I’m not normally one for new year’s resolutions. Mostly because I’ve found it hard to make lasting changes to my habits in the past. This year, though, I’ve got a pretty open-ended one: to be more mindful and intentional about how I use digital technology and the Internet.
I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport over the summer, but the signifance behind the book didn’t sink in for me until the end of 2021.
The main prescription in Digital Minimalism is the “digital declutter”: thirty days during which you unplug from all digital technology not directly related your job. During and after the declutter, you’re supposedly able to more clearly see what kinds of technology are truly beneficial to your everyday life, and what you can live without. Originally I thought this was overly onerous. I thought that if the declutter was how you determined which activities were “critical”, then how could you set aside a full month when some of those activities were critical?
You might have noticed that I inserted the word “critical” into my interpretation of the declutter. I’ve been conditioned, or maybe I’ve conditioned myself, to think about a lot of my own habits as critical, when really they just facilitate a nice, local maximum of contentedness. It only took a few days’ declutter for me to begin to see beyond the rut, though.
Taking time off
In the last weeks of 2021, I took my first real vacation days since I started working at MongoDB in August. I was home with my parents, away from the busyness of New York City and without any pressing commitments. Even just not working was more of a shock than I’d felt during inter-semester breaks back in school — after two days off, I had a bit of a “I’m not sure what to do with my hands” feeling. That’s probably because I was generally burned out by the end of every semester-long sprint in college. Working life for me has been much more of a maintainable marathon, so I was able to recharge past a simple baseline over this break.
I decided to go a step further than disconnect from work and not even go on my personal laptop for a few days. I spent most of my time reading rather than watching TV, which I also tried to stay away from. I went on walks without listening to podcasts or music, and generally just let myself relax a muscle that I didn’t even know was under tension.
Stepping off the treadmill
Steve Jobs once called the personal computer “a bicycle for the mind”. He meant it in the context of how human-made tools can drastically increase our effeciency. The quote also brings to mind how a computer can be both fun and stimulating, like a bicycle. I’ve realized that modern digital technology and the internet gives even more layers of meaning to the metaphor.
Like riding a bike, using digital technology takes energy and focus. It’s clear why this is true on a mechanical level. Most of my personal media consumption is in the form of reading articles and comment threads. Focusing on text on a backlit screen requires a level of focus and concentration that I didn’t realize I was expending until I wasn’t doing it anymore.
Being “wired in” also causes other mental muscles to atrophy. Even two days into my declutter, I found myself free associating and daydreaming when I didn’t have anything else occupying my attention in a way that I hadn’t done for years.
When I’m at a computer or on my phone, I feel like I’m in a constant feedback loop with the machine. I perform some action, get some response, which might prompt some hit of dopamine, and regardless will most likely perform another action (or the same one again). The presence of a feedback loop itself wasn’t troubling — all of consciousness involves feedback loops. When I stepped off that machine-human-machine treadmill, the new feedback loop was completely internal to my mind. I was able to think much more freely and with less friction, because I was no longer beholden to the rigid limits of how the computer logically responds to my actions.
I started using Opal to physically block traffic to distracting websites, like Twitter, YouTube and Hacker News on my phone, and edited
/etc/hosts on my laptop to achieve the same effect. I noticed that any time I had any spare moment, I felt like I needed to check on something on my phone. Lots of times it would be completely subconscious. I wouldn’t even realize that I’d unlocked my phone and gone to HN or lobste.rs until the blank page on Safari snapped me back into reality.
Given a free moment, I just wasn’t letting my mind wander. I was subconsciously craving that feedback-loop mental treadmill and the small chance for a hit of dopamine if there happened to be a new video or story or comment or tweet or whatever – and there usually wasn’t. I became frustrated that my phone felt useless with this new limitation. What was an iPhone good for if it couldn’t save me from being bored?
Slowly, I started stepping back and realizing that that’s a pretty idiotic thought. Smartphones can look up any fact imaginable on Wikipedia, show you how to drive anywhere you want with GPS, or order a taxi for you with Uber and Lyft if you can’t drive one yourself. As much as I used my phone as a mental fidget spinner, it was still a real tool that had real uses. More disturbingly, I clearly got along just fine before I got on social media and started using a smartphone in 2013. Why did I not feel fine now?
What’s interesting about all of this is that I’d already cut out virtually all algorithmic social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) years ago. My main muscle memory on a new tab takes me to news.ycombinator.com, which has a much gentler algorithm than most main-stream social media, no infinite scroll, and no ads.
I think an important mental shift for me happened at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020. I felt like I had nowhere to be, and nothing to do, and so why not just sit in front of my computer, refreshing message boards and (doom-)scrolling through Twitter? Once formed, habits are hard to break. As lockdowns eased up, the country reopened, and life started to resemble the Before Times™ more and more, that muscle memory that I’d formed in the first half of 2020 didn’t go away on its own. It took me another 18 months for me to put a name to the feelings and identify what had really changed. As the US deals with another variant wave in Omicron, I want to make sure I don’t entrench the same habits even more.
One of the things I learned from Digital Minimalism is that “minimalism” as a philosophy doesn’t just mean “less is more”. It’s a recognition that some things in life are zero-sum and that not every output has a linear relationship with its inputs. I can keep increasing my short-term contentedness by spending more time online, albeit with quickly diminishing returns. The global maximum for my own happiness levels might, and probably does, lie in dialing down my time spent staring at screens to a much lower level than what I’ve been living with day-to-day over the past few years.
Where to go from here
A big goal for me is to reframe why I pick up my phone (and laptop) in the first place. Before this break, my primary use of technology was to stave off boredom. Even if I got work done on a personal project or caught up with friends, the vast majority of “pickups” were mental fidgets because I couldn’t find any other external stimuli at that precise moment in time.
Going forward I want to shift my objective to be to use technology to accomplish a goal. When I pick up my phone or laptop, I should already have a specific intention in mind beyond “keeping myself occupied”. Something like “I have an idea for a blog post and want to start writing” or “I wonder how so-and-so is doing? I should call them.”
Blocking habit-laden websites will help re-train my muscle memory as I go, but I also need to be conscious and mindful about my behavior. When I find myself with a free moment, I should just try and let my mind wander, and be content with internal stimuli. If I’m really craving external stimulation, I should pick up something long-form, like a book, or open a weekly newsletter I’ve subscribed to.
My digital declutter was much shorter than what Newport recommends in Digital Minimalism, but I was able to see the power in the approach. I would need to balance a comprehensive declutter with wanting to remain social as a young person whose friends wouldn’t also be doing a declutter. It’ll probably involve setting up auto-responses somehow and making sure friends know to call rather than text me. A few weeks ago I would’ve considered a month-long declutter completely out of the question, but now I might consider it down the line.