Digital Decluttering: A Diary
Something unprecedented happened to me yesterday.
I didn’t even think about opening Facebook until 12:35pm. Or Twitter.
Like so many others, I read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism recently and it has dramatically changed the way I use the internet. But my shift toward a more intentional use of my phone began a couple of months ago, before I read the book. I’d grown frustrated with myself—the way I’d let a lifelong habit of reading in bed slip away, replaced with social media scrolling and a somewhat obsessive need to maintain my NYT crossword puzzle streak.
Come to think of it, the shift really began over a year ago, the day I deleted Candy Crush.
Step 1: Goodbye, games
In late summer 2017, I underwent a month of radiation treatment for early-catch breast cancer. Radiation fatigue walloped me pretty hard—but it was a physical fatigue only. Walking from the car into the house after each day’s session exhausted me, but I wasn’t sleepy. I would curl up in bed feeling like my limbs were full of sand, with my mind revving at full speed.
Books had always been my solace, my refuge, but during that month I found it nearly impossible to read. I took some iPhone photography classes: this felt productive, a way to redeem what felt like lost time. But mostly…I played games on my phone. Candy Crush, Farmville. Dopamine generators designed to suck you in and keep you tapping.
By December 2017, I’d bounced back from the fatigue. Vigor and activity had returned—but the games remained. I was still finding it hard to maintain focus on a book; my attention span had become fragmented, and when I had a free moment the games whispered their siren song.
Frustrated, I began a new practice: “Morning Pages” a la Julia Cameron’s famous guidebook for creatives, The Artist’s Way. Three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness writing every morning before any outside input—no screens, no conversation, not even a book.
In these daily writing sessions I found myself lamenting my diminished attention span, my unread bookstack, my wasted time. After four days of boring myself with these laments, I grew exasperated enough to dump the games. Zap: goodbye, Candy Crush.
But I was still a long way from digital minimalism.
Step 2: Goodnight, phone
2018 was a full year. I researched and wrote a novel, taught classes online, homeschooled half my kids, and worked part-time in an advocacy job. But I still spent too much time on my phone.
I’d rid myself of Candy Crush, but my phone still beckoned to me with a voice more persuasive than the dozens—hundreds, even—of books in my queue. My bedtime reading was Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram: the lure of the endlessly scrolling feed. Plus I had a months-long streak on my crossword app that it would have killed me to break.
I didn’t want to fall asleep with a phone in my hand. I didn’t want to wake up and reach for Instagram first thing. But that’s what I was doing.
Once again, Morning Pages came to my rescue. I’d fallen away from the habit in February 2018, but I resumed it in March and that immediately altered the Instagram wake-up pattern. The cardinal rule of Morning Pages is they have to come first, before you do anything else.
At first I’d write them grumbling under my breath the whole time, and then flop back into bed with a sigh of relief, my finger already tapping the Instagram icon. But by June, my novel deadline was looming closer and I needed more time to work. I began moving to my studio to write my Morning Pages and then I’d roll straight into work on the book. To give myself the best chance of succeeding, I’d leave my phone behind in the bedroom during these writing sessions. Every night I closed my browser and opened Scrivener so I wouldn’t be tempted to pop onto Facebook before I started work.
This morning writing practice felt good. I emerged from my studio feeling ahead of the game. The book began to take shape. Work was getting done.
At night, though, and whenever I had a second of down time: scroll, scroll, scroll. And some nights I forced myself to stay awake longer than my body wanted to—couldn’t break that crossword streak, you know.
Step 3: Hello, Downtime
What I found is that having to decide whether or not to hit that “ignore limit for fifteen minutes” button is just enough conscious action to override the passive scrolling habit. And that’s the goal, isn’t it: to use devices in an intentional way, not to be used by them.
In December 2018 I signed up for Holly Wren Spaulding’s 21-Day Poetry Challenge, which turned out to be the biggest habit-changer of all. It’s the best thing I could have done—the best thing I’ve ever done for my creative life.
Morning Pages had been effective at helping my shift some habits. But I never liked writing them; after a few weeks they felt routine and dull. I kept up the practice because it had borne good fruit. But I was thrilled to exchange them for something that suits me far better: a daily practice of reading poetry first, and then opening my notebook to see what happens.
Holly’s challenge lessons consist of daily emails with a poem and her commentary on it, or on some element of the writing practice. She provides prompts and ‘provocations’ to get you started writing after you’ve sat with the poem for a few moments. She urges you to consider eschewing screens until after you’ve read and written for a while.
Her absorbing lessons—and the pages and pages of writing they sparked for me—left me energized and excited to work. I began setting my alarm earlier and earlier to allow a little more time for the practice. I finished my novel draft and sent it off to my editor. I wrote several poems.
By the end of the 21 days, I was hooked on poetry-before-screens. My mornings felt rich and productive. I’d get up at 5:45 to read and write until my youngest son awoke and padded into the studio to snuggle into my lap and watch the light change outside our window.
I still wasn’t reading as much as I wanted to, though—at night I remained stuck in the feedscrolling habit.
An ioS update alerted me to the Downtime and Screen Time apps and—riding the high of Holly’s course—I set my phone to Downtime mode between 10:30pm and 7:30am. A week later, I created a one-hour daily limit for all social media apps combined.
You can override these limits, of course, with the tap of a finger. But doing so is a decision, a deliberate choice. What I found is that having to decide whether or not to hit that “ignore limit for fifteen minutes” button is just enough conscious action to override the passive scrolling habit. And that’s the goal, isn’t it: to use devices in an intentional way, not to be used by them.
Step 4: Digital downsizing
Newport’s recommendations aren’t dogmatic or one-size-fits-all. His central message is the importance of intentionality in our use of devices, and of making values-based decisions about online time.
By January my morning poetry practice was firmly established. Even though I’d packed my book off to my editor, I kept getting up in the chilly dark to make a mug of cocoa and open a book of poems. Olav Hauge, Rachel Zucker, and Lucille Clifton became daily companions. I filled up one fat notebook with drafts and notes, then a second.
And at night, I was reading again. As a Cybils Awards judge, I entered January with a ready-made reading list: the seven finalists for the Young Adult Speculative Fiction award. Since my phone got boring at 10:30pm (thanks to Downtime), I was happy to reach for a book.
By that point I was primed for Newport’s message. I was already in sync with him on a few key points:
- Turn off all notifications on your phone (I can’t abide pop-ups and red badges);
- Don’t go to bed with a phone in your hand;
- Set deliberate boundaries for how much time you choose to spend on social media and other attention-grabbing apps.
His book presses farther, urging a digital detox period at the start of the process, and advocating for the deletion of social media apps from your phone.
Well, like many people, I earn my living from work done on screens, so total detox was not an option for me. And listen, I love Instagram and feel enriched by time spent on it—to a point. But Newport’s recommendations aren’t dogmatic or one-size-fits-all. His central message is the importance of intentionality in our use of devices, and of making values-based decisions about online time. I value my creative work, my relationships, my health. All of these things can be endangered by my smartphone—or nourished, depending on the choices I make.
So I took Cal Newport’s advice and deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone. I adhered to the time limit I’d set up for Instagram. I unsubscribed from any newsletter or podcast that wasn’t nourishing those things I’d identified as my top priorities: creative work, relationships, health.
Step 5: Pushing farther
In March I happened upon an article by Coach Tony: How to Configure Your iPhone to Work For You, Not Against You. Medium indicates it’s a 74-minute read, but for me it occupied an entire Saturday. I walked through Tony’s recommendations one by one, accepting or adapting almost all of them.
One tip that ruffled my feathers was #11: Organize your apps and folders alphabetically. I like a pretty home screen and therefore had my most-used apps arranged by color.
Coach Tony writes:
We want to set your phone up so that your rational brain is the boss, and your emotional, addictive, worst-decisions brain is asleep or blocked.
The best explanation for this is in the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (or just read the NYT book review for a good overview). The author lays out a model for the brain as having two systems.
The Fast system is our default. It’s effortless, instinctual, and functional for staying alive, but also the source of most of our worst impulses. It’s the system that likes slot machine apps.
The Slow system is what we think of as our rational brain. It’s analytical, but requires effort and intention to access…When you go for an app, I want you to have the actual name of the app in mind. That way it’s easier for you to be acting rationally and intentionally.This intrigued me, so I tried it. I identified the apps I use most often or those which are tools that serve me, not suck me in. And—wincing a bit at the unappealing aesthetics—I alphabetized the apps. My home screen is for things I use daily. The second screen is for apps I use at least once a week. Everything else—what’s left after the purge—is sorted into folders and hidden on the third screen. Minecraft—the one game I’ll never delete because I’ve built a fabulous world with my kids—is tucked far away on a fourth, last screen.
Fine, I thought—begrudgingly. I’ll give it a try.
With all my apps living in new places, I have to stop and think for a moment, which is exactly the point. It seems counterintuitive—relying on muscle memory to open apps is faster and therefore presumably more efficient, but that extra second is a tiny speed bump that reminds me my goal is to be intentional about how I use my phone.
I’m still easing in to some of the changes Tony suggests. His action list is long! But worth the time. I set up text replacement shortcuts. I disabled app review requests. (Who knew this was an option!) I’ve even begun to get a handle on my email. I’ve hit Inbox Zero three days in a row this week. Now that’s a streak I can embrace.
Step six: Looking ahead
Some of these changes, I’ve been living with for a while. Others—the Coach Tony suggestions—are quite recent. I’m still fine-tuning what apps get to live on my home screen, and the array will probably change over time. (Which is good, because if I get too familiar with the layout I’ll lose that helpful speed bump.)
I still find myself absently scrolling on Instagram sometimes. But my steps toward digital minimalism have all been positive experiences so far. Each week the Screen Time app informs me I’ve spent less time on my phone than the week before. And when I do reach for it, it’s for a purpose. Instead of chipping away at my time, my peace of mind, my attention span, and my sleep, my phone is a useful tool that supports the things I identified as my chief priorities: my relationships, my health, and my creative work.
(Note: this post contains affiliate links.)
Melissa Wiley is the author of The Prairie Thief, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, and other books for kids. She teaches courses on comics and historical fiction at Bravewriter.com. She’s @melissawiley on Twitter and @melissawileybooks on Instagram. (But not during Downtime!)