Lessons From the Digital Detox

Today is day 21 of my experiment in digital minimalism.

It was both easier and harder than I thought it would be.  And like many things in life, any success was due in large part to the preparation beforehand.  You can read the original article here and I’ll recap the idea now (again, courtesy of Cal Newport):

Digital minimalism is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life.

The goal of the experiment was not to become a virtual hermit, shaking my cane at the kids skateboarding by, rather it was to take back control of my time and attention.  If you’ve ever wished you had enough time to write a book or go to the gym, but realize at the end of the day that you’ve spent 118 minutes on Facebook, then you know what I’m talking about.  If I could better control my actions to be performed with intention, rather than a reactive or conditioned response, I could get more valuable work done while having a more relaxed day.

My main strategies were:

  • Delete all Social Media Apps from my phone and tablet
  • Turn off all notifications
  • Added the StayFocsd plugin to my browser and blocked a number of sites
  • I buried my icons. On my phone and computer I removed the internet browser icons from the homescreen and taskbar, so that they have to be opened from their root folder.  This adds just enough time to make going online a conscious decision.
  • I went analogue. Tired of surfing the web?  Pick up a (paperback) book instead!  I even got myself a nice little reading light for at night.

Some of these strategies worked better than others, and new patterns began to emerge during the last three weeks as well.  So what were the results?

Lessons Learned

I went into this having a predefined notion of how it would go.  In some ways I was right but in others I was very, very wrong.

  1. (Human) Nature Abhors a Vacuum – I call this Tech Creep. For every deleted app or blocked website there are dozens waiting to fill the void.  On more than one occasion I would find myself on a website that was similar in content to one of my blocked sites, but with a different layout.  They are waiting just on the edge of your vision to steal your attention when it wanders.
  2. It’s Insidious – Blocked your favorite site with StayFocsd? No problem, just open it using another browser! Or on your phone, or using TapaTalk, or on your kids iPad (I’m not proud of that one).
  3. I didn’t get as much done on my website as I’d hoped – I made a few changes and got my weekly deadlines in, but my dreams of a full revamp will take longer to accomplish.
  4. Blocking notifications WORKS – This has been such a powerful change for me. The other day at the office I punched 8 hours on a project with only 3 scheduled email/phone call breaks.  And there has been many more times when I’ve been able to sit down at my computer and knock out a volume of work in, dare I say, a state of Flow.  Amazing what you can do once you muzzle your gizmos.
  5. Social Media didn’t miss me – I actually gained followers on my Instagram (although I do take dope pics). And once I got over the first few days, I didn’t miss it either.
  6. But I did cheat just a bit – With the StayFocsd app it gives you the option to allow access to your blocked sites for a period of time every day. I decided to give myself 10 minutes, as I run a Facebook group that requires attention every few days.  Turns out I could get a lot done in that 10 minutes!  In fact, by limiting the time available I was able to complete so much more in that time because I had to focus on what I was doing.
  7. Some online communities DO matter – I don’t want ideas spoon fed to me; I want to curate what and who I give my attention to. I spent some time unsubscribing from all the things clogging up my junk mail but have been consciously subscribing to a list of individual bloggers.  I’m working to keep the list under ten, which provides anywhere from 3-5 high quality articles in my inbox every week.  I’m able to learn something and interact with those authors, which is very valuable.  I’m thinking of this as the blogger to blogger network.
  8. I got A LOT done! – It didn’t feel like it at the time, but looking back I really ramped up my rate of completion, both at work and at home. The backburner projects are coming to the front burner, and I haven’t missed a workout this entire time.
  9. I’m sleeping better? – I’m not 100% sure if this is a direct result of less screen time at night, or due to other factors. But I’ve woke up ready to go before 0500 on a bunch of occasions.  Maybe there is something to all that talk about blue light after all!

What Worked?

The strategy of shutting down notifications is a clear winner.  And no, switching it to vibrate doesn’t count. Couple this with putting your phone down (preferably in another room) and it is amazing how much you can get done before you ever notice.

Liberal use of airplane mode at night helps as well.  You are sending a powerful signal to your subconscious that it is time to shut down.  The bonus is that I would reactivate my phone later and later into the morning, giving more quiet time.

Going back to paper books also helps.  There is nothing wrong with looking for some entertainment in the palm of your hand, but the less time spent on a screen the better.

Finally, I started a project in the garage that I’ve been sleeping on for months.  I enjoy working with my hands but get sucked into a negative headspace where I feel that the important things I do are all on the computer.  While this is largely true, that work is also never done.  So having the feeling of completion after actually finishing something is immensely satisfying.

Going Forward

Now what?  Do I download all my apps again and go back to my old habits?

I don’t think so; not yet anyway.

More time is needed to figure this out.  I found that I had some weird kind of withdrawal reaction to this experiment.  I’d be up late at night surfing Wikipedia, convincing myself that I wasn’t wasting time, staying up way later than I normally do as a result.  And of course not accomplishing anything.

I didn’t write as much as my freed-up time should have allowed.  I’ve got ideas for articles and projects that I could have made some good headway on, but didn’t.  Granted, I’ve got other things going on (like work! Busy month…) but I could have picked away at something a bit more.

My biggest realization is that almost all work of value that I produce comes from the keyboard.  This creates a powerful obligation to be sitting at my computer if I am going to keep moving forward.  The trick, I think, is to be in the right headspace before sitting down, so that I can focus on a high value task, then walk away.

Knowledge work is difficult because often there is very little to show in the way of progress.  Time clocked is not proportional to value created.  Getting back into the garage has created a nice counterpoint to this.

The second realization is that it is very easy to spread yourself thin on the computer.  Between work projects, extra-credit work ideas, marketing, personal projects, book and article ideas, it becomes easy to rush from one thing to the next while never making any appreciable headway on any of them.  Focusing on ONE thing at a time is truly the only way to get anything done.

When you are at work; work.  When you sit down to write an article; write.  When you are with your kids; play.  There is time for everything if only you’ll focus your attention to the task at hand.

Do you have any tips or tricks to share?  Have you tried to reduce your time online and succeeded?  How do you balance getting everything done and living a full life, with not getting sucked into the Void?  Do you control your attention or does it control you?

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