5 Practical Lessons from my 30-Day Digital Declutter Experiment
In January 2018, I participated in Cal Newport’s 30-Day Digital Declutter Experiment. You can read more about the details of the experiment here.
Here are my top 5 takeaways.
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 digital 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?
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2. We don’t check because we’re bored. We check because we’re addicted to busyness.
In the first part of the digital declutter 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 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.
Checking, then, 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 stream of at least superficially interesting information.
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 emotional 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 hundreds 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. This 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 failure.
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 the digital minimalism and the digital declutter, 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.
For example: The thought crosses our mind, “I wonder if it’s going to be cold again tomorrow?”
This thought creates an ambiguity which is inherently uncomfortable: “Will it 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.
This is 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.
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.
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 it 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 merely academic.
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