Shutting Down the Noise – A Digital Minimalism Experiment

Devices pull at our time all day. They live in our pockets, tug at our thoughts, interrupt our conversations. We don’t naturally gravitate to digital minimalism.

Can our wimpy human brains beat the tech geniuses working to steal our attention? I say yes!

Traveling nine time zones ahead during our recent trip to Europe meant no emails, texts, or distractions until the evening. I found it so refreshing and calming that since returning home, I distanced myself from my phone’s siren song.

The goal: remove the temptation to look at my phone.

Rolling along dirt roads in pine forests near the border of Spain and Portugal!

Pruning the Noise Makers

On the plane ride home, I read Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism. He said exactly what I needed to hear about digital communication and social media: “What’s making us uncomfortable is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day.”

I easily ignore social media. I’m simply not drawn to it anymore. Thanks to bots and ads, the utility has decreased so much that checking Facebook or Instagram doesn’t even cross my mind.

Texting is a different beast. I’m a social guy with lots of people in my life: on any given day, I’ll text with 20+ different people. It’s an interruption cycle that’s hard to break because I didn’t want to leave people hanging.

Often texts turn into a conversation, not “meet here at this time.” According to my iPhone’s screen time tracker, some days that’s 1-2 hours of texting. (GAH. A part-time job!) It’s easy to control social media use by deleting apps from my phone, but TEXTING?

No. Way. It’s almost 2020: texting is like air. One-third of Americans and two-thirds of South Koreans would give up sex for a year vs. their phones!

A phone-free morning running the Enchantments!

What’s the Real Cost of a “Useful” Thing?

Texting has value and a function. It’s here to stay: I’m not deleting it from my life.

However, as Thoreau wrote in Walden, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Well sheeeeeit, if you put it that way… Damn you, Thoreau and your wisdom!

After a trial period, I’m keeping a new personal phone policy with the overarching goal to remove the desire to check my phone. My approach:

  • Keep my phone on Do Not Disturb or in a drawer most of the day.
  • Use texting for planning and logistics, not conversation. “Meet at the climbing gym at 5:30” versus “Hey, how are you? Here’s what’s up here…” (This one is HARD and required flat-out telling my friends about my new approach.)
  • Continuing to keep social media apps off my phone and rarely using the services on my computer.
  • Using my computer for anything that requires research or extended typing. (Writing emails on a phone is so time consuming!)
  • In general, avoiding the itch to look things up on my phone or use it for anything except mapping, useful apps like Trailforks or Libby (library app), occasional texting, and phone calls.

The result is that I’m not constantly interrupted by text messages and am spending far less time on my phone.

If spending less time on your phone doesn’t make you happy, then I don’t look like a dork in this photo.

What About Losing Connection With People?

I worried this might insert a chasm between me and various friends. Luckily, Cal addresses this:

“Being less available over text has a way of paradoxically strengthening your relationship even while making you (slightly) less available to those you care about… I want to reassure you that it will instead strengthen the relationships you care most about.

Reading Digital Minimalism made me realize I sometimes misuse texting. Rather than concise logistics communications, I’d reach out to friends with updates about my life. If they didn’t respond in kind, I’d sometimes feel slighted.

However, if I was on the receiving end of things – long, one-sided information dumps – it often left me wishing we’d talked on the phone or met in-person instead.

My wise, hilarious friend Duncan showing me and Chelsea the secrets of matsutake mushroom hunting.

Our Brains Hate Texting

Paraphrasing the book, our intricate brain networks evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich, face-to-face encounters, and social groups were small and tribal. Short, text-based messages and approval clicks are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect.

In other words, texting with your friends and commenting on their social feeds does little to strengthen our bond with them. We aren’t connecting when we text; we’re pretending.

No thanks. I’d rather have real, meaningful interactions. I’m willing to accept missing some events and having dead air between deep conversations. Who wants to learn about new babies and engagements via text or Facebook anyway?

GarageFit! Nothing like 14 degrees and a hard workout to feel connected, right fellas?

Decide What You’re Ok Missing

A line that spoke to me: “Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.”

Recently, I’ve focused on the activities and people I want to amplify in my life:

  • Undistracted time with Chelsea
  • Focused community building (GarageFit, men’s group, organizing friend hangouts)
  • Active physical time in the outdoors
  • Playing guitar
  • Reading and writing
  • Further streamlining my business operations
  • Fixing, installing, building and repairing stuff (bikes, house projects, van, helping friends).
  • Phone calls vs. texting whenever possible (even a four-minute call with a friend is surprisingly meaningful).

By choosing the things that create the most value, it reinforces my desire to keep my phone silent. A virtuous circle of tech minimalism!

Paul demonstrating nothing but focus while bouldering in Leavenworth.

Quick Results, But Still a Work in Progress

Short-term verdict: I’m loving it! I feel less distracted and present to both people and my thoughts. I’m connecting with friends in person or via phone calls. My brain is saying, “YES, this is real connection!”

Equally striking is realizing that few texts are time-sensitive. If people need you, they call! I haven’t missed anything of consequence by not looking at my phone.

Real Numbers

I quickly saw a sharp decrease in screen time and texting. My average daily phone use over the past week is just 40 minutes of screen time and 15 minutes of texting, FAR better than before. When I read a text now, it’s often hours later and it doesn’t turn into a conversation. A quick reply, done.

This ain’t perfection though. Noooo sir. Text conversations still happen. I get distracted, but I’m recalibrating and am confident I’ll only further improve.

Unless there’s a big hiccup, I plan on sticking with this method. The numbers don’t lie: a 5x reduction in my texting time in such a short time span is fabulous. Even better, I don’t have to fly to Europe to accomplish it!

How are you dealing with social media and digital communication saturation?

Enjoying no texts and the view at the top of Cutthroat Pass in the N. Cascades!

Cutting Back on Social Media Distractions – Experiment Results

Lake Louise

I recently wrote about an experiment to claim control of my tech and social media life. Some tweaks worked, some didn’t. After 1.5 months of testing, here’s a quick update on the success (or failure) of those four goals.

As a good stress test of this, we spent October living in (and loving) Bend, followed by a week in Portland. We also tacked on fun days in 93-degrees-in-November Los Angeles for Farm Sanctuary’s anniversary gala, a fabulous event. (“Not traveling” is relative for us, I suppose.)

This challenge wasn’t about perfection. I knew there would be some modification to my initial plan, though I didn’t end up changing much. I’m surprised how passionately people respond when this challenge comes up. “Oh, I really want to do something like that!” It seems many of us realize the time drain or addiction that our devices can create.

A splendid day outside.

A splendid day in Yoho National Park.

With the election behind us (and piles of uncertainty ahead!), I’d wager social media time skyrocketed for most of us. Chelsea and I are inspired by the activism and positive energy we’ve seen pour forth – it’s awesome to see friends who never post about politics adding their voice to the mix.

Now is an important time to come together and let our voices be heard. I also think it’s necessary to compartmentalize the noise and only take in news and social media in chunks, which has only reinforced my commitment to this experiment.

The famously-high first bolts at Smith Rock always keep me focused...

The famously-high first bolts at Smith Rock always keep me focused…

Here’s how my four goals played out…

A weekly digital Sabbatical: Phone off and computer off on Saturday.

I’ll start off with the fail. Frankly, the digital Sabbatical I attempted to do every Saturday did NOT work for me.

There’s just too much communication in my life on weekends, ranging from coordination of outdoor activities, plans with friends, texts to Chelsea (“hey, I’m gonna be 2.5 hours late getting back from a bike ride”), or answering calls from tenants. Turns out my phone is an integral part of my daily life.

Luckily, in combination with the three items below, a digital Sabbatical turned out to be less necessary. Without the distracting pull from my phone, I’m far more present on Saturday. To keep boundaries on social media, I’ve opted to not post on Instagram or Facebook on the weekends.

All in all, an interesting experiment in being completely disconnected with too many potential headaches or trouble relative to the gain. I’m fine with that.

Saluting the Canadian Rockies! Pretty sure it was Saturday.

Saluting the Canadian Rockies in Banff! Pretty sure it was Saturday.

A no-phone rule during meals and in the bedroom

This rule is GREAT. I feel far more connected to people when I’m sitting down for a meal. Beyond that, there have been zero times when any texts or phone calls were so time sensitive that they couldn’t wait 1-2 hours.

Not having my phone by the bedside first thing in the morning is fantastic. On top of my usual reading, I’ve made a habit of firing up my Kindle in the morning and wound up reading over a dozen books in October.

Rather than reading on my phone, I bought a used Kindle that I am enjoying vs my phone. It’s also nice to signal “no interruptions please, I’m reading,” rather than the mixed signals looking at my phone. (Which used to mean I was just screwing around on social media!)

Morning sunrise in Yoho National Park, no cell signal allowed.

Morning sunrise in Yoho National Park, no cell signal allowed.

Deleting social media from my phone

This. Is. AWESOME. In the past, I’d grab my phone to flip through various feeds juuuust to check in. Now, my phone only has functional apps or (boring) work email on it, so I spend that time doing something else. (Even if it’s just standing in line talking to the person next to me.)

Gramblr has worked well for Instagram. Even though I’ve been riding, running or climbing almost every day since we got to Bend, I haven’t felt a daily pull to share. I haven’t posted a photo of the van in almost two months! *gasp*

I’ve definitely experienced moments where I wish I had social media to pull my attention away from boredom or as a distraction. Instead, I’m forced to face whatever I don’t REALLY want to be doing and just take care of it, which I think is a positive change.

Hanging with new friends at Lake Louise.

Hanging with new friends at Lake Louise. (First photo in this post is of Lake Louise also.)

Deleting personal email access my phone

Ahhh, silence. My phone is no longer a source of to-dos. By time blocking and only responding to personal email on my computer, I no longer stand frozen in grocery stores tip-tapping out a (slow, misspelled) response.

As a side effect to this, I’ve also backed off on responding to work email on my phone. If I’m away from my laptop, I’ll scan through email here and there, but unless it’s time sensitive, I just handle it later.

I highly recommend this tweak for anyone who separates their work and personal emails. Less time thinking about email is better time spent, if you ask me!

Smith Rock: My new backyard climbing playground and all-around beautiful location. Sunset turns the Crooked River into a perfect mirror of the red rock walls.

Smith Rock: My new backyard climbing playground and all-around beautiful location. Sunset turns the Crooked River into a perfect mirror of the red rock walls.

***

All in all, I’m calling this experiment a success. I feel more focused, better connected to people when I’m with them, and I’m reading a lot. Other than the digital Sabbatical, which didn’t work with my lifestyle, I’m planning to incorporate all the tweaks as permanent changes.

Here’s to finding some space to shut down devices and spend quality time with friends and family this coming week. Happy Thanksgiving!

If you’ve tried any social media or technology diets, what has stuck and what didn’t work for you?

You thought I'd go an entire post without a mountain biking shot? HAAAAA. Here's my buddy Paul enjoying a perfect day on Cline Butte in Central Oregon.

You thought I’d go an entire post without a mountain biking shot? HAAAAA. Here’s my buddy Paul enjoying a perfect day on Cline Butte in Central Oregon.

An Experiment in Decreasing Social Media Distractions

Fresh air and big views in Waterton National Park!

Noise has tugged at my concentration lately. Not voices in my head (I’m used to those), but comments, likes, and a gravitational pull from my phone.

I’ve felt myself twitching to check in, to scan through social media. My phone feels like a distraction scalpel, slicing away my ability to focus.

This has happened before, but this time, rather than my drastic measures of both 2014 and 2015 – when I completely checked out of social media for six months – I’m aiming for a more nuanced approach. After all, I meet and stay in touch with adventurous, fun people through Facebook and my Instagram account. I don’t want to shut that down.

Meeting (and hiking with) rad new friend in Canada!

Hiking with rad new friends in Canada!

I love connecting with friends and always look forward to hearing from people. This isn’t about removing that contact. Instead, I want to be completely present when I’m with someone in person. Too many times lately I’ll be talking to Chelsea while scanning my phone and will just stop mid-sentence, losing my train of thought, or else find myself texting or checking email during a meal.

I can’t just tell myself, “No social media except during these times of day.” It doesn’t work. I need a stronger obstacle than just moving an app to the 2nd screen on my phone. It’s similar to putting chocolate chip cookies out of sight versus not buying them. If they’re in the house, I will find and eat ALL the cookies.

To curb the frequent distractions, in September I added some structure to my tech life. These are tests, and I’ll report back later regarding how things are going. I will say that I already feel less distracted and present, which is exactly my goal.

Who needs a phone when you've got boxes?

When I was a kid, we played with boxes, not smartphones. Oh wait, this was only a few weeks ago.

My four experiments:

A weekly digital Sabbatical

Phone off and left behind, computer snapped shut and in a cabinet. More time to explore the outdoors, hang with Chelsea and/or friends, build something, read, or dig into other creativity. Maybe I’ll learn how to cook something besides stir fries and burritos! (*Cue Chelsea fainting in surprise*)

A no-phone rule during meals and in the bedroom

No more pulling my phone out mid-meal to check a text or Google some random fact. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ll just look that up,” or “Check out this photo!” The distraction continues and the conversation thread unravels.

Beyond that, I’m also no longer setting my phone on the table during meals. Leaving a phone in sight signals to my companion that I’m present and engaged, but ONLY until some other communique shoulders its way into our conversation. I don’t want that. Prior to meals, I’m putting my phone on do not disturb and banishing it to my pocket.

The same applies for phone use in the bedroom. No more: my phone (and Chelsea’s) will spend the night recharging in another space. Since I read all my books via my phone, I’m going to pick up a cheap Kindle for nighttime reading, which is probably better for my eyes anyway.

High on the Devil's Thumb in Banff with Lake Louise behind us.

High on the Devil’s Thumb in Banff with Lake Louise behind us…with phones off.

Deleting social media from my phone

Facebook was relegated to computer-only long ago, but my Instagram use warrants adjustment.

I still want to use Instagram, just not on my phone. To accomplish that, I downloaded the free program Gramblr, which facilitates posting from my computer. (Update 10/25/18: Gramblr is defunct, so I’m now using the much-better Web for Instagram Chrome extension.) I edit all my photos in Lightroom on my laptop anyway, so this streamlines things.

I can scroll through IG and FB feed from my laptop, though I’m less likely to impulsively do so. I’m already spending that time on things like writing, reading, watching mountain biking videos (KIDDING), or editing videos and photos. The shift in my distraction levels was immediate and dramatic.

Phone stuff, on the other hand, fits into moments like grocery shopping, standing in line, driving, eating… What was a handy tool instead became an ever-creeping amoeba eating away moments of silence or solitude. As Lewis C.K. has said, sometimes we just need to be alone and not constantly bombarded by information.

Deleting personal email access my phone

No more scanning Gmail during “down” moments. I’ll be on top of work stuff, but personal emails can wait until I’m at a computer.

This is a two-fold victory: I won’t be pulled to check email all the time, and it is more efficient to respond on a computer versus pecking away on my phone.This isn’t an Email Commandment. I’m not setting time parameters like, “Ye shalt only look from 8-8:15 pm.” Simply removing the capability to look at email on my phone is enough to result in time-blocking, efficient email processing on my laptop.

No time to think about Instagram or email riding terrain like this. (Black Rock Mtn, Alberta)

No time to think about Instagram or email while riding terrain like this. (Black Rock Mtn, Alberta)

I love technology and I’m not deleting my interaction with social media or technology. My phone just won’t be the epicenter for me.

I’m 12 days in and at times, it honestly still feels strange. When I use my phone, the twitch to flip through various feeds and open my email (just for the heck of it) remains.

And yet, my desire to look at my phone or scan Instagram/Facebook is already fading. The mind rewires quickly. I think (hope!) this experiment will become a permanent addition to my life.

How do you deal with curtailing technology and social media overload in your life?

Loving a tech-free day in the highlands of Iceland.

Loving a tech-free day of hiking in the highlands of Iceland.