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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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?