Reflections After a Summer of Minimal Tech Use
For 100 days during the summer of 2018, I conducted an extended digital declutter experiment.
- What effect would unplugging from the news entirely for 3 months have?
- Would I miss knowing how my favorite sports teams were doing?
- How would fewer digital distractions affect my productivity and work life?
- Would there be emotional benefits to an extended hiatus from constant digital connectivity?
- Are there any downsides to becoming more of a digital minimalist for an extended period of time?
In many ways, the results were consistent with my experiences after a similar month-long digital declutter.
But the most important takeaway was this:
I proved to myself that digital minimalism is a sustainable long-term approach to life.
If you’re curious about the guidelines I set for the experiment, check out my introductory post: The Summer of Digital Minimalism.
What follows are 10 observations on how my extended experiment with digital minimalism affected me.
1 | Distraction removal is the ultimate productivity hack
This extended experiment with digital minimalism showed me how much the ability to concentrate and stay focused really depends upon not being distracted.
While it’s good to build up a resistance to distraction, it’s much more powerful to set up your life to avoid these distractions in the first place.
For me, this started with small routines:
- Putting my phone on airplane mode and in a drawer for the two hours each morning while I write.
- Closing out of my email app on my computer each afternoon so that when I sit down to write in the mornings I’m not tempted to procrastinate by checking email.
- Deleting distracting apps from my phone and only accessing them by web browser if I really need them.
The willingness to remove digital distractions from our lives is one of the single best things any of us can do for our productivity.
2 | We’re in the Golden Age of TV. And I Didn’t Miss it a Bit
The summer of digital minimalism extended my no tv/movies streak to six months. And, honestly, I didn’t miss them at all.
A lot of things that we think we can’t live without turn out to be not so essential after all.
For example, many people claim that vegging out in front of Netflix for a couple hours after work is the only way they can relax.
But just because it’s a convenient way to relax doesn’t mean it’s the only way.
Of course, most of us understand this intellectually, but to really believe it on an experiential level, we often need to force ourselves to drastically change our environment and discover new means of relaxation.
3 | The opportunity cost of podcasts
I love podcasts. But like anything, we can have too much of a good thing.
Until this summer, I didn’t really realize how much time I was putting into podcasts and what that time could be better spent on.
For example, I often listened to podcasts in “downtime”—while I was exercise or driving in the car, for example. But once I committed to no podcasts, I realized that I could use those times for other things that were actually far more enjoyable and productive.
Sometimes, for instance, I just did nothing while I exercised. Turns out, it’s kind of nice to just exercise without tons of visual and auditory stimuli constantly bombarding us.
I also found that these “downtimes” were ideal for brainstorming and divergent thinking about future ideas for my articles and writing.
4 | I’ll never give up my smartphone while I have little kids.
Part of me really likes the idea of ditching my smartphone altogether. Maybe even go for something like this smart dumb phone as an alternative.
But… the ability to instantly pull out my phone and snap a pic or video as my kids are doing something spontaneous (and adorable) is simply something I’m not willing to give up.
The best argument against this is that by not always having your phone on you taking pictures you’ll be able to be more present with the people in your life. But I don’t know that this really holds up.
For me, anyway, I don’t feel like taking a couple quick photos at random times is somehow keeping me distant from my daughters while we play, for example.
5 | More creative insights
Okay, it’s not like I’m cranking out Beethoven symphonies or Picasso masterpieces, but I do feel like I’m more creative in a modest way when I’m unplugged from the constant stream of digital stimuli.
Specifically, the frequency of “an interesting thought” popping into my head seems to be much greater when I’m practicing some form of digital minimalism.
I suspect this has something to do with having more “mental bandwidth,” generally.
When we’re constantly bombarded by notifications, news, emails, alerts, texts, videos, etc., I have to imagine this takes up quite a bit of mental energy and space. And what’s more, we’re probably training our minds to be on the lookout for and expect this unusually high level of mental stimulation.
All of this means our minds are preoccupied with whatever the internet wants us to be preoccupied with rather than the things that matter most to us.
But when we reduce the overall mental stimuli we’re exposed to, it seems to increase our sensitivity to our own internal stimuli and insights.
6 | Feeling calm within the storm
I had a pretty hectic and busy summer, but I rarely felt overwhelmed or harried by it. Of course, this is in part because I am married to a rock star 🙂 But the increased mental bandwidth available as a result of less digital connectivity seemed to allow for more “stress headroom.”
Imagine spending 30 minutes on the way home from work listening to the news about how awful the world is and how everything’s going to hell. Then you walk through the door and have to deal with the unexpected stress of filling out reams of last-minute paperwork in order to get your mortgage application to go through on time.
If your stress level’s already at the “orange line” because of all that distressing news you listened to on the way home, it’s not going to take much to tip you over the edge into red line stress.
On the other hand, by being intentional about how much exposure we have to things like the news via our tech, we give ourselves a bigger buffer against stressors that pop up unexpectedly, thus allowing ourselves to remain calm in the midst of a storm.
7 | Emotional awareness
Even though I found myself calmer and less stressed than I anticipated during a pretty busy summer, I did notice a slight increase in my overall emotional awareness and access.
This is a hard thing to describe, but, just like less digital connection allows for more “mental bandwidth” and creates opportunities for creative insights, I think this increased mental bandwidth also allows for more emotional sensitivity and awareness.
In fact, part of the reason I may have been able to avoid getting overly stressed-out is that I was better at noticing when strong emotions were coming up and sticking around, which means I could take time to reflect on them rather than ignoring them until they became overwhelming.
8 | Digital Minimalism can be socially isolating
The only major downside I noticed to my experiment with digital minimalism is that it can be somewhat isolating interpersonally.
For example, I didn’t really have much to say when common topics came up around the water cooler at work or at dinner parties. Because I had very little exposure to what was happening in the world of sports, news, and current events generally, I didn’t have much to offer in a lot of typical social conversation.
For me, this was not a big deal since I’m pretty content with my level of social interaction. But I think it’s good to be aware of the fact that by reducing your access to pop-culture and current events, you may find yourself at a distance from people, which could lead to a sense of isolation or loneliness.
9 | I feel more in control of my life
One of the best “perks” of digital minimalism is that it leads to feeling more in control over your own life.
One of the subtle downside to persistent tech use is that it tends to make us reflexive rather than intentional in our actions. When everything is automated and set to alert us to things, we end up becoming little stimulus-response machines, constantly reacting to our environment without much space in between.
And when a large chunk of the actions in our life are reactive responses to stimuli (as opposed to intentional choices aligned with our values), we often start to feel a vague sense of dis-ease.
There’s obviously an important place for automation in our daily lives, but it doesn’t feel great when you start feeling like an automaton yourself.
The tricky thing is, you don’t really realize how much you feel this way until you’re free from that environment and those influences. Which is why I think it’s so powerful to experiment with some form of digital minimalism or digital declutter.
10 | Digital Minimalism is my future
Now that I’ve really “gone deep” with digital minimalism and seen what it’s like for an extended period of time, it’s hard to imagine going back to my previous relationship with technology.
Specifically, it’s hard to imagine going back to a mindless acceptance of the persistent digital creep we all face—Netflix every evening, podcasts on every run, checking Twitter at the slightest pause in daily activity. Gross.
Like any good breakup, my summer of digital minimalism has taught me a lot about what I do and do not want in my relationship with technology.
Most importantly, it’s taught me that I want to regularly be aware of setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries with my tech.
I still want to listen to podcasts and watch Netflix from time to time. I still want to use Twitter and follow my favorite bloggers. But I want to do it intentionally and in a way that lines up with what I really value in life.
A Final Thought
Digital minimalism frees up our time and energy to be spent on the things that matter most to us.
I think a big reason why digital minimalism is so attractive to me—and why I’m so motivated to implement it—is because I have a pretty clear idea of what I would rather put that time and energy into—like spending quality time with my wife and daughters, writing articles, recording podcasts, reading, baking, meditating, etc.
But if you don’t have a good idea of where you would like to put all that time and energy, removing significant chunks of your digital life may be much more difficult, and perhaps, less beneficial.
In this case, the clarity that comes from digital minimalism may be a necessary ingredient in figuring out what we do really want out of life. This is a classic chicken-or-egg problem, which means there’s no easy answer for how to get started.
Maybe the best option is to start small and experiment:
- What happens if you commit to not listening to anything on your commute for a week?
- What happens if you take a month off Netflix?
- What if you forced yourself to only check email through a browser on your computer rather than on your phone?
I think it’s important to understand that exploring digital minimalism doesn’t have to be something as big as a month-long or summer-long declutter experiment. It can be something very, very small.
Small enough to be doable but also just enough to get a taste of what it’s like. And that taste may get you coming back for more.