In late March, I read Cal Newport’s insightful new book, Digital Minimalism (affiliate link). In it, he proposed a digital fast–that is, a time period of at least thirty days where you would dramatically curtail your social media usage and steeply curb the amount of time you spent on electronics devices.
He proposed setting strict boundaries for yourself around your electronics usage, such as only checking email once per day, and taking a break from all social media for the month.
The idea, he said, was to interrupt your social media usage patterns to get a better idea of how and how much you were using social media and to break the mindless usage.
At the same time, he recommended cultivating some new activities for your leisure time, something he found to be critical as you broke the hold of your social media on your life.
I decided to take up Newport’s challenge and try out my own digital fast for April’s “A Year of Good Money” challenge. I set the following rules for myself, to give myself some clear parameters:
- No Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter at all during the fast. I removed those apps from my phone to curtail temptation.
- No checking email on my phone.
- No Kindle books. I should only read hardback books I check out from the library. The reason for this is that I often check out internet books obsessively, and they are more often than not junk books. This type of reading is more like an addiction and does not bring value to my life; in fact, it decreases my presence for my family.
- I can use the internet at my desk upstairs in my office to write blog posts, check email, and read blog posts. I tend to do this in a more limited way and it’s very deliberate, since I have to climb the stairs to get to my computer, so I feel like this is an appropriate use of the internet.
- When appropriate, I should leave my phone at my desk so that it’s not by my side all day.
The fast started on March 24th and continued through April.
First of all, how did I do? Was I able to follow my self-imposed rules?
In terms of not using social media, I did well. I didn’t check Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter at all. I did visit Facebook Marketplace on my upstairs computer because Mr. ThreeYear wanted to show me several patio furniture options. It was easy not to check Instagram because without the app, it’s virtually useless. I didn’t miss Twitter much except for the notifications, which showed me I was more interested in being retweeted than keeping up with what people had to say.
Not using Instagram was perhaps the most impactful part of my social media fast. I used to scroll through it incessantly, and it often made me feel bad compared to what other people were doing.
I decided I don’t want to go back to using it. It didn’t really do anything for my business, and it made me feel bad. The only part I vaguely miss is posting pictures of my kids.
I have gone on to Facebook since my fast ended, and posted a couple of things. But, like Newport described, being on Facebook gives me a false sense of connection with people I have tenuous connections with.
If I want to socialize, I should socialize with people I actually know and can get together with. Face-to-face interaction is so much richer and better than anything online.
I have not put any of the apps back on my phone and I don’t plan to. I think I’m finished with Instagram forever. I’ll use Twitter at my upstairs computer (as I’ve always done) and I’ll try to stay off Facebook as much as possible.
I did terrible with not checking email. I went to Safari and checked it almost every day from my phone.
Here’s what I realized: I am addicted to using my phone, specifically, using my phone to curtail boredom during “free periods” in my life. Newport warned that this was the hardest thing about the experiment.
He warned that it wasn’t that we don’t have enough leisure time; it’s that we’re used to filling it by scrolling our phones. Instead, we need to cultivate other interests, like knitting, playing guitar, maybe doing word puzzles.
My problem, which is apparently common amongst people who have done this same digital fast, is that I didn’t have a good downtime activity to engage in. I am a reader, but in these moments of downtime, I wanted something relatively mindless and fast to pick up. I didn’t really try to find something, unfortunately. I’ve never really done puzzles, but it occurs to me that’s a good idea. I’m a wordsmith, so maybe crosswords would be a good time filler.
I do know that checking email is not a good time filler. Neither is reading “Apple News” which is what I ended up doing as well.
In order to reduce your phone usage, you need a fill-in activity. I’ve still got to find one.
No Kindle Books
I also didn’t do very good with this one and continued to check out Kindle books when I didn’t have library books. I go through library books fast, so I think I just need to go to the library more often.
I recognize that reading for me is a way to tune out the world around me. This isn’t good if I’ m tuning out my family, so I have been working to keep reading for the nighttime, and try and hang out with my family during the afternoons and evenings. Sometimes I do well; sometimes I don’t (usually when I’m tired), but at least I’m aware of what I’m doing and will hopefully work on getting better.
Leaving My Phone at My Desk
I almost never left my phone at my desk. It was almost always with me. In the rare moments it wasn’t with me, I was wondering where it was. This shows me that I’ll need to do more work around using my iphone as a crutch.
What I Learned
What did I learn from this experiment? I learned that a lot of actions in my day are mindless. We all have much more time than we think we do; we just fill it with lots of scrolling.
The first few days of the fast were the hardest, because I was used to reaching for my phone to scroll through social media. I also had a bunch of times where I thought, “I need to take a picture of this and post it on Insta!” After about a week or so, those feelings faded, and I learned to get up from my chair and go fold laundry, or do something deliberate with my hands, like weeding the garden or straightening shoes. Or go eat chocolate. (I don’t recommend that method of weening yourself off your phone).
Newport mentioned that the problem, during the experiment, wasn’t having enough leisure time. It was having too much. And he’s exactly right.
Ironically, in our “harried” and “stressed” culture, we actually have lots of free time. All of us. Pockets here, pockets there. We just don’t think we do because we’re always grabbing our phones and scrolling. And that fills our head with mindless, pointless, pseudo-social interactions or information that leaves us feeling worse. We have constant low-thrum anxiety from all of that.
Have I been less anxious this past month? Yes I have. Have I been less stressed? Yes to that, too. But not in any notable way. It’s all been quite subtle. My mood is better; my attitude is better. “Is it the weather or is it my digital fast?” I asked myself. I honestly don’t know, but I have a feeling that even though I did the fast imperfectly, it helped me in important ways.
I have definitely had more real-life social interactions. I’ve met with friends for lunch, hung out with friends casually, hung out with family casually, played tennis with friends, run with friends. I even spent a weekend away with my running friends from New Hampshire.
Again, it may have been the weather that accounted for the uptick in friend interactions. But I also made a point to text people more about getting together (ironic–texting!), made more plans to do things with friends, and accepted more invitations. Hanging out with people in real life is really great.
I ultimately decided, after the fast was over, that being on Facebook and Instagram didn’t have enough benefits for me to warrant their usage in my life. And the fact is, they offer a lot of disadvantages, like their addictive qualities. So I shall dramatically curtail usage for one (FB) and abstain in the case of the other (Instagram).
I’m still working to develop a quality leisure activity (suggestions??!!!) and curtail my mindless reading.
All in all, though, the fast was very helpful and highly recommended. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Have you ever done a digital fast? Would you?