Sometimes the right book plops into your hands at exactly the right moment, which is how I stumbled into Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism here in the waning weeks of 2019. Subtitled “Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” I found it of particular interest as I have recently been considering how to get more unplugged and disconnected in a way that still allows me to be plugged in and connected when and how I want to be. I’ve thought a hundred times about giving up Facebook for good, fueled by trying to outrun decades old memories that embarrass me today, a constant bombardment of fake news and clickbait, and ads…so many ads. I’ve thought about scrapping my current Instagram and starting over from scratch. I’ve thought about only keeping a blog through which people could read and follow our house project and connect/comment if they so choose. But there’s always something that keeps me from pulling the trigger.
That hang up, according to Newport’s book, is something that many people feel, but few people are able to define. Ask yourself this question: if you were going to try and convince someone who has NEVER been on social media to join social media for the first time, what would be your strongest selling point? Connection? Pictures? Digging up long lost friends and relatives? Influencers? Most people choosing to live social media in 2019 have an answer to why those points aren’t enough to persuade them into the fray, but it is an interesting exercise for many of us in the social media world to consider, because many of us might not remember why we’re there anymore or why we started in the first place!
Part of that comes from the fact that social media has evolved drastically from what it was when the first users started. Take Facebook for example. When I first signed up for Facebook, it required a college email address in order to be a member. I can say that my intention, at the time, was largely to stay connected with what my high school friends were doing, and then to connect with new people at my university. That’s wildly different than how I, and most other users, interact with Facebook today…and that interaction changed almost subconsciously as I automatically began interacting with new features and functions as Facebook added them.
For example, it’s now common to be connected with your parents on Facebook. When I first signed up for it, one of the novelties was that your parents couldn’t have a Facebook even if they wanted one. It should have surprised no one that, when Facebook opened their doors to the masses, many of the original users had incriminating content they didn’t want parents/bosses/etc. to see. They signed up for the product in a time when those people had no way of seeing, used it accordingly, only to have the rules change overnight creating unexpected consequences.
What other consequences of social media have we just accepted as part of the changing landscape?
When I look back at my first Facebook memories, they don’t have a single like…because likes didn’t exist. It was just a blurb, usually in third person, that had nothing attached to it in terms of reactions or “likes.” People didn’t post for validation so much as they just posted to post.
Not the case today! What the constant evolution of Facebook has created, through like buttons, sharing, comments, etc. is, in essence, an online popularity contest where we post in order to share, but also to gain and give approval. This give and take has created an exchange based not just on the currency of validation, but also real, cold-hard cash, as influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers turn those likes into advertising based dollars.
Today, many people feel like they “have” to be on social media because “everyone” is on social media. Thus, most people join without ever clearly establishing what they hope or expect it to add to their life. People stay for the feeling of validation that comes from every little red notification dot expressing people who like your posts, comment on your page, or send you a message to connect. Social media makes us feel good, a fact that’s supported by brain research revealing that checking the number of likes on your posts releases a hit of oxytocin in your brain!
Cal Newport suggests it’s time to take back control of our digital lives and social media profiles through a philosophy he calls “digital minimalism.” Digital minimalism is:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
There are two keys to adopting digital minimalism. The first is that you must consider what you value, and this is tricky because an easy loophole is to say, “I value my friends, and Facebook helps me connect to them, so I’ll keep using Facebook exactly how I always have.” In determining value, it’s fine to say you value you friends, but you must consider how technology is optimizing your friendships and strongly supporting your value in those people. Mindlessly scrolling and clicking like does not, actually, provide much value in those relationships.
Which is not to say that there won’t be any technology that supports your values and relationships. The key word is “optimized!” How do we maximize the impact our social media and technology habits have in a way that betters our lives and supports what we want from them!?
Digital Minimalism suggests a three step approach to evaluating the technology in your life, and ultimately making a positive change for the better. It’s not a “life hack approach,” though life hacks can help in implementing. Instead, Newport insists that: “The problem is that small changes are not enough to solve our big issues with new technologies. The underlying behaviours we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture, and […] they’re backed by powerful psychological forces that empower our base instincts. To re-establish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.”
To do that, Newport suggests a 30 day “declutter” period that will allow for a technology detox that forces you do disconnect and re-evaluate what you’re doing in the spaces that technology once filled.
Step 1: Put aside a 30 day period in which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. This requires you, first, to decide which technologies are optional, a group of apps and programs Newport defines as: “apps, websites, and related digital tools that are delivered through a computer screen or a mobile phone and are meant to either entertain, inform, or connect you.” That means social media, games, streaming apps like youtube…but not necessarily your text messaging or work email account!
Step 2: During the 30 day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviours that you find satisfying and meaningful. “Figuring this out before you begin reintroducing technology at the end of this declutter process is crucial,” Newport clarifies. “You’re more likely to succeed in reducing the role of digital tools in your life if you cultivate high-quality alternatives to the easy distraction they provide.”
Step 3: At the end of the 30 days, reintroduce optional technologies into your life starting with a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize its value. Because this process is not just a “life hack” or “digital detox,” Newport stresses that the reintroduction step is not just to reload all the apps back on your phone and promise yourself to do better. “The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards,” Newport explains. “It’s the care you take here that will determine whether this process sparks lasting change in your life.”
There was A LOT of great content in the book, and the whole second half was made up of practical suggestions for managing and downsizing your digital footprint. Newport is a pragmatist who recognizes that true change is not going to be immediate or comfortable for a lot of people, and does his best to offer a range of strategies that will appeal to a wide audience. Many of these come from the experiences of his 1600 test volunteers who participated in the 30 day declutter as part of his research for the book, reporting back to him on their feelings, setbacks, and winning strategies during their 30 days.
So motivated was I by the suggestions in the book, that I’ve decided to make the 30 day declutter my New Years’ Resolution in 2020. Starting January 1st, I’m going “optional technology” free, meaning I’m prepared to delete from my phone all social media apps, news, entertainment streaming, and games. I’ve decided to keep the podcasts app, which Newport suggests counts as “entertainment” because it’s what I use at the gym. I’ve also decided to keep Snapchat, because I’ve never used it as social media posting to a story, but do use it frequently as a messaging app with friends. In essence…my smart phone is going to be pretty dumb for the month of January!
I have decided to continue blogging during my month of declutter. Blogging was actually addressed in the book as being desirable because it created something of substance (I mean…that might be questionable!😂) or at least something that was more substantial than a single sentence or two. I won’t, however, be posting my blog to Facebook or Instagram during my detox, so if that’s how you find me, and you want to keep up in 2020, I’d recommend subscribing via email or WordPress before 2020! You can also bookmark katelaack.com and find the most recent posts from there.
I don’t know what my technology presence will look like come February 1, 2020, and I think the fact that I’m ok with that sets me up for pretty good success in the declutter month ahead. If you’re looking for a valuable and value shifting resolution for the new year, I’d encourage you to join me. I’d also highly recommend Cal Newport’s book, even if you don’t declutter, as a thought provoking and challenging indictment of digital life in the 21st century!
Consider it a last minute stocking stuffer idea!