Lessons from a 30 day Digital Declutter inspired by Cal Newport

The first time I used a smart phone was in 2012. I missed my train stop to work because I was distracted, a phone with bright colours and internet was new and fun to me. I didn’t register the distraction as a major problem then.

Technology offers us all a gazillion ways to interact with the world. Companies are profitable from our ability get distracted; the more time we spend on these sites, the better for their advertising revenue. Our amazing, functional ‘dumb’ phones which allowed us to communicate with the world just fine via phone calls and text are now destructive, attention guzzling, shiny things that can distract us 24/7. If the first thing you reach for when you wake up is your phone, you could say you are addicted.

When I saw an opportunity to participate in an experiment in January, 2018 run by Professor Cal Newport, whose book Deep Work I loved, I jumped at the opportunity and quickly recruited my husband in the process, he was a Twitter fan.

Cal’s emails gave clear instructions about how to do this and I followed the guidelines as much as I could. I felt like he was the calmest, detached cheerleader from afar, encouraging in his emails with logic and leading by example. In my imagination, he constantly reminded me to ‘preserve your concentration’ and ‘Don’t fall for the addiction designs’ and ‘ close those multiple browsers-they fragment your attention’, which was very helpful.

The three parts of his experiment guidelines were:

Part 1: Take a Break from Optional Technologies (No online news, social media and restricted texting of family/friends).

Part 2: Identify What Really Matters ( goals and values that are important; figure out what you really want to be doing with your time).

Part 3: Reintroduce Technology (intentionally get back to using technologies, based on the values that are really important).

The first three days were difficult. I deleted Whatsapp from my phone; I missed the chatter of my sisters and hearing news from them on my ‘Sisters group’. I don’t have any notifications from social media on my phone anyway but I deleted Instagram, blocked the Twitter and Facebook websites (Restrictions under settings) in case I got tempted. I also installed an app called Moment which allowed me to see how often I used my phone, how many phone pick ups a day and which app’s I used the most. I was a little shocked to see that texting and calling was the function least used. My grandmother who passed away in 2003 would never understand how we use phones today.

I also installed Focus Mode, an app on Chrome, that allows you to easily block distracting websites. I highly recommend doing this and noticing your triggers for distraction — mine are boredom, anxiety or wanting stimulation. Mindless browsing is so easy to do and I have learned to just stay with the boredom or replaced browsing with another habit like drinking water or looking out of the window and breathing for a few seconds.I did have a little FOMO (Fear of missing out) on social updates on Facebook but this quickly wore off by day 4.

During the experiment I felt calmer, less anxious and more spacious. Life had slowed down, inside my head anyway. Engaging on social media leads to you having many voices in your head, other streams of thought…and while this can be fun, it drains your own thinking ability, distracts you from what is important to accomplish in your day.

Since I couldn’t distract myself on social media, I began doing more fun things offline — I hung out more with friends and looked forward to this, I signed up for singing lessons, attended more Yoga classes, tried out new recipes and started studying for an exam I had been putting off for ages. My husband and I found it hard to switch all devices off 2 hours before bed-time and yet, this helped us sleep better and we try to stick to this rule.

I remember a time in my life when I was 15 years old. I was determined to do well that year in school and woke up at 4 am religiously for a whole year to study in the morning! I have no idea how I did this and am still in admiration of my strength to do this. I built my life around it including sleeping at 8 pm & drinking enough water that I had to wake up, even if I didn’t feel like it. I studied really hard, I was so focused that I even found myself getting irritated when I had chatty friends studying with me, who interrupted my schedule. That was deep work.  It was the first time in high school that I remember topping my class too with 84%. I imagine you can remember times in your life when you did commit yourself to deep work too.

Oh, and my husband hasn’t been back on Twitter since.

What I learned from the experiment was:

  • I can switch off notifications, switch to grey scale mode on my smart phone, keep my phone in another room, delete app’s from my phone, go off WiFi occasionally, close extra browsers and go offline on email when I want to do deep work. I can channel my inner 15 year old, for whom this was easy.

  • Giving in to my desires is too easy. I am responsible for how I regulate my behaviour and choose to make firm agreements with myself and make it easy for myself with step one. I don’t want to be Pavlov’s dog programmed, conditioned & addicted to the dopamine hits of notifications.

  • Our attention is a limited resource to use wisely. I want to carve out time for deep work (non-negotiable time in 4 hour blocks with no distractions) in my weekly calendar. I am inspired to intentionally work more like Cal Newport.

Further Resources: