Digital Minimalism While Working at Home During COVID-19 and Social Distancing

Previously, I recommended and reflected on Cal Newport's book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The concepts of Deep Work can help writers become much more productive with their writing and research, but social distancing, working from home, and homeschooling make it hard to find time for "deep work" like writing or research.

As though deep work wasn't already difficult enough! We face a slew of digital distractions even in the best of times, from incoming emails to social media to binge-watching Netflix. I struggled to practice digital minimalism long before COVID-19, and social distancing doesn't make it any easier.

The need to stay current on the latest Coronavirus news, plus the ease and social acceptability of #QuarantineandChill, means that writers and other "knowledge-workers" face even more digital distractions than when Cal Newport wrote Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World in early 2019.

To perform "deep work," we have to avoid the distractions that pull us away from focusing on our high-value, high-reward, mentally demanding projects. We have to practice what Newport calls digital minimalism.

At its core, digital minimalism is about controlling our attention rather than allowing devices, apps, and entertainment to control it for us. You might think you direct your attention, but think again. How often do you find yourself scrolling through Twitter for longer than you realized? How many nights do you watch more of a Netflix Original than intended? How much do you procrastinate on your writing, research, or other "deep work"?

Every internet product, social media platform, mobile app, and streaming service has been intentionally designed to capture as much attention as possible for as long as possible. Netflix's "skip intro" feature may be convenient, but its purpose is to minimize the time during which you might decide to do something else, like maybe actually write your essay.

Social media is especially challenging for writers.

Writers can easily feel "productive" when scrolling through Twitter, staying current on the latest news and the influencers' latest quips. Judging from the number of "writer lifts," "following sprees," and "shameless self-promos" that I see online, many writers think they're performing valuable work when they're liking tweets, following fellow writers, and using the hashtag #writingcommunity on everything.

With so much time at home during social distancing, it may be especially easy to get sucked into social media and celebrate doing so. Smartphones certainly don't help. It's never been easier to indulge in screen time but feel productive while doing so. You can even be productive on your smartphone while binge-watching TV!

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To avoid the traps of digital distraction and pseudo-productivity, we have to become more conscious of and intentional about our digital lives. #QuarantineandChill makes a good hashtag, but on its own, it doesn't constitute a thoughtful philosophy of technology use.

Practicing digital minimalism begins with a "digital detox" of thirty days. The goal is not to take a break and then resume your normal online and digital activities. You're supposed to use the thirty-day detox period to recognize which internet products, apps, and other services you miss and which ones you can, perhaps surprisingly, live without.

Obviously, writers, teachers, and other knowledge-workers will have to remain in regular contact through email, and everyone will want to enjoy a little television at some point in a given thirty-day period. But do you need to read through all of those threads on Slack? Do you need to spend as much time on Twitter? Maybe there are some pretty good movies on Netflix or Amazon that don't lead to binging?

Most importantly, use the digital detox period to reassess your values and how your digital habits support or undermine them. Once you've completed the digital detox, then you will add back the digital tools and technologies that support your values. You will have wrested more control over your attention, focus, and work and created more time and space for deep work. Win-win!

Time for honesty: I have struggled, and continue to struggle, to practice digital minimalism. COVID-19 isn't helping.

I still spend too much time on Twitter.

I still listen to podcasts when I could enjoy solitude and create mental space for creativity to rush in.

I still unlock my iPhone for no reason and then wonder why I thought I should get on it.

I still retreat to favorite apps when I feel emotionally triggered.

And it's probably even worse than I think. Like most people, I underestimate how much time I spend in front of screens. You'd think I'd learn better, but I'm always surprised by my iPhone's "weekly screen time report."

What's a writer to do?

For starters, I don't beat myself up about it. Digital minimalism is not digital fasting. Newport doesn't advocate giving up digital tools and toys completely. He recognizes that complete digital abstinence may be impossible for most knowledge-workers and impractical for the rest. Besides, fasting from something and then returning to it with as much gusto as before doesn't accomplish much in the long-term.

Newport emphasizes developing digital habits that align with, support, and reinforce your values.

When my weekly screen time report shocks me, I immediately ask myself, "What did I do during that screen time?"

I don't fret about a ton of screen time if I was writing in a Google Doc for several hours because inspiration struck while I was rewatching Tiger King and then I just kept writing. I value writing, and using Google Docs on my phone can support that value.

I don't worry about screen time if I was mostly selecting my next podcast to listen to while washing the dishes or folding laundry, and thanks to all those podcasts I learned the equivalent of reading several newspapers, magazines, or even books. I value learning, and without educational podcasts, I wouldn't learn as much.

I don't even care if I did spend too much time on Twitter, provided that I feel like I got a decent return-on-investment in the form of great articles to read or if I genuinely needed some mind-numbing scrolling. I value good information and relaxation.

And I'm very likely to be chill about my screen time if I can honestly say that I didn't ignore my family because of it. I value quantity and quality time with my family.

Sure, there are times when I'm in the middle of responding to an email or a text and I say, "Just a minute, buddy." There are moments when I'm stressed and need a distraction. But it's important that my family gets more attention, focus, and energy than my apps.

How do you know if your family gets more attention than your apps?

For me, I know my digital life may be imbalanced when multitasking stress hits. When my son asks me a question and I get irritable about shifting my attention from my computer or phone. When my wife asks me to do something and I resent having to stop what I'm doing. If I'm responding to an urgent email from my boss, then maybe some frustration is warranted. If I'm writing a "writer's lift" Tweet ... I'm not even going to finish that sentence.

Maybe social distancing, working from home, and homeschooling have revealed some imbalances and distractions in your digital life? Perhaps you recognize some areas where you could be more productive if you weren't being so "productive"?

Now may be a difficult time to find time for "deep work" and to balance your digital life, or maybe now is the perfect time to practice some digital minimalism and discover a surprising amount of time and energy for high-value, high-reward, value-aligned work, hobbies, and entertainment.

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