I was reading Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism, and after a few chapters, I realized oh hey! I’m a digital minimalist.
…for each optional technology that you’re considering re-introducing into your life, you must first ask: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? This is the only condition on which you should let one of these tools into your life. The fact that it offers some value is irrelevant – the digital minimalist deploys technology to serve the things they find most important in their life, and is happy missing out on everything else.
— Cal Newport, from Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
Who knew? I’m not the only one. So it turns out, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel on this. There’s a whole philosophy for the way of life I’m trying to make up by myself, and awesome ways to optimize it.
Because my writing school operates online, it would harm my professional life to trade my smartphone for a landline and close my Facebook account. (Believe me, I’ve considered both options.)
Here is a list of things I’ve done to claim sovereignty over my time and life, despite the nefarious goals of the attention economy conglomerates.
Even if you aren’t a full digital minimalist, you probably can make a bit more time for your writing too, by employing a few of these hacks:
1. I use a wristwatch.
I received a small Citizen watch as a gift in 1990, and I’ve worn it ever since, changing the batteries and replacing the straps when needed. When a pin fell out a few years ago, I lost the face of my Citizen, but I was relieved to find a Seiko version the same size and colour. That’s what I wear now, and it’s almost identical to the original.
2. I installed Adblock.
This is a plug-in on the Chrome browser that I installed in 2014. I haven’t seen an ad in a website (including Facebook) since then. As long as I’m browsing on Chrome, this little guy kills advertisements, so I don’t have to waste energy trying not to pay attention to the cute boots, linen dresses, and essential oil ads that target me.
3. I installed the Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator.
I haven’t seen my FB newsfeed since 2014. This plug-in just whites out the screen (white space!) and shows me a quote about the wise use of time, instead. Because there are no ads on the page either (see #2) my attention is my own, and I can get straight to the thing I want to do on Facebook.
I use Facebook like the yellow pages — to look up people and places. I only check Messenger about twice a month (if someone really wants to reach me, I know I’m easy to find through my website).
4. I read.
I prioritize reading, and make time for it every day. I finish about 4 or 5 books a month (I have about 10 on the go at any time), and I read everything: from Buddhist philosophy to YA fantasy, biographies to natural science, from Elena Ferrante to Liane Moriarty. Reading widely is a value that is extremely important to me, so my reading time is non-negotiable.
5. I’ve silenced all notifications, including texts, on my phone.
As a result, nothing on my phone “pushes” me to do anything — if I want to see something, I have to pull it up on my own. My phone is here for my convenience, so it never interrupts me with a sound or buzz.
6. I limit my news intake.
My news sources are a weekly podcast by a journalist I love, a weekly round-up from a journalist I trust, my local radio station when I’m driving, and the paper version of the Globe and Mail when I’m at a cafe on the weekend. That’s more than enough for my nervous system, and I have plenty to talk about at dinner parties.
When news I’m ignorant about comes up in conversation, I’m not embarrassed to say, “I haven’t heard about this. Could you please tell me more?” That way, even the most alarming news becomes a point of connection.
7. I installed Momentum.
When I open my laptop, my home page greets me with a beautiful photograph, and prompts me to focus on one task for the day — instead of a Google search box, which prompts me to distraction.
8. I use Slack.
I use this app to organize conversations about work, but I also use it to organize conversations with my closest and dearest friends. Maintaining close personal relationships is extremely important to me. Using one focused channel for my inner circle means I don’t have to hover over Instagram or Facebook to feel like I’m touching in with them.
9. I write and mail handwritten letters.
There are a few close relationships I maintain through the post — these are writer friends, so we have a mutual love of paper and ink. There’s no expectation for us to contact each other through social media: snail mail might be slower than email, but who cares, when you get to connect through handwriting?
Some friends aren’t writers, they don’t share my obsession with stamps, and they would rather connect by phone. We organize our group chats in Voxer and Whats App, and our replies are understood to be non-urgent. In another friendship I have, we simply arrange to call each other every three weeks. These regular dates are scheduled in both of our calendars.
Again, because we’re in regular touch, there’s no expectation for us to connect in artificial social spaces.
11. I’ve taken distracting apps off my phone.
I don’t use Twitter actively anymore — I only keep an account so I can post weekly writing prompts for my subscribers who do use Twitter. But when the app was on my phone, it became one of the things I would check, like email and Instagram. Just because it was there! So I took it off.
Same with Facebook. I don’t have the newsfeed eradicator on my iPhone, so checking the app became a thing to check. Delete.
12. I follow a tight phone protocol.
My phone automatically goes on Do Not Disturb mode after 10pm and before 7am. I never sleep with the phone in my room (I have a Zen alarm clock that I use if I must use an alarm). And when I’m actively writing or editing and I need deep focus mornings, I have a Freedom setting that goes on automatically, so I can’t check email or go online before 11am.
13. I read paper books.
I choose not to use audio or e-books, because I want time away from the screen when I read.
My wish list
While I’m pretty satisfied with my level of autonomy despite distracting technology, I know I can optimize my use of time even more! These are some things I’d love to get in the next year:
1. A record player.
I haven’t found a way to listen to music without using Spotify (and my phone). I want to listen to music without touching my phone, the same way I can read a book without looking at a screen.
2. A land line.
We used to have one, but squirrels ate the wires outside, and made our line unusable. Bell Canada said they couldn’t fix it, but I’m not convinced.
3. A 30-minute hour glass.
I still use my phone to track my writing and editing time (when I’m not on my laptop), but I don’t want to be near my phone if it’s not needed for the work I’m doing. I have a 5-minute hourglass that I love for short writing prompts, but a 30 minute timer would be more useful for timing my editing, planning, and longer writing times.
4. An easy way to print photographs from my laptop.
If you already have a good system for this, please advise! Gah.
5. A membership at a co-working office.
So I don’t get so locked in at my laptop, alone every day! I crave the human connection, the shared lunch breaks, the authentic social distraction that other people can provide during a work day.
Now I’d love to hear from you.
What tasks have you come up with to protect your mind from erosion and distraction?
How do you protect your writing time despite the attention economy conglomerates?
What’s on your wish list?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Image (top): Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash