From 2011 to 2014, I would spend about 45 minutes each morning walking across downtown Toronto to get to my editing job at a fashion magazine. It was a peaceful start to my day that afforded me a good chunk of time to let my mind wander. On one of these walks, I found myself thinking the word “Facebook” as a way to shift my train of thought and it nearly stopped me in my tracks. Having been on the social-media platform since 2004, back when it was available only to university students, I’d long had a bad habit of clicking onto Facebook whenever I felt in need of a mental breather. Somewhere between managing deadlines and multitasking, my brain had started jumping from topic to topic like tabs in a web browser. It was the first time I noticed that my plugged-in lifestyle was changing my consciousness. It wouldn’t be the last.
As the role of technology in our lives has expanded, so, too, has our collective feeling of being powerless to it. It’s clear from popular works on identity, such as the series Black Mirror and Jia Tolentino’s bestseller Trick Mirror, that this malaise is common and something many are trying to leave behind. “Here’s what I want to escape. To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users themselves,” writes Jenny Odell in her 2019 book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, a manifesto on reconnecting with meaning. “We need distance and time to be functional enough to do or think anything meaningful at all.”
I’ve tried different hacks over the years to get this distance, such as leaving my phone in the other room and turning off notifications, but they never really made a difference. The only habit I’ve stuck with was keeping my phone out of my bedroom in an effort to gain back the hour or so I would spend scrolling through Instagram instead of falling asleep. Why did this one work so well for me? Well, because I really love a good night’s sleep.
It turns out that disengaging from tech that doesn’t support your values is a core tenet of the digital minimalist movement. In the 2019 book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, author Cal Newport describes digital minimalism as “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support the things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” If you’ve ever attempted to Kondo your home, you’re already familiar with the concept.
To test the digital minimalist lifestyle, I followed the process outlined in Newport’s book, which starts with a 30-day digital detox where all non-essential interactions with technology are cut off (maintaining your professional e-mail remotely is okay, but mindlessly refreshing it in line at the grocery store is not). The point of this month-long break is to redirect the energy and attention that you’ve been giving to things such as social media, texting and binge watching back toward yourself and your sense of purpose. “This process will help you cultivate a digital life in which new technologies serve your deeply held values as opposed to subverting them without your permission,” writes Newport, a rare 30-something who has never used Facebook.
During my month-long detox, I deleted all social-media apps from my phone and did my best to limit my tech use to working at my laptop. After a few days of adjustment, I felt a fog lift. I was able to go about my day without twitching for my phone and was actively engaged with the simple things I hold dear, including books, art, music and the people I care about. Cut out unnecessary screen time and you will get hours back into your day.
In the book Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter, co-authors and university professors Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt look to history to examine the ways that technology changes both how we feel and what our feelings mean. They found that, while previous generations were kept humble by feelings of awe, today, the concept of the self has become limitless.
“We’re having this rising sense of unlimited self and some of those things that used to keep that sense of limits in place, they’re eroding in the face of technological and psychological change,” Matt says, pointing to the current tech-enabled belief that we can have constant connection, constant excitement and an infinite number of friends. Both authors are hesitant to make predictions about where technology will take us in the future, but will say that looking to the past provides some indication. “These things are, in important ways and significant ways, reshaping us,” Fernandez says. “We can’t just dismiss those possibilities because we’ve seen that reshaping take place in our past. We should expect it to continue going forward.”
At the end of my 30 days, I added the Instagram app back to my phone and was struck by how little interest I had in what I saw. Perhaps most telling was that, even though I knew I didn’t feel good after a mindless social-media binge, I was wrong in thinking that I was immune to the comparison trap, which had a negative impact on my mental health. I put a 15-minute daily limit on the app, and now use it mainly to keep up with friends and family in other parts of the world.
Maintaining my resolve hasn’t always been easy. To curb the instinct to reach for my phone, I ask myself, if I could have a do-over of this moment, would I spend it scrolling mindlessly? The answer is always a hard no, and that clarity feels empowering.
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