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Could you survive a digital declutter? My experience with digital minimalism

I didn't even know it was happening. Before the buzz had registered, my hand was reaching for it. By the time I had noticed what had happened, my phone was unlocked and I was completely distracted from the task I was attending too. The scrolling had begun.

Sound familiar? This almost unconscious pull to your phone? Losing hours of time without knowing where it has gone? Picking up your phone to check one thing, to find yourself on quite another app entirely? The thing is, it wasn't always like this.

As an early 90's baby, I certainly didn't grow up with smartphones. I barely even had access to the internet. My digital memories centre around cranking up the family computer to occasionally play computer games, that always seemed to stick and break. Floppy discs were a big thing. Even in my teens, we still only had one computer that was placed out in the hallway for us all to use. Made for some awkward Skype calls with friends with my parents regularly waltzing by. Not literally, that would be especially embarrassing.

I was slow to social media. MySpace and Bebo seemed to pass me by entirely. I finally got a Facebook account when I was 17, but barely touched it. The change has been gradual. Now, at the age of 28, I feel that my phone is in my hand constantly. I'm tethered. I can't even leave a room without it. Let alone the house. I've been conscious of a niggling concern about this for a couple of years now. A sense that I am not fully in control.

Once you start digging, there is a plethora of research on the potential negative side effects of too much screen time, especially social media. This seems to have ramped in recent years. I have made an effort to learn more to a degree. I read an excellent book, 'How to give up your phone', which provides lots of convincing theory on why you should do it then talks you through how. I read the theory. I agreed. Then I ignored the steps. The same thing happened when I watched Netflix documentary, 'The Social Dilemma', which included many persuasive reasons why I should be spending less time on my phone. But I did nothing about it.

Then I came across the book 'Digital Minimalism', written by Cal Newport. This title instantly intrigued me. As I class myself as a minimalist, this seemed like the perfect way to approach this issue. I was rather surprised that one of the first instructions of this book is to complete a digital declutter. This means avoiding using any 'non-essential' digital devices for 30 days. One whole month with no unnecessary social media or streaming of any kind. Even the thought brought me out in cold-sweats. Despite this, I decided I needed this, so that week I committed to my detox.

I'm not unfamiliar with personal challenges. I actually tend to enjoy them. I've embraced veganism, minimalism, sustainability, sobriety and not really had any issues. The first day of this detox, however, was hell. I had utterly underestimated how difficult this was going to be. I can only describe it as withdrawal. I found my hand twitching for my phone. My head would jerk up at the slightest hint of a vibration that wasn't there. I found myself at a complete loss as I waited for the kettle to boil. Or my laptop to load. Don't even get me started at the weirdness of complete silence when I was eating. These meals felt the longest of my life.

The worrying thing is, I was still using my digital devices regularly, so it really shouldn't have been this challenging. I classed many activities as essential, including all use required for my job, as well as continuing to write and promote this blog with my social media. I just had far stricter rules. Mindless scrolling and long period of streaming (ahem Netflix/YouTube) were not allowed.

By day 3, I was already noticing a significant difference. I had got over the shock of this separation and really started to analyse what I was using my digital devices for and, more importantly, what I could be doing instead. My productivity shot up, without these regular interruptions and interludes on social media. As I had turned off all my notifications, I was conscious of a sense of peace that I don't think I'd felt in a long time. My evenings were filled with nourishing activities, like yoga and reading, as opposed to Netflix.

Unfortunately, my declutter was cut short as I sadly lost my beloved cat part of the way through. However, even with just a week, I had learnt so much and had already decided how I would approach my digital consumption going forwards. For me, its not about avoiding these tools entirely, as I recognise they can be incredibly useful. Instead, I want a more intentional relationship with my phone. I want to feel in control, so I have put the following boundaries in place to achieve just that -

  1. Turn off all social media notifications of my phone and delete apps

  2. Reduce use of social media with set time limits

  3. Put phone in a separate room when working and sleeping

  4. No streaming during weekdays. I will instead save watching my favourite YouTubers and Netflix shows for the weekend

  5. Leave my phone at home regularly

  6. Have regular digital detoxes and aim for a digital free day once a week

These are the best boundaries to fit with my life. I fully recommend Cal Newport's book if you are interested in getting back some control in your digital world. I would also recommend taking some time to prepare for this detox, such as planning activities you can do instead of your useful digital consumption. I found colouring was a wonderful peaceful way to spend a few moments in the evening.

For me, the most significant result of this detox is an utter sense of freedom. A weight that I wasn't even conscious of has been lifted. It really has changed my life.


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