Okay, so you already read Testing Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” at CEEALAR, right? This post is a follow-up to that one.
Okay, well the results aren’t fully in, because I have not gone over the survey data yet. But the declutter phase is over and I am ready to give my impressions and preliminary results. (Also, I wrote most of this several months ago and I definitely would have kept procrastinating if not for Alex Turner mentioning me in his new post. Thanks Alex.) I plan to write another post after this one which draws on the survey data to make firmer conclusions.
My impression is that the results span the whole range of outcomes. Some participants did well and seem to have made serious and lasting lifestyle improvements, while others had very little improvement. As an initial oversimplification, I think the most important (observable) factor was whether people had read the book beforehand.
How it went for me personally
Here are a few basic observations:
- Sitting down away from my laptop and listening to a playlist for a few minutes makes for a much better work break than skimming blogs or social media. It was often effortful to choose music over blogs, but I never regretted the choice.
- At night I avoided screens, other than my e-reader. This was easy when there was a lot of post-dinner socializing, but otherwise very challenging. When I’m fully awake at 10:30pm, and I’m too tired to do a wholesome activity like drawing, and no one is available to hang out, and I just spent the last 2 hours reading...well, then the day just tends to end on an unpleasant note. This happened about once per week.
- Apparently, I strongly crave the immediate novelty of up-to-date blog posts. They hold so much less appeal after they have been languishing in my e-reader for a day. The effect is striking. I also often seem to crave tribal affirmation: I just want to see that the Good Guys are continuing to fight the righteous battle, and I want it right now. I assume that this is part of what makes Twitter so potent for many people.
- My sleeping disorder and its related effects did not seem to get much better even after the detox period. I found this moderately disappointing but also only mildly surprising.
I have maintained some of my restrictions and guidelines, modified some of them, and sadly backslid on some others.
- I don’t miss push notifications at all; I've had Do Not Disturb enabled continuously for months, only recently turning it off as I figure out some new work flows.
- I have slid back into reading up-to-date ACX posts as soon as they come out. This contributes to procrastination and harms my lifestyle goals a bit, but it's not a huge problem by itself. Fortunately I'm doing better with most other blogs--for them, I'll see a new post in Feedly and use that as an invitation to open up the blog's archive and read something older.
- Keeping my phone out of my pockets seems like it was net positive for the 30 days, but it was a fragile habit. Every time I walked to the bathroom, my podcast or music got all choppy, forcing me to walk back into wireless range in order to pause it. Also, fishing around my bag for my phone is just really annoying. I am back to keeping my phone in my pocket for large parts of the day, and mindlessly pulling it out for no reason. Nonetheless I feel like I've gotten a taste of something better, and I expect I will be able to come up with a creative solution to the pocket problem.
- Up until the experiment, I used tumblr to follow one of my old friends, plus a handful of artists. I almost always opened it for a brief distraction, and would end up compulsively scrolling and not really enjoying it. Since the experiment, I've gotten into a new habit of just directly opening up an artist's entire gallery on e.g. ArtStation and deliberately appreciating it for 45 minutes. And I now totally ignore that friend's tumblr, which is easy because after my declutter he and I started doing online gaming sessions at least once a month.
- It was an easy decision to keep my phone display in grayscale. It usually doesn’t cause any problems, and I feel some sort of oppositional satisfaction from the problems that do arise. I feel like one of Cal Newport’s so-called “attention rebels”, paying costs in order to frustrate all those addiction engineers and attention thieves.
- I continue to have almost no screen-time in my bedroom (aside from my e-reader and phone calls). Occasionally I do bring my laptop in to do get some work done with no distractions, but this is infrequent, and shows no sign yet of spiraling out of control.
Hanging out and socializing was my favorite alternative to device usage, and in fact I greatly underestimated how much time I would end up spending on it. I unintentionally settled into a daily habit of socializing for 2-5 hours every night starting at dinnertime. Once the dinner bell rang (at around 6:15pm), I would go to the dining room without my devices, eat and talk for the duration of dinner plus any meetings (1-2 hours), and then continue to hang out and talk with whomever else stayed around. Eventually I accepted that I would just never get work done after 6pm. This turned out to be a major lifestyle upgrade for me, and I won't be surprised if I never find a more emotionally satisfying routine. Of course, this was a special benefit of the structured group living of CEEALAR--it's not automatic or easy for most people (at least in my culture and demographic) to have communal hangouts on weeknights.
I think I've basically gotten as much out of digital minimalism as I am reasonably able to. It hasn't fixed my whole life, but it has revealed my biggest bottleneck: I still get really bad sleep most nights. Prior to the experiment, I put a decent chunk of probability on my sleep problems being downstream of my tech habits. But during the experiment, I continued to have roughly the same amount of insomnia and fatigue even after the device compulsions had significantly abated. On multiple occasions, I had trouble making it through scheduled group activities, not because I was distracted or understimulated, but because I just felt so tired. I do remain excited for other people to read Digital Minimalism, but I personally have shifted my time and effort toward sleep interventions. (In fact, just last week I finally underwent a sleep study, which I am happy about.)
Should YOU do a digital declutter?
Maybe, maybe not. Read the whole book, and then you’ll know. I have a recurring problem wherein I explain my project to someone and they seem to think that I'm telling them to do a digital declutter. That would be unreasonable and silly of me--a digital declutter is a major undertaking, not something to be recommended lightly.
I find this misconception fairly frustrating, so let there be no confusion:
The ONLY action I am recommending is to read the damn book.
Mistakes & pitfalls in design & execution
Hindsight is 20/20. Or at least...hindsight is somewhat better than foresight.... Anyway, here's what I wish I had done differently.
- I wish I had ordered a couple hard copies of the book to leave lying around the hotel before I even arrived. With so low an activation energy, presumably more people would have given it a skim. (To reiterate, I think the subjects who read the book had better outcomes than those who did not.)
- If I did it all over again, I would require everyone to print out a copy of their ruleset every week and post it in a new spot in their room or workspace. As it was, some people only half-remembered their rules during the week.
- It seemed like everyone’s natural inclination (including mine) was to set rules that were overambitious, and then half-consciously bend them during the week. If I had been more on top of things, no one would have made rulesets that were so stringent that they couldn't wait until the weekly meeting to modify them. It was crucial to remember “okay yes, I can tolerate this for another three days.” Seemingly everyone needed reminders of that, including me.
- For example, eventually I started checking discord outside of designated messaging time, just for practical and immediate things. What I should have done was resist the temptation for the week (easy enough) and then modify the rule so that there was extra allowance for the important communication channels on Discord. But instead I just...kept breaking the rule, sheepishly telling myself "eh, this doesn't really count", and then not changing the rule. Woops!
- When you have an addiction, standard relaxation activities are not relaxing. By analogy, imagine going on a pleasant walk through the park with your friend who just quit drugs cold turkey. I failed to impress this upon the participants during the initial explanation. If I did it again, I would make sure to say this multiple times during rule-setting.
- I wish I had spent more effort on scheduling and organizing group activities with plenty of notice ahead of time.
- Several of the regular movie nights were cancelled because they were informally run and it was no one’s job to make sure they happened. I would have been more proactive if I had known.
- Even getting myself to sit down and write or draw is much easier when it has been scheduled 2+ days in advance.
Major takeaways & summary
- I observed a wide range of apparent effect, from small to medium to large. I still have to go through the survey data before I post firmer conclusions.
- Replacing screen time with people time was huge, at least for me.
- I've retained some of the changes, backslid on others. Overall I feel optimistic about how much room I personally have to improve and how easy it is.
- My sleep disorder has turned out to be a bigger problem than my device usage, and I've reallocated my own efforts accordingly.
- Simply from my own experience before the project, I knew that reading the book would probably be fairly important for outcomes, but now I'm even more convinced of that.
- If you think I'm suggesting a major lifestyle change then you misunderstand my message. I only suggest that you read the book Digital Minimalism and see what you think.