A concern has been brewing in me the past few years. It has to do with how much time I spend looking at a screen. How much time we all spend looking at screens.
I’ve talked to countless friends about it, lamenting about what we can do, how we can fix it, whether things will ever be the same. Yet, when it comes to my own life, I’ve made excuses. I’ve dragged my feet. I’ve criticized social media while logging on every day.
Then that Annie Dillard quote comes back to me: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Then I look at my days, and realize that the majority of them are spent in front of a screen. Which means my life will be spent looking at a screen.
I need to work, of course, but for too long, I’ve used my career as an excuse to not seriously analyze my screen time.
Here’s how — and why — I am fundamentally changing my relationship with technology.
Taking back my life
With growing horror, I’ve devoured the spate of articles and books that reveal our smartphones — and social media apps, in particular — for what they really are: slot machines in our pocket.
These technologies prey on our psychological weaknesses, consuming the most precious commodity we have: our time. What happened to reading books? To calling up friends and talking for hours? To writing just to write?
In her book “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think,” Laura Vanderkam points out: When you take away eight hours for work and eight hours for sleeping, you still have eight hours of free time per day. That’s 56 hours over the course of a week, or 224 over the course of a month.
Even if you remove, say, five hours a day for things like commuting, showering, cooking, and exercising, you still have three hours every day — or 21 hours every week — to use as you please. Those numbers, albeit simple, made me realize I could never again claim I didn’t have the bandwidth to read or volunteer or go for long tech-free walks.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have time; it was that I was choosing to stare at my phone instead.
Vanderkam’s book was the catalyst for changing my relationship with technology. After reading it in late 2016, I deleted social media apps and turned off all mobile notifications (other than texts and calls), and eventually began working and sleeping with my phone in a different room. I added the News Feed Eradicator extension to Chrome, which allowed me to check my FB writers groups without getting sucked into the newsfeed, and I forbade myself from checking Twitter during my five-minute Pomodoro breaks.
The 30-day digital declutter
Still, I wondered if I could do more. I contemplated quitting Facebook or Instagram, but it felt so dramatic.
Then I heard Cal Newport talking about his new book “Digital Minimalism” on The Ezra Klein Show. I immediately bought the book — and finished it in two nights.
Newport’s basic premise is we are digital “maximalists”; we adopt any new technology that comes our way, without stopping to think about its consequences. That certainly applied to me: I had never thought about why I was joining FB or IG — I just did.
So when Newport advocated a “30-day digital declutter,” I was in.
It’s called a declutter because it’s Marie Kondo-esque in its application. For 30 days, you eliminate all the digital clutter from your life. At the end, rather than just going back to everything mindlessly (as you might do with a “detox”), you intentionally decide what you’re going to allow back in.
For the month of March, I cut out nearly everything. I didn’t use social media or Netflix. I deleted the New York Times and Gmail apps from my phone. I basically only used the internet for its most essential purposes: work, maps, contacting friends. (Though Newport encourages giving up texting and Whatsapp, I decided that was too important to me, especially being halfway around the world.)
At the end of the month, I reflected on what I wanted to keep in my life. I kept Twitter, because I feel like it’s important professionally, and Snapchat, because I use it to keep in touch with friends and family. So far, my usage across both platforms has been less than five minutes a day, which I’m totally fine with. (I also created a separate FB profile — with zero friends — so I could maintain my membership in writers groups, though I haven’t used it yet.)
I didn’t add the NYT or Gmail apps back to my phone, as I realized there’s no need for me to be checking work emails after I close my laptop. And there’s no need for me to be constantly scrolling the news; now I limit myself to the NYT Morning Briefing and Next Draft each day. I usually listen to Up First while I’m making breakfast, and The Daily while I’m cooking dinner, too.
What I realized about social media
I was surprised by how little I missed social media. When my declutter was over, I didn’t even want to log back in. When I did, just to see how it felt, my mind immediately went into overdrive. I didn’t know how much of my brain was being invaded by social media until I went without it.
Ezra Klein described a similar feeling about leaving social media for a while. “It opened up mental space I had not known I had lost,” he said. Upon his return, he was amazed by how distracted he became. He described his return as “having someone follow me around and shout into my ear.”
That’s because these programs and devices were literally engineered to be addictive; to make us yearn to be shouted at even when it might not be in our best interests.
Even Mark Zuckerberg has recognized the issues he’s created. He wrote that, in the future, his company will be focusing more on communication that’s like a “living room,” where you share intimate conversations with friends, rather than a “town hall,” where you broadcast your private life to near-strangers.
A week after my declutter was over, I posted photos announcing my departure from FB and IG, and then went for a walk. It was incredible how quickly the social-media mind took over: I thought about who was looking at my photos, and what they were thinking about my decision. I wasn’t really present.
At first I felt embarrassed about my “weakness”; I felt like I should know better, be better. But then I remembered it’s human nature to seek approval from the tribe. Technology companies know that — they wield it like a weapon that’s made them billions.
Given the fact I work online, perhaps I am particularly susceptible to the perils of tech addiction. Yet still, it is impossible to deny that smartphones and social media have changed our society.
We can’t enjoy nice meals without checking our phones. We can’t visit national parks without killing ourselves over selfies. We can’t feel like we have/are enough because someone on social media has/is more. It’s making us anxious and depressed and lonely.
Last year, a study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology asked participants to limit their social media use to 10 minutes a day. And guess what? “The results from our experiment strongly suggest that limiting social media usage does have a direct and positive impact on subjective well-being over time, especially with respect to decreasing loneliness and depression,” it concluded.
In my mind, no longer are FB and IG places to connect; they’re places to curate how others see you, to seek validation and numb your mind. They’re a popularity contest that no one’s winning — and I don’t feel comfortable aligning myself with them anymore.
The end of a long post (and era)
Maybe you’re different. Maybe IG makes you feel good. Maybe you don’t work on a computer — and deserve to kick your feet up and zone at the end of a hard day. My best friends are teachers and social workers and firefighters, and this post probably does not apply to them.
I’m not here to judge; I’m simply here to share my experience. And for me, it was time to say goodbye.
I’m sure I’ll miss out on some writing opportunities, baby photos, and funny memes by logging off. But those minor losses, I imagine, will be inconsequential when compared to the time I have (and the freedom I feel) without these technologies clouding my brain.
If you want to keep in touch, and aren’t already subscribed to my newsletter, I truly hope you’ll sign up. I plan to share photos, writing, and updates there. You can always drop a line through my contact form, as well; I promise I’ll write back.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. How have you struck a balance between your smartphone and real life? How do you share photos without these platforms? Please comment below, as different strategies and perspectives benefit us all!
- “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport
- Or if you don’t want to commit to a whole book, some shorter options:
- This Is the Most Powerful Way to Make Your Life Fantastic (Barking Up the Wrong Tree)
- Cal Newport has an answer for digital burnout (The Ezra Klein Show)
- Digital Addiction Getting You Down? Try an Analog Cure (NYT)
- Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones (WIRED)
- I Used to Be a Human Being (New York Magazine)
- How I Fell Out of Love With the Internet (Quartz)
- How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain (NYT)
- The Case for Slowing Everything Down a Little Bit (Vox)
- Why We Can’t Look Away From Our Screens (NYT)