Compulsion, Intention, and “Digital Minimalism”

I’m a highly compulsive person.

For many, simply acknowledging compulsions and bad behavior is enough to compel change, to shame people out of their destructive practices. My paradox is that I’ve long been hyper aware of my compulsive tendencies. And while I’m vigilant enough to constrain my worst habits to function as an adult and working professional, rationalized exceptions or excuses have otherwise prevented me from making dramatic changes.

One of the earliest stories that my Mom loves to share was my toddler-aged devotion to my blanket. My birth blanket and I were inseparable for the first 3-4 -odd years of my life. I loved to compulsively caress its frilly edges and feel its softness. However, at some point I realized that my blanket served as a crutch, something that I wasn’t going to be able to keep in close-at-hand for the rest of my life. As my Mom recalls to this day, one morning I asked her to take away my blanket from me, seemingly aware of my own need to separate and thereby wean myself from this support object. Once I asked for it to be taken away, I no longer felt the desire pangs of my blanket, and my onetime attachment became relegated to a lifetime of teasing by my Mother.

AOL and AOL Instant Messenger were my first internet-based obsessions. Dial-up internet (and a single phone line) was the only thing preventing me from regular after-school contact with my friends. Once second phone lines and the internet in general became more ubiquitous, the stand-alone AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software became my online home, and I chatted days and nights away with friends (most of which I saw regularly), crushes, and sometime-online-girlfriends (made official by the mutual inclusion of one’s initials or name into your AIM profile.) My first AIM screen name was methodboyz59 (ages 10-13?), followed by ezeh25 (13 -?).

College (2009-10) was the first time I chose to actively suspend my Facebook. After receiving access in 2006 (shortly after Facebook decided to open up access from non-.edu email addresses), I quickly became a faithful and regular Facebook user, religiously visiting and posting on my friends’ Walls, uploading and commenting on Photos, and mindlessly visiting the pages of friends and strangers alike. Once Facebook Chat and Status Update functionalities were added, my Facebook use became ubiquitous with being “online,” mixed in with a helping of email (before email conquered the world) and Google Reader (RIP.) “Deleting” my Facebook was hardly a statement back then – for me, it was much more so an acknowledgment of a particularly thorny semester to come, and the need to “buckle down” and avoid succumbing to the distraction and neverending information stream of Facebook that I knew I was unable to resist. I re- and de-activated my Facebook numerous times during the ensuing years, each time taking into consideration my lack of impulse control and the responsibilities in front of me.

Today, I’d probably consider myself to be a relatively “healthy” online consumer. To the utter confusion of Brazilian friends (among the most active social media users internationally), my social media habit is almost non-existent (outside of Linkedin, or “Li-kee-jin” as its known in Portuguese):

  • From 2015 (or so) onwards, I’ve been Facebook-less
  • After a longtime Twitter habit (/addiction?), I similarly deactivated my account in 2017, after initially removing the app from my smartphone 1-2 years prior
  • I’ve never had an Instagram (nor a “finsta” account)

All of this (presumably) adds up to a healthy digital existence, following the mainstream advice of the ever-multiplying array of psychologists, technologists, academics, luddites, charlatans, and well-intentioned friends that make up the growing class of digital “experts” and advisors seeking to help us regain our attention spans, relationships, lives. Litte/no social media, minimal “push” notifications on your phone, “silent” mode (versus the Pavlovian vibrate or ringer modes) would place me in the top quartile of “enlightened” cellphone users; hardly a powerless lab rat to the A-B tests, fake news, and general exploitation on offer by programmers, UX designers, and the broader attention merchant class. Right?

Embarrassingly and shamefully wrong. With the advent of the Screen Time app on iOS devices (iPhones/iPads), I’ve gained an embarrassing amount of insight on the level / extent to which my device addiction has taken over my life. The compiled stats from the last 7 days alone, which I’m not proud to share, are not pretty:

  • 38 hours of weekly device use (more than 5 hours per day!)
  • 1,086 compulsive “pickups” (155 per day), spurned by 1,083 notifications (again, 155 per day), an almost 1-to-1 pickup-to-notification correlation

An important addendum to these statistics is the exclusion of any laptop and desktop use (work-related or otherwise), adding another 5-10-odd hours per day to my ‘screen time’ quotient. Further, the past 7 days of smartphone usage is after the implementation of my ‘digital detox’ (more below), a cold turkey approach to cutting out some of my most pernicious and mindless habits – Youtube, Twitch, and Podcasts.

Trying to contextualize these data points within the context of my life seems nearly impossible to comprehend. For all intents and purposes, I’m a (middingly) productive adult able to dress and feed myself, hold human conversations, and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, hardly one of the overweight, parents’ basement-dwelling losers at-once ridiculed and lauded by Trump for widely disseminating political memes and fake news. How can I spend so much time on my phone? How have I damaged my brain / attention span, my relationships, myself through this constant phone use? Can this be reversed, or am I resigned to a future of smartphone addiction?

I debated quite a bit as to whether to share these statistics – to bare my ‘digital’ self for broader judgment. As noted above, my human impulse is to deny my addiction outwardly, while very much recognizing my own compulsive behavior. Of course, it’s much easier to pass judgment on others, to share concern for the growing anxiety and suicide rates of young people, the susceptibility of non-digital natives to fake news, and the rising violence the misinformation has wrought around the world, than to acknowledge one’s own problems, one’s addiction.

The ultimate result of this cycle of connectivity, compulsion, and hyper-awareness is a well-documented and ever-present state of lingering anxiety: “a background hum of low-grade anxiety that permeates [one’s] daily life.” Minutes, hours pass with a constant awareness of unattended to messages, emails, even current events. Temporary and limiting solutions provide fleeting salves, rather than a sustainable solution.

 

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Seeking to try and put away my digital “blanket,” I picked up Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, a self-help book written for our (and my) current condition. Books, probably the most popular surviving “analog” format, have sought to capitalize on our current age of digital “coexistence,” and the need to seek out balance in our lives between the “analog” and “digital.” As if taking the first step in admitting my condition, these books at the very least are heartening in helping me recognize that my ‘condition’ is hardly a unique one, and is in fact of increasing occurrence.

digital minimalism

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport (Portfolio Penguin 2019)

Beyond merely disconnecting (or breaking up) one with one’s phone, however, Newport’s book aims further, seeking to reclaim our personal intentions away from the mindlessly addictive scrolling, refreshing, and compulsive checking that leads to my more than 150 “pickups” per day and more than 5 hours of weekly usage. I’ve long found my most concerning phone-related issue to be around intention — how to avoid this mindless consumption of information at the expense of more enriching and purposeful pursuits. Beyond merely trying and be more aware and conscious of my habits, usage and consumption, my ultimate goal in “fixing” my relationship with my phone, and my digital life, is to actively try and implement steps to reverse these compulsions, to remove the film of ever-present anxiety and carry out actions with clear headed intention and focused intensity.

The appeal of reclaiming one’s time (5 hours a day!) from the mindless scrolling and compulsive checking that we unconsciously participate in on a minute-by-minute/hourly/daily basis is clear – how to wholly achieve this is an altogether different question. In his book, Newport provides a helpful compendium of the latest thinking on our digital addictions from contemporary thought leaders (Shelly Turkle, Tristan Harris, Matthew Crawford) while providing the example of more timeless thinkers (Thoreau, Aristotle, Franklin, Lincoln) as shining examples of the power of quiet contemplation, solitude, and a balance between connection and disconnection.

Newport helpfully provides implementable practices, both digital (stop clicking “like,” remove social media from one’s phone, setting one’s phone to do not disturb, etc.) and analog (leave your phone at home, take long walks, use “office hours” to purposefully check-in with friends and family, pursue craft and “leisure” activities), all of which add up to provide a reasonable collection of half-measures to regain some form of sanity and balance amidst the constant noise of our modern age. Ultimately, Newport cedes that any form of cold turkey or return to nativism is unrealistic – better to reclaim our autonomy over these devices and maximize their usefulness (and minimize their harmful features) rather than taking more drastic actions. Digital Minimalism (the book/object) serves as a physical totem of the need to “disconnect” – however, after reading his book I still feel like I have a ways to go in solving my own digital / smartphone addictions, and significantly more intention-setting to make.

 

My Digital Detox

One of the most helpful activities called for in the book’s first-third is dubbed a ‘digital detox,’ a Marie Kondo-esque attempt at decluttering the vast array of activities done on our phones in an attempt to ascertain our true “need” for these “tools,” rather than a mere “want.” Following a period of time (30 days is Newport’s suggestion), we’re told to revisit each individual “detoxed” activity to determine its necessity and potential re-adoption. As the reader is told, test subjects are oftentimes amazed to find that the gross majority of these applications are hardly missed, and removing the compulsion to check them serves to re-open minds and schedules.

For my digital detox, I identified the applications that collectively add up to my biggest time wasters, and have sought to cut them out of my daily routines altogether.

  1. Youtube
  2. Twitch
  3. Reddit
  4. Podcasts
  5. E-mail newsletters (habitually subscribed to and religiously consumed)
  6. Whatsapp / Groupme Groups

While I’ve found myself exhaling a bit easier doing away with these applications, each (sofar) has had a countervailing and mixed effect on my digital “well-being”:

Youtube / Twitch / Reddit: Without ready access to my three most-visited websites and sources of entertainment, I’ve found myself opting for more information consumption, namely via ESPN, NYTimes, and the Pocket app. The cumulative impact of this switch, while marginally beneficial, doesn’t feel altogether restorative, and oftentimes feels like I’m simply re-emphasizing one bad habit (mindlessly consuming content) for another (mindlessly reading articles).

Regarding NYTimes and a compulsive need for up-to-date information, I pasted a relevant quote from an article called Meditation in the Time of Disruption (The Ringer) that “rang” particularly true to me, citing meditation as a potential solution to our digital compulsions:

“[A] foundational claims is that our drive to forage for food has evolved into a drive to forage for information. New information produces rewards, so we come to seek it habitually, even if it interferes with whatever goal we have at hand. What emerges is a kind of frictionless state, where you end up spending 12 minutes looking for keys that are already in your hand or typing “nytimes.com” into your URL bar only to discover you are already on the website for The New York Times. In other words, we are, on some level, evolutionarily geared against meditation.”

While these sites were initially excluded from my detox as slightly less malicious versions of the aforementioned time-wasters, I believe the next step may be an end to mindless web browsing altogether, rather than a justification of some web usage over another.

Podcasts: While many may counter that podcasts, especially news- or educationally-focused ones, are in fact a good habit, rather than a harmful one, I’ve noticed a direct correlation between the last ten-year uptick in my podcast consumption and a significant reduction in the amount of time listening to, appreciating, and discovering music.

Unfortunately, I have come to see podcasts as little more than non-stationary television watching (daresay radio?), and the daily mix of podcasts consumed little more than “channel changing” from the constant refreshing of the Podcast app and seeking out of the latest Podcasts available.

My Podcast time has been replaced with a concerted combination of listening to more music (made embarrassingly easy by the Spotify app, truly the eighth Wonder of the World for a prepubescent version of myself patiently recording songs off of the radio and pirating tracks over dial-up internet), audiobooks (still working through the 48-hour long Grant biography by Chernow), and phone calls.

While I find myself missing a critical takes on the latest in sports, politics, and the world, I am reflecting on the fact that I most often absentmindedly and passively consume these podcasts, rather than seeking to engage with our challenge myself via the medium – part of Newport’s aforementioned turnkey lack-of-intention that our smartphones provide.

Going forward, I think I will continue to do without Podcasts, or choose to strategically reimplement a limited number of podcasts I find particularly valuable.

Email Newsletters: So far, this is where I’ve found myself feeling the most relieved, where I’ve found the most weight lifted from my day-to-day digital “responsibilities.” Over time, I had wittingly and unwittingly signed up for tens of email newsletters, whose ability to “push” themselves into my inbox make them little better than a app-pushed notification, and in fact require more of my time and concentration. While each individually is mostly well-intentioned (if not self-promotional), the cumulative effect is to create an avalanche of weekly email responsibility, a second job of parsing through the seemingly-relevant collection of advice, hyperlinks, articles, etc.

Unsubscribing all is an impulse I long resisted, even after multiple unplugged weekends and vacations where I’d return to hundreds of unread emails (very few of which dealing with direct correspondence), and a necessary morning (or full day) of work to catch up the unread onslaught. Of course, there’s a false sense of productivity that comes from working through emails carefully curated from smart people, but this “detox” has had an altogether positive impact, in that it’s forced me to rethink my relationship to these “obligations.”

I’ve rid myself of 95% of my newsletter / subscriptions (I’m ashamed to admit that several long-favorites remain, as do some professionally relevant missives [including the excellent newsletter from Anne Trubek, Notes from a Small Press]), and don’t plan on resubscribing anytime soon. Email continues to be a challenge for me, but doing away with imagined obligations, leaving only the real ones, has been a very positive start.

Messengers (iMessage / Whatsapp / Skype / Groupme): Living abroad for the better part of 1.5 years, messenger apps have become constant companions, necessary appendages that help keep me connected with family and friends and maintain important relationships (including to my patient and understanding significant other). Without these apps, my communication would be relegated to letter-writing (email or physical), and would result in a loss of intimacy that comes from an unexpected phone call or FaceTime. These apps have offered a great deal of support (in the form of who they’ve connected me with), and I would be hard pressed to do away with any of them.

However, the great irony that exists is that while these digital tools have enabled me to maintain my cherished and important relationships across the world, they end up being the applications I end up receiving the most notifications / pickups, and thereby spending most of my time on.  Further, the anxiety borne of “constant connectivity” is mostly led by these apps, which offer an accessible window into me at any given time.

One unfortunate admission is that any sense of moral superiority from not being on social media is quickly replaced by the similar effect of these messenger apps, which include their own versions of the dopamine-triggering notification, response, and “like” more famously attributed to their social media counterparts. Even disabling notifications for the majority of these groups (especially the more active one) evokes near-constant curiosity, and a desire to ‘catch-up’ in quieter moments. “Direct” messages, which do receive the same ‘de-notification’ treatment, are responded to immediately, and certainly not cast out of mind until having been responded to. In some ways, it feels like my compulsions and worst habits have compounded onto the messenger applications (though maybe they’ve always been there?)

My simultaneous appreciation and apprehension for the app’s side effects is difficult to deconstruct, and likely the necessary subject of further scrutiny and tweaking. On the other hand, I’m somewhat optimistic that my return back to the US, closer at hand to friends and family, will enable me to more purposefully separate myself from the daily ebbs-and-flows of text. On the other hand, being in an environment surrounding by new acquaintances and opportunities (more later) may prove even more harmful – fodder for future thought, and maybe some preventative action.

Conclusion

Even now, 2 weeks into my “digital detox,” I’ve yet to see a meaningful downtick in my smartphone usage, though one could potentially argue that my usage has been more “intentional:” more audiobooks, music, reading, and writing; less social media, Youtube, Twitch, and podcasts. Nonetheless, the Screen Time statistics from my last 7 days usage is altogether jarring, and in itself a call for action. I plan to continue to track my usage via a weekly-kept spreadsheet, and will try and maintain a mindful approach to my notifications, pickup, and usage time in general, with an eye towards a gradual reduction (what’s a reasonable amount of time?)

On the other hand, even the composition of this overlong missive (and yesterday’s) could be attributed to a more conscious attempt at reigning in my smartphone usage. So far, it seems like Newport’s gentle admonition, acknowledgment of our phone’s unimpeded place in our lives, and entreaty for “balance” has won out. Bathroom breaks, spare moments, and cab rides all seem to still be “phone moments,” though maybe more intentional ones.

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