Digital decluttering

A friend recently posted on Instagram a list of her favorite books from 2019. (Or, as she so awesomely put it, “the books I couldn’t shut up about.”) While several new-to-me titles intrigued me, there was one I went out and purchased right away: Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my use of “new technologies,” as Newport calls them, even prior to this book. Reading Nicholas Carr’sThe Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains in 2016 slightly horrified me, because I saw so much of that effect in my own life. Lately I’ve found that my brain is super scattered. Short-spanned in attention. Addicted to newness, to that tiny dopamine rush of scrolling to something new. I also found that my reading ethos has been more about finishing books and gleaning a couple general insights than really learning and absorbing the material in depth.

I’m not happy about either of those realities, and I think one of the ways I can train my brain in the other direction is through Newport’s recommended “digital declutter,” the age-old “give up something for 30 days and see what happens.” The point of the digital declutter is not ultimately to jettison new technologies entirely (though some may choose to do so), but to see what we miss and why, to replace time spent with those technologies with worthwhile, valuable activities, and in doing so discover what we most value. Once we know what we value in life, we can then add back new technologies in specific and boundaried ways, with our values always in mind and as the guiding ethos for any new-tech use.

I made a list of all the new technologies I use and made a note of which were “essential” and which were “optional”. Essential new tech were things like email (my work kind of pays me to check my email), texting (I’d rather not just drop off the face of the earth for my loved ones in those 30 days), my Pinterest Tried and True Dinner Recipes board (a low-tech girl still has to eat!), and ye olde blog (there’s no scrolling or mindlessness for me here. Plus, I consider writing to be essential). Optional was pretty much everything else. So for 30 days I’m giving up Instagram, Goodreads, Netflix (unless Chris and I are watching something together), Twitter (someone text me if Trump throws the US ass-first into WWIII, kay?), Marco Polo (I love me some video exchanges with loved ones, but it’s really not essential), Pinterest (with the one exception), and my beloved Solitaire game on my phone. I’m keeping Pandora and my podcasts, but only using them while I’m at the gym or out for a run.

I tend to be an uber-efficient and -productive person (I get. shiz. DONE), so I haven’t been worried about projects I haven’t completed or worthwhile ends I haven’t pursued. Newport focuses a lot on the time aspect rather than the brain aspect. My use of these technologies hasn’t tended to take up a lot of time; I just tend to use them in a terribly disruptive way. I take a pause from writing an email to check my Instagram. I turn on a show in the background while I write. I play Solitaire on my phone while watching a movie with my husband. I check Twitter while writing a blog post. I’ve let these technologies intrude into my good, productive pursuits and it’s that intrusion I want to stop.

Over these 30 days, I’m looking forward to having clearer, better focus on some of my 2020 goals. I am smack-dab in the middle of re-learning the 3rd movement to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (I just figured out the fingering to a particularly troublesome passage, woo hoo!), and I don’t want to lose that momentum by cutting short my playing because my brain decides it needs different stimulation. Reading and writing my way through The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology will require solid brain power and focus, and it means a lot to me to do it well and regularly. And of course, my normal reading, making yummy food, working out, and talking with my hubby. I’m looking forward to being more consistently, deeply, tranquilly present.

And, of course, I am excited to get a little time back. Particularly on relaxed weekend days. I started the digital declutter about halfway through Sunday, and was even more productive than my usual. I ran 9 miles, grocery shopped, made carrot cake muffins, made olive oil yeasted tart dough for Monday’s dinner, made a hearty, 2.5-hour beef stew for dinner, did two loads of laundry, put away a load of laundry from last weekend [hush], cleaned the kitchen, put away some lingering holiday items, wrote this blog post, and read about 150 pages across a couple books and a New York Times Magazine. At one point, I stopped reading one book and switched over to another because I felt my attention wandering and my effort being more towards “finish” rather than “absorb” the first book (it had some medical terms and concepts that, for me, require focus and rereading, and I wasn’t doing that). That awareness and decision made me happy. Then, at the end of the day, I still felt calm and focused, so I drafted some thoughts on the first article in the OHPT . At the end of the day, after much reading, writing, and food-making. I was very pleased with that intellectual energy and give at least partial credit to me ceasing the flow of constant distraction. Here’s hoping that intellectual energy and focus is even more abundant over the next 30 days.

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