The ideas of limiting shallow activities such as aimless web surfing, bungee YouTube watching or scrolling news feed, came to my mind long ago. I quit watching TV almost ten years ago and found this experience very rewarding. I became less anxious about all these ups and downs in the economy, politics, sports and other stuff that actually does not have any significant impact on the quality of our everyday lives. A bit later, I noticed that I had spent lots of time reading blogs and popular tech sites. I consumed all that information without making any use of it. The realization that consuming information without producing anything or applying it in practice does not benefit the quality of my life was shocking. I literally wasted my lifetime.
Despite not being a big fan of social media, I was still concerned about how I spend my time on digital activities. I discovered that the time when I was completely disconnected from digital media was most productive in terms or personal growth and development. Therefore, the topics explored in “Digital Minimalism” were a great interest of mine. So, let’s talk about the key concepts explored by the author.
Before taking actions on your social account or apps installed on your smartphone, it would be wise to define your goals clearly. It can be your work or personal goals, short-term or long terms or a combination of them. I know, it might sound trivial, but this is what most of us, including myself, forget to do in the first place. The key thing here is understanding your goals and having some metrics to measure your progress towards them. Without this initial setup, it will be almost impossible to make up your mind about which digital activity helps you in achieving your goals and which doesn’t.
At first, it might be hard to evaluate all the time you spend on digital media. The idea of “declutter first, organize second” by Marie Condo can be successfully applied to our behavioral patterns. Considering our time spent online or with our mobile phone in hand it might be more efficient to perform a soft reset – to suspend or pause your social accounts, to remove all these fancy apps that constantly ding, alert or attract your attention in any other way. You should turn your phone, well, in a good old phone that was used to call people and not staying glued to its screen for six or more hours every day. From my experience, just turning off push notifications or moving app icons on second screens don’t work. If your Facebook, Twitter or another favorite app is just a few swipes away, the temptation to launch the app and entertain yourself while you are idle, commuting or waiting might be too strong. So, my advice is to remove all these buzzing icons from your phone.
The key idea is to give you a fresh look on your life without all these digital activities such as liking, sharing, posting, tweeting, commenting and so on. It shouldn’t be seen as a vacation from your normal digital lifestyle, but a recovery time needed to review your life values and how they are impacted by your activity or lack of it. After this period, presumably month length, you turn to your social networks, apps and other digital activities one by one and take a careful look at them. The aim here is to continue or transform those activities that move you towards your goals or support your life values and get rid of those that just drain your time, energy and money.
As I mentioned in the introduction, by the time I was reading the book, I already questioned the benefit of the time spent reading, watching or listening without making use of ideas obtained in these processes. I noticed that I read or listen to someone’s thought most of my productive time and spend significantly less time actually thinking about or applying new ideas. Let me explain this a little bit.
As a pet owner, I usually walk with my dog at least twice every day. I used to put headphones on these walks and listen to audiobooks. For some time, this practice worked for me just fine. I killed two birds with one stone: had a walk with the dog and listened to one more chapter of a book. Several times I forgot my earphones at home and had just to have my time on a walk. On such occasions, I found myself thinking about recently read ideas or something that was really bothering me. Soon enough I realized that only during these walks I reflected on my actions and considered practicing new concepts to change my life. The rest of the day was usually just a mindless routine: doing some work, running errands, commuting and so on.
In “Digital Minimalism”I found a precise definition of the time that I have on my walks: “Solitude is as a subjective state in which you are isolated from input from other minds.”
To be objective, this definition of solitude was not invented by Cal Newport, the author of “Digital Minimalism,” but borrowed by him from another great piece of writing, “Lead Yourself First” by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin.
I noticed that these solitude walks were actually my most productive times in terms of changing my personal and work life. There is always a gap, sometimes big or sometimes small one, between knowing something and living by this knowledge and you just need some time on your own to “cover” this gap. You can try to facilitate this transition from knowing to applying by devoting more time to the described practice of thinking while you are (mentally) alone.
Quality vs. Quantity (shallow relations)
As I already wrote in another post, despite the efficiency of new communication technologies, there is still one bottleneck – the human’s brain capacity to process the incoming and outcoming information. With the flourishing of social media, it is common now for some people to have 500+ connections on LinkedIn, or 1000+ Facebook friends, or whatever big number of followers on Twitter. I can hardly imagine how it is possible to keep meaningful relationships with so many people.
Sadly, but many people fell into the trap of having more “virtual friends” because social media actually encourage this behavior by displaying the counters of likes, tweets or hearths whenever possible. The reason for this is because it helps them to make money (more on this later). On the contrary, if you start to observe successful people in your area of interest, you will soon notice that these people are very peaky about their relations and people they spend time with. They invest their time in forging a few quality relationships that bring value to both sides.
Of course, it might be completely okay to have large audiences if you are a public person, celebrity or corporate representative. However, in these cases, communication is rather one-way when you broadcast some message to hundreds of people.
In addition, you can find plenty of theories about the limits in social relationships, for example, Dunbar's number, that explore this topic further.
Selling your time
Have you noticed that when you are given something “for free”: free newspaper, free access to a video streaming service, free invitation to an event, etc. – you might feel bombarded by the ad? Commercials, posters, promoters and salespersons, all they fight for your attention and for your time: “check out our new arrivals / best offer only for you and only today / let us show you our new product” before you get to whatever you were after for.
Despite being aware that nothing comes for free, we are still quite clever in deceiving ourselves when it comes to our time. People usually are more inclined to watching some ad than paying for ad-free services. That is why, for example, Google does not charge you for using their search service or Facebook – for using its social network, at least the major part of it. However, if you are not paying for something with your money, then you will eventually pay for it with your time. The time you spend watching sponsored posts on Facebook or scrolling though advertised search results on Google.
I don’t want to claim that paying with your time is bad. For most people, the only way to make their money is to exchange their time and skills for it. The questions that you should ask yourself are how much you value your time and what value you get from selling your eyeballs to advertisement companies. It might be not so obvious at first glance, but I will let you do the math.
You can enjoy your free time in whatever way you want because, well, it is your free time, although you should keep in mind that leisure activities are not equal in terms of the value they bring to you. It is relatively easier to scroll a newsfeed or tap a new episode of your favorite Netflix series than to plan your leisure in a more old-fashioned way, but the outcome of chosen activity also won’t be equal. Let me illustrate this point.
I used to play video games. A lot. I could spend all evenings during a week plus the whole weekend glued to my computer and fighting through some new RPG, RTS or FPS game. It was fun, I enjoyed it for some time. At some point, I started noticing that after such game marathons I feel more tired and drained than after a day of hard work. I questioned myself, “Is this leisure worth my time if I feel worse later?”
Eventually, I began exploring other activities, e.g., going to the gym, visiting new places, listening to audiobooks, learning something new and so on. At that time, however, I tried to observe my physical, mental and spiritual conditions before and after different leisure activities and found out that I might feel more satisfied with my life, for example, after a day of hiking despite being physically exhausted than after a day of watching movies or playing video games.
This doesn’t mean that you should completely give up doing something that you enjoy but try to take a fresh look at it by picking up something new and comparing how you feel about different leisure interests.
“Digital Minimalism” is the third book by Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at the Georgetown University, that I read and found it extremely helpful in forming my attitude to digital media. I also recommend to carefully examine the previous two books, “So Good They Can't Ignore You”and “Deep Work,” for those of you who are interested in pursuing their career and keeping the focus on what is essential for them to do.