I started reading the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport on March 31st. In the opening pages he encourages his readers to take “aggressive action … to fundamentally transform your relationship with technology.” What he calls “the digital declutter” amounts to 30 days of no optional online activities. The experiment intrigued me, and even though I was only a few pages into the book, I committed to the fast. I deleted every app I considered optional and committed to refrain from all social media for the month of April. Newport explains, “During this period, you’ll wean yourself from the cycles of addiction that many digital tools can instill, and begin to rediscover the analog activities that provide you deeper satisfaction. You’ll take walks, talk to friends in person, engage your community, read books, and stare at the clouds. Most importantly, the declutter gives you the space to refine your understanding of the things you value most.” (emphasis mine)
Well, I made it to May without FB and Insta, and I’m still alive. 🙂 More alive, actually. And so I don’t forget, here are a few takeaways from both Digital Minimalism as well as my decluttering experience over the past month.
- I waste too much time on social media.
I go through cycles of conviction on this one. About a year ago I deleted the Facebook app off my phone and only checked it via a browser on the laptop. However, once we announced my pregnancy, I got caught up in the “checking for likes” syndrome. I re-downloaded the app and didn’t look back. Then my son was born, and that like and comment itch grew. Checking social media became a mindless time-suck, and I rationalized it telling myself, “Well what else are you going to do while you’re nursing this baby?” Without long stretches of uninterrupted time to accomplish projects, scrolling social media for a few minutes here and there seemed innocent enough. Those minutes add up, however, and often stretch into longer periods of zoning out and not being present in the moment. I would shudder to know the actual number of lifetime minutes I’ve spent in a digital world. Once Facebook and Instagram (and Settlers of Catan on my iPad) were no longer an option, I was suddenly hyperaware of all those here and there minutes and had to decide how best to fill them.
- The more time you spend on social media, the more money companies make.
While I understood that social media companies made their money from advertising, I never gave much thought to the concept of an “attention economy.” To explain this concept, Newport shares a fascinating anecdote about the penny press newspapers of the early 19th century: “Up to that point, publishers considered their readers to be their customers, and saw their goal as providing a product good enough to convince people to pay to read it. Day’s innovation was to realize that his readers could become his product and the advertisers his customers. His goal became to sell as many minutes of his readers’ attention as possible to the advertisers. To do so, he lowered the price of the Sun to a penny and pushed more mass interest stories. ‘He was the first person to really appreciate the idea—you gather a crowd, and you’re not interested in the crowd for its money, … but because you can resell them to someone else who wants their attention.’” Newport goes on to compare the monetary value of tech giants to that of oil companies and the shift that has occurred over the past 20 years or so. “Extracting eyeball minutes, the key resource for companies like Google and Facebook, has become significantly more lucrative than extracting oil.” No wonder after a week or so off of Instagram I started receiving emails like these every few days …
- While social media does provide some value to my life, that value is limited.
One of my biggest hesitations in giving up social media completely stemmed from FOMO. What if I miss out on something really important? Well, I did actually. I didn’t make a big announcement about my retreat from social media with instructions to contact me via text or email, and it turns out I missed my cousin’s engagement.
She had sent me a message on FB Messenger and was a bit baffled when I hadn’t responded in over a week. But you know that that led to? A phone call. I got to talk to her (digitally) face to face and hear about the proposal and express my deep congratulations. That communication was worth so much more than a like and a fleeting comment. I do value the updates and photos social media provides, especially living so far away from so many friends and family, so I don’t plan to delete social media entirely. However, as Newport notes, “The sugar high of convenience is fleeting and the sting of missing out dulls rapidly, but the meaningful glow that comes from taking charge of what claims your time and attention is something that persists.”
- There are digital resources I have no desire to give up.
I may have been a bit overzealous in my app deleting on April 1. My phone indeed looked min-i-mal. There were apps that I quickly added back and some I wish I had added back sooner (finance tracking apps, for example), but the experience of stripping everything down was incredibly eye opening. Newport’s definition of the term digital minimalism is especially helpful here: “A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” I value stewarding our money well, so I’m keeping YNAB and banking and credit card apps. I value pursuing physical fitness, so I’m keeping 5K Runner and Netflix (to ensure I actually use 5K Runner … ;)). I value reading, so Kindle’s a given. I value God’s word, so Accordance and SheReadsTruth and First 5 stay.
- The good is often the enemy of the best.
I don’t think social media is a bad thing. It may even be good (in some ways), but for me at least, it is often an enemy of the best things in life. I read six books in the month of April (including the hefty book club pick, Pachinko, clocking in at 496 pages)! I want to be the kind of person who reads six books in a month; I’m pretty sure that was a first for me. I also want to be the kind of mother who (at least most of the time) is fully present with her children. I don’t want my kids to associate me with my devices. I want to spend deep, undistracted quality time with my husband in the evenings without social media’s siren song. I want time with God to be a priority that it often isn’t. These are the best things in my life.
So now that the 30 days are over, what’s next? I actually hopped on Facebook this morning and was instantly overwhelmed. I hated it. Too much screaming for my attention, and it left me feeling icky. Number one, I definitely need to cull my follow list. I do value FB for updates, photos, articles, and professional and interest groups, but in order to use this media well, I have to be more selective. My goal moving forward is to limit checking Facebook to once a week or so with a hard limit of no more than an hour spent there per week. Instagram I intend to check once a day for ten minutes or less. I think these are reasonable goals, but if I feel like I’m being lured in further, then an indefinite abstention may be in order. Newport’s overriding question, “Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value?” will be my guide, and for now the jury’s still out on social media.