What Remains of That Digital Declutter

In March I started a digital declutter inspired by Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. I wanted to get rid of a bunch of unexamined habits and replace them with more intentional behaviors that supported the things that are important to me.

I started a long-form followup but realized that the form of the writeup was at odds with one of my goals when I share things, so instead I am offering a collection of habits I’ve adopted and why.

Managing the phone

I keep my phone off first thing in the morning and for the last hour of the evening. Will I feel resentful if I find myself answering a mail or Slack message before I’ve even started my tea? Why give myself an opportunity to feel that way? I do fudge a little: Since I start each day with a walk, I check the weather first thing.

Instead of grazing social media, reading mail, or whatever, I read something unchallenging for 45 minutes or an hour at the end of the day. It helps me go to sleep with a quiet mind.

I put my phone away to eat. I keep my phone in my pocket when I’m in line or in a waiting room. Instead, I try to spend the time on thinking about my food or what comes to mind instead. By doing this, I’m also giving myself breaks during the day when I am simply calm and quiet.

I try to embrace boredom. Mobile devices, social media, and 24-hour news promise a world where we don’t have to be bored. Boredom provides motive force. So when I find myself tempted to go to yet another news site or re-load my RSS reader, or whatever else, I ask myself what I could be doing that would serve some purpose or goal I’ve identified. The more restless I feel and the more I wish I could find something to read or play with to still that restlessness, the more I try to lean on that question.

Sitting there with no outside inputs often causes me to have ideas. I try keep a small paper notebook and all-weather pen around as an inbox instead of my phone, so that when I jot down an idea that comes to me while I’m sitting there thinking I don’t have a reason to fall into grazing the phone.

During the day

I spend five minutes every morning writing down what I want to get out of each thing on my calendar. I jot down how I want to show up in every meeting: Supportive? Listening? Curious? Patient? Assertive? Directive? Those pre-notes are the start of my meeting notes, so I have a reminder right there when the meeting starts.

I try to limit my mail checks to beginning of the day, noon, and the end of the work day. I use Sanebox digests to help me with that: My inbox stays clear and the mail accumulates in a digest folder until I am ready to review the digest. I don’t stick to this too rigidly, but on busy or hectic days it’s helpful.

I’ve broken RSS and general news consumption into two motions: Collecting things to read from the river of news, and reading them when I plan to read. That way I spend my decision-making capacity on picking a few things instead of grazing all of it, and I remind myself that reading is important to me and should have its own time.

I’ve picked one newspaper and I subscribed to its daily “Top n stories” newsletter. I click through seldom. That’s enough news.

I ask how what I mean to share or write about is helpful or useful to the people who will have to make a decision about reading it. I try to make any act of self-promotion into an exchange of value instead of a one-way sales-pitch, telling people how did I do this, and what happened, not look at me, I did this thing.


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