So, you’ve decided to say no to the glow and yes to life. Maybe you want to remember what your family looks like (without Instagram filters). Perhaps you want to actually get some work done (maxing out your skill points in real life). Or you just want to chase that great American birthright: the pursuit of happiness (amazingly, guaranteed before the advent of screens!)
We are going to go over some digital hacks and tips but Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, will tell you “what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”
The underlying truth of Newport’s warning is that technology is ubiquitous, convenient, and, as we discussed in our last correspondence, designed by the world’s smartest people to keep you using it for as long as profitable (i.e. forever). You will ignore casually set intentions too easily – so, whether in a moment of frustration or clarity, you need to identify the good, the bad, and the ugly of your relationship with technology.
Figure 1. Note that in the original, “Good” was relative. Clint played a corrupt bounty hunter who abandoned his business partner to die in a desert. Up to you whether to move anything analogous in your own life into another category.
Crucially, along the way, focus on what technology is substituting for. You justify social media to keep track of friends – but how often are you having really meaningful conversations? You explain that you always need your phone in case of an emergency – but how often is the real emergency your boredom? You ironically defend television as “unplugging” – but how often have you watched a few too many episodes and find yourself more exhausted than when you started?
Figure 2. To be clear, if your way of unwinding is to sit on your couch watching a blank, unplugged TV screen, that’s probably ok – though don’t miss the excitement outside of seeing grass grow!
When you are tired, when you are procrastinating, when you are bored, when you are lonely, the digital world has practically limitless offerings. And yet these glittery mind tricks don’t deliver. As you feel the cue, remember that there are more satisfying alternatives. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal reports that the American Psychological Association has found that the least effective strategies for stress relief include playing video games, surfing the Internet, shopping, and watching TV or movies (along with gambling, drinking, smoking, and eating). The most effective stress relief? “Exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby.”
“If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing,” McGonigal reveals. “The power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot.” And, as James Clear articulates especially well, your goal is to make the desired choice easy and the undesired choice hard. Embrace a cascade: start at whatever level you think is appropriate and, if you falter, make it harder. Below are suggestions for your phone, your computer, and your television.
Starting with your phone:
You want to access apps when you want, not when they want.
- Reorganize and replace your apps. On your home screen, keep only single use tools (like maps, calendars, weather). At first, you can try to bury deep in folders your endless apps (social media, games, news, video). Replace your temptation with a better alternative: Where YouTube once tempted, you now have Spotify. Where you once tapped Candy Crush, you can now tap Kindle to read the last book I reviewed. Where Facebook once sat, you now have a list of people to call (starting with your mom!). If social media is your particular temptation, Newport concedes that “refusing to use social media icons and comments to interact means that some people will inevitably fall out of your social orbit—in particular, those whose relationship with you exists only over social media. Here’s my tough love reassurance: let them go.” For the people you really care about, upgrade your approach: “When your friends and family are able to instigate meandering pseudo-conversations with you over text at any time, it’s easy for them to become complacent about your relationship. These interactions give the appearance of close connection (even though, in reality, they’re far from this standard), providing a disincentive to invest more time in more meaningful engagement… Being less available over text, in other words, has a way of paradoxically strengthening your relationship even while making you (slightly) less available to those you care about. This point is crucial because many people fear that their relationships will suffer if they downgrade this form of lightweight connection. I want to reassure you that it will instead strengthen the relationships you care most about. You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emojis can provide.”
- Turn off all notifications. Restart at zero and then extremely sparingly restore the absolute bare minimum. I myself just have notifications for my phone calls and emails.
- Go grayscale. App developers make very intentional color choices to attract your attention – there’s a reason why notifications are in red. Deny them the privilege and take back control.
- Place your phone somewhere it will take a few minutes to retrieve from. You may not be able to always do this, especially if your work requires call availability – and, if that’s the case, you can move up the cascade. But the vast majority of people can keep their phone away from arm’s reach for far more time than they do. (Added bonus: limit police searches!) But for your day to day life, Andy Crouch puts it nicely: “We [should] wake up before our devices do, and they [should] ‘go to bed’ before we do.” At the very least, buy a traditional alarm clock and banish your phone from your bedroom. You can also slow yourself down a little bit by disabling Touch ID and requiring a password or putting a rubber band around your phone to remind you not to endlessly scroll. I take a cue from Tristan Harris – the background of my phone says “Do not open without intention.”
- Limit time on your apps. Phones now have powerful built-in tools that can warn you about the time you are spending on applications and can function as speed bump reminders if you try to access apps outside of a designated time (the morning, when you should be working) or if you use apps in excess (only 15 minutes a day or whatever you decide). Exploring the features of Apple’s Screen Time or Google’s Wind Down is well worth the effort – and you can ratchet your process up with apps that block your access altogether. As you contemplate the appropriate time limits, consider the results of Tristan Harris’ study of 200,000 iPhone users about what apps made them feel happy or unhappy after use. The unsurprising bottom line: you’ll tend to be happier after using meditation, fitness, and book apps; you’ll tend to be unhappier after using social media, dating, and game apps.
- Purge your apps and give away your passwords. Cal Newport suggests that, in order to truly understand your temptations and what substitutes look like, you should take a 30 day detox (not just of your phone but of anything digitally tempting). After it’s over, similar to the notification process, only extremely sparingly add back anything you think is truly beneficial. Don’t purge every few weeks in frustration – only to add back temptations a short time later. Determine what you are better off without, change the password to something complicated and impossible to memorize, give the password to a disciplined loved one, and delete the apps. The authors of Make Time go so far as to delete email and web browsers from their phones because they think that those functions are better handled on computers but even that step can be easily reversed by a phone with the functionality. Bizarre to me, some of the digital monks I discuss find texting acceptable (sometimes justified because it’s a social interaction). Personally, I find the data on how quickly people read and respond to texts alarming in light of the goals of digital restraint. Unfortunately, my phone provider doesn’t have a plan without texts and the app can’t be deleted, so I use the time limits described above to only see them rarely.
- Dumb down your phone. If you really, truly want to end your phone’s distractions, then get a dumb phone with few functions (including, alas, texting). I have not made it this far down the cascade – I enjoy too much settling arguments with instant internet access – but going this far, as extreme as it seems today, could be rewarding on net.
Figure 3. Our new Paleotechnology Program allows you to live as your ancestors did! Travel way back to the 1990s when most humans had to contend with landlines! Experience life as it was intended in such cinema classics as Citizen Kane: in black and white! Along the way, enjoy all the mystery and wonder of real human contact!
For your computer:
you want to be able to focus and work when you need to, and you also want to embrace the benefits of the real world, especially socializing.
- Consider alternative relief. Keep a copy of the list of activities above that the American Psychological Association actually deliver on stress relief. Whenever you are tired or bored and tempted by surfing the web, online shopping, or gaming, fight the mind trick and try something else, if only for a half hour. If you’re procrastinating, think about the consequences of NOT doing whatever you’re putting off and just get started with the smallest step you can take toward progress.
- Demand quality. This particularly applies to gaming, and it will come up again for TV. There’s a psychological phenomenon where people heavily weight their judgment of an experience based on the final outcome – even if they enjoyed the vast majority of an experience, if it ends badly, the memory is sour. There is data online about how long a game takes – make sure you know what you’re getting into and that it’s worth the opportunity cost. Beware the diminishing marginal utility of 100% completion of anything and embrace refund policies that will give you your money back after a couple of hours – that way, you’ll be incentivized to make a determination relatively quickly whether you’re actually enjoying what you’re doing.
- Schedule your digital entertainment in advance. Newport suggests that if you calendar when you are going to be able to take advantage of your vice, you will have an easier time resisting during the non-calendared time. You aren’t giving it up entirely, you’re just postponing it till after you complete this project, until the weekend, or whatever.
- Put away your toys. The Make Time authors suggest that when you are done browsing or gaming, make sure to exit out of everything so that when you come back to your computer, you are starting clear (or, even better, with precisely the work you need opened up).
- Apply your skill points to real life. Consider the magical prospect that rather than dispatching your Sim to learn cooking, you could learn to cook for yourself. Or, rather than sniping that Nazi, you could genuinely master a rifle at the local firing range. As you contemplate customizing the character that is you, particularly bear in mind your social needs: join a paintball league for the adrenaline rush, break out the Risk board to think through strategy, or take on improv to flex your creativity.
- Enforce your schedule. It’s one thing to say that you won’t check a website until your project is done or that you will stop playing a game at your normal bedtime. It’s another thing to do it. Get creative in how to throw up obstacles: Use an app to block websites. Plug your computer or your Wifi into a cheap timer outlet that will cut off electricity at a certain time. Create a child account on your PC, put all your games on it, and enforce time limits with another complicated password difficult to retrieve. Don’t charge your controller so that the battery runs out. Lock your laptop physically in a cabinet. If you still press forward but at some point hit a speed bump or realize that you’re stretching yourself beyond your intention, hit the brakes, walk outside for a bit, and just think. Ultimately, embrace sunk cost, forgive yourself, and learn from the experience.
- Downgrade your computer. If you routinely overcome your obstacles to access the capability of your computer, eliminate the capability. Cancel your home internet. Get rid of your computer speakers. Get a computer with a bad graphics card and basic functionality. My own view is that the internet is an opportunity for such benefit that its harms aren’t worth the cut off – but you have to weigh the trade off in your own life.
Figure 4. The real 100% completion. How you play determines your Epilogue.
For your television:
beware the relatively steep cost to benefit ratio.
- Consider alternatives to TV’s perceived value. Stress relief is better achieved through the activities described above by the American Psychological Association – where playing a sport is better than watching one (especially if your team is losing) or socializing with your own family is better than watching a family sitcom. Learning is best achieved through reading, itself a stress relief, but I’ve found that podcasts are a perfect substitute for something to have on in the background while you cook or do something else.
- Only watch with family or while exercising. Make the most of your watching by only doing it when you can combine it with something good. TV has perhaps the best capability of any digital offering to be a shared simultaneous experience – I have always loved watching movies with my dad and we still watch old action flicks together over Christmas. Just be careful not to use this as an excuse to endlessly engage in TV at the expense of other shared experiences – or better conversations. Similarly, if you’re seeking to multitask, consider upgrading the background noise to podcasts.
- Disable autoplay and prefer media with quicker ends. Go onto your streaming settings and disable the service from just queuing up your next thing to watch as soon as you finish the previous item. You want to choose when to continue based on your priorities. Similarly, movies outside the Marvel Universe are inherently going to be easier to manage than TV shows, which can easily dwindle in quality over the many hours you spend feeling a need to see how it all works out. Don’t forget the phenomenon discussed with gaming where a bad ending can sour the memory of an otherwise enjoyable experience (see, most recently, Game of Thrones). If you do find yourself engrossed in a deteriorating TV show, embrace sunk cost and quit!
- Cut cable, unsubscribe from streaming, and choose quality on demand. Per Make Time, switch your mindset from “What’s on?” to “There’s something specific I want to watch.” Get rid of your opportunity to surf endlessly for options to watch without friction and switch to a model where you purchase or rent each individual item. (I have mentioned before that the Netflix DVD service is still around and serves this purpose nicely.) Given the big benefits of non-screen alternatives, insist on only watching things you have high confidence in being good (such as over an 8 on IMDB, for example).
- Hide the remote and its batteries in separate locations from your TV. Make it a chore to go find everything. Plug the TV into a cheap timer so it goes off before it endangers your sleep. And, if you haven’t already, change the passwords on your apps and delete them from your devices.
- Get rid of your TV. When you contemplate the balance between opportunities and harms of your smart phone or your computer, getting rid of them entirely is a hard argument to make – even dumbing them down by dramatically reducing their capabilities has problematic side effects that make the lesser measures more attractive. But when you apply the question to television, the benefits seem considerably more sparse. At the end of the day, most people, despite their protests, would probably be happier without a television. Giving up the gigantic opportunities associated with the internet is a big deal. Giving up TV just eliminates one form of entertainment – and, as we noted, some of the least effective strategies for stress relief. But if you can’t go to a friend’s to catch Stanford football, then the Make Time guys have a solution: replace your TV with a projector and a fold up projection screen. It’s a hassle. And that’s the point.
Figure 5. Asked afterward the secret to his remarkable endurance, the first-time contender exclaimed, “I was just trying to get to the end of Lost!
That about sums up what I consider some of the best takes on personal digital restraint. But perhaps your worries extend beyond yourself: what about kids?
I don’t have personal experience as a father, but several parents have recommended Andy Crouch’s book on the Tech-Wise Family. I found it to be an excellent meditation as he explains his family’s approach (and how well they’ve lived up to their own rules, among them: zero screens for kids until they turn 10.) Crouch fears that “We most often give our children screens not to make their lives easier but to make our lives easier” and yet considers this a paradox because “the less we rely on screens to occupy and entertain our children, the more they become capable of occupying and entertaining themselves.” He also powerfully rejects the common defense “that children need to become ‘computer literate,’ as if learning to use computers were somehow as difficult and rewarding as learning to read itself.” After all, “A three-year-old (or a ninety-three-year-old) can intuitively figure out how to use an iPad. There is almost nothing to teach, and certainly nothing that any typical person can’t learn with a few hours of practice.” If you are raising a family, check it out.
Figure 6. Bill Gates often ruefully reflects on a childhood deprived of such essential technology literacy builders as Fortnight and Snapchat.
I’ll close by noting that some of the digital restraint authors I’ve cited believe that the responsibility for digital restraint goes beyond individuals managing their own use. Tristan Harris, for example, has called for vigorous antitrust actions against and taxation of big tech. But fellow Google alum James Williams, the author of Stand Out of Our Light, is interested in a steering wheel, not a brake and calls for the industry to self-regulate through individual tech workers taking an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath:
“As someone who shapes the lives of others, I promise to: Care genuinely about their success; Understand their intentions, goals, and values as completely as possible; Align my projects and actions with their intentions, goals, and values; Respect their dignity, attention, and freedom, and never use their own weaknesses against them; Measure the full effect of my projects on their lives, and not just those effects that are important to me; Communicate clearly, honestly, and frequently my intentions and methods; and Promote their ability to direct their own lives by encouraging reflection on their own values, goals, and intentions.”
My advice: don’t wait on Silicon Valley or DC. Embrace the cascade(s) most relevant to your own goals of digital restraint!
Figure 7. Click here to buy the Tech-Wise Family (9/10), as much a meditation on family as tech, or here to buy Make Time (7/10), a breezy, cheery, practical book with some interesting ideas about how to get things done, especially with respect to digital distraction.
Figure 8. Click here to buy Deep Work, 10/10 or Digital Minimalism, 7/10, both by Cal Newport.
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I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!