Over the past couple of years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about decluttering my physical space – purging unused possessions, cleaning out the basement, and somehow (through a combination of diplomacy and cloak-and-dagger operations) paring down the kids’ outrageous toy collections. I’ve thought about those things a lot, and done them a little. (My Buy Nothing community on Facebook has helped, but I still have a long way to go.) But what I haven’t thought much about, even as I have fretted about the effect of screens on my life and worried about unknown consequences of being surrounded by Wi-Fi signals all the time, is the idea of digital minimalism.
As a rule, I think I probably spend less time on screens than most people do. Since I look at a computer screen all day for work, I try to limit the amount of time I spend looking at a screen when I’m not at work. I don’t watch much television, and the only time I spend on the computer outside of the office, most weeks, is writing this blog. And I am necessarily curtailed in how much time I spend on my phone, because if I look at it too long, I get debilitating headaches. So I keep my phone use to a few select functions and try not to scroll mindlessly. But lately, even this limited phone use has come to feel like too much.
In connection with my word of the year – element – I have been considering how to weed the overly complicated from my life and get back to what is simple, and phone use definitely falls within the “overcomplicated.” But I hadn’t thought about the digital noise and distraction as clutter until I listened to Episode 184 of Sorta Awesome: How to find freedom from our screens. (Fittingly, I listened to it in the car, while driving, so was not at all tempted to scroll through Facebook while the show played.)
In the episode, Meg and Kelly discussed a host of fascinating topics: charting the evolution of their own online lives, talking about the complications of being the only generation who remembers life before the internet but has adopted the online life fully (our parents are not in the digital universe in the all-absorbing way that we are, and our children don’t know a different way of life), discussing iPhone’s new screen time feature, and talking about their goals for digital decluttering. I found the whole episode utterly fascinating, shouted “PREACH!” at the car radio about a dozen times, and placed a hold on the book they recommended – Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport – at the library. (It seems I’m not the only one who is interested in these topics. I’m fifteenth in line for the book in the holds queue, and the library only has one copy, so it will be awhile before I get to read it.)
Meg and Kelly also cemented my own plans to bring more intentionality to my online life. Since iPhone rolled out the screen time monitor, I’ve been tracking my phone use (somewhat) regularly and, because I am a goals-oriented type, taking great satisfaction in seeing the numbers creep down as I pay more attention to what I am doing.
According to the screen time monitor, last week I spent an average of two hours and two minutes per day in using my phone. (I suspect that number is skewed by the fact that I captured the data at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when I had spent a grand total of 43 seconds on the phone checking work email and taking two screen shots. But let’s go with it. In any event, it’s still more than I would like.)
Here’s what I was doing during those two hours and two minutes per day. (App use has been on my mind a lot lately, as I have consciously cut way down on Twitter, about which more in a minute.) By far, my most used app is Instagram. This doesn’t surprise me, as Instagram is the only social media app that I actually enjoy and that I use for pure pleasure. Facebook followed Instagram, which did surprise me a bit, because I don’t think I’m on there very much. After that – mail, which I mostly use for making sure I’m not missing anything important when out of the office. Other honorable (or dishonorable?) mentions went to the kindle app (which I rarely use, but did actually read a long-form short story on last week); safari (mostly for reading articles); and feedly (my blog reader). Since I usually have the screen turned off and the phone in my bag when I listen to podcasts, and I know I spent more than an hour listening last week, I suspect the time reflected above was in scrolling my downloaded episodes while deciding what to listen to next and deleting the episodes that don’t interest me.
As a part of this general pondering, I have been giving thought to what I consider the big three apps in the social media world – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – why I use them, and how I want that use to change.
Twitter: I have all but eliminated my Twitter use. I was really only using the app to keep in touch with a couple of friends who are heavy Twitter users and to get the news (from reputable sources only, thank you). But I’ve come to realize that Twitter was making my life worse, not better. It’s tempting to scroll mindlessly through, and most of the time, I close the app feeling considerably less happy and less optimistic than I was when I opened it. So I decided to wean myself off of Twitter (and it’s working – as you can see, it’s not one of my heavily used apps on the above list). I moved the app to the last screen on my phone, so I have to consciously and intentionally navigate to it. The next step will be letting the few friends I communicate with on Twitter known that they will need to text me instead, and then deleting the app. That’s in the near future.
Facebook: Much as I would like to give Facebook the Twitter treatment, I can’t get rid of it as easily. I use it for a few different reasons – mainly to keep in touch with friends and family who use Facebook as their primary social media and to participate in my Buy Nothing neighborhood gifting community. (Ironically, my digital decluttering efforts are hampered by my physical decluttering efforts.)
Instagram: This is the one social media feed I keep because I actually enjoy it. The opposite of Twitter, I usually close out of the Instagram app feeling happy and refreshed. That’s a function of my carefully curated feed, probably. My Instagram feed is about one-third nature photos, one-third bookstagram, and one-third pictures of my friends’ adorable kids. (With a couple of food accounts, like Martha Stewart and Sourdough Schoolhouse, sprinkled in for cooking inspiration.) I know that Instagram has had its problems with bullying and with people feeling inadequate because of unrealistic content, but I haven’t experienced that. My feed has been a completely positive and relaxing place, and it probably helps that I use Instagram entirely for me, because I like the square pictures and the familiar filters. My account is private, I don’t care if anyone follows me or not (although I am gratified when friends “like” my photos, so please don’t stop!) and I use the photos in my home decoration and family yearbooks because I think they look good. I have shifted much more of my digital life and my social media activity to Instagram and I am happier for it.
I’ll have more to say about physical and digital decluttering soon, I expect, so I’ll end with this: I know I’m never going to be able to divorce myself from screens. I use them all day at work, and the phone is just part of life. But my happiest moments don’t include it. Real joy comes from crunching through leaves or smelling fresh soil and flowers on the hiking trails with my family, from the satisfying work of kneading a loaf of sourdough in my kitchen, and from golden afternoon light at the library as I sit with a book while my little buddy plays in the children’s room. My phone should be enhancing those joys, or it’s not worth having.
Are you trying to cut down on your screen time?