Personal Development

On Digital Minimalism

I recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, and it was fantastic. It is essential reading for my generation. (his other book, Deep Work, was on my list for a while and has definitely jumped to the top of the to-read heap now!) It started so many wheels turning for me, and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read it as well — especially as this relates to moms. (Thank you to Kim from Talk Wordy To Me for suggesting this one!) I’m going to share a lot of thoughts on it, so I’m not even going to apologize for writing a very long post. Let’s dive in!

A fair warning: I’ve had to really confront my motives and habits while reading this book, and hopefully you’re not cringing too badly because you recognize at least some part of yourself in this. If you’re one of those magical unicorns who finds no appeal to social media to begin with, move along, this isn’t for you!

If you know me, you know I’ve been exploring these themes for a while — social media fasts, how to control the media I consume and what I let into my home and family, etc. I read Adam Alter’s Irresistible recently so a lot of the early parts of the book were familiar (in fact Cal Newport outright quotes Alter’s work quite a bit!). But what really proved invaluable were his philosophy of digital minimalism and suggested practices.

“Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you.” At the heart of it is the fact that we are using digital means to numb existential void on some level, and to make up for the lack of good, satisfying leisure and human interactions that take hard work to build and maintain. He says the void “would be near unbearable if confronted, but […] can be ignored with the help of digital noise.”

This is really the biggest epiphany out of all of this for me: I’ve been using social media as a massive crutch to fill my need for social stimulation and friendship. Especially since becoming a stay-at-home mom, I have very little interaction with people other than my husband or kids. The grocery store hardly counts, and since we’re living in a big city now, there’s not much small-town friendliness either. I MISS the French lifestyle so much sometimes, where you have friends, family, and acquaintances over for dinner every week and spend hours after the meal is over just enjoying each other’s company (yes, even people with little kids have thriving social lives!) On top of that, we just moved, so I lost my social circle completely. Luckily, our new ward (church congregation) is great so it’s one place to start, but it still takes time to make friends and develop any real relationships. Little by little I’m meeting people at the playground or story time, but still progress is slow. And it requires a lot of effort to build relationships.

So because I spend so much time alone at home with little children and I’m very much an extrovert, there is a gaping hole in my life and social media has been the cheap filler — like bingeing on candy when what your body really needs is real nutrients. The problem is, cheap bingeing actually doesn’t fill the void, and what’s more, it is actively harming my body — or in this case, fooling me into feeling like I sort of have a social life and therefore reducing any efforts to work on my actual social life.

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When I was discussing this with my husband, he said half-jokingly, “so basically, social media is the porn of friendship.” BINGO. We’ve heard so much in recent years about the danger porn poses to relationships, but it’s easy for women to point a critical finger at all those guys when we are sitting on our phones doing the EXACT SAME THING with counterfeit relationships. And in fairness, there can be some benefits to social media — whereas porn hardly has any good points, ha. But social media can absolutely be to friendship what porn is to love.

I’m going to repeat myself here: I genuinely don’t believe social media is pure evil and exclusively detrimental to our lives. I have social media to thank for my involvement with SALT LDS retreats, for discovering some truly inspiring and helpful people who run accounts to uplift and teach about the gospel, parenting, marriage and family… and yeah, sometimes it can be just plain fun too! I have a good friend who is a friend in real life — whose couch I have slept on! — that I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for social media (We had common acquaintances growing up in the Church in France but that’s it. We connected sort of randomly and ended up having our first child not too far apart from each other and had a lot of similar interests and background so it sort of went from there. Crazy how life works!) So there CAN be good in social media.

I also find a level of fulfillment in the creative outlet — as a reporter, I loved being able to produce a story and publish it to the airwaves and internet, having something tangible to show for the work and ideas put out there. As a photographer, if no one sees my photos that I work so hard to capture, this is going to sound sad but… well it feels like a tree falling in the middle of a forest. And yes, I can find satisfaction in my work for creativity’s sake alone, but beauty is ultimately meant to be enjoyed and shared. So I’ve mentioned this in the past here, but focusing more on writing and creativity — putting content out there — has been a good way for me to use social media more productively than being a passive consumer. (I think this is one of my personal keys to more fulfilling online work.)

But the issue we’re up against is that, at the end of the day, social media is a business, run for profit, and it’s designed like a slot machine, engineered to suck our eyeballs in and sell our attention to the highest bidder. The attention economy is real and it is very, very effective. There’s big money involved. This is the sad reality behind the magic we can sometimes glimpse thanks to people who work hard to put out good content and make it a positive space.

Newport hits at the heart of what’s been missing with my past social media fasts: filling the void instead of finding other ways to numb it. In fairness, I was aware that I needed to fill the space with something better — and I did a pretty good job of picking up reading again, trying to spend more time and energy on spiritual matters during Lent, being more present with my kids… but I lacked a robust plan for leisure and social interactions that would fill my deepest needs, and the fasts were always temporary, not a deliberate effort to examine my habits and change them going forward. “If you begin decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life before you’ve convincingly filled in the void they were helping you ignore, the experience will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worst,” Newport says. And that’s why whenever I ended a social media fast, I tended to go back to those same habits pretty effortlessly. This is the crux of it.

Early on, Newport spends a good amount of time discussing Thoreau’s Walden Pond experience. He talks about the importance of solitude and how our 24-hour media culture has all but eliminated true solitude, much to the detriment of our mental health. He also zeroes in on Thoreau’s alternative economics — that we’re not just trading our labor for money but we’re also spending precious time that could be used elsewhere. Newport suggests the following test for allowing digital media into our lives:

  1. Does it serve something you deeply value? (not just “that sounds kind of fun, it could come in handy”)
  2. Is it the best way to serve this value? (there’s likely an alternative that isn’t digital media that more effectively fulfills this need)
  3. Have a standard operating procedure in place that specifies how and when you’ll use it. Don’t just become a “user.” (He points out social media executives are purposefully vague about what their networks actually do — “we want to connect the world!” because it’s in their interest for us to use their services as a binary — you either use it or you don’t; if you’re just sort of using it, you have no measure of your utility and are more likely to scroll rather mindlessly and spend more time = give them more eyeballs on the screen for their advertisers. Facebook only became the multi-billion-dollar company it is when it successfully monetized its services, and ad revenue from mobile — where it’s in your pocket throughout the day — quickly outpaced desktop.)

Applied to social media, essentially, Thoreau’s economics work like this: if I use Instagram to feel connected to others and feel seen, how much time am I spending on it (let’s say 45 min a day and be super honest here…) vs the tangible benefit of improving a friendship or developing a relationship or establishing a connection? Was Instagram the best way to accomplish that goal? Or would I be better served (and infinitely more efficient with my time and energy) by going to a women’s conference or event or playgroup for a few hours once a month and setting the goal of talking to three people and going home with a phone number? In this scenario, I’m trading 22 cumulative hours (holy crap) for 2-6 hours of my month with a more effective end result. And I’m avoiding the net negatives of social media like feeling inferior to other people whose lives appear more beautiful, organized, fun, etc. and fear of missing out because all the people I know are hanging out together without me because I live far away, or that I don’t have friends and do fun things. (Obviously I’m being slightly dramatic for effect. I should point out that I’m objectively aware that these things are illusions — but being inundated with pretty pictures still ends up having an effect on your psyche when you’re feeding yourself a constant diet of it.) And that’s not mentioning all the other quality leisure moments I could’ve had in those extra 16-20 hours! “Clutter is costly,” he points out.

Newport then goes on to offer many examples and ideas for reclaiming our time and using it more in alignment with our life goals. While he mentioned Ben Franklin as a great example of this, he didn’t actually use one of my favorite quotes of his: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” This is a motto I desperately want to apply to myself and my family. 

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Here are my bullet points and some favorite suggestions I’ve already begun using, or am working on implementing:

  • Don’t click “like” EVER (funny that that it’s literally what he suggested after I wrote this in my notes a few paragraphs before: I think my interactions online would be massively enhanced if I stopped “liking” anything. Ever. Instead, detailed, targeted, rich comments are valuable, everything else is proven to not significantly make people happier. (Newport quoted some research on Facebook likes vs commenting) I think people will also feel a deepened connection to me when they read my comment — it’s actually relationship-building.
    So then, a few paragraphs later, Newport suggested never liking OR commenting — instead, if you really want to interact with that new mom and congratulate her on her baby, call, send a card, bring a gift. A real-life interaction. I think my previous thoughts aren’t a bad way to approach the online interactions we DO choose to keep, though.
    )
  • Consolidate texting: basically, don’t allow your phone to grab your attention at all times of the day when someone decides they need you now. Silence notifications and look at your texts in a pre-determined block of time. If something is truly urgent, people can call you.
  • Hold phone conversation “office hours”: basically, let friends and family know you’ll always be available to chat at x time of the day/week, and when you feel like reaching out to someone or need to have a conversation, send a short messag saying “could you give me a call sometime when you’re free during x time?” Another variant of this: he shares how some people are always at a certain coffee shop on a specific day/time and start spreading the word, hoping people will eventually start dropping by, kind of like the elderly men playing pétanque every afternoon when I was growing up. In my life, this would probably look like a rotating play date type of thing, which I’ve had in the past and was relatively effective.
  • Take long walks without your phone — or if you need it for emergency purposes, turn it off and put it at the bottom of your bag so it’s not a temptation.
  • Phone conversations always over anything text-based. (OK, but what does this look like for moms? Moms are NEVER available to talk on the phone, and evenings are their spouse time. Sure it’s easy for a tech exec who has an hour-long commute in blissful solitude to hold luxurious, long phone calls. I suppose Marco Polo is a starting point maybe, have you tried it? It’s a nice way to be able to hold a conversation when you have a few minutes to respond.)
  • Reclaim leisure! Newport says we’ve basically lost our ability to enjoy true, quality leisure that is actually refreshing and renewing and satisfying. Binge-watching Netflix or scrolling your feed are none of these, and they actually actively harm us because they steal away precious time and energy we could invest in quality leisure. So here’s how he suggests we do this:
    • Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption
    • Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world
    • Seek activities that require real-world, structures social interactions
    • Fix or build something every week (ha, we’ve got this one covered, mamas! I think a part of this is also finding joy and meaning in the menial — cooking for my family is an act of love and devotion, and can be a pleasure if I let it. Even cleaning and laundry can be a peaceful, grounding ritual, as Marie Kondo would have us understand!)
    • Schedule in advance time you will spend on low-quality leisure. For me… when should this be? After lunch during downtime? After kids are in bed, no more than 30 min at a time? I’m still working on figuring out how to let Instagram back into my life right now, honestly.
    • Join things. It may be a drag sometimes to have demands on our time but it forces us to put our money where our mouth is and is ultimately more fulfilling — do we really value the causes and activities we say we do? Join a PTO, volunteer for a non-profit, start a book club.
    • Actively plan for leisure. Have a seasonal leisure plan with overarching goals (deadlines like a performance are helpful) and then during weekly scheduling review the plan and pencil in your leisure time. Definitely fits my understanding of proactive life vs just letting it happen to you, but I’d never thought to actually map out my leisure time.
    • Join the attention resistance: delete social media from your phone (it’s still accessible on a desktop, but less potent since the stickiest features are built for mobile where the biggest ad revenue is, and the temptation to use it as filler when we’re bored in line at the grocery stores disappears. Now we have a purpose when logging on.) Use social media like a professional (social media managers for companies, for example, don’t mindlessly scroll or even use it for entertainment, they have a purpose and focus, use it in a targeted manner, they might use filters to narrow searches, etc. THEY are using IT, and not the other way around — also note: ironically enough, I guarantee social media execs like Sheryl Sandberg, who is amazing and whose book, Lean In, is also on my list of essential reads, didn’t — couldn’t have — become the woman she is by compulsively using social media. I’m willing to bet she has a tight grip on how and when she uses it! There’s a reason Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use iPads.), and embrace slow media. I love this concept of a dumb smartphone like the Light Phone.

My issue with this last point is that Instagram, my favorite social media app, is mobile-only (if you want to post. You can access it on desktop but only to scroll and comment). I genuinely love Instagram, but it’s also a problem for me, so I’m not sure how to let it back into my life in a productive way that doesn’t end up going downhill. I’d love to hear if you have thoughts or experiences with this one specifically.

One caveat, that’s really more of a wishlist item: Cal Newport has fantastic insights, but I feel like he’s missing the perspective of stay-at-home-moms — it’s easy for an academic who lives in a nice neighborhood with a wife handling the household to indulge in luxurious long walks to enjoy the beautiful scenery and let his mind wander. He has no mental load. (I don’t say this in an accusatory tone but simply stating the obvious — I’m not making excuses either, I intend to take to heart the counsel throughout the book. But I don’t get the indication from any of his writing that the running of a household or raising of children really, truly is a significant part of how he spends his time — I’m willing to be proven wrong, but virtually everything he writes relates to his career and academic life or his leisure time. What is his wife’s life like? I’m terribly curious to know how many opportunities she has for deep thought, calm, and quality leisure while she raises their three kids.)

He slightly acknowledges this blind spot a handful of times but I think the craving that stay at home mothers have for social connection in the severe isolation of the early childhood years is something that could really stand to be addressed. We are literally stuck at home all day in some cases. Obviously his points are relevant to SAHMs as well but I’d love more insight on how to implement some of these suggestions specifically targeted to my demographic. Either way, I think I’d like to explore for myself how to make these practices applicable specifically to mothers. I’ve put down a lot of thoughts just in this post and I think that fleshing this all out and applying it specifically to women longing to “find their tribe” would make for a great follow-up to my SALT talk last year… I know what I need to do next! 

ALTERNATIVES. Here’s one more interesting thought: what if there were a social network that circumvented the awfulness of the attention economy and kept the good stuff? An Instagram friend (see, another friend I only know because of social media!) introduced me to PRIXM a little while ago, which is supposed to be sort of the new social media app that gets rid of the seductive notifications, metrics (there is no “likes” number icon on your posts, for example), and other features that make social media so addictive and destructive.

The founders describe it as a New Social Media App that is By the People for the People. “Powered by your stories and real connections, PRIXM is a “happy” app focused on you. We reject algorithms, “likes”, ads, and selling of personal information; our only focus is to empower you to document your life, and create communities that you care about. We are more than a social media app. We are a movement taking back the power of tech to enable real connection through stories.”

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I love what they’re trying to accomplish, I really do. I even downloaded it and created an account, but… well, ironically I haven’t managed to get into it since my first visit months ago, because I’m struggling to engage with it — I think, precisely because it doesn’t have those sticky, rewarding little features! It feels a little complex — sort of how I struggled to get with Google+ (remember that?!) because there were too many different circles and options… and I didn’t feel like reinvesting all over again in a new platform — or one more platform. (Also virtually nobody is on PRIXM that I know or that I currently follow and enjoy following. I have exactly ONE real-life friend that actively uses it, I just checked.) But maybe we just need to spread the word a little better… and I can be part of the change, little ol’ me. Have you heard or it or tried it out? I really applaud their philosophy and WANT it to succeed, so maybe I need a little more faith and action. Check it out here if you’re curious, and tell me what you think.

OK, if you read through all that you get a gold star! So tell me: have you read the book? What were your thoughts? How about how it can apply most specifically to mothers?

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