Digital Minimalism Follow-Up Pt. 2

A year and a half ago I changed my digital life and decided to Go Deep (Dec 2020). I no longer wanted to be the person that was constantly connected, always available, and multi-tasking for life. It was effectively waging war against so many of the habits, rituals, and services I’d honed over many years. I got so much right in that first post, but I continually want to post back and provide updates as to how things are going, what benefits I’ve really felt from it all, and what I’ve found particularly challenging psycho-analytically.

I wrote an update in May of 2021, roughly six months into things. That update is still a great representation of the logistics behind my flavor of digital minimalism and the particular tools and practices I use to implement it. For a very brief recap, the strategy I follow is essentially to only allow phone calls (from known contacts) and @Jon-tagged messages in Slack to reach me synchronously (in real time)… ever. Anything outside of that (texts, emails, normal Slack messages, etc.) I’m not liable to respond to for up to 24 hours. Tagged Slack messages and phone calls are rarer than you might think, so the majority of my days have zero notifications breaking my available / potential focus time.

That’s all good and well (and still accurate), but that May update really only covered the external attention-breakers. In this update I want to cover the internal experience. And it’s a doozy!

The Why

I’ll start with myself and why I’m continuing to choose to live a digital-minimalist lifestyle — what I’m after with it all. I wrote in my initial Going Deep post:

It’s my hope that in doing all of the above, (1) my works will speak louder than anything else and the things I become capable of building, creating, and accomplishing will outrun any of the value-less time previously spent distracting my mind with attention-fracturing stuff. (2) That I live a more peaceful life with intentional attention given where I choose. (3) That I regain some of the wasted scrolling time back into being productive so that I can accomplish more within daily hours and spend more time after-hours with my wife.

And all of these premisses still ring true to me as good targets, but I’ve managed to boil down a more concise ‘why’ since I wrote that post. I choose to live the digital-minimalist lifestyle because I want to grow great relationships and do fulfilling things.

Breaking that down a little bit, ‘great relationships’ and ‘fulfilling things’ are both complex phrases themselves. To me, ‘great relationships’ is short-hand for “lots of high-fidelity real-time conversations with people I care about” — text-based communication platforms aren’t the medium I want to use to converse with my close friends. I believe great relationships are built from lots of time spent in-person. Over Facetime, at worst. Great relationships come from investing time and effort caring about people for who they are. I don’t think that happens over social media (and it definitely doesn’t happen if we’re distracted by social media while spending time with them).

On the other hand, the phrase ‘doing fulfilling things’ itself quietly includes my belief that most things we’d consider ‘fulfilling’ aren’t small. Be it work projects, hobbies, crafts, passions, or goals, the things in life that we find to be fulfilling tend to be large! Huge things; difficult things; things which require large swaths of un-distracted, highly-focused time to accomplish in the precision and dexterity at which they demand. Perhaps otherwise described as ‘things to be proud of’.

Between growing great relationships, doing fulfilling things, and participating deeply in the digital-connection world, I believe it’s a “pick 2” game. I want to pick the first two.

How Distractions Really Work

I’ll start with this. I currently think there are four unique reasons/times/ways that we break our attention for the sake of social media sites, news sites, and various other forms of distractions. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to separate and break these down into separate types because I think it’s important to know which specific one(s) we’re having difficulties with. Each is fought differently.

  1. External Distractions
    • These are most commonly the notifications on your lock screen or audible pings from text message alerts etc. These are unscheduled, not-caused-by-us distractions that typically manifest in physical (vibration), visual (lock screen), or audible (pings) alerts which immediately break our focus time
    • In an applied sense, this would be the scenario where we’re deep-working on a project and a text message ping pops up. Whether or not we even check that message, the audio ping alone likely broke our chain of thoughts and the background knowledge of “there’s a text waiting for you” will add a weight to any further thoughts until the text message is seen and handled
  2. Internal Impulses from FOMO
    • Rather than other types of internal impulses mentioned below, this is specifically the case where we’re concerned about missing out on information from friends/family/connections and that fear of missing out (FOMO) drives our repeating impulse to make sure we’re up to date with the latest information available on various media platforms (typically).
    • An applied scenario here could be just working on some sort of project when a sudden internal impulse arises that makes us wonder what other folks are up to and whether or not something is planned / going on that we might not be in the loop on. “What if people are wanting to hang out with me right now?” So we check our platforms/devices.
  3. Internal Impulses from Aversion to Effort
    • I ought to be able to describe this one easiest since I believe every human faces this (probably) daily. This is the impulse to distract ourselves (typically with low-effort activities) in order to not do an effortful thing that we ought to be doing. I call this an ‘aversion’ (the act of averting from the things we should be doing) but the term ‘procrastination’ grapples the same concept with slightly different context. I like to use ‘aversion’ because it’s more about tracing back from where you landed. If you ended up on a social media or news site when you should’ve been deep-working, it was likely an aversion moment that you followed (instead of fighting / pushing through) to get you there.
    • I don’t feel like I need an applied example for this type of distraction but… Let’s just contrive that you were to sit down at your desk to start writing an essay and ended up scrolling Facebook instead. It’s likely that you had one or more aversion moments because writing an essay is difficult and can be somewhat unpleasant, so you rode the aversion wave to Facebook!
  4. Internal Impulses from Aversion to Boredom
    • Using the same ‘aversion’ word here but in this context it’s an aversion to prevent oneself from being bored if there’s nothing else to do. Generally speaking, while boredom itself can be great for the mind (allowing yourself the solitude and space to cope with the various thoughts that have been packed away in your subconscious for some time…) it’s very standard for your mind to want to keep itself from being bored. The net negative here is filling that ‘bored time’ with scrolling social medias, news outlets, and other low-value/high-emotional-cost outlets rather than utilizing that ‘bored time’ to pursue something more fruitful, even if that more fruitful option may yet require some effort and/or skill. It’s not necessarily fair to call this ‘procrastination’ as we’re not describing any sort of responsibility for something you “should be doing”, but these types of distractions rob us of our potential to do bigger and greater things — things that ultimately lead to more sense of fulfillment in life.

You can’t fight what you can’t identify, right? Fighting each of these different avenues of distraction requires its own strategy though. I’ll explain how each of these has played out in my life to better give context to their unique and different mechanisms of triggering.

(1) External distractions were actually the easiest thing for me to get rid of. These are very literally just switches we have to flip to disable notifications. My prior update, Going Deep: Follow-Up Pt. 1, explains the specifics there, but once those switches had been flipped, this avenue of distraction was closed. Turn off the notifications, disable the sounds, set your devices to only give you information when you ask for it, not otherwise.

I faced some (2) Internal Impulses from FOMO early on after disabling notifications, but they faded within a few weeks. This felt more-or-less like phantom-notification syndrome. Like I hadn’t received a notification in so long that I must be missing out on something going on! I better go check! I find that the best way to fight this particular avenue of distraction is just to focus on the work you’re actually doing. The ‘missing out’ complex fades into the background when your mind is intently working on a task at hand.

(3) Internal Impulses from Aversion to Effort are actually what I personally have the hardest time with, and these are continual. Each day we have to face the things we ought to be doing head-on and actively choose to tame our aversions (not allow them to take us somewhere else) and do the thing. I can often feel the aversion moment in real time — that moment where I have an urge to jump ship from the thing I’m working on and check HN or Youtube. I just stop, take a breath, let it pass, and get back to what I was working on. I’m not perfect, but I find that little pause helps. What’s more difficult for me is starting on the thing. I’ve had days where I simply avert for hours before starting on the thing. The thing could’ve been done by then! Those aren’t great days.

I adopted a strategy a few months ago to help solve my getting-started issue. It centers on the strength of a morning routine. Particularly, it involves waking up early, doing a short bout of exercise to get blood flowing (simply to wake us up), then reading for an extended period of time. The point is to get the mind fully awoken and primed for single-focus, high-effort activity. Exercise followed by reading does this well. So that’s what I do! Wake up, jog for 15-20 minutes, read for 30-45 minutes (to a natural stopping point), then immediately get into working on the difficult project/things I have for that day. At no point in the morning sequence do I look at a computer (mobile or desktop) or any sites — the goal is to keep the morning mind focused on a singular thing so that the transition to getting started on a new ‘thing’ is easier. Once you start fragmenting the mind in the morning, it’s difficult to go back to focus! The morning strategy has worked really well for me to fight through aversions to ‘getting started’.

Finally, (4) Internal Impulses from Aversion to Boredom are also something I still feel somewhat often and prove to be continual. I’m no stranger to wasting time watching Youtube videos for (truly) no reason while bored rather than investing just a bit more time and effort into something that would yield great payoffs. I’d like to live by the advice of “either do something of higher value or just be bored (do nothing)” but it’s difficult when there’s an option in the middle that requires no effort yet still ruins actual boredom (e.g. productive solitude). I don’t have any solid strategies here yet. “Don’t turn to a computer when you’re bored” is likely a good candidate though. “Go outside” is another. Boredom in proximity to the internet has a high likelihood of spoiling potentially-fulfilling activities.

Where I’m At

So with that all covered and quantified, how am I doing with living the digital minimalism lifestyle? Well, overall I’m doing really well. Hopefully I’m not overstating the impacts of various aversions above — they don’t happen to me all that often and the grand majority of the time, I really am focused and pursuing great things! In fact, one of the unexpected benefits of staying away from digital distractions has been my own meta-exploration of how digital minimalism is impacting my emotions and mental impulses. Not being distracted all the time has given me the space and room to think through, understand, and really feel out the impulses and moments revolving around digital minimalism to begin with. By being a digital minimalist I’ve had the time and depth to ponder about the different types of distractions (above) that interact with digital minimalism. I think that’s so neat in a meta way.

I spend a lot more time thinking than I did before digital minimalism. I know now the value of deep work, of focus, and of solitude with oneself. And, though it makes my inner audiophile sad, I know too the inexplicable value that noise-canceling headphones bring even when inside an office with a closed door 😆.

Put bluntly, the performance capabilities we unlock when we can tame all four of the types of distractions noted above are huge. None of us are perfect and every day is its own, but my overall output and performance both professionally and in my passion/hobby pursuits has risen multiple-fold since taking on digital minimalism and maximizing my morning routine. I’m really thrilled about that! Granted, I’m not shipping finished products every single day because I’m deep-working with no notifications, distractions, or aversions for a number of hours. I don’t have a ‘daily win’ in that sense, but it’s remarkable how proud and fulfilled I feel after a good day’s (deep, un-distracted) work. It may take weeks or months of those to ship a big project, but each day feels great.

A year and a half in, digital minimalism is doing great things for me. I continue to dig in and explore more about it, how it works with my psyche, and how to better focus all the time. As Thoreau once said, “I wish to live deliberately.” Here’s to growing great relationships and doing fulfilling things 🍻

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