Practicing Digital Minimalism 12 Weeks into Working from Home and Social Distancing: Thanks, Covid

About Week 4 of my family's Social Distancing, I wrote about Cal Newport's excellent book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and how its ideas can help writers, "knowledge-workers," and others become more productive. Go check it out here.

I summarized Newport's main ideas and then concluded, "I don't fret about my screen time" as long as I'm maintaining my values.

Specifically, I wrote:

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. 

"How's that going for you in Week 12 of Social Distancing?" you ask. Well ...

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Digital Minimalism Lessons Learned

  1. When you work from home, it's hard not to spend all day on the computer.

  2. When you spend all day on the computer, you feel like you should be on a device even when you don't need to be.

  3. Emotional smartphone-use is a thing.

  4. Writing will be more important than ever in the post-Covid economy.

As a college writing instructor, I usually teach on some days and spend the "off days" grading, lesson-planning, doing committee work, writing, caring for Stryder, etc. My work gets broken up by class, housework, errands, etc. But while working from home, those built-in breaks don't happen as frequently, and I find myself sitting in front of a computer all day.

When you get used to working on a computer all day, you start to feel an "itch" to be on a device so you can be productive. You start asking yourself, "What else needs done? What else should I do before moving offline?" Those questions led me to write this post while the stack of magazines I brought to read after grading sit neglected.

Sometimes, I pick up my phone because I'm emotionally triggered and need a distraction or a sense of control. I've become even more aware of this tendency during social distancing. I sometimes wish I could throw my smartphone in the ocean. (But then I'd lose all my pictures!)

While working from home and social distancing, writing drives communication, collaboration, and productivity.

Although Zoom seems to have taken over the world, writing still remains the main form of workplace communication and a crucial facilitator of collaboration and productivity. Working from home and social distancing have made writing even more important, not less. Many people will continue working from home since the Coronavirus showed that it can be done, which means many people will continue relying on writing even more than before.

Practicing Digital Minimalism Better

  1. Take baby steps.

  2. Stop reading the Smartphone while watching TV

  3. Make Books and Magazine Twitter Again

First, take baby steps toward practicing digital minimalism better.

Be realistic. You'll set yourself up for failure if you decide to put your laptop in the closet for the weekend, "forget" your phone in the car all day, and stop watching TV all in the same day. Plus, you'll probably miss some emails, texts, or other messages that might actually be important. We don't have to be as connected as we are, but we still need connection.

The second suggestion may sound crazy in multiple ways, but it also might be the most powerful thing we can do to retrain our brains.

I'm in the habit of using my Smartphone while watching TV. I scroll through Twitter, read a little bit, check out Facebook, browse LinkedIn, see what's new in the ESPN app, and then check the Google app's recommended articles, all while watching Dead to Me.

Yes, that's excessive multitasking. Yes, that's also pretty inconsequential. I mean, does it matter if I'm toggling my attention between two screens instead of focusing on one? Yes!

Digital minimalism is about minimizing digital distractions from your attention, work, and values. On a deeper level, though, it's also about retraining our brains and bodies.

I tend to think, "Oh, I'm just watching TV, so it really doesn't matter if I'm distracted or not fully present. Actually, reading on my phone is probably a better use of my time."

But if I'm reading my phone while listening to Jen and Judy debate how to dispose of a body and glancing up periodically, going back-and-forth among multiple apps when I seem to have exhausted one's content for the time being, then I'm training my brain to crave novelty. I'm teaching my body's systems to crave stimulation. I'm also very much "on" when I should be recharging.

To put it more simply, I'm neither bored nor chill for a single second, not even during a lull in my TV show. The more I'm never bored, the harder it will be to minimize digital distractions and to focus on things that matter, including relaxing with an entertaining Netflix show.

Neuroscience has shown that our brains rewire themselves based on our environments and behavior. If using multiple screens at the same time trains our brains to crave novelty, then surely using one screen at a time can retrain our brains to single-task and focus.

My third suggestion is to treat books and magazines the same way we treat Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

Before I had a Smartphone, my wife used to get annoyed with me because I'd take advantage of a free 30 seconds to pick up a book and read more of the chapter I hadn’t finished. Now that I have a Smartphone, she gets annoyed because I take advantage of a free 10 seconds to check Twitter.

You might change "Twitter" to "Facebook" or "Snapchat" or "TikTok," but I bet you can relate.

So what if I started treating books and magazines like I treat Twitter? Or more precisely, the way I used to treat them. Is that just a different kind of distraction?

Yes and no. Yes, it's a distraction from whatever's happening around me. But there's a difference between training my brain to crave the novelty of Twitter's endless feed versus retraining my brain to pick up the thread of a novel's plot or a nonfiction author's research and argument that I've been consuming and digesting for hours or days.

Besides, there are a ton of books on my "to-read" list.

What resonates with you? What suggestions do you have for practicing digital minimalism better while working at home, social distancing, or living normal life? Let me know in the comments!

Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
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