Digital Minimalism: More signal, less noise

Date: 2023-01-08 | reflect | contumption | fulfillment |

Last year I started reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. It makes a case for removing the busyness / noise of an always-connected life and reclaiming your solitude / your self-directed time to focus on what really matters. I'd summarize it by saying it presents an argument for increasing your life's signal:noise ratio.

Fittingly, my running definition of minimalism is more of what you want, less of what you don't.

Around the same time I was experimenting with cutting back on my socials (which is what prompted me to read the book). After several months of experiments I've decided it's something I'd like to keep doing going forward.

In this post I'm going to lay out 3 of the big benefits I see from Digital Minimalism along with a few of the actions I've taken that drove these benefits.

  • Less interruptions
  • Less unintentional time
  • Less shallow dopamine

Less interruptions

We have a finite amount of time to do what we're gonna do in this life. Yet there's an infinite amount of things we can do. I like to say you can do anything but you can't do everything. So it's crucial that we are choosy with how we spend our time otherwise we may not spend it on those things that actually matter to us.

But just choosing what to spend time on isn't enough. Each allotment of time is not created equally - in a given 20 mins we could make a lot of progress towards a goal or make literally zero progress.

What makes one block of time more useful than another?

I think the most common factor is focus.

As humans we are pretty bad at multitasking and prone to distraction. So I think to optimally use our time we actually need to be singly focused (at least for a given block).

I model human focus kinda like the eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. It's all-powerful wherever it's looking but it can only look in a very small area at one time. So we've got to build strategies to make the most use of that small area of authority.

Yet we have antagonists in this effort. Enter: The connected world and its attention economy.

The internet has brought with it amazing break throughs like instantaneous communication across the globe. It's also made it a lot easier to reach you with an endless stream of distractions til it finds something you like (or at least click on).

The thing is it's extremely unlikely that any of these gazillions of distractions are more important than the things you were already working on. If they were, you'd probably already be working on them.

Anything that gets in the way of the most important thing is by definition a distraction. Thus if these things are not more important than the most important things then they must be a distraction.

So given that:

  • We need focus to be productive
  • The connected world is a huge source of distractions

It seems to follow that:

  • Removing the connected world removes distractions
  • Thus we get more focus and can be more productive

I strongly believe this and I think it becomes even more important when coupled with the idea of unintentional time (which we'll talk about next). For even when you get distracted it's possible to come back to the main thing but with an endless source of attractive distractions that's often not what happens.

Actions I've taken to limit interruptions:

  • Pull-based notifications - you can't notify me, I "pull" notifications when I want to see them
    • No notifications on my phone for most apps (some like texts still show up)
    • Notifications only appear if I unlock my phone
    • Phone on silent

Less unintentional time

What a lot of the attention economy does is try to get you to focus on their sales pitch. They're very good at it and often lean into the idea of entertainment to hold your attention after the first click.

So when we combine the constant stream of interruptions via notifications / feeds etc with the appeal of entertainment, we essentially get a bait and hook tactic:

  • The interruption / distraction is the bait
  • The entertainment is the hook

Together this creates a system where we're constantly enticed to enter a distraction and once we're in the distraction it's hard to leave.

If this seems a little bleak / extremist - think about the last few times you used Instagram / Tiktok:

  • What made you open the app?
  • How long did you intend to stay?
  • How long did you actually stay?

On average, Americans spend 2h3m on social media per day (via Statista).

Now I'm not here to say that entertainment is bad. Part of living a fulfilling life, at least in my book, is doing things you really enjoy. But given we only have a finite amount of time it is important that we are prioritizing those things that give us the most enjoyment.

So the real problem with this bait and hook tactic is that it's causing us to:

  • Spend time on things that are (likely) not the most valuable to us
  • Spend more time than we normally would on these things

Thus we have less time to spend it on those things we most enjoy / value and thus the total value we get from our time goes down.

The biggest argument against this that I can think of is - what else would I do with my time that is more valuable?

The answer to this is a bit less clear because it really depends. It's possible that nothing would've been more valuable to you than binging the last 4 episodes of that Netflix show last night. Yet it seems clear that binging 4 episodes of Netflix every night is too much.

Where's the line?

Again - it depends. It depends what your values are and how these actions align with them. So it's really up to you to reflect on your time with these services to determine if they're worthwhile - if you should spend more / less time on them.

But I do think there's a common caveat we should take into account when considering this:

Default time / thinking is the term for what you do when you bored. It's where your mind goes when you're not really focused on anything else. Many studies seem to show this is often where a lot of planning and idea connecting happens - and many people associate this with their best thinking (think daily walk / shower / journal people).

In many ways this is our natural time of reflection. Our mind is like I'm not busy let's revisit the things that are generally important to us now that we've got a moment and consider what we might do in the future.

But in order to trigger this we need a moment. We need to be devoid of external stimulus - of external distraction. Which is exactly what these bait and hook tactics are working against.

So in order to make an effective evaluation you need to create this moment. You need to cut off this source of noise to really evaluate whether it's signal or noise.

Personally - I've thoroughly enjoyed my social media / entertainment apps over the past several years. I spend most of my time in front of a computer, I love watching the latest fantasy / scifi shows, and have been a heavy user of Instagram even before I worked there (at one point I had nine IG accounts!).

I've used them a bit less as I've gotten older - settling down a bit and narrowing my focuses as I identified what really mattered to me. But my usage didn't seem like a problem - it was about average and didn't seem to be getting in the way of anything.

It wasn't until I tried deleting some that I started to see the subconscious gaps it was filling. I noticed I had these automated ticks, these unnoticed habits built in whenever I got bored:

  • Pick up my phone
  • Unlock it
  • Go to recent apps
  • Open one (usually a social one)

Before deleting these apps I wouldn't even notice I was doing this because by the time enough time had passed to register my actions I was already deep in the feed of whatever app I'd opened (often IG / FB for me).

But after deleting them these ticks became much more obvious and quite a bit concerning. They were obvious because I'd go through the exact same motions but then my brain would stall on the app opening part - because there would be no app to open. Then a few seconds later it would finally register and I'd be like - huh, what was I doing? And it would dawn on me that - holy shit I was subconsciously about to start scrolling an app and I had no idea!

This happened to me all the time in the first weeks after deleting these apps:

  • When I popped something in the microwave
  • When I sat down to eat
  • When I was waiting for my tests to run
  • When I got tired of reading something
  • While I was watching tv
  • When I finished a chapter of my book
  • After finishing a different task on my phone
  • When I finished a set of my workout

It was like it was the default thing I'd do when I wasn't doing anything else.

That's the problem. There are so many other things that are obviously a more valuable use of time - a more valuable use of focus. But because this habit overwrites your brain's default default time you lose chances to even notice this. Thus the vicious bait and hook cycle continues.

In the months since, I've expanded my app purge from social media to anything that seems to turn into a default for me and thus take up this default time. The time I save is likely substantial but not significant (I doubt I spent more than 2 hours on it most days) but I think the biggest thing I gain back is my default focus - not being interrupted by habitual scroll sessions, defaulting to thinking about what I do want to spend my time on, and focusing on whatever that is.

Actions I've taken:

  • Delete all apps off my phone that I "default" to
    • All socials (I still have these but access them on my computers)
    • Several news apps
    • Analytics apps

Less shallow dopamine

The most common response I get to this is: wow, aren't you missing out on a lot of stuff?

The answer is yes I'm likely missing out on a lot of stuff, but very few things that actually matter.

In Digital Minimalism Cal Newport argues - and I tend to agree - that one of the main reasons we hold onto these habits (besides them being engineered to be easy / addictive) is that they offer unprecedented value / utility for unparalleled cost.

  • With Instagram - you see what all your friends / idols / popular people are up to and you can even talk to them!
  • With Facebook - you can keep up with your connections from all walks of life and never miss a milestone!
  • With TikTok - you get all the best entertainment condensed into tiny little segments and even have a chance to become famous by doing a little dance!
  • etc, etc, etc

This is all true. These platforms offer incredible social capabilities (and even economic opportunities) for free. Our brains see this as infinite value potential so it seems like an obvious win.

But as we've already talked about, there are plenty of costs to this - just harder to see: time and focus.

But in this section I really want to focus on our ideas of value / utility because I think they're also a bit exaggerated and thus lead to these attractive but unrealistic value propositions for these services.

It's true that we are able to stay connected with people more than we ever have before. That is an amazing capability and our brain rightfully rewards us with dopamine when we connect with others - it's an evolutionary benefit.

But the problem is that not all connections / interactions are equally valuable.

Of those 68 people that liked your post:

  • How many do you keep up with?
  • How many do you want to keep up with?

I'd argue that there's likely a very small % of actions / interactions you have on each service that bring 90+% of the value. This is very likely:

  • Keeping up with connections you care about
  • Having discussions about things you value

The rest is fluff. It's fun. It's easy. It feels valuable (because your brain tells you it is). But it's not really doing the thing that is valuable.

It is unintentional time that feels valuable. At the cost of the things that are actually valuable.

So if we can focus on just those things that are valuable - getting past the shallow dopamine and to the things that are actually valuable to us - we can still capture most of the utility with almost no cost. That is the value proposition that was advertised - that's the only value proposition we should accept.

Actions I've taken:

  • Think about the thing I'm trying to accomplish and use the best tool for the job (hint: it's never scrolling)
    • Instagram - I still use this to chat / post life updates. I check it once a week and never scroll.
    • Twitter - I schedule most of my tweets so I don't regularly log in. About 1-3 times a week I'll check to see / respond to comments on things.
    • Reddit - I look up specific things / check new posts in various subreddits I care about. Never scroll.
    • Facebook - I use it for chats and to post updates. I log in less than once a week. Never scroll.

What's next?

I intend to continue along with these methods. I'm not as up-to-date on people's lives as I once was but it turns out that's okay.

  • Some people I'll connect with again - and we'll catch up on all the wonderful developments that have happened
  • Some I won't - and that's okay, we're all on different paths

But most of all I'll be more intentional with the time I have left - getting the most value I can.

Health and Prosperity


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