Digital Minimalism and Me
I'd never considered myself to have a tech addiction. I'm more than capable of holding conversations without looking at my phone; the only game I had on my phone was a crossword app much to the chagrin of my 10-year-old cousin, and my old lady loyalty to my paper diary already gave me some autonomy.
The issue for me was looking at my phone when I was alone and during the extensive "alonetimes" of lockdown, this got far worse. I have gone through phases before of deleting social media, then after a week or so deciding it was safe to go back in the water only to be dragged back down by jaggy app teeth.
I wanted to believe I was more sensible than the teenagers getting overwhelmed by social media trends or hot headed trolls on Twitter starting fights with strangers but I could tell I was only one slipped stitch away. I identified the following issues:
"Comparison is the thief of joy."
If I could get this tattooed on the inside of my eyelids, I would. I know fine well everyone's social media account is carefully curated and even when I was genuinely happy for people's success, a voice inside would start barking, "why aren't you doing better? Why don't you look like that? Why aren't you doing what they're doing?" Not the best way to start the day or go to bed.
(Yes ok it was Theodore who said it but whatever...)
Early in the pandemic I switched off BBC News notifications. At first it felt irresponsible but I'd reason with myself that reading death tolls over breakfast wasn't healthy. This is a debate I've had with myself a lot when it comes to Twitter and Facebook too. I didn't want to lose touch with the world and become blissfully ignorant but having every bad news bulletin and negative opinion shoved down my throat was making me lose faith in humanity, friends and family. Then I'd have to write jokes about the news for work, which brings me to...
"Working hard or hardly working?"
I do a lot of jobs and some of them used to require me to be on social media. In general I need to be online and easily contactable to get work and opportunities. I don't have a manager and I can't afford PR to promote my shows for me. Casting agents get in touch and need an answer and self-tape yesterday. But having to be available everywhere all the time to everyone meant that I wasn't getting anything done.
So how could I disconnect from all of these things that were clearly having a negative impact on me without becoming disconnected altogether? I knew that the best way for me to make a sustainable change was to work on my perspective, which usually means reading a book or listening to an expert. (I will do a blog about Perspective - Structure - Behaviour approaches later!)
And here's where I'd like to give a wee wave to the lovely Joz Norris! He announced on Facebook that he was embarking on a 30-day Digital Declutter having read "Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport. A performer and freelancer giving up social media?! Admitting that even friendly online banter was getting a bit much?! I had to read this book.
It starts by drawing attention to how our attention is being stolen by tech companies. As someone who regularly attended advertising and big data conferences, this was an icky area I was already aware and resentful of. If you want to really get into it, I recommend listening to Johann Hari's episode "How to fix your focus & stop procrastinating" with Steven Bartlett on the podcast Diary of a CEO. The basic thing to know is we're being sold by tech companies the idea that their products are there to serve us when in reality we are not the client, we are the product. The data and attention that their tech can mine off of us is being sold to advertisers and brands who are the real customers.
That doesn't mean that this technology doesn't have anything to offer us but those values are often inflated to make us believe we need them more than we do. The strapline for many of these products is "stay connected", "be more efficient", "learn more" and they might be useful in those functions but ultimately their goal is to get you to use them as much as possible so they can use you.
We may think we're all aware of that but the emotional toll of this is deeply seeded. When it came to it, I worried that if stopped using Whatsapp or various messenger apps that friends and family would think I didn't care about them. I was somehow being a less reliable friend or family member. There are a few things I'd like to say on this.
Boundaries are healthy. Brene Brown said this golden nugget whilst being interviewed by Elizabeth Day on her podcast How To Fail:
"Boundaries are the distance at which I can love both me and you."
In her research, she has found the most compassionate people are often those with a clear sense of boundaries which is something I don't believe we recognise in our culture. We expect people, women in particular, to be martyrs. I have witnessed for a long time people doing "the right thing" by visiting or helping people but flat out bitching about the fact to everyone else afterwards. How is that nicer? I used to be like that to an extent, especially at work. What's worse is I would be resentful of people who weren't.
A year or so ago I started being more mindful about what I'd say yes to and found that most people liked the clarity. If I agreed to do something as a favour they knew it was because I was genuinely happy to do it and I wouldn't bitch about it later. I'd also be more likely to do a good job.
It's one of the worst things in our culture to be considered selfish, which I think is fine but our bar for what is considered selfish can be insanely low. We need to reassess how much we expect of each other and ourselves. Do we really need to be contactable 24/7?
However, this brings me onto the subject of the Hidden or Mental Load and one of my main criticisms of the book. It was written by a white, middle class, middle aged, American man working in academia (pre-pandemic). I don't want to make assumptions, I'm sure he's very nice and looks after his kids but... he did seem to be dismissive of how the burden of care and communication (I use that word purposefully) tends to fall to women.
Of course, I don't mean "all men". A lot of young men in my life are very aware of fixing the imbalance but I believe it is ingrained in our culture and subconsciously women are more likely to be judged or judge themselves on what is considered selfish or bad parenting. And this book was glided high over that.
I read a lot of this book with the same eye-roll I use when male writers suggest "taking a long walk alone at night to clear your head and get creative". If you think this might put you off reading the book then I suggest looking into authors such as Emma Gannon who has also written books on focus and digital detoxing but might be more sensitive to these issues. I only discovered her afterwards.
That said, a lot of the guidelines are still relevant and prioritising the people in your life that need direct contact with you and how they can contact you is a large part of it. Of course you need to answer your child's school but do you need to be on every mums Whatsapp group? Could your partner be the emergency contact once in a while?
The main thrust of the book is guiding you on a 30-Day Digital Declutter. At the start you set yourself stringent rules to help you strip tech out of your life. That's all tech, not just social media. I had already implemented some of these habits: wearing a watch, using a paper diary and I rarely look up restaurants/reviews while I'm out. Some things I didn't feel the need to implement, for example I wasn't about to start wandering around lost in London with a map instead of using Citymapper.
But I did change how I watched TV. For 30 days I wasn't allowed to watch anything I had already seen and I wasn't allowed to watch more than one episode of something unless somebody else was there. As a result I found that I discovered a lot more shows that I liked and I wasted less time binge watching. Watching something new and engaging made me happier than my usual "comfort watching".
I implemented a similar rule for podcasts and was only allowed to listen to them or music if I was on public transport. While walking I had to have my headphones out unless I was talking to someone on the phone. This was hard. Every time I left my flat I wanted music or something to block out busy London. It turns out I am capable of dealing with the world and might actually be safer on the streets for it.
Wordle was another conundrum. It's only once a day so do I have to give it up? I realised however that I was always doing it at midnight, which meant I was on my phone in bed so I made a rule that I had to wait until at least noon to do it.
I deleted the following apps off of my phone completely (not just homescreen):
I was only allowed to access these via my laptop. I kept Whatsapp but turned off notifications and muted and archived all group chats except for the one with my immediate family as my sister was due her baby soon. I removed it from my homescreen and I was meant to only open it three times a day but that quickly became impossible. Instead I decided I would only respond to messages in one go during designated breaks. In general, I asked people if I could organise a chat on the phone or in person rather than messaging. I also decided that texts were just for my agents.
The best rule I made was that if I was going to claim I needed social media to work then I needed to treat it like work. This was both liberating and validating because it turned out I was right, I really did need it for work. Occasionally I needed to break the rules and download Instagram so that I could promote a gig etc but then I immediately deleted it. One particular weekend when I was booking acts for my cabaret show I had to download everything so I could keep on top of messages and was so relieved when it was finally booked that I deleted each app as soon as an act confirmed. This might sound like cheating but it has actually helped me find a longer term solution.
Admittedly I did occasionally check the web versions of these apps on my phone but luckily they're so horrible to use that I wasn't tempted to respond to messages or scroll.
Oh and as for Wordle, I completely forgot about it. That was perhaps the biggest shock in this experiment! Suddenly I didn't care about breaking my streak or doing it quicker than last time. I still play it when I remember and perhaps enjoy it even more.
At the end of the 30 days you can only reintroduce technology into your life if it "serves your values". So does having this tech in your life help or hinder you spending more time with your kids, on your hobbies, reaching your career goals?
I have only reintroduced Gmail, Canva and Later and none of them have notifications. The important jobs are the ones that come through on Gmail but I still try to wait until I'm at my laptop to respond. Often if I'm on set, I can't have my laptop so having the Gmail app to respond when I need to is key. Booking gigs without having social media is hard though and something I'm still working out.
Canva, Later and Hootesuite are scheduling tools that I've used in other jobs for years but now I'm using them for my own work. If anyone would like help using these - and the free versions are all you need - please let me know. I did worry briefly that it may come across as "inauthentic" to post images of things that happened a week later but let's be honest, nothing about Instagram etc is authentic. It is also something much maturer people have taught me is important to my security - do you really want to let burglars know you're on holiday? My profile has to be public so I have to be careful. I toyed with the idea of having a separate private account but that feels like it would be more work, especially after this process.
I do most of my Later posting on my laptop but I have it on my phone as a surrogate for Instagram. I frequently have to download Instagram in order to post but I try to delete it as quickly as possible afterwards. This may sound annoying but get this, during my Declutter phase I was saving 2-3 hours a day on mobile screen time. 2-3 hours a DAY?! I will take the fuss of downloading and deleting an app every day if it saves me that time in general.
Therefore my biggest tip is to quantify your progress as much as possible. It's very easy to track your screen time and on my iPhone I could even break it down to screens and apps. This brings me on to probably one of the most important features of the book. During your Digital Declutter you should "aggressively pursue leisure activities" and set realistic goals for them. This will also help you discover your values.
I didn't quite achieve all of my leisure goals but it was enough to encourage me to continue. I didn't read all the books I wanted to but I did read more. I didn't finish all my scripts but I started a new writing project, submitted 10 pages and a treatment. I also didn't do yoga every day but I take more time to stretch properly at the gym and I never bring my phone in with me.
A lot of this was also due to circumstances. My sister was in hospital and I was babysitting a toddler for 4 days longer than I expected. When Aunty Cha Cha wasn't being reprimanded for doing gigs she was watching Mira, Royal Detective and hiding her laptop from tiny hands. Again, a book written with parents or carers in mind might be more realistic.
I was also filming in the highlands for a while so didn't take up pole dancing either.
(Her sidekicks are mongooses. Yes, that is the correct plural of mongoose.)
I'm still learning and while I occasionally miss out or get frustrated, it's nothing compared to the negative feelings or experiences I had before with tech in my life. One thing I'm experimenting with at the moment is hiding like counts on Instagram. I'm not sure how much it makes a difference but if you've tried this please comment or get in touch and let me know what you think.
I hope this blog has been useful and encourages you to join the "attention resistance". I'm happy for people to reach out and ask for more tips. I believe that the more people become mindful of their habits and what they need the healthier we'll be as a society. This change, especially in the face of huge tech companies, can be hard so it's important that we're honest and recognise that sustainable change takes time.
Please don't be put off if you've tried a "digital detox" before and failed because detoxes on their own never work. Try to declutter and reconnect with what you actually love and you will find a difference.
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(Keepin' it cool. Yep.)