Nearly everyone I speak with is facing a quandary.
They love technology and all that is has to offer.
Yet, something’s not working. They find their attention torn. Torn between the present moment — sometimes while sitting across from other human beings — and their devices, social accounts and followers.
I used to be an unwavering advocate of technology. Recently, my relationship to it has grown more complex.
This relationship began when I was a child, growing up in a household with the latest gadgets. My family has had a computer for as long as I can remember. I have early memories of using our desktop PC in the spare bedroom, waiting for the awful dial-up screeches to end. It was always worth the wait.
Freshman year of high school, I wrote a three page letter to my parents asking their permission to dip into my college savings and purchase an iMac G5 so I could edit videos. They caved, because they said “it was hilarious.”
After buying a miniDV camera, countless hours of videos were edited on that iMac. Then came the first iPod touch, the iPhone 3G, and the first iPad. My friend Stevie and I waited in line at 4am on launch day at the Boylston Street Apple Store in Boston to secure them. Watching Netflix on this slab of aluminum and glass was pure magic. Did I need it? Of course not. But it was fun to be a part of the future.
I’ve written at length about my experience with Facebook before on this blog. Twitter was revolutionary at the time — I still remember sitting in my college dorm room where I created my account. As a Dave Matthews Band fan, seeing Dave interact with fans via this new medium was incredible. It was whole new paradigm.
My relationship with technology began to change when I bought the first Apple Watch in 2015.
With a smart phone, it’s possible to disconnect, even for moments at a time, by simply putting the phone in a jacket pocket or drawer. With the Apple Watch, this is no longer the case. Yes, you can customize notifications, but if you neuter them too much, it just becomes… a watch. I went as far as turning off all notifications except for text messages, which still were a nuisance. If you’ve never used an Apple Watch — imagine getting tapped on the shoulder every time someone wants to tell you something. It’s like that.
I only used my Apple Watch regularly for a couple of months. Soon, it became a workout-only watch. Then, it began to collect dust. I sold it.
This was a turning point in my life-long relationship with technology. It consisted of three realizations.
First, my experience with Apple Watch taught me that always being connected is not necessarily a good thing. Are there certain conveniences that always being “on” affords? Of course. But the benefits don’t always outweigh the costs. Convenience is not always better.
Second, I began to recognize that social media became a place I visited when I was feeling anxious or depressed. Anyone who has experienced this before knows that it becomes a vicious cycle — typically, I’d leave my Facebook or Instagram feeds feeling even worse due to FOMO or seeing an overabundance of #LivingMyBestLife photos.
Finally, I discovered mindfulness, and began to understand that there is much more to living than our accounts and devices. The launch of a new Apple product no longer excites me the way catching up with an old friend does.
Technology has connected us with billions of people around the world. It has given us access to more information than our ancestors could learn in a lifetime. It has transformed the way we live.
At what cost?
The cost of our attention.
Attention is our most valuable asset. Where we put our attention determines our experience. What we pay attention to creates our lives. Our selves are a summation of everything in our lives that we have paid attention to. Is some of our “self” genetically programmed? Most likely — but we can’t control that. We can, however, control our attention.
People are beginning to realize that their attention is pulled in too many directions. Whenever I bring up the topic, I hear similar responses:
“I know I’m on my phone too much.”
“I know I spend too much time on social media.”
“I’m definitely addicted.”
Author Ryan Holiday recently wrote:
Seneca wrote constantly about time. One of his most compelling observations is that people are protective of their money, their property, and their possessions, yet careless with the one thing they can’t get back: time.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live,” he said, “but that we waste a lot of it.” Can you imagine what he would say about the fact that today people spend, on average, more than five hours per day on their mobile devices? That’s 76 days a year — nearly 11 weeks — staring into an abyss of distraction.
The scales have tipped. Technology offers many benefits. But as a species, we are more distracted than ever. We need to find balance.
How can we live a full life with these tools that have, in many ways, made our lives better?
The answer is digital minimalism.
We tend to adopt technologies because they offer some value. This was my philosophy up until recently. If a new gadget marginally made my life more convenient, I was all in. Facebook connects us with friends — so signing up is a no-brainer. Smart watches give us news alerts, or provide important health monitoring benefits. We see value and buy in, without looking at the costs that come with said value.
Digital minimalism is a philosophy of using technology to support the values we want to live by. Not because they offer some value.
This philosophy forces you to ask yourself, before adopting any new technology, “What are my values? And what are the best tools to support these values?”
For example, you may value keeping in touch with close friends and loved ones. What’s the best way to maintain authentic relationships with others, particularly those who don’t live near you?
The default answer for many is social media. I’d argue that phone calls, video calls, or even emails will result in deeper connections with those you care about because the experiences are more rich. Seeing someone’s face on a video call or setting aside time to write an email (or letter!) slows down the process (relationships take time to maintain).
Real-life interactions release oxytocin, which likely “…fortif[ies] our innate drive to nurture close-knit human bonds, procreate, and build survival-based cooperative and supportive communities, as well as romantic partnerships (Psychology Today).” Social media gives us relentless hits of dopamine — an important hormone — but too much can be troublesome.
So, let’s say you’ll put aside four hours a week for deep, meaningful one-on-one interactions. Seem like a lot of time? The average person spends two hours and twenty two minutes on social media per day— over 16 hours per week.
If you truly value keeping in touch with people you care about and spend four hours per week doing so in a meaningful way in lieu of using social media, you’ve just unearthed 12 hours in your week to pursue other activities. Imagine the possibilities!
I choose this as an example because it’s relevant — most people I speak with cite “keeping in touch with friends” as the main reason for staying on social media. But passively scrolling through your feeds and clicking “like” is a shallow method of “keeping in touch.” Our species evolved to support face-to-face, long-form connection.
I’ve been trying out digital minimalism for the last few months and have determined that it’s a sustainable way to live with technology.
First, I selected a few of my values: meaningful connection, a clear mind, the present moment, being in-tune with my emotional experience, and learning.
Second, I decided to experiment with tweaking the setting on my iPhone to best support these values. I did this by deleting all non-essential apps, most importantly, Safari. No more internet browsing on the go. I also turned off all notifications except for phone calls and reminders.
I started this experiment on March 1. It’s been so successful that I’m coming up on three months in and don’t have plans to go back.
Here’s what I learned.
Nearly every impulse I have to Google something on-the-go is trivial or can wait until I’m in front of a computer. How are bricks made? Who invented bread? Is Nordstrom having a sale? These inquiries can wait.
Removing nearly all notifications forces me to be intentional when picking up my phone. Notifications are no longer an excuse for a quick dopamine hit, or being pulled away into an abyss of apps and browsing. This policy comes with its challenges — waiting for a reply to a time-sensitive text has led to more phone-checking than I’d like to admit.
But still, using iPhone’s Screen Time feature, I learned that I cut the number of phone pickups in half, from around 140 per day to 70. Still, a lot, but that’s 70 fewer times my attention is getting pulled away every day. Added up over time, that’s a significant improvement.
Digital minimalism was recently popularized by author Cal Newport in his book of the same name. If this philosophy intrigues you, I recommend giving it a read.
A few years ago, I never would have thought that I’d be taking steps to limit my use of technology. More used to always be better. More devices. More apps. More accounts.
Technology is wonderful. It provided avenues for my childhood to be deeply creative — creating videos; at one point attempting to compose music and having it play back instantly. This website, Medium, has provided me with a platform to publish my work. I use Yelp often. Podcasts have made my commutes infinitely more interesting. Google Maps is a savior.
It’s about balance.