I finished my digital declutter and, as per my usual, I have thoughts. 1). I am a very imperfect creature who does not do anything perfectly and am very good at disappointing and shaming myself even if no one else cares about the thing I did imperfectly. 2). Being imperfect is the way of humans and I should really learn how to shame myself less. 3). As a result of this exercise, I have a much better idea of what I value in the way I live (and want to live) my life and ways in which I can better use new technologies in service of those values, rather than existing as impediments.
Cal Newport recommended and outlined the “digital declutter” in the early chapters of his book, Digital Minimalism, and said we should do the declutter for a few weeks before reading the rest of the book. I did my duty and waited a couple weeks into my declutter to finish. (I may be imperfect, but I sure as hell can be relied upon to follow the rules!!) Unfortunately, I was disappointed in how he tied everything together. I expected a much more thoughtful exploration of how we define the good things in our life, how we let our values guide the shape of our daily lives, and how we can carefully and intentionally bring in technology as a helpmate rather than an obstruction. He had some good suggestions, to be sure, but I wanted something more… meaty. Personal. Epicurean, even.
(I was probably spoiled by a similar but differently-focused and much more beautiful exploration of the ill effects of new technology and the attention economy, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. That book has stuck with me in a deeper, more expansive way than Newport’s.)
Even though Newport didn’t explore “value” in the way I had hoped, I nonetheless found myself doing that work I wish he had guided me to do. (I also like to make up rules that I force myself to stick to.) Here is what I (re)discovered are the values I want to pursue in my life, and the ways I intend to use technology in support of them.
Learning is by far my greatest passion. It is what brings me joy, what shapes me, what brings life to my thoughts and opinions. I think a non-learning life is a stagnant life. While I prefer to learn by reading books and talking through ideas with people in person, newer technologies have a lot to offer. Specifically, podcasts and blogs. I am looking forward to adding in podcasts again, but I do want to confine them to certain days and times. My morning and evening commute. Working out at the gym. Maybe running… but I tend to zone out and won’t get much out of them while running so I’ll probably save that time for pop music. (P!nk sees me through miles 7 – 9!)
Even more importantly than how I incorporate podcasts and new information into my life, though, is the thinking habits I set and stick to, in support of a calm, careful, critical, searching brain. If I want to truly learn (and not just read and listen), I need to stop distracting my brain every time it decides it wants a teeny dopamine hit of data. I want to still my mind, to concentrate better, to really learn what it is I’m consuming. So I want to live a truly minimally digital life. I want only to check my phone once every couple of hours. I plan to check my email only once on the weekends. (Sunday afternoon, for work reasons, is the best time, so it will also suffice for my person email checking/sending time.) I want to only update Goodreads once a week (Sunday?! It’s my “new tech” day!) and to write actual reviews (when I have time — SO MUCH HEGEL) so that I am forcing myself to articulate, synthesize, and evaluate what I’ve read. I want to read more slowly and make notes as I go. I want to take time to think about what I read, to stare off into space and let the ideas roll around, to practice saying them out loud so that I know I understand what the author or podcaster is saying. To use some of my shopping or errands time to think about what I’ve recently read or heard, not to cram more things in because it gives me a high. That thinking time is precious and hard to find, and filling it up with little or big consumptions of technology is a bad use of it.
Also also, I want to keep up this writing streak I’ve gotten on. Writing is a huge part of my learning process. If I write about something, I’m much more likely to come to understand it and lock it into my brain in some fashion. I am committed to keep up a consistent practice of writing in my portfolio of non-new-tech-focused life enrichment activities.
Odell laments that we don’t pay a lot of attention to where we are. 21st century humans have lost the need to be aware of changes in the environment as a way of signaling what has come and what will come. We are disconnected from nature, which is a wholly unnatural state of being. (Though I have quibbles with my use of the phrase “wholly unnatural” since humans are part of nature… topic for another post.)
Odell focuses her exhortation to attention on the natural world. She wants us to understand where our water comes from, what our food consumption means, what birds and animals congregate in our neighborhoods and gathering places.
I absolutely love this, and it is the driving ethos of my work and organization. Observing and protecting the natural environment is what I help my organization do, and I love it and love being a part of something so important.
What I found missing was an exhortation to observe movements, changes, and populations in our urban settings. That is where most of the humans are. Part of what technology does, in drawing our attention away from what’s in front of us, is draw us away from our immediate space. That includes buildings, sidewalks, pigeons, and, most importantly, people. We look down at our little shiny rectangles (or our newspapers, if this were a commuter train in the 1960s — no matter the technology, if it’s new and/or available? It distracts) instead of noticing the people and places around us. I’d like to be more present in general, to really notice the oddly-colored sidewalk panel in front of the Chinese dumpling restaurant, the silk lanterns outside the local bank branch, the pigeons of all colors (I love pigeons! Even the ones that poop on my face AND YES THAT HAPPENED). The faces and expressions of the people around me. What are people experiencing in that moment? While I can’t know fully, at least I can be aware of and connected to the world as it makes itself present to me. To the history of how Honolulu came to be what it is, to the conditions that produce homelessness, to the ways people express their individuality through cultural and artistic markers. Even listening to my podcasts can take away from that, so again, I want to be careful not to pop in my earbuds as default when I’m walking somewhere. Instead of focusing my attention always inward to my head, I want to expand my bubble of perception and attention to “my” space, as it moves and shifts and as the world moves and shifts within it. Whatever that looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like.
I want to be myself. More than that, I want to be happy being myself and living my unique life. Everyone should want to be themselves, and everyone deserves to be happy being themselves. Since we are continually made and remade by the life we are living and the people/places/things/nature around us, I want to be honest and searching and courageous about being myself in these familiar and unfamiliar spaces.
I want to indulge in my piano playing, to be unapologetically intellectually-curious (no more self-denigrating my pursuit of a Masters in philosophy, nor of what I love to read!), to be unapologetically active and healthy. To state my opinions knowing both that those are the best I’ve worked out so far and also that I could be wrong. To make yummy meals and be proud of what I’ve learned how to do. To ask for what I want and think is right. To do what I want to do in my free time and not apologize for it. To do the best I can at work. To stop trying to make myself less so that others feel themselves to be more. There is room for all of us to be fully and gloriously who we are, and that includes me.
I feel so guilty about who I am so much of the time, and how that could make people feel about themselves, and I need to stop that. I think social media can be terribly problematic in terms of mental health and the comparison trap, so I want to keep my social media presence limited. I think to start I’ll post only once a week on Instagram: highlights from my week, or just a pretty picture that I decide to add to my mosaic of my life (which is really what my Instagram is — a curated mosaic of the prettiest stills of my life. Or maybe it’s my love letter to the best parts of my life?). I like being disconnected from it for much of the week, and to have whole days where I don’t even think about it. That is freeing on its own.
Also, I think I’m giving up Twitter… what an anxiety-inducing nightmare that is.
Ah, relationships. I’m not myself without (my) relationships. The people in my life have formed me, changed me, and I get so much joy (and angst, ha) from the act of loving and being loved by those around me. I have missed the social aspect of new technology. Specifically Instagram and the Marco Polo video app. I really, really miss seeing and hearing my loved ones. So I’m going to add them back in, but only once a week. I’ll let myself check them on the weekend. If I find I have something I have to send or comment right now before I forget then I’ll let myself do that, but otherwise I’ll try to take notes for the weekend and be more intentional about reaching out to people directly via text or phone. I might even plan to see some people IN PERSON. GASP. Since we live so far away from most of the people we love, I want to use everything I can to stay connected, but I also don’t want to become dependent on any one kind of medium. Limiting my use of all of them will help me stay connected to the people themselves, not their profiles and accounts.
Peace of mind
I am a very anxious and emotional person, and I know that my technology use has contributed to that general state of being. I really love the calm and peace I’ve discovered these last few weeks. That calm is too precious to give up. My minimally digital life will keep this going, as will my commitment to keeping my meditation going and taking time to sit down and think. All will be well, and all will be well.
The least surprising thing about the declutter was realizing just how much of the new technology I didn’t/don’t miss. Or, to be more precise, how much of it has revealed itself to be truly frivolous, unnecessary clutter. While I did sometimes find myself wishing I could binge-watch my favorite television show for a few hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was ultimately happier with the reading and writing and cleaning I “had” to do instead. I really enjoyed only watching stuffs on the teevee when Chris and I were watching together. I’m going to stick with my “no binge-watching / no solo t.v.” for a little while longer.
Also, I found that time passed slower! It’s amazing how time speeds up when we are in that passive, scrolling, streaming, bingeing state. Weekends didn’t fly by so fast, and I felt more refreshed for work on Monday mornings. I didn’t mind doing chores as much, because they were simply part of what helped make my life and home happy, calm, clean, warm. I was no longer in a rush on Sundays to finish my “9 mile run then grocery shop then food prep then laundry” to-do list to be able to “get to” my laziness. I don’t know, I just felt more present and attentive and… dare I say zen?…. about the little things and responsibilities of life. Life felt like it had more of a natural and spontaneous flow to it. I enjoyed that.
Oof, this declutter was such a good way to start a new year. Unintentionally, too! Look how well that worked out for me looking like I’m all New Years Resolution organized. Now to do the work to make these habits stick…