My tech and I have a boundaries problem
Like a lot of people, I struggle to maintain good boundaries with the personal technology in my life:
- I mindlessly check email at the slightest hint of boredom.
- I ruminate on how well a new Medium article is doing rather than being present with my daughters while we play.
- I sit down to write and decide to respond to just one email, only to ‘wake up’ an hour later, lost down the rabbit hole of interesting newsletter links with nothing to show for it besides the mild gnaw of procrastination guilt.
I think most of us can relate to this ‘technology creep.’ Powerful and ubiquitous pieces of personal technology like smartphones and social media have a way of burrowing into our lives and staking out surprisingly large claims to our time and attention.
All this clever technology convinces us to open up our lives to it, and in return claims to make our lives simpler, nicer, and more productive.
But is it true? Is that really how this story plays out?
Despite our best intentions to use our technology to better achieve our goals, we end up getting used by our technology to better achieve someone else’s goals.
We tell ourselves that checking Instagram is harmless and helps us connect with the people we love. And yet…
We find ourselves in a constant game of social comparison, feeling badly every couple hours about how lame and disappointing our lives look compared to everyone else’s perpetually happy families and epic summer vacations.
Meanwhile, a handful of Silicon Valley companies rack up the big bucks at the expense of our time, attention, and ultimately I think, our lives.
Tech is good but it needs boundaries. Each one of us individually needs to take up the responsibility of setting and maintaining those boundaries ourselves. We can’t wait for Google and Facebook to do it for us.
I believe adopting a philosophy of Digital Minimalism is the best way to do this.
We need to fight back and consciously decide how tech should (and should not) be a part of our lives.
In January 2018, I participated in Cal Newport’s 30-Day Digital Declutter Experiment.
For 30 days I severely limited my personal technology use:
- I stopped reading the news, sports, blogs, and newsletters.
- I quit social media.
- I cut out all email except work emails, and then only checked it once a day.
- I even stopped checking the weather online and listening to podcasts.
It was transformative:
- My writing productivity increased dramatically, driven primarily by a much-increased capacity for focus and Deep Work and a noticeable spike in creative thinking and idea generation.
- My stress levels saw a noticeable decrease. While they weren’t hight to begin with, I felt calmer and more in control of my own life on a day to day basis.
- I felt more present at home and with my family. With no email or sports scores or social media to stay up-to-date with, I was able to be more connected with my wife and daughters.
- I learned how much I didn’t miss most of my tech use. I didn’t miss Instagram a bit, and was even a little relieved that I didn’t have the ‘duty’ of staying current on my feed. I missed reading some of my favorite writers and bloggers online, but not that much. Most of that time was being converted into writing and producing, which felt much more satisfying than the endless stream of online consumption.
In short, my life felt better with better boundaries on my tech.
But slowly those good boundaries eroded and tech crept back in. I started becoming laxer with my email checking and online browsing, and as a result, found it harder to ‘just get to work’ when I needed to and maintain focus when I did.
I started checking my phone at home, being ever so slightly less present and engaged. I noticed that all that quiet whitespace which was so conducive to creative and insightful thinking was getting backfilled with digital noise. And now, four months later, I can feel myself backsliding and want to stop it.
We need to do more than ‘declutter’ our digital lives. We need to re-define them.
My 30-day digital declutter was a successful experiment. It gave me some data and showed in a concrete way how much better life can be with more intentional boundaries around my tech use. But I want to take it a step further now and really commit to changing my life based on the evidence I gathered. I want to double down on a more minimalist approach to technology, one that takes seriously this question:
In what ways does personal technology genuinely add value to my life?
I have some good initial answers to that question, but now I want to fully make them a part of my life. Instead of a month-long ‘experiment,’ I want to live an extended digitally minimal life.
If, like me, you’ve tried some kind of digital sabbatical or purge haven’t been as successful as you’d like in making it stick, I invite you to participate along with me in something a little more… rigorous.
100 Days of Digital Minimalism
From May 24th to August 31st, I’m going all-in on digital minimalism. Starting next week, I plan to spend 100 days without any optional personal technology use whatsoever.
How it works
Here are the guidelines I’m setting for myself for the challenge. They’re largely based on the recommendations from Cal’s original 30-Day Digital Declutter plus a few of my own modifications based on what worked well for me.
They’re based on 3 core principles:
- Tech use shouldn’t be habitual. In order to be intentional about our use of technology and have it serve our values, we must be free from the compulsive and addictive tendency to check our tech.
- Tech is for making stuff, not feeling better. I want to use technology as a tool to accomplish my goals and aspirations. I don’t want to lean on it as a crutch for cheap emotional satisfaction or distraction.
- People matter most. Despite the perpetual promise of the internet and social media to make us more connected, technology is too often a source of subtle isolation and disconnect from other people in our lives.
Please Note: All of the guidelines that follow are based on one or more of these principles. Of course, everyone’s situation and values differ, so feel free to modify as fits your needs. Also, this challenge is about optional personal tech use; it doesn’t apply to necessary personal or work-related tech use.
PART 1: Eliminate all optional personal technology use.
All of the areas of personal tech use broken down by category with suggestions for eliminating or severely limiting them.
- Email: Only check email twice per day, once in the mornings and once before leaving work/in the latter part of the day. Ignore anything that is optional. Take action immediately on necessary items or schedule a time to do sop in the future. Turn notifications off.
- Social Media: Sign out of all social media accounts and remove the apps from your phone/tablet/computer. Let people know your plans for the summer and tell them you’ll be back in September (maybe…). If you must get back into your accounts, you can always do so via the browser on your computer.
- News: Stop reading the news online. I plan to buy a Sunday paper once a week and skim it that morning in order to stay up to date.
- Entertainment: In general, abstain from using tech for entertainment. I’m not going to read any of my usual blogs and am logging out of my RSS reader. I’m going to ignore 95% of the newsletters I’m subscribed to except for 5 of the most valuable. I’ll read these, along with my paper, on Sunday mornings only. No podcasts, online videos, or any other form of online entertainment.
- Optional Apps: Eliminate unnecessary apps from phone. There are lots of little apps on my phone that I don’t really need and are often subtle sources of distraction. For example, I don’t really need a whether app or run-tracking app on my phone. If I really need to know about the weather, I can look it up in the browser. If I really want to track my runs, I can write them down.
- TV/Movies: Be intentional about evening video consumption. For the last couple months, my wife and I haven’t been watching anything in the evenings, instead just chatting, playing board games (okay, I’ll be honest-all we’ve been playing is Catan 🙂 or reading. That may very well continue all summer, but if we do decide to start watching again, we’re going to limit it to one night per week.
PART 2: Rediscover the joys of analog
Minimalism, including digital minimalism, isn’t just about getting rid of things from our lives. In fact, minimalism is much more about adding things to our lives. Specifically, things that align with instead of detracting from our values.
If we’re not careful, personal technology can start to get in the way of what we value most. Consequently, it needs to be tended to much more carefully.
Digital Minimalism is about making space for what we value most.
Here are a few of the things I hope to add to my life as a result of subtracting much of my personal technology use:
- More whitespace. While easy to discount because it looks like nothing, having adequate ‘whitespace’ in our life has numerous benefits, including everything from increased creativity to stress reduction. By ‘whitespace’ I mean time with nothing much going on. Driving to work without listening to anything; standing in line without checking anything; siping a cup of coffee without doing anything else. Whitespace.
- More human connection, big and small. While I used to love listening to podcasts on my commute, I’ve realized that it takes up valuable time when I could be doing other things (or nothing!), like calling and catching up with friends and family members. A major goal of this challenge is to use the time that is so easily consumed by technology to connect with the people in my life who are important but don’t live near me. I also plan to do smaller things like leaving my phone in my car when I go into the coffee shop. It’s amazing how many little micro-interactions we miss because we’re reading a blog post on our phone while waiting in line.
- More substantial reading. I’m looking forward to reading more books. I used to read a ton of books. But I’ve increasingly found that good books are getting replaced by wave after wave of articles and posts online.
- Running without noise. When I first started long-distance running, I didn’t listen to music or podcasts-I just ran. I’m excited to get back to this. When I work out, I won’t be listening to music or podcasts, or watching video. Just running.
- Being truly unplugged. I plan to confine my personal tech use to weekdays between 6:00am and 5:00pm. Once I leave from work at 5:00pm, I’m completely done for the evening. And outside of an early morning hour on Saturday and Sunday, no tech use at all. I’m really looking forward to the deep relaxation that comes from taking genuine breaks from technology and the incessant flow of information we’re constantly plugged into via our devices.
- More brainstorming, journaling, and sketching. Instead of doing more writing in the evenings or weekends, if I feel like I want to “work” a bit, I’m going to do it in the form of paper and pen. I bought a nice journal to keep track of my experiences this summer and take notes that otherwise would have gone into my phone.
PART 3: Relax
There are a couple areas where I plan to bend the rules ever so slightly.
- Medium. While I’m getting rid of most social media, I will continue to write on Medium and read articles there (for whatever reasons, Medium doesn’t feellike social media). However, it will be confined to half an hour per day (of reading) at a specified time on weekday mornings. Also, I will only check my Medium stats once per week on Monday mornings.
- Twitter. Over the summer I won’t be ‘checking’ Twitter at all and won’t have the app installed anywhere. However, once a week I will add articles to my Buffer cue to be automatically posted to Twitter on an ongoing basis. This is a part of my writing work.
- Photography. I love photography and have two adorable little girls so I will continue to use my big DSLR and iPhone to snap photos at will.
Of course, there will probably be other areas where there are bits of rule-breaking here and there. If we’re at a friend’s place and they suggest watching a movie, I’m not going to recuse myself on the grounds of my very important Summer of Digital Minimalism Challenge ????.
At the end of the day, this whole project is about committing to being more intentional with my personal technology use. If I do bend the rules, it will be because I’ve thought about it carefully and decided it lines up with what I really want.
Are you ready?
If you’ve been seriously thinking about making a change in the way you use personal technology, this challenge is for you. Going 100 days with minimal technology use is no joke. It’s going to be intense. But I think the benefits will be remarkable.
If you think you’d like to participate in The Summer of Digital Minimalism Challenge, shoot me an email with the term Digital Minimalism in the subject and I’ll be in touch shortly with more information and details: