Digital Minimalism

The Internet has been a real mixed blessing for me. It opened up the possibility for access to so much information and connection. I first started really using it to connect with other people who were interested in the same things I was, and that was life-changing. I’d always felt like such an outsider, and finding other people who were into the same things I liked was exciting. I’ve made so many good friends online, and I’ve been able to find and get back in touch with old friends. The access to information has also been wonderful, being able to look things up right away instead of having to go to the library. I can’t imagine writing the kinds of books I write now without being able to look things up without leaving my desk. I’ve promoted books in the days before the Internet was widely used, and it’s so much easier now (not that I do a lot of it or do it at all well, but there was almost nothing you could do in the old days).

On the other hand, it’s a huge time sink and attention hog. It’s so easy to fall down the research rabbit hole and find that the one quick fact you looked up has turned into an hours-long research project. It’s even easier to get sucked into social media. But I can’t step away entirely, since I do use the Internet for work, and for the past couple of years, most of my social life has taken place online.

I recently read an interesting book on how to find some kind of balance, Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I’d previously read his Deep Work, about how multitasking doesn’t really work and how you need time and focus to do your best work. This book gets into how a lot of social media works on your brain and what you can do about it. It’s addictive (and designed to be that way) because it works on the same principle as a slot machine, with inconsistent and unpredictable rewards so you keep coming back.

I thought I was pretty bad, but after reading this, I think I may have it under better control than I thought. I don’t use any social media on my phone unless I’m traveling (or need to post a photo). I don’t have any notifications turned on, and my phone usually lives in my purse. I can go days before I notice a text. I may get sucked in while I’m at my desk, but you won’t find me sitting at a restaurant with other people, checking my Twitter notifications. I’ve been trying to take steps to minimize my online time, so I’m already somewhat on track with the recommendations in the book. I started working upstairs in my office and keeping my computer in my office instead of on the laptop desk I kept by my sofa. I’d fallen into the bad habit of checking online while I watched TV or movies, and it was killing my attention span. I’d get curious about who that actor was, look it up on IMDB, then end up reading about the rest of the cast, reading the trivia connected to the movie, etc., then while I’m there, might as well check e-mail, Twitter, etc., and next thing I knew, I’d missed half the movie. Having the computer upstairs has made a huge difference.

I’m also trying to break the “better check Twitter” reflex and stop using it as procrastination. I have a list of other things I can do if I don’t want to work, like my Norwegian lessons. I’m also trying to limit my social media time to a couple of times a day in designated slots, though I do sometimes slip, like yesterday when there was an incident on the street outside my house and I kept checking Twitter to see if the police department was saying anything about what was going on.

The thing suggested in the book that I haven’t been doing but that I want to implement is coming up with more active leisure pursuits. This came up last year when I was feeling a bit burned out and realized that my brain never got a break from story. My work is writing stories, and my leisure is either reading or watching stories. Newport suggests actually making things. Go online to learn how to do something, and then do it. This includes stuff like repairs, woodworking, art, cooking, music, etc. I think that’s a good idea, and I’ve been trying to have mostly offline weekends, in which I take care of the things I need to do online, then shut the computer off and do something else. To start with, I’ve been making a point of cooking on weekends, the kind of dishes I can’t really do on a busy weeknight, with chopping, measuring, stirring, and long cooking times. I need to get back into playing music. I’ve got an embroidery project I want to do (and I picked up a book on embroidery at the library today).

I need to get back to something he suggests that I used to do, which is scheduling and planning my leisure time. It sounds boring and lacking in spontaneity, but I’ve found that if I don’t have a plan, I tend to just sit and surf the net, but if I have a plan and a schedule, I’m more likely to do actual fun things.

If you feel the need to get your online life under control and rediscover your offline life, I recommend this book. It’s a quick read and quite thought-provoking.

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