Let’s address the elephant in the room: If you’re thinking that 24 days sounds arbitrary, you’re not wrong. I chose the shortest month of the year for my digital detox. And started a day late. Then finished three days early.
So you can relax — this is not going to be that kind of post. I won’t be taking sign-ups for the Luddite revolution or telling you to join the Five-AM Club. Instead, I’ll share some of the struggles, insights, and ironies I met over my 24 days.
Digital minimalism in a maximalist world
The questions that led me to this experiment are on a lot of people’s minds right now, particularly in the business community. The average knowledge worker struggles to decompress from the ‘always-on’ state their job demands, and it's easy to pin the blame on the tech that serves up the notifications. But was life truly better before email and Slack? Were we more content to sit and think before the invention of television?
Without a doubt, these questions were on Professor Cal Newport’s mind when he wrote his 2016 book Digital Minimalism. In it, he posits that people largely fail to use tools like social media, television, and the internet with intentionality, and the attention economy profits as a result. Halfway through the book, he admits that he’s never had a social media account so take that grain of salt with a huge glass of water. But the research stands.
Newport’s challenge to his reader is to undertake a “digital detox” from all optional technology for one month. Reading this one day into February, fresh off the New-Year’s-Resolution verve of January, I decided to give it a shot. For one month(ish) I would put aside my beloved podcasts, audiobooks, and music streaming platforms and leave the TV off. Caveats: I would allow myself to indulge in these things as a social activity, and listen to records and the radio, so as not to lose my sanity entirely. Here’s what I learned.
Phone calls > texting
I wasn’t about to ditch my phone for a month, so I made a compromise with myself to favor calls over texting. In doing so, I discovered something radical: I actually hate texting.
I don’t think I’m alone here — human brains evolved a faculty for language, and alongside that, a unique proclivity for analyzing social dynamics. We did not evolve a foolproof system for assessing the tone of a text message. I realized that I’ve actually wasted hours of my life stressing over how someone’s use of punctuation and emojis reflects on our relationship. I’ve jumped to conclusions after seeing those three dots appear, and I’ve lost my head trying to make sense of my grandma’s voice texts.
As a Millennial with a serious aversion to phone calls, this next point also surprised me: Talking on the phone can actually bolster your relationships. On day three, I called my stepmom to ask how her sick cat was doing, and I could tell she was touched. I also started calling people just to talk about their day, and each time I’d hang up with a genuine sense of connection.
Zero notifications is a power move
My phone used to buzz with updates and flash red notification badges. Now, when I look at my screen, all I see is a picture of my cat. It’s a simple change, but I found nixing notifications had a major impact on my stress levels throughout the day.
What this change means is that I’m in the driver’s seat when it comes to checking my apps. If I want to check my texts, I actually need to decide to click on the message icon. The same goes for Slack, email, and the weather. I found this shift to be empowering and recently heard a similar account from a coworker.
A similar tactic he employs is intensely curating his social media feed. This approach seems especially smart given that these platforms are incentivized to capture your attention — not provide the best tool for social good.
Having worked in ad tech, I’m inclined to put this into numbers. The average CPM (cost per thousand impressions) on Facebook is $11.54. Translation: every ad you scroll past makes Meta roughly 1 cent. So if you see ten ads in a session, that’s a dime. It’s worth asking whether you extracted a dime’s worth of value from that session. I say, make them earn it. Your attention is precious!
Boredom is a muscle (and it can atrophy)
Reading with your eyeballs is hard. Sometimes it can even feel sisyphusean. See how hard that word was to read?
The first week of the detox, I could hardly concentrate on a book for more than fifteen minutes. I’d come to rely on audiobooks, and without realizing it, I’d apparently forgotten how to focus. It was a slog, but with nothing better to do, I forced myself to keep going. A week later, I actually finished a novel and moved on to another. It wasn’t just reading books that had gotten easier; I’d also become more content cooking and cleaning, and just sitting in silence.
I didn’t fully understand what had happened until a coworker gave me this context: His three-year-old son had just tried an iPad game and had already begun to insist on it over other activities. But my coworker recognized this as a normal reaction to high stimulation. Instead of banning video games, he plans to help his son build a “muscle” to tolerate understimulating activities. That way, his son can stay engaged when life gets boring (which, let’s face it, is a lot of the time).
It struck me that technology had little or nothing to do with why reading had gotten hard for me. I’d simply let my boredom muscle atrophy as I gravitated towards greater stimulation.
Your grandparents wrote the value judgment dictionary
One of the most ironic and critical insights came at the end of my 24 days, and it’s what knocked me off the wagon. I brought up the concept of digital minimalism in a team standup, and someone pointed out that we often don’t think twice about technology that pre-dates smartphones. The example she used cut to the quick of my 24-days-strong self-righteousness: “You wouldn’t think twice about listening to a record or the radio,” she said. She was right — these were the exact technologies I’d tacitly put in the ‘allowed’ category.
She also took this home for me by explaining that these value judgments were passed down from older generations waxing romantic about the good old days. Why, exactly, is the radio more wholesome than MP3s? Because grandpa said so. Nostalgia tech is not inherently better than anything modern, not at least insofar as it reflects on your character.
That night I watched the first episode of Bel-Air and felt no shame.
A turn about the room
I recently watched Pride & Prejudice and was struck by a particular scene. In it, Caroline Bingley says to Kierra Knightly’s character, “Elizabeth, let us take a turn about the room.” The two then literally walk the room’s perimeter. That’s what people used to do before television. You haven’t known true boredom until you think, ‘hey, you know what might really mix things up? Walking in a circle!”
So if you really enjoy TV, video games, or whatever is your jam, let yourself enjoy them. Set boundaries if that feels right to you, but recognize that your craving for stimulation is human. You may certainly choose to be a bit more discriminatory when it comes to platforms that profit from your attention. But IMO…life is too short to get trapped in a shame narrative around electricity.