“The idea that it’s valuable to maintain vast numbers of weak-tie social connections is largely an invention of the past decade or so.” – Cal Newport
As a journalist and film maker I have always tried to be an early adopter of new technology. I was one of the first people in my circle to get a Facebook account, I joined Twitter early on and dived head first into the world of Instagram – running three concurrent accounts all with different themes. It was exciting and fun. I put a lot of work into making my posts impactful and hoped that they would improve my personal and professional reputation.But it was time consuming, sometimes I felt as if I was investing more time in my social media than I was in my day job – It was exhausting.
When the Coronavirus pandemic began to hit hard, like many people I buried my head in my iPhone – spending 4 or 5 hours a day surfing social media and news apps to see what the latest developments were. I felt anxious, some days my chest was tight and my continual consumption was making it worse. Things finally came to a head when the wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept the world after the terrible killing of George Floyd. There was just too much news for me to handle. I’d had enough – I realised that I wanted to take back control of my own time and decide when and how to engage with the world. I no longer wanted to be enraged by tweets that I didn’t agree with. It was time to take a break – for the sake of my mental health.
I immediately closed two of my three Instagram accounts and made the third private. I also put a virtual ‘out for lunch’ sign on my @imagejunkies twitter account. It felt good but it still wasn’t enough, I needed to do more. The little black aluminum and glass rectangle in my pocket was sucking the life out of me, I began to hate the feeling that I was its slave – an addict with no chance of rehab.
It was then that I began to focus on the work of American academic Cal Newport. I’d read and enjoyed his book Deep Work and now purchased a copy of his latest book, Digital Minimalism. It was exactly what I needed. I began to understand that what I was feeling isn’t unique, in fact it seems to be more common than I realised. As Cal says: “People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable…Compulsive use, in this context, is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realisation of a massively profitable business plan.” In other words, we are the product that tech giants are selling to advertisers. Our time on the phone, scrolling through apps and glued to the latest Twitter outrage is money in the bank for Silicon Valley – after all darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts. In the back of my mind I’d known this all along but only now did it really hit home – like a hammer blow in the solar plexus.
I’d also been feeling that most of my relationships have slipped into a superficial and lazy exchange of likes and short one-line messages or comments. They meant nothing and in no way enriched my life or those of my friends and loved ones. I wanted to start narrowing down my wide circle of acquaintances and create a tight group of people to keep in better touch with.
So, what is the remedy? Well, Cal recommends starting off with a one-month full tech detox. Now, as much as I would love to do that, it isn’t currently feasible given my job. . .I need to work within the confines of what is possible. After reading his books and listening to his podcast I have tried to utilize some of his tips and advice to make my life better while still being professional and available for work colleagues when required.
Firstly, I deleted my Facebook account. In fairness I had removed it from my phone a long time ago but I finally decided to close the account completely. It probably doesn’t sound like much but I’d been a member since around 2008 and it felt like a big step. Once gone from the site I felt a little bit more weight drop-off my shoulders. I then removed the Twitter and Instagram apps from my phone. The culling was becoming easier – it felt good. Because I still need to promote one of my podcasts and my new history book on Instagram I discovered a way to post to my one remaining account from my laptop (this is a great hack and well worth learning). Likewise, with my one remaining Twitter account (also the history one) I can post to it using Buffer – which allows me to schedule posts without actually having to visit Twitter at all – a win-win.
But despite all of these efforts I realised that I was still finding reasons to look at my phone. Therefore, the BBC News app was next to get binned. Does that mean I now no longer look at the corporation’s stories? No, I went old school and decided to check the news through my clunky Safari browser – that way I can read the stories that are relevant to me without getting sucked into constant scrolling on the app.
Next, I saw that I needed to make it harder to check my email and WhatsApp. I need both for work, but do I need to be available and checking messages 24/7? I don’t believe so. Did you know that on an iPhone you can set a “downtime” that greys-out all of your apps? Nor did I, but I do now. I’ve changed the settings on my phone so that all of the apps I don’t need now switch off at 1700 and don’t become available again until 0700. This can be changed at any time and also you can override it inside individual apps in an emergency, but it does give you pause for thought and adds an extra layer between you and the constant urge to check messages. I am also of course still able to take a good, old-fashioned GSM voice call at an any time in an emergency – after all I do work in the News industry so I will never be able to go completely off the grid.
Have all of these changes to my digital life made any difference to my time management and my mental well-being? Well, it’s too early to tell. I’m certainly still very busy during the day using WhatsApp and email, but I am feeling a little less anxious and a bit more confident about the future. I’m thinking much more about maximising my time and trying to be more present with my family and friends. In a perfect world I would dump my smart phone all together and opt for a simple old-fashioned Nokia-style handset, but sadly that might be a step too far – for now.