The degree to which online media and apps suck our attention was made viscerally apparent to me several months ago after I finished my 10-day silent meditation retreat. Coming back from 100 hours of no reading, writing, speaking, or technology, I turned on my iPhone for the first time in 11 days. I looked at all the colorful logos and buttons and bright lights. All of them seemed to scream out at me like a possessive ex-girlfriend, “my precious…”
I immediately got nauseous, turned my phone back off and stuffed the horrible thing in my bag. I feared that if I stared at the screen for a second longer my mind would have been sucked into some black hole that would be impossible to escape. But when I got back to the big city and resumed ‘normal life,’ it was hard to ignore the pervasiveness of tech, and I slowly started to resume use of apps and social media.
Relatively speaking my habits weren’t that bad considering I was writing a lot and I generally felt pretty productive. My author-page on Facebook was easy to maintain because I could create 3-4 weeks of content in one day and schedule it in advance. LinkedIn is for business, and I don’t use Twitter.
But I would still have a bad habit of checking my phone for no apparent reason. Then there were those moments when I would be typing in something into the URL bar, forget what I was doing, and go straight to Facebook, only to be met with a barrage of pointless updates from people I haven’t spoken to in 10 years, a circle-jerking of egos and smorgasbord of fake value-signaling (‘like’ buttons). Oh, and did I mention my constant cycling through apps like Line, Whatsapp, FB, Skype, Slack, Coinmarketcap, Quora, and Discord?
Being in a constant state of non-awareness and task-switching has become the defacto mode of existence for many of us, replacing actual, nuanced and engaging conversation with mindless chit-chat. This is an extremely recent occurrence — 10 years, to be specific — as it’s quite literally been 10 years since apps emerged on the iPhone. The problem is, you can’t forego millions of years of evolution and expect to live a heavily-digital live with no repercussions.
We know it’s not sustainable, but what’s the right balance? The struggle was that some of my habits, while not terrible, were sucking about an hour of my day with little value to show. Yet it’s neither practical nor desirable for me (nor you) to become a Luddite and cut out screens altogether.
I recently finished reading the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport that put it into perspective. I recommend it if you have a sense that all that screen time is negatively impacting your life and your brain. He doesn’t rehash the little hacks like turning off notifications — those are small fries. Rather, he says, “the key to sustained success with this philosophy is accepting that it’s not really about technology, but is instead more about the quality of your life.”
Newport’s approach involves taking a good, hard look at the tech you absolutely need vs. nice-to-haves, and creating a 30-day plan to redefine your relationship with technology. He also interviews ex-Facebook and Google employees turned digital dissenters, uncovering the tactics that Silicon Valley conglomerates use to hijack your brain.
So, I am weaning off the digital heroine. I’ve consolidated checking my texts to once a day (via computer), deleted all my messaging apps from my phone except one, don’t carry my phone with me most days, and deactivated facebook. You can disable your facebook account (the feed/pages/events that are the source of much annoyance) but still use messenger, which is the setup I have now.