experiment made me realize how much of my distracting/compulsive tech use was a driven by negative rather than positive reinforcement; that is, I was checking in order to feel less bad. And a major bad feeling that my checking was alleviating was a kind of intellectual FOMO.
FOMO, if you’re unfamiliar, stands for Fear of Missing Out. It’s usually framed in terms of social situations. I have several insomnia clients, for example, who have a hard time getting into a consistent sleep routine because they stay up later than they intend. And when we really drill down to the cause of this staying up, it’s because they’re afraid that a friend will call or text wanting to do something fun, and if they’re asleep they’ll miss out on it.
What I’ve realized over the past month is that FOMO can be intellectual in nature as well as social. That is, there’s always something intellectually novel or stimulating happening online. And I found that I often get caught in a mindset of wondering what a certain blogger or person online has said recently that might be interesting. And because the internet’s such a fast-paced environment, I worry that I’ll somehow miss out on it if I don’t check in right away.
The practical takeaway for me is this: By intentionally being ignorant for a sustained period of time about all the interesting and exciting ideas being thrown around the internet each day, I’ve shown myself experientially that I don’t actually care about missing these ideas as much as it seems like in the moment. It’s been a great example of what a psychologist would call a behavioral experiment: We may know intellectually that something isn’t scary or dangerous, but by designing an experiment to test and disprove that initial hypothesis behaviorally, we end up more genuinely and experientially learning what had previously been academic.
The Digital Declutter Diary
Back to Reality. Intentionally. Where do I go from here? The way Cal framed this experiment was as a way to remove optional digital technology for a while, acclimate to this new reality, then only add back in what is truly valuable.
So, what will I be adding back in?
I think my high-level take away is that while they’re aren’t many things that I will just completely remove from my life, I will try to be far more intentional about how those things get reintroduced and what my relationship with them will be moving forward.
- I’ll go back to using Instagram, but probably only checking it once a day at a specific time.
- Surprisingly, I haven’t missed my blogs and newsletters as much as I thought I would (although I definitely miss them more than Instagram). I think I’ll plan to do a careful review this weekend of which blogs and newsletters I know that I get consistent value from and keep them, while unsubscribing from those that are more hit or miss. I’ll also make some more stringent rules about when and for how long I check blogs and newsletters.
- Email is my kryptonite. My desire to check email hasn’t really gone down much. I think having specific times for checking email will be good. Also, if I pair down on the number of newsletters I subscribe to, I imagine my desire to check will decrease.
- News, Entertainment, and Texting really weren’t much of an issue since I do so little of those anyway. The one place that I do consistently use the internet for entertainment, though is checking ESPN daily. But this experiment has definitely taught me that I really don’t care that much about sports. I certainly don’t miss knowing what’s going on in the NFL or NBA. The experiment has been really clarifying in the sense that following sports (even as minimally as I did before the experiment—not much more than simply checking scores and reading an article or two per week) is basically a waste of time for me and not something I miss at all.
- I think I’m also going to formalize some of my casual inclinations for unbundling my technology use and trying to use specific devices for a narrower range of work. For example, I may try and be even more formal about using my iPad strictly as a writing machine, and not even bring my laptop with me to work unless I have a specific need for it. Similarly, I’d like to unbundle as much as I can from my phone—certainly social media, but also only keep email addresses that are essential on it.
- Overall, I’ve learned how good it feels to have my early mornings and evenings with my family completely cordoned off from optional tech use and checking. If nothing else, I plan to keep those restrictions in place.
The end is near and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’ve been thinking a quite a bit lately about the ending of this little digital declutter experiment, in particular how I feel about it ending. And the strange thing is, I don’t feel much. I don’t feel relieved that this burdensome thing is coming to an end; I don’t feel excited to go back to checking Instagram; I don’t feel enthusiastic about a new digitally minimal lifestyle… I sort of just feel a little “meh” about the whole thing, like there’s a noticeable absence of emotion. I suppose there’s a sort of quiet satisfaction in having done it and a gratitude to have been a part of it, but they’re pretty faint. I guess I expected some louder emotions. But there don’t seem to be any.
But what does that mean?
- I suppose it could mean that I didn’t put enough into the experiment and so I’m not getting as much out of it as I anticipated (as if feeling strongly was the only indicator that we got something out of an experience).
- It could mean that I’m unconsciously repressing a bunch of feelings about it because… well, I’m not sure why I would be repressing my feelings about a digital declutter experiment? Maybe I’m afraid that if I admit how positively I felt about the whole thing I’d have to commit to doing it indefinitely… Possible but I don’t really think so.
- Maybe not feeling much about it is an indicator that it worked. I.e. the whole point of this is to be able to be more focused and intentional with what matters in life (work, relationships, etc.) rather than being distracted by temporarily appealing but superficial things. And maybe that I don’t feel much about the process just means that I’m more focused on doing work and living my life and more able to ignore the fleeting emotional highs and lows that come with constantly being plugged into the never ending stream of dopamine exciting information that our smartphones and the internet supply… Maybe.
Maybe it’s just something that needs a little more time to pan out. I’d definitely be curious, though, to see where others who have done the experiment come down on this.
Removing vs Limiting Technology. One of the tensions this experiment has surfaced is between limiting and removing distracting technology use. In other words, what’s the decision tree for figuring out whether—for example—you should delete your Facebook account entirely or create a system of rules for when and how you use Facebook (e.g. only at night, only installed on my iPad not my iPhone, etc.)? Personally, while I’ve definitely seen and benefited from the removing strategy, I wonder if there’s a psychological benefit to the limiting strategy. Like Cal Talks about in Deep Work, to some extent it’s good to simply remove distraction, but you also have to practice building up the ability to focus intensely and ignore distraction. IF nothing else, my answer might be something along the lines of this: If you’re considering removing a distracting technology, think about, create, and try implementing a plan for limiting it first. If after a trial period it’s still too distracting, then remove it. Still, something about the removal strategy feel like a cop out. Something about saying that a technology is “too distracting” feels disempowering to me. Is there a subtle psychological downside to effectively admitting to ourselves that we don’t have the will or ability to resist compulsively checking Facebook when we should be working?
Bundling vs Unbundling. Hypothesis: Unbundled technology leads to more intentional, focused work (and life more generally, I guess) while bundled technology leads to more distraction and mindless flitting from one thing to another.
Hi, My names Nick Wignall and I buy too much Apple stuff. Now that the denial part’s out of the way, let me put forward a small rationalization for why it may actually be a good thing that I use an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook own a regular basis.
One of the little recurring habits I find myself engaging in is purging un- or infrequently used apps from my devices. Sometimes I just delete them outright, but more often than not I end up moving them from one device to another. For instance, a couple months ago I deleted my RSS reading app from my phone and moved it to my iPad. And around the same time, I removed several design/layout apps from both my iPhone and iPad and moved them strictly to my laptop. The reason for both of these moves was that—perhaps counterintuitively—I didn’t actually like being able to work on anything from any device. Trying to do a design layout for my book on an iPhone is a miserable experience. Why was I even trying to? Having a steady stream of new blog posts and articles constantly being refreshed via my RSS reader app on my phone meant that I was constantly thinking about what new interesting article was in my pocket just a couple taps away. And even if I refrained from literally checking RSS on my phone, the fact that it was possible was taking up valuable mind space and causing me to be less present than I want to be when I was, for instance, building train tracks with my daughter.
One way to look at this habit of constantly reassessing my apps and moving them around is that I’m trying to unbundle my technology. Of course most modern technology prides itself on helping us be more productive and efficient by bundling all of our tools into one sexy piece of glass and silicone. You’ve probably seen one of those videos showing all the things your smartphone has “eaten” or made obsolete. But I often find the opposite is true. I tend to be more focused and productive when I have one tool for one job rather than one meta-tool with 25 embedded software tools that allow me to do 1500 potential jobs. It sounds overwhelming just typing it out—exactly the kind of overwhelming feeling, I think, that would lead me to check email or Instagram as a way to a void feeling badly.
Okay, maybe that’s all just a terrible rationalization to make myself feel better about buying too many fancy gadgets. But maybe, just maybe, there’s something to the idea of intentionally making our hyper-multitasking machines more mono tasking. Apple’s been in the news recently for apparently building in performance detriments and deliberately crippling their phones to save battery life (i.e. Planned Obsolescence). But what if we would actually benefit from “crippling” our technology in the sense of making it less able to to many things? I don’t think it’s an accident that some of my most productive writing sessions have come when there’s been a perfect storm of leaving my laptop at home, forgetting my phone in the car, and showing up to my desk with only an iPad with only a few writing-focused apps installed on it.
I guess more generally my question is, how can we change the way we think about technology use to better facilitate focus and meaningful work (as well as quality time away from work)? How can we unbundle our technology?
Enjoying vs Missing. My wife and I had an interesting conversation the other day about the extent to which we enjoyed vs missed social media. She’s re-considering her Facebook usage and was asking whether I missed being off Instagram for the past month. My response was that while I generally enjoy Instagram when I’m on I also don’t miss it when it’s gone. In fact, I can’t think of a single time over the last 30 days when I’ve thought, “Oh, I wish I could see what So-and-So’s doing right now…” or “It’d be nice to see those awesome funny cat videos So-and-So posts every day…” I literally did not miss social media at all. Maybe it’s obvious to most people, but I hadn’t really considered the idea that you can enjoy something and still not miss it when it’s gone.
This got me thinking about whether that distinction might be a useful filter or screening question for future technology use: Despite enjoying this thing, do I miss it when I don’t have it? If the answer is no, that might be one indicator that it’s not worth keeping around. Just a thought.
Now, it’s not to say whether you miss something or not when it’s gone is a good enough criteria for keeping it in your life but it’s almost certainly better than merely asking, Do I enjoy this? I’d bet there are actually quite a few things in our lives that we would say we really enjoy and can’t live without, but then if we were deprived of might be surprised to find that we don’t actually miss that much.
Minor Distractions vs Major Distractions. I’ve been think a lot about my recent article blowing up on Medium and how that relates to/has affected this digital declutter experiment. One of the things that stands out is that not checking your email when you have no reason to expect anything that interesting is a lot easier than not checking your email when there’s you know there’s an email in their waiting to tell you that thousands of people just read an article you wrote. It feels like such a big difference to me that it almost seems like a qualitative difference.
Of course, in at least one respect it’s not. Checking of any kind, regardless of the object of the checking or what happens as a result, leads to incurring a cognitive penalty in terms of attention and focus. Cal Talks a lot about this in Deep Work and some of the interviews he’s been on. Whether I check my email for 30 seconds, realize there’s nothing interesting there and then get back to work, or I check email and go down a rabbit hole for 30 minutes before getting back to work, the key is that the degree to which you’ve broken cognitive momentum is not that dissimilar between the two. Distraction is distraction.
But psychologically, I think these two types of checking work very differently mechanically. In the former Minor Distraction case, the checking is primarily functioning as a negative reinforcer because it’s removing some negative feeling state (boredom, confusion, fear, etc.). In the later Major Distraction case, the checking is primarily a positive reinforcer because it’s adding something positive feeling (excitement, joy, etc.). I’m still not sure how much this distinction between checking as negative vs positive reinforcer matters but it does strike me that using checking as a negative reinforcer seems far far more common. Consequently, that should be the one we really focus on.
Of course, maybe all this is just me trying to rationalize spending a weekend obsessively checking my email in the middle of a check-free digital declutter experiment 😆.
Checking but still productive. While being more productive isn’t the only reason for doing a digital declutter, it is a big one. And interestingly, I’ve noticed over the duration of the experiment—but especially over the last few days when things got crazy (see Days 19-23)—that my degree of productivity doesn’t seem to change much with fluctuations in the degree to which I stayed firm to my no checking rules or lapsed a bit. Even when my article blew up for a few days, I still wrote just as much (if not a little bit more) than usual. Possible interpretations of this:
- I’m still able to be productive in spite of checking and distractors because I’m not challenging myself to be productive enough. Taking a professional race car driving course isn’t going to improve day-to-day driving nearly as much as it would improve your ability on a real race course in a real race car.
- Similarly, maybe the negative effects of checking are proportional to the difficulty (not amount) of work we do? Writing articles and books is challenging, but it’s not rocket science. Maybe if the content of my work was more cognitively demanding, my production would suffer more.
- Just because I’m still able to write as much as I normally do despite some checking from time to time doesn’t mean that the quality of my writing isn’t suffering in subtle but important ways.
- What I consider a major relapse in checking isn’t actually that much objectively. My checking a lot could be different than your checking a lot. Maybe if I was checking a lot more it would have more of an impact.
- Most intriguingly: The fact that, not only did my productivity not suffer when I went on my checking binge over the weekend, but it actually increased a bit might be the result of positive reinforcement. In other words, by seeing my article go viral, it reinforced the benefits of writing and so I was more motivated to write even more.
The other thing to point out is that, in terms of productivity, I’m mostly talking about my writing for my website that I do before I start my day job. In my day job doing psychotherapy, it isn’t really possible to be distracted by digital technologies in the first place (I wouldn’t last long as a therapist if I was checking email and Instagram in the middle of my sessions). The point is, I might notice more on a negative effect from checking lapses if I was a full time writer.
In which I fall off the wagon again—HARD—after having an article go viral on Medium. A few days ago I sent out an email to me newsletter with a new article. Same thing I do every Friday. I also posted it to Medium the next day. Again, something I normally do. But soon after, I got an email from the editor of one of the publications on Medium asking if they could syndicate my article. I said sure. And then things started getting a little crazy…
Nothing was different until I checked my email during my scheduled time and noticed a flurry of new messages from Medium alerting me to various facts about my recently published article, all of which boiled down to, it was getting a lot of traction. Obviously I got excited. And in my excitement, all my intentions re: the digital declutter seemed to fade away. I instantly got on Medium and checked my stats for the my article (a great way for a social media site or publishing platform like Medium to get more “engagement” (aka compulsive checking) from its users is to build in stats or analytics). Turns out I had gotten hundreds of people reading my article in a matter of hours. Again, more excitement, less mindfulness about my digital declutter experiment. Although if I’m honest, it;’s not like I totally forgot about the experiment—it’s salience just decreased dramatically. My intentions for digital minimalism just couldn’t compete, it seems, with the excitement of having something “go viral.”
Over the next two days the popularity of the post kept increasing to the point where, today—two and a half days later—it’s got over 16,000 views and 6,000+ complete read throughs. I’m not at all bragging here but trying to illustrate how intense my excitement was. Previous to this article, my Medium posts were averaging 5-10 views and maybe 3 read throughs. In a couple of days, I went from having 7 followers on Medium to 212 and counting—an increase of almost 3,000%. I still feel like my excitement levels are at a 3,000% increase. It’s been a pretty cool experience for someone who’s never had something I wrote or made be anywhere close to widely popular.
So where does this leave things regarding the digital declutter experiment? I’ve set the intention today to get back to my rules and routines for the experiment. It will be that much more of a challenge, though, so stay tuned…
In terms of what I’ve learned from this, a few observations:
- Going viral feels awesome. Full stop. It’s like the prettiest girl in school asking you—Awkward Pimple Boy—to dance at prom. I big part of me is just enjoying that. And I’m okay with that decision.
- At some point into the second day, the haze of excitement lifted enough for me to think more seriously about how I’d fallen off the wagon. My first reaction was to tell myself: “feeling super guilty about this has very small upsides and lots of downsides. Just relax.” And so I did. Not only did I check Medium and Twitter many times throughout the day, I also checked my email far more often (probably once every hour or two), and even checked unrelated stuff like the weather. Which just goes to show how easy it is for us to slip into the Screw it, I already ate that candy bar, might as well kill off that pint of Ben and Jerry’s while I’m at it phenomenon.
- It’s humbling to see how easily our firm convictions and intentions can crumble when a challenge goes from a little bit tough to seriously tough. It’s relatively easy not to check Twitter or Email when you don’t really have much exciting coming your way. But when all of a sudden thousands of people “like” something you’ve made, those good intentions disappear. I think this highlights the distinction between checking out of relief from boredom or restlessness (negative reinforcement) vs checking our of excitement (positive reinforcement).
- I think going forward, the next time I set an intention like this experiment, it will be important to have a plan ahead of time re: what to do if something majorly challenging gets thrown into play. It could be as simple as a rule where if something really big happens, I give myself permission to relax my normal rules and routines for a day. But then after that day, everything goes back to normal.
Okay, that’s about it for now. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic in the coming days.
P.S. Interestingly, the thing I felt most guilty about over the past few days was not that I checked a lot more or gave up temporarily on the rules of the challenge but the fact that I didn’t do a daily update to this post for a few days. Not sure what to make of that, but I thought it was interesting…
Not checking social media has been surprisingly easy. While I’ve never been a heavy social media user (95% of my social media time is on instagram), I did check it pretty frequently try throughout the day. But when I think about it, I have had literally zero impulses to check Instagram specifically. When I do want to check, it’s usually email, in part because I rely so heavily on newsletters for access to my favorite bloggers. It’s also been relatively easy for me to avoid checking the news and various online media outlets. I’m not a huge sports fan, but I almost always checked ESPN once or twice a day and maybe read an article a couple times a week. Haven’t seen ESPN once since the New Year, which is pretty cool. And like Instagram, I really don’t miss it. Until I happened to glance at a TV while I was bowling with my family, I realized that I had no idea what was going on with the NFL playoffs. Maybe more surprisingly than either Instagram or ESPN, I haven’t been particularly tempted to check Hacker News, which is my favorite news/interesting things from the internet site.
What I’m finding is that, for me, it’s all about email. In part this is because—as I mentioned—I’ve increasingly replaced checking blogs, RSS, and various other online activities with subscribing to email lists and newsletters. So all my favorite content is in email. I’m to sure whether that’s a good or bad thing from the perspective of digital distraction… On the one hand, having all of that in one place maybe makes it a little more contained. But on the other hand, email is arguably the most checkable thing on my phone. I mean, it’s literally one tap to see how many new emails are in my various accounts. Maybe I should experiment with moving all of my optional emails accounts to my Mac or iPad, and leave only my work and main personal account on my phone?
More difficulty staying on the wagon today, although I can’t blame Cal this time. I’ve just checked several times for no apparent reason: Email twice outside my normally scheduled times, some website analytics, I even checked the weather! Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be based out of either boredom or excitement this time. Instead, feels a little bit like rebelliousness, almost. Something along the lines of: “I’m an adult. I don’t have to keep doing this silly experiment. I’ll check the damn weather if I feel like it!” The other factor, I think, is that some of the novelty and excitement of the experiment is wearing off now that we’re two weeks in. But on reflection, this is the type of thing that happens all the time when starting a new habit: the initial excitement and enthusiasm carries your for a couple weeks, but then you falter a bit once that wears off. I’ve attempted enough habit formation endeavors—some successes some failures—to know this is normal. It’s almost like a weird inverse extinction burst pattern where after habituation to a new routine, your brain suddenly throws a rebellious burst of impulses in the other direction. The key of course is to weather all this with some equanimity and just keep going…
I’ve fallen off the wagon a handful of times in the last 24 hours. And I blame Cal 🙂 Yesterday Cal sent out an email to his newsletter explaining that for anyone doing the digital declutter experiment there was a New York Times reporter he was talking to who was also interested in hearing from us lab rats. And that if we were interested we should shoot her an email and describe some of our experiences with the experiment. Obviously, I that was a cool opportunity so I sent off an email that afternoon. But I found myself thinking about it a lot over the rest of the evening and into this morning, hoping for a reply (because of course super busy New York Times reporters get back to all their email within a few hours of getting it…). And in anticipation of the reward of seeing an email from her, I impulsively checked my email a couple times yesterday evening and once this morning. Mea culpa.
Obviously I felt a little guilt as I was doing it and afterward. But the more interesting emotional finding was how different it felt than my other temptations to check. That is, while by previous impulses to check have largely been driven by a desire to avoid the negative sensation of boredom, this one was more positively motivated by a desire for a specific outcome. Seems like a subtle distinction, but I suspect it matters. I wonder, for instance, what the average persons ratio of negatively vs positively motivated checking behavior is? I would guess that’s it’s pretty strongly lopsided in favor of the negative. That is, we tend to check as away of avoiding something aversive rather than actually getting something positive. So, one way to set rules for ourselves regarding technology use might be something along the lines of: Only engage in unscheduled checking if you expect to get a specific positive good from it rather than checking to relieve the discomfort of some negative state like boredom or uncertainty. I’ll have two think through this more…
Digital declutter as an opportunity for mindfulness. Mindfulness is so trendy and popular a term that I hesitate to even use it anymore. It’s come to mean so many things to so many people that it’s often more confusing than useful. Nevertheless, one of the useful aspects of my experience of mindfulness is the idea it’s a good idea for most of us to practice observing what happens in our own minds without immediately reacting or responding. We perceive the familiar sound of a text message showing up on our phone and automatically reach for the phone in response to the perception. There’s no space between stimulus and response. Mindfulness is a way to practice adding some space or a pause in between the barrage of stimuli we receive all day everyday and our actions. Because while sometimes it’s useful to respond right away, other times it’s not or the cost is too great.When we’re mindful, we have the ability to notice a auditory perception and just observe it for a while, maybe ask it a question or two, maybe let it go and get back to that article we’re struggling on or paper we can’t seem to quite finish.
I guess the point I’m meandering my way into is that this whole digital declutter experiment has routinely “forced” me to be more mindful. No in a woo-woo look how enlightened I am way, but just in a nuts and bolts what’s my mind really doing kind of way. The long term benefit of which, by the way, is that we’re able to act on what’s really of value to us rather than what feels immediate or important or natural in the moment.
While I still occasionally think about checking social media, I can’t say that I miss it. Which fits with the idea that much of checking is about the relief from the feelings associated with boredom/busyness withdrawals rather than the addition of some wonderful experience associated with viewing social media.
I was listening to a recent episode of the excellent Hurry Slowly Podcast and the topic of boredom came up. Given that this seems to be such a central idea for me in my digital declutter experiment, my ears pricked up and I listened extra attentively. The guys being interviewed was talking about the benefits of rest and relaxation, in his words, “Recognizing the value of doing nothing…” He was arguing that when we’re “doing nothing” our brain’s default mode network activates and that, far from really doing nothing, our brain is still highly engaged but in a very different way (making connections between previous disparate ideas, for instance). But we miss out on the different gear of cognitive work when we’re always busy working on little tasks and projects. The word busy really struck me and I wondered, What if the perceived aversion to boredom that I experience, and that seems to be such a trigger for distracting technology use, is really more like busyness withdrawals? We’re so used to always being in a mildly analytical problem-solving mindset (thanks in large part to our personal technology but also, I think, out current work culture) that being in any other mindset seems aversive. I think this is how I will try refraiming those boredom experiences. Instead of I’m bored and this sucks, I’ll try looking at it as I’m withdrawing from an unnaturally high level of business back to a more normal baseline.
I keep coming back to boredom. Far more often than not, when I catch myself in an impulse to check, it’s boredom that’s the culprit. Not having something for my mind to wrestle with and consider. Our at least, not having an easily available, technologically delivered something. I wonder if part of the reason this remains so sticky of a problem (Oh, beside the fact that I’m only 12 days into this experiment and I’ve been checking a smartphone many times a day for the better part of a decade…) is that I don’t really believe or buy the idea that boredom has value. I mean, I do believe it in the sense that I can think intellectually of reasons why boredom might be positive, but I don’t believe it experientially. I haven’t felt the benefits of boredom. I suppose it’s the kind of thing where the benefits are always delayed and therefore hard to tie to that one time sitting on the couch, bored, not checking my phone… Still, I’m going to keep thinking about how I could create a test to see if I can catch the benefits of boredom in action. I should probably go read some William James (not because he’s boring, btw, but because this seems like the kind of thing he’d be good at, maybe have written about, or possibly even did himself).
Earlier this morning, I looked at the clock by my desk and realized that I’d been writing entirely uninterrupted and distraction-free for almost an hour and a half. Typically I get antsy around 30 minutes and need to take a break. It seems possible that, along the line’s of what Cal suggests in Deep Work, my ability to stay focused for longer is increasing. Which is awesome! And while I don’t always go 90 minutes of straight writing, there does seem to be a pretty significant increase in the length of time between when I sit down to work on something difficult like writing an article and when I notice myself getting distracted. Additionally, when I do feel the pull toward distractions, it seems less intense. The only potential confound I can see here is that as a New Year’s resolution of sorts, I’ve been trying to be much more consistent about my writing. So as soon as I sit down at my desk every morning I just start writing and don’t stop for an hour at a minimum. It’s possible, then, that my increased ability to stay focused has more to do with just getting more practice writing for longer stretches.
One of the little sub-experiments I’ve been doing as part of the larger digital declutter experiment is to deliberately not do any of the typical lifehacky, personal productivity tricks you might expect in a project like this. For example, I’m not keeping my phone in airplane mode and in a drawer while I’m at work. It sits in plain sight right next to my computer as it always has. My reasoning for this is, I want to develop the cognitive muscle of avoiding distraction, not some sort of logistical method for not being exposed to distraction as much in the first place. Of course, I think the later is important, but for the purposes of this digital declutter experiment, I want to be exposed to relatively normal levels of potential for distraction so I have more opportunity to resist and therefore build that focus muscle.
Some thoughts on Cal’s guidelines that podcasts and streaming video are different than other distracting tech use.
- It’s hard to quickly check a podcast or Netflix show.
- They both require a kind of work or investment that a lot of other distracting tech behaviors don’t — specifically, the payoff in a podcast or tv show often is either distributed evenly over the course of 30 min or an hour, or it comes at an unpredictable time. So podcasts and tv shows are less dangerous because they’re less immediately and easily rewarding.
- You can’t very well see inside a podcast or tv episode like you can see inside an email or tweet. Sure you can see a description or plot summary, but you don’t really get any of the experiential value until you actually watch or listen to the thing in a sustained way. You do get a little hit of dopamine each time a notification pops up on your home screen, though.
- TV and podcasts are harder to do in public or semi-public contexts (at Starbucks, in a meeting, etc). They’re more situationally sensitive. Social media, on the other hand, is designed to be situationally insensitive.
- People tend to have well-established routines for when the watch tv and listen to podcasts, as opposed to social media and email which are deliberately routine and context free. I can check email anytime anywhere!
Sometimes when I feel the impulse to check my phone, I get all the way to the point of opening it up and staring longingly at the home screen before I remind myself of the challenge and set it back down again. When my withdrawals are especially acute, I’ll flip through screens to my second and third page of apps and then back again, as if just looking at the icons will give me a little hit of whatever it is I crave without actually checking anything. This made me think of the Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment: How the little kids, when presented with the temptation of the marshmallow right in front of them get increasingly fidgety, looking at it from different angles, smelling it, poking it, and generally doing everything to it they can besides actually eating it.
The more I reflect on things, the more confident I am that it really is novelty that seems to be driving the longing to check. But maybe the better way to look at it is as a difficulty tolerating boredom or a lack of novelty. Which makes me wonder, are those the same? When I’m sitting on the couch waiting for my wife to put my daughter to sleep before we start watching a show, what’s the aversive emotion that the novelty of a my Twitter feed would satiate? Is boredom a feeling itself or just the lack of stimulation? Does it matter? Also, while resisting the temptation to check my phone is useful (a la deep work and maintaining focus in the face of distractors), is there an additional benefit to simply being bored or not actively stimulated?
One possibility is that boredom is just a lack of active imagination. That is, our modern idea of being stimulated and active is having interesting things delivered to us (usually by technology), but what if the more important skill is to be able to generate that stimulation independently? Something I’m not doing because I basically have zero practice doing it because there’s always an app close at hand ready to deliver it to me? Finally, even aside from the possibility of cultivating a more active sense of imagination, maybe there’s independent value in simply being without stimulation? Something along the lines of the value of mindfulness—learning to be aware of things without thinking about them. I’m really free-associating now, but this makes me think about some of what I’ve read on creativity as a kind of interplay between deliberately engaging in active conscious thought and being open or receptive to the mind’s unconscious processing. In other words, maybe one benefit of nonstimualting boredom is that it makes you more receptive to insights from your more non-conscious processing?
It’s been a pretty boring day of digital declutter. I’ve noticed a handful of the usual pulls to check, but nothing particularly unusual or seemingly noteworthy. Of course, this good be my own bias: something along the lines of coming off yesterday’s more noteworthy re-cap and small observations, things merely seem less noteworthy. On the other hand, it could–tentatively–be a sign of progress, I suppose… Ie I’m settling into a non-distracted routine and my mind is finally coming to terms with it and not resisting as much. Seems a bit overly optimistic, but you never know.
It’s been a week. I’d say my high level impression of this experiment so far is that it’s been clarifying. Clarifying of my emotions, my habits, my ability to focus, even to some extent a kind of clarity when I interact with other people like clients or my family. Feeling more present or maybe grounded would also be a way to describe it. The trick, I think, in the long term will be to translate this feeling into a set of habits and routines so that it really sticks and becomes a part of my life. This is where a lot of good ideas and insights fall short. They are exciting and motivating initially, but fall victim to the “that was nice, but…” phenomenon.
Confounding Variables: While it seems like there’s a significant positive difference as a result of a week of this experiment, I have to wonder how much of that could be to other factors, a kind of New Years effect in particular? That is, because it’s the new year and we all make some positive changes (I know, I know you don’t do New Year’s resolutions, right?), maybe these are resulting are really driving the effect. Two things in particular come to mind: 1) My wife and I decided to go sugar free for a month, and many of the benefits people have described after doing something similar are a lot like the kind of clarity and presence I described above. 2) I’ve really committed to being better about getting at least a solid hour of Deep Work done first thing every morning. Maybe that’s having interesting side effects?
Some short random observations from the week I haven’t mentioned yet:
- I haven’t checked the weather in a week (because I deleted the app from my phone). When was the last time that happened? Middle school?
- Turns out, your phone’s battery lasts WAY longer when you aren’t checking Instagram and email every 15 minutes.
- It’s amazing how unimportant 98% of the emails I get look when I see them all together a day later, as opposed to when they first pop into my inbox.
- I might have predicted that when I cut out so many optional digital technologies, the ones remaining (Netflix, podcasts) might have increased in appeal. If anything it feels a little bit like the opposite is true.
- I do miss a couple of my blogs that I read daily and a couple of my email newsletters, but dear God do I not miss the news at all, and this from someone who was pretty minimalist in their news consumption already.
I talked yesterday about emotions as cues for mindless digital habits. So far boredom, frustration, and anxiety have been the most common. But I noticed another today: agitation. Maybe agitation is a bit too strong a word and it’s something closer to restlessness, but in either case, I’ve found myself in a couple situations where the thoughts running through my mind are something like, “What do I need to do now?” And the resulting emotion is a kind of restless mental fidgeting. Now, because there isn’t actually anything that I really do need to be doing in these moments, that feeling is aversive. As a result, doing something like checking the news or social media temporarily eases that emotional discomfort and reinforces the restlessness (cue) — mindless checking (routine) association.
The obvious next question is: If mindless checking isn’t a great response to an aversive emotion like restlessness, what is? One of the cool things about this experiment is that it provides an answer to that question that very much lines up with the work I do with clients in therapy. Namely, sometimes the simple but difficult truth is that no response is the best response to an unpleasant emotion. As a productivity/achievement obsessed culture, this is a hard pill to swallow—that in the long run, being able at times to shift into not doing may be more important to our wellbeing and productivity than the endless stream of doing.
Because I basically never check my phone anymore while I’m at home with my family in the evening, I feel a small but noticeable relief from guilt. Previously, I would always feel a little twinge of guilt acutely whenever a glanced at ESPN to check the scores of the games, but I never really noticed any consistent or free-floating guilt about using my phone at home. But now that I’m not, it’s almost as if I can feel a consistent absence of guilt. Not sure if that makes sense or not… Have to revisit in the future. Also, I don’t, btw feel GUILTY about using my phone at home. I know I haven’t done anything really wrong by checking my phone occasionally while playing with my daughters. But we don’t have a great word for a less severe version of guilt so that’s just the word I’m using. The actual emotion is something closer to giving into laziness every once in a while and not going to the gym. If you’re still exercising regularly, slacking off a day or two per month isn’t really doing something wrong. But because it’s the kind of thing that could easily morph into a back habit, it results in a kind of cautionary or preemptive mild guilt. Maybe…
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg popularized the idea of thinking about habits in terms of three component parts: Cue, Routine, and Reward, or what he calls The Habit Loop. I was thinking about this with respect to the digital declutter experiment. The overall habit is mindlessly checking technology. If we break it down in terms of the habit loop, it typically looks something like this (for me, anyway): I find myself in the middle of the routine of picking up my phone. Typically, I would then open up Instagram, Hacker News, or some other source of novel information. Invariably, I would find such a novelty nugget and be rewarded with a little hit of dopamine, thereby completing the loop. Notice, though, I haven’t talked about the cue at all. That’s where the digital declutter experiment has been particularly interesting with regard to the habit loop. It’s caused me to be more aware of my technology use, and as a result, I find myself in the middle of a routine and typically cutting off the loop (and by not allowing the reward to kick in, I’m theoretically lessening the strength of the habit). By not going through with the routine, it’s allowed me to think immediately about what the cue or trigger was.
What I’ve been observing is fascinating. Now, take this with a grain of salt since, just like to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to a shrink everything comes down to emotions, but it really does seem to me that many of the cues for my mindless technology use are emotions. Boredom is a big one. But also frustration (getting stuck writing an article or trying top phrase an email response), and increasingly fear as I described in yesterday’s entry. Of course, since emotions are relatively, intangible and fleeting, we often don’t notice them, which in a way makes them more powerful cues.
Confession: Twice in the last 24 hours I’ve checked my email outside of my scheduled one time per day. I’ve been waiting to hear back about something I’m really excited about and just gave in. I’ll also note that both times I was very clear and intentional about what I was doing (breaking the rules)—not sure if that makes it better or worse 😆
One of the more qualitative things I’ve noticed after a few days of digital declutter is a subtle but noticeable increase in the amount of “white space” throughout my day. Everything seems to have more cushion and breathing room around it. Like the sensation you get after you clean up your room. The result is a kind of clarity and intentionality that is both uncomfortable and invigorating. The best analogies I can think of for this somewhat paradoxical feeling is how you feel in the middle of a mindfulness meditation or long run—it’s painful but also energizing. I’m curious if others feel this and how they might describe it…
As a wrote about yesterday, one of the little extensions of Cal’s main guidelines that I’m playing with is to avoid or at least delay instinctively jotting down notes and ideas in my phone as they come at random points throughout the day. Yesterday I looked at this from the perspective of building up a kind of emotional resistance to FOMO. But I think there’s another benefit. Just before sitting down to write this, I was cooling down from a run in the gym and the above White Space observation came to me. I instinctively reached for my phone to start jotting down my ideas, but when I paused, I noticed that my seemingly rational and productive intent to jot down some notes was motivated by fear. I was afraid that if I didn’t write it down I would lose it and not have a good observation to write about today (Intellectual FOMO).
Now, I’m not saying that’s bad necessarily to be motivated by fear. But it’s certainly interesting. Obviously fear creates urgency and enables you to avoid the really bad outcome of forgetting your main idea. But what if in the process you sacrifice some amount of depth of processing? I noticed that when I couldn’t write down my idea, I started to—shock!—actually think about it and mull it over in my mind. This is interesting to me because it highlights how, much of the time I get an idea, save it via a quick note, then promptly forget about it until start writing about it whenever I’ve decided to write an article or post. I wonder, though, would I have a more mature idea to write about if I gave myself a little more time to think about my ideas before I captured them? I notice that I do a lot of think as I write, but I wonder if my ideas would be more fully baked if I did a little more pre-processing of them prior to capture? In Deep Work, Cal talks about going through arguments or proofs in his head while running, which makes it easier to actual write when he sits down in front of his computer. Maybe this is similar?
I’ve been trying to pay attention to what I’m saying to myself in moments of craving technology. I was working on an article this morning and hit a stuck point. I glanced up at my office wall and as my eyes were wandering they hit on my phone. Cue technology craving. I instinctively reached for my phone, but as I picked it up (but before turning it on), I caught myself and could hear my inner voice saying: “Nope, build the muscle.” I don’t remember coming up with that phrase or intentionally planning to use it when faced with the craving to check my phone, but it appeared. Of course, the idea of focus as a mental muscle is something we hear a lot and a metaphor I use in my therapy sessions quite a bit, so maybe it’s not totally surprising that it showed up. But what struck me about that little phrase is that it was reacting to a challenging situation (resisting the craving to check my phone) from a constructive point of view. Instead of “resist the temptation, don’t give in” it was to think about not checking as a positive of building a muscle, presumably the muscle required to hold our attention on one thing amid distraction.
This experiment has caused me to notice just how much automatic behavior in general there is around my phone, even outside of the checking behavior that I’m really focusing on. As I was writing a note after one of my sessions, a little idea dawned on me for a future article. My hands literally started moving toward my computer to jot it down in Ulysses. But I caught myself and decided to wait for 30 more seconds until I finished my note and then write it down. But most interestingly, I think, the real temptation to write it down right away came in the form of a worry that if I didn’t get it down now I might forget a really good (or so I thought in the moment) idea. In other words, I realized that a significant factor driving some of my automatic technology use is a kind of intellectual FOMO.
- Why do I feel the need to check my phone in the morning while I’m getting dressed? I’m sitting here with my pants and an undershirt on but not my shoes or shirt. Weird. I feel tired. Does checking my phone help with that somehow?
- Opened gmail on my laptop automatically, pure habit. Ironically, one of Cal’s newsletter articles was the first thing I clicked on and read. About 2/3 of the way through I remembered I was doing the digital declutter.
- Checked email automatically again. Seems to be a response to being stuck on a problem or task. I was in the middle of responding to a work email but didn’t know how to phrase something. Thought about it for probably 10 seconds, still couldn’t think of what to do, so instinctively clicked on my gmail tab. So crazy how automatic our behavior can be. Also, makes me think: what am I teaching my brain when I click over to Gmail after 10 seconds of frustration while writing? What if after 10 seconds of frustration with a Math problem, I told my daughter, “It’s okay, honey, why don’t you check Facebook for a while”?
- Noticed but resisted the urge to check stuff (nothing specific, just this vague impulse) in between finishing my note and seeing new client.
- Still not even noon and I’ve tried to check Gmail again for a third time. Deleted my pinned tabs – no email on laptop anymore.
- Inline at Starbucks, frustration with lady in front of me taking forever (dropping her credit card, making chit chat with barista, etc.), felt urge to pull out phone but didn’t. (So checking my phone as an anti-frustration mechanism?) Because I couldn’t check my phone, I ended up watching her a little more closely and noticed that her hands were shaking involuntarily, maybe Parkinson’s or something? I don’t know what the lesson is necessarily here, but I wouldn’t have noticed that if could have just been able to hop on my phone.
I admit it: I’m writing this thing on January 2nd. While I thought about the digital declutter and generally abstained from any optional technology use, this project shouldn’t be deemed officially started until Day 2.
What is the 30-Day Digital Declutter?
During the month of January I’ll be participating in a “digital declutter” experiment and keeping a daily record of my experiences with it on this page.
The digital declutter experiment is a project from author Cal Newport, with the purpose of helping us “reset [our] digital life to something more intentional and meaningful.” Ideally, this temporary break from “optional digital technologies” will allow for more clarity about what’s truly valuable in life.
Why I’m doing it
I’m participating in the project for three reasons:
- I really appreciate and admire all of Cal’s work and wanted to help him out on this project which is serving as research for his new book on digital minimalism.
- I do think that the technology in my life is distracting, but I also think that I’m fairly productive. So, while I’m confident that removing these distractors will make me more productive, I’m curious about how much more. 5%? 20%? 200%?
- I’m interested in how this experiment may relate to the broader theme of all my work—how subtle psychological factors prevent us from making the changes in our lives that we aspire to. In particular, I’m curious to see what happens psychologically when we remove the distractions of technology? What’s the emotional friction? Or from another perspective, what psychological functions does digital distraction serve? What do we get out of being glued to our phones all the time? I think we have to understand that clearly before we can judge whether or not the difficult task of giving it up is worth it to us.
In his guidelines, Cal suggests the following general rules:
- Log out of and avoid social media entirely. If necessary, delete the apps from your phone for the course of the experiment.
- Don’t read news online. Buy a newspaper if you must stay up to date.
- Don’t use the internet for entertainment. No web surfing, YouTube, blogs, newsletters, etc. Interestingly, he suggests podcasts and streaming TV/movies as exceptions.
- Severely limit texting.
- Put strong limits on when you check personal email accounts. He recommends deleting your accounts from your phone and only having them on a desktop.
I plan on adhering pretty closely to these, but with a few modifications:
- Social Media. Instagram is the main culprit for me so I will be deleting it from my phone and not checking it at all. But because it’s the primary way my extended family keeps up on my kids, once a week I will post photos. I use Twitter and Facebook for my website, so I will continue to post articles to them via Buffer, but I will be deleting both apps from my phone and not checking either of them at all.
- News. I generally don’t read too much traditional news online, but I do visit some aggregator sites like HackerNews, so I will completely avoid those.
- Entertainment. Not reading my favorite blogs and newsletter will be tough, but that’s the idea, right? Also, I’m planning to only listen to podcasts while I exercise (not on my commute, for example). And as for Netflix and other streaming, my plan is to limit but not eliminate these. My wife and I typically watch about an hour of Netflix in the evening after the girls have gone to bed, but I’m going to try to substitute reading several nights per week.
- Texting. I don’t text a whole lot, but I plan to just be mindful of not using it superfluously or checking my phone for new texts.
- Email. My plan for personal email is to only check it once every other day and only read and respond to immediate emails.