Friday, September 11, 2020

Digital Minimalism in times of Corona: experiments in distraction-free living

I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s book Deep Workin which he makes an impassioned argument for the value of doing creative and meaningful work in a distraction-free manner. Newport (a computer scientist at Georgetown University, and author of a blog about productivity called Study Hacks) defines deep work as follows:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

The book is full of tips and strategies on how you can embed more deep work in your life, and I use its first chapter as a reading assignment in one of my undergraduate courses. I purposely make it the very first reading of the semester, as it’s a great way to get my students to reflect on their own study habits and have them discuss with each other whether they’re open to changing these habits so they can embed more deep work in their schedule. Without fail, our discussions gravitate towards a single subject: the constant distractions they face from the digital world. “I would like to do more deep work,” my students tell me, “but it’s just too hard. I get distracted. I check my Facebook. I get lured into a Whatsapp conversation with a friend. I go on Youtube after fifteen minutes of reading my textbook and get sucked into a black hole of endless cat videos.” Especially last semester, when for a large part of the semester all educational activities shifted to digital platforms because of the Corona virus, my students reported a losing battle with digital procrastination. They were behind the computer for hours on end, which meant that all their favourite digital distractions were never more than a mouse-click away. As the day wore on and they got more and more tired, the temptation to procrastinate often proved too strong for them.

Newport’s latest book, which is called Digital Minimalism, is about exactly this topic: how to make sure your digital addictions don’t get the better of you and live life on your own terms. I read it with great interest over the summer, and consider it the perfect follow-up to Deep Work. My own students are usually won over by Newport’s argument that doing more deep work is a good thing, but they get side-tracked far too easily because of digital distractions, all their noble intentions of doing a deep work session constantly shipwrecked on the rocks of Netflix, Youtube or Instagram. Digital Minimalism, in which Newport argues that our lives will be infinitely better and more rewarding if we filter out most of our online addictions, is the perfect book for these students. What I discovered as I read it - and this surprised me somewhat - was that it was also a bit of wake-up call for me. I didn’t really consider myself a digital media junkie. I check Facebook for maybe ten, fifteen minutes a day, I hang out on Youtube for maybe an hour a day, I watch some Netflix occasionally but don’t binge, and I hate Whatsapp groups with a passion and leave as soon as someone adds me to one. After reading Newport’s book and experimenting with some of his practical suggestions, however, I’m now convinced that I really, really want to make some further changes to my online behaviour, especially in these strange times where the corona virus is forcing me to spend more hours behind the computer than I’d like to and my eyes often hurt at the end of the day from staring and squinting at a screen for far too long. Here are some of the most important takeaways I got from the book, which explain why, now that the summer is over and the semester has started again, I have every intent of becoming a digital minimalist. 

Insight #1: Many digital tools were intentionally build to be hyper addictive

Newport spends quite a lot of time explaining why many apps and media platforms are so addictive, and points out that almost all of them were designed after a careful study of principles used in the gambling industry. For me, this insight - that many apps and social media platforms turn your smartphone into the equivalent of a slot machine - really hit home. The apps that I use the most all offer what Newport calls intermittent positive reinforcement, or - in simpler English - unpredictable feedback. Just like a slot machine, it’s hard to predict what will come up when you open an app like Facebook or Youtube: something good, something mediocre, or something dreadfully boring? As Newport points out, it’s exactly this unpredictability that makes these apps so addictive. Our brains are hard-wired to find an environment with unpredictable feedback irresistible. We love playing the ‘what did I get?’ game that such an environment provides us with. Youtube - which, until I read Newport’s book, I spent quite a bit of time on - is built exactly according to this principle. The homepage refreshes every day, and serves up a new selection of clips that are all tailored exactly to what youtube’s algorithm thinks you will like. But here’s the thing: they’re not all good. Quite a few of them are duds. Almost every day, however, there are one or two clips that are pure gold. After careful reflection, I can now see that it is exactly this unpredictability that I found irresistible. When given the choice between reading a book in the evening or going on Youtube, Youtube almost always won. I can now see why: I simply love playing the ‘what did I get?’ game just a little bit too much. Same with Facebook: almost everything in my feed is dull, dull, dull. Every once in a while, though, something fantastic and worthwhile will show up. It’s exactly this mixture of boring, mediocre and exciting, all stirred together with an touch of randomness and unpredictability, that keeps us coming back to these apps. Once I saw that mechanism, I couldn’t un-see it, and I didn’t like what I saw.

Insight #2: Doing a digital detox is clarifying

Apart from analysing why we’re so drawn to digital distractions in the first place, Newport also gives advice on how to do battle with these distractions. One  of his most extreme pieces of advice is this: doing a full-fledged ‘digital detox’, during which you cut out all your digital addictions for a whole month. Completely. Yes, that sounds radical. Perhaps it is. Newport argues rather convincingly, however, that it’s also necessary. The idea behind the detox is that for many of us, our favourite digital toys have become associated with deeply ingrained habits. It’s very, very hard to get rid of habits through sheer will-power alone. The way to start from scratch again, then, is to first get rid of the habits altogether. That means using your favourite addictions only sparingly, or better yet, not at all, for a sustained period of time (Newport suggests a month). Check your Whatsapp and email only a few times during the day instead of incessantly, turn off your lock-screen notifications on your smartphone so you don’t see incoming messages, and completely give up on non-essential apps such as Facebook and Youtube.
    I didn’t think I needed a detox before I started reading the book, but once I was halfway through, I figured I might as well try it. The results were surprising. I discovered how much Facebook, Youtube, and ‘random Googling’ had become deeply ingrained habits. I found myself constantly taking out my phone during moments where I would normally have checked Facebook, a pattern of behaviour which lasted more than three weeks. Same with Youtube: I’d find my finger hovering over the app symbol only to remember that my intent was not to use it. 
    It’s this realisation - that these apps got under my skin, and had undermined my free will to a certain extent - that’s probably been the biggest eye-opener for me. I was forced to admit that yes, even I - who considered myself a proto digital minimalist - had grown into just a little bit of an addict as time wore on.  That insight - that I’d become an addict - was a real eye-opener for me. I just don’t like the idea of being addicted to anything, unless it’s to coffee. Coffee addiction is fine in my book. Don’t you dare call my coffee addiction a problem - I will unfriend you faster than you can say ‘Iced lattΓ© frappuccino’ πŸ™‚. But addiction to anything else? Count me out. 

Insight #3: If you’re going to succeed at digital minimalism, you need to replace digital with consciously chosen off-line activities

I was somewhat surprised to discover that Newport devotes an entire chapter in the book to the concept of leisure. How should you spend your free time, if you’re not going to spend it binge-watching The Crown or watching a five hour Joe Rogan interview on Youtube with some guy who used to be a journalist but now believes that aliens build the Aztec pyramids? At first the fact that Newport spotlights this topic puzzled me a little bit, but it now makes complete sense to me. As soon as you stop being a digital junkie, you’re going to have a whole lot of extra free time on your hands, and if you don’t consciously make a plan for something rewarding to do with all those extra hours, you’re going to be back on social media within the blink of an eye. For me, the most obvious way to spend this extra free time would be to read more. I always notice when I go on holiday that I find reading for hours on end  infinitely more rewarding than watching youtube clips. Newport’s book has made me adamant that after this year’s summer holiday I’ll be staying offline much more, and that I will read much, much more. Newport, however, gives great advice about what else to do with your time apart from reading. Above all, I was inspired by his suggestion to do more ‘analogue’ creative work. Build something. Fix something. Do hard manual labour. As human beings, we’re hard-wired to find working with tools rewarding. So we should do more of it - simple as that. 
    This is a forgotten art - the art of fixing things. When I compare myself to my father, who grew up in a time long before there were any digital distractions to speak of, I see such a difference. My father has spent a lifetime of trying to fix things. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and will have a crack at trying to fix any piece of equipment which stops working as it should.  My father calls me when his iPad stops working, and I can fix that for him. But when a machine in my own household stops working which is not digital? Well, in such cases my first hunch is to call an expert. Most often, the expert is my father. If he can’t fix it, my inclination is to bin whatever stopped working and buy a new one. I think most of us are like that these days. Newport’s convinced me that I could do things differently - not for the sake of it, but because doing manual work is highly rewarding. This rule doesn’t just apply to fixing things that are broken - making something from scratch will do just as nicely. Knit a sweater. Paint. Draw. Play a musical instrument. Anything goes - as long as you’re using your hands. Your life will be all the better for it.


“Your life will be all the better for it” - that was originally going to be the sentence with which I was going to end this blog post. Now that I’ve had a chance to live according to my new ‘digital minimalism’ philosophy for a while (I wrote this blog post a couple of weeks ago, and am only now polishing it up) I have to say that I”m no longer one hundred percent convinced about this statement. My wife has - somewhat unexpectedly -become just a little bit too enthusiastic about the project, and has taken to suggesting ‘analogue’ projects that will tie in neatly with my new digital minimalist philosophy with a devilish look of glee in her eyes. Without fail, these ‘suggestions’ are all in the category ‘chores around the house that need doing but which will give no one in full possession of all their mental faculties any kind of satisfaction whatsoever’, such as putting up shelves, doing the dishes, or - worst of all - gardening. Needless to say, this is not what I envisioned when I embarked on my digital detox. I pictured myself doing romantic ‘old world’ projects such as building a guitar from scratch or fixing my coffee roaster when it breaks down with nothing but a screw-driver and a pair of pliers (it did, and I did, thank you very much). I’ve tried to explain that there is an important difference between ‘chores’ and ‘projects’ to my wife at multiple occasions but she is yet to be convinced of the validity of my arguments. πŸ™‚
    All joking aside, the sailing has been pretty smooth, actually. I don’t miss Youtube and Facebook at all, am giving Netflix a wide birth, and have instead watched several complex and overly long documentaries on the BBC which normally I’d have avoided like the bubonic plague. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed them tremendously. I’m reading a lot, and I’m also writing much more than I normally would have. It’s the beginning of the semester and things are hectic right now, yet I’m managing to find little pockets of time and brainspace to work on projects that I thought would have to go on the back-burner. I hadn’t planned on completing this blog post this early on in the semester, but here it is - hopefully you enjoyed it. I do apologise for having to deliver it to you through digital means, though. Last time I checked, using carrier pigeons or telegrams were not highly effective ways of reaching a large audience. πŸ™‚

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