Digital Minimalism Review and My Month Without Social Media

Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism, focuses on how to live a healthy life and coexist with modern day distractions. After reading it, I decided to try putting his recommendations into practice. Here’s a look at the book and my experiment with a digital declutter.
Adam

Written by Adam on April 22, 2019.
18 min read. Personal, Minimalism. 7 comments.

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One of my favorite discoveries of the last year has been Libby. Libby is a free app (iOS, Android & Windows) that connects to your local library account and allows you to read books. Since these are checked out from your local library, all books are free. What’s even better is that it allows you to read books but also download audiobooks!

digital-minimalism

After reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work and connecting with his concept of focused, attention driven progress, I couldn’t wait to check out his newest book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. The day it came out I queued it up on Libby and anxiously awaited listening to the audiobook.

After waiting 7 weeks for my copy, I binge-listened to it (it’s only 6 hours, 59 minutes) during a long day hiking and running a few errands (on my usual 1.5x speed).

This post is a review of that book, but also my take on digital minimalism as an early retiree. I also write about the month I spent trying my own “Digital Declutter” – a concept thoroughly explored in Digital Minimalism.

My Review of Digital Minimalism

It’s been a while since I took a good inward look at my social media habits. This book forced me to do that – and I didn’t like what I saw.

digital minimalism cover

To list out what Cal mentions about social media addiction is basically just looking in the mirror for me and many people. We pick our phones to fill time, creating a loop of services that provide us with variable rewards that keep us coming back for more.

I check Twitter, then Facebook, then Reddit, then Instagram. After that I go back to Twitter and see what’s new since last time. Then back to Reddit. There’s always something new to read, someone new to follow, or a subreddit I haven’t yet explored. This is the content treadmill has no end and is a dangerous place to get on.

He’s careful to say that social media (or any service that we mindlessly consume) aren’t bad, but our relationship with it can be unhealthy.

One thing that stuck with me was the idea that all that time spent on them makes it feel like we’re connected to people, but in reality, we aren’t. It’s time away from building real friendships and growing real relationships. 

It’s possible to have relationships online – that’s not in dispute. What is apparent though is that there are many surface level relationships which could be deepened by more direct connections.

After reading this I immediately decided to do my own 30-day digital declutter – a tactic Newport mentions for helping to reduce your addiction to social media.

Performing A Digital Declutter

One of the main points of the book is that you should take a look at your social media habits with an objective eye. If you don’t like what you see, or if you believe there might be a chance that those habits are interfering with other life goals, then you should try a digital declutter.

The broad strokes of a digital declutter are easy to explain. The idea is you spend 30 continuous days off social media, giving your habits time to revert, and time for you to find what truly makes you happy (his assertion is that it’s not social media). After that time, you can reevaluate your habits and mindfully decide which to bring back into your life and which you’ll want to drop (or change your relationship with).

tangled rope

Newport even sets out some guidelines on how to perform your own declutter:

  1. Identify which services you consider to be included in this list. The common culprits include Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Instagram, but your list might also include more specific endless voids of content like TV, Netflix, Youtube, CNN or ESPN.
  2. If you need to use any of these services in a professional capacity, set rules for how you’ll limit the exposure to only that aspect.
  3. Spend 30 days completely off these services other than for work-required purposes.
  4. After 30 days are up, DON’T IMMEDIATELY START USING THESE AGAIN. Instead, review your relationships with each of them and decide what you want that relationship to be going forward.

The day I listened to Digital Minimalism I immediately decided to do a digital declutter.

My Digital Declutter

When reviewing my relationship with social media and endless news, it was clear to me that parts of those relationships were certainly unhealthy. Here’s what my habits looked like at the beginning of this experiment:

Twitter: I used the Twitter App on my phone and use the Mac App whenever I’m on my computer. I usually started my mornings reading recent Tweets. When I had free moments waiting around outside the house, I’d open Twitter and check recent Tweets. In bed, before going to sleep I’d catch up on the day. While on my computer I’d pull up the Twitter app and check on recent Tweets whenever a webpage took too long to load, or I was between tasks (or sometimes just reached a minor roadblock). I have my personal Twitter account I mostly use to keep in touch with friends and programmers as well as my Minafi Twitter. I post more to Twitter than all other platforms on this list combined. In other words, I checked Twitter a lot.

Facebook: For me, Facebook is used to keep in touch with friends and family. Everyone I’m friends with are people I know in person and have talked to semi-recently. I think this is a great way to keep in touch in general but can become overkill when I’m constantly checking in on things (as I was). I’d check Facebook daily – usually as part of my morning routine of checking apps, then again during the day and at night after checking Twitter.

Reddit: I’ve been on Reddit for quite a while. Back in the day, I used to spend time on Digg, then Reddit took its place as a source of discovering new content. I’ve constantly tried different experiments to curb or control my use for it, but tend to increase it again over time. In recent months, I’d check my front page sometime in the morning and throughout the day when I want a little break from whatever I’m doing. I’ll check it form my computer and the Reddit app on my phone.

The first time I tried an experiment without Reddit the cofounder even taunted me (I still get a laugh out of this).

Reddit - adam
Reddit - Ohanian

Instagram: I don’t use Instagram all that much. I’ll occasionally check it – usually after I’ve exhausted all other social media. I take constant photos but always forget to post them (or Mrs. Minafi posts much prettier pictures before me). I only follow a few friends I’ve met in real life on here, so it’s relatively quick to stay up to date. I don’t check out Instagram Stories (unless I’m completely out of other things to do).

For each of these apps I’d long ago turned off all notifications on my phone.

There are other apps I decided not to include in this list, like YouTube, which I don’t feel I have an unhealthy relationship with. I did also decide I shouldn’t allow myself to use the CNN app, as that could lead to constant rechecking to get that “something new” feel.

My Restrictions for 30 Days

OK, so I think I know my relationship with these services (spoiler: I didn’t) so I decided to set some rules for myself for the 30 days.

  • Stay completely off Facebook, Twitter (my personal), Instagram and Reddit.
  • Uninstall all social media, news, and entertainment apps from my phone – except games.
  • I can open the Twitter App on my computer to check in on Minafi every other day for 15 minutes.
  • Stay off news sites like CNN or equivalent 24-hour channels.

The idea here is to stop using anything that refreshes so fast that it’s impossible to stay up to date with them.

With that in mind, I installed the Block Site Chrome Extension, blocked any sites I knew I wouldn’t be using and started my 30-day challenge!

What Didn’t Go Well For Me

Retraining myself to not pick up my phone every time I had a free moment was hard. I’d constantly pick up my phone then realize there was nothing I could do on it. This lead to me super-decluttering my phone – uninstalling every app I don’t use, resorting apps on my home screen and generally just cleaning things up. I can confidently say that my phone has never been more organized than it is today.

When I had low energy, I struggled to find things to do. I wanted to kill time on Reddit or mindlessly browse Twitter. During those times when I was too drained to do anything productive, I still haven’t found a great solution (unless you count sleep).

I wasn’t able to keep up with “FIRE in the News” on Minafi. I found these articles through Twitter and Reddit. That section has been neglected without a good method to find new news.

I wasn’t hearing any news other than The Daily Show / Last Week Tonight. This is both a positive and a negative. Not needing to follow the news is a huge privilege, but it still feels irresponsible to not look.

Sometimes I didn’t have anything I wanted to do. This is the closest I’ve come to feeling bored since I was a kid.

I spent a lot less time saying “I read this article on Reddit today…” and instead had to have actual conversations with people.

I felt disconnected from others in the personal finance community due to a lack of interactions on Twitter.

When something happened or I had some witty thought (it probably wasn’t witty), I’d immediately want to Tweet it out but couldn’t.

The common themes are that I felt disconnected, didn’t know what other activities to do, and constantly had to think “well, what now?”.

What Went Well For Me

Restraining myself to not constantly check my phone was hugely beneficial. I no longer pick it up anywhere near as often. That retraining took about a week.

I started reading (and commenting) on more blogs on Feedly, allowing for some deeper connections. This reminds me a decade ago when I used to live by Google Reader (RIP).

I started reading more books. A few of my personal goals are around reading more, so this was a welcomed breath of fresh air.

I was more productive most days, since I wasn’t spending as much time keeping up with everything happening in the world and with every person I know. (this is an important point. I don’t need to stay up to date with everything happening).

I also spent less time transitioning from one activity to another. With social media, I’d slip in some time checking in between errands, chores or tasks. By eliminating this transition time, I maintained higher energy and tended to get more done.

I spent entire days not thinking of or hearing about Donald Trump.

I was more present in the moment since I wasn’t toggling my attention between things.

I had to find more productive things to do, read or act on.

I had more energy to hang out with friends – especially when asked last minute. Previously when asked last minute I’d always say no.

I organized soo much digital clutter – starting photos, apps on my phone, lots of things.

Disabling all push notifications on my phone was great.

The common positive themes were that I felt more in the moment, more productive and maintained higher energy throughout most days.

Social Media and Early Retirement

One of the parts about retirement that doesn’t get enough attention is understanding how quickly your social circle shrinks. That might not be for everyone, but I’d worked at my job for 8 years and have so many close friends from that time. Suddenly not seeing those people every day was a major change.

Add to that all the social outings, group lunches, and impromptu get-togethers and I experienced a notable social void in my life after leaving.

I immediately filled that void by spending more time on social media after I left my job. It appeared to fill some of that gap and made me feel like I was spending time with people – but these social media interactions are just an illusion. I could’ve continued to live in that fantasy world of fake relationships or try to take steps to build more real-world ones. Like the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter, these relationships weren’t as real as I hoped (points to you if you get that reference). Performing this digital declutter was one way to force me into spending more time with actual humans.

If/when you leave your job, I’d encourage you to take a good look at your relationship with social media. When you stop working you have a great deal more time that you’ll have to fill. Don’t let your social media usage grow during this time! For me, this transition period was an ideal time to do a digital declutter, and for that, I’m very grateful that Digital Minimalism came out when it did.

Phone in the road

My Social Media Relationship Going Forward

As Newport mentions in the book, it’s good to review how your digital detox went and decide what (if anything) you want to bring back into your life. He recommends only letting in the minimal amount of social media possible at first, then adding more if you want. The hope is that by spending 30 days off these addictive services, that you’ll realize a tiny bit is all you really want.

This is a “best guess” at how I’d like to try using these services. There’s always a risk that by bringing them back that I’ll increase my usage to unhealthy levels again. But by setting clear definitions, it helps to set a habit of usage. If that habit sticks then all is good! If not, then it’s time to reevaluate and decide from there.

Facebook: Keep it off my phone (other than for authentication purposes). I’d still like to use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family though. Going forward I’m going to try limiting my Facebook usage to 1 day a week (a Saturday or Sunday) for at most an hour. This sounds like a great amount to start. I can bump it up more from this later to 2x a week if needed, but 1 day a week sounds right.

  • Keep off my phone.
  • Limit usage to 1 day a week, 1-hour max.
  • Only use from the Facebook web site on my computer.
  • Unfriend people I’m no longer in touch with.
  • Only check Facebook when sitting at our kitchen island.

Twitter: Keep it off my phone. Don’t keep the app open on my computer in the background. Also, don’t post things on Twitter reactively to share life events. Look for an app that allows hiding favorites and blocking keywords.

  • Keep off my phone.
  • Limit usage to 2 open a day, 15 minutes tops.
  • Aggressively unfollow people who focus on self-promotion or politics – focus on following real human beings.
  • Find a Mac app that doesn’t have favorites and allows for blocking tweets that contain keywords (including Trump, etc).
  • Only check Twitter when sitting at our kitchen island.

Reddit: Keep off my phone. Instead of checking never-ending streams on Reddit (like all or my front page), only access specific Subreddits.

  • Keep off of my phone, and don’t use the website from my phone.
  • Only allow myself to check specific Subreddits.
  • Limit checking to every other day at most. Don’t use Reddit two days in a row.
  • Only check Reddit when sitting at our kitchen island.

Looking at these rules, I wouldn’t be surprised if I stop using Reddit due to these restrictions – or only check in on a few subreddits to find articles for FIRE in the News.

Instagram: This is an odd one since I wouldn’t consider it a longstanding part of my social media loop. I’m going to allow this one back on my phone, but with a few guidelines on how I’ll use it.

  • Allow on my phone.
  • Don’t check in the morning. The first check should be after lunch at the earliest.
  • Don’t check while at home – only check when out and about.
  • Can post new things whenever.

I like the idea of not checking at home. The idea of associating certain parts of our apartment with specific behaviors is unintentional but strong. I know for me, when I sit on our couch I have a preset list of “next things” I do after that. I want to make sure social media doesn’t lurk back into being used anywhere and everywhere. It’s the same as sitting down at a desk to write.

Other Changes I’m Making

News – As much as I’d love to stay completely off news, I feel that’s irresponsible as a citizen, and as someone who hopes to impact change (volunteering, financially, and who knows how else) I don’t want to lose touch. I remembered that I have a free subscription to The New York Times online that I wasn’t using (free from a friend)! I’m going to try using this as a way to stay up to date with the world, allowing myself to use the NYT times app on my phone, but only when I’m not in bed or on the couch.

Feedly – I want to keep on using this to stay up to date with blogs and sites I enjoy. I’m going to stick with this habit and see where it goes.

Read More – Since retiring in December, I’ve started trying to read more. In January and February I read a little, but nothing serious. Since cutting out social media I’ve been able to read quite a bit more in the morning. I’d also like to better train myself to read more when I’m low on energy as a way of winding down at night.

I’m excited about maintaining some of the habits made during this past month. They should allow me more time to accomplish my goals, to travel more, and to be more present tin the moment.

Digital Minimalism and You

If anything in this post resonated with you then I’d encourage you to check out Digital Minimalism and try your own digital declutter. You can get a free copy from a local library, download a copy from Audible, or grab an ebook on Amazon.

Adam

About Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

7 Comments

Hello Adam,

I enjoyed reading your review. Cal Newport is one of my favorite writers as well.

While I failed to make it through my own 30 day digital declutter, I’ve found that minimizing my time spent on social media frees up some time to focus on things that are more important, like investing in offline friendships.

Now, when I walk around the LSU lakes, I leave my phone in the car. This helps me clear my mind or lose myself in deep thought.

On a semi-related note, have you read Cal’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You?

Thanks Jerry! Sounds like you got something out of the digital declutter even without taking to length. Spending time away from your phone is a good idea. I tend to always have mine on me – usually listening to audiobooks.

On a semi-related note, have you read Cal’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You?

Yep! That was the first one by him I read. I really identified with a lot of it — especially the parts about not following your passion but instead getting really good at something. Passion follows proficiency. It’s not as sweet a pill as most college commencement speeches, but it’s been true for me.

Great post Adam – Im already leaving my phone behind when I walk the dog and now might see if I can stay off of Reddit during the work day – baby steps.

Hi Adam,

thanks for this inspiring update about your life. As I am still at the second week of the investing course I found the part regarding your goals update the most interesting. I think I’ll use a spreadsheet as well. And cooking one recipe a month, that’s absolutely a great idea. April was a great month for us. Planning our wedding after 15 years together and two kids. Investments went up a lot. However I have to detox from looking at my broker updates so often. I have erased the app from my iPhone. I look at it just once a month to rebalance and invest. Thanks a lot again. Have a good may!

Thanks Giulio! Just removing the app from your phone is huge. The amount of times we check those are just unexpectedly high.

Congrats on the wedding too! Mrs. Minafi and I were married on our 11 year anniversary. Looks like you have a beat by a few years. 🙂

I recently went through a somewhat involuntary social-media break by spending 10 days on a remote island with no Internet. I found it very beneficial for my mental state (mental hygiene?). I’m back online now and am finding it difficult not to fall back into old habits because I work on my computer. Opening Facebook is a twitch that I’m trying to shake, but I’m not there yet. I’m currently trying to replace old social media phone habit with more enriching habits like learning languages on Duolingo or reading blog articles. I used to use website blockers like SelfControlApp, but I’d like to build positive habits rather than just setting an obstacle in my way. Do you have any advice on this front? Sometimes I feel so mentally fatigued that even light reading that I normally enjoy feels like work. That’s often when the social media rabbit trails begin. What would you do in this scenario? Take a screen break altogether?

That’s a tough one for sure. I’ve tried some things that have worked short-term, but long-term change is the hardest.

What’s worked the most for me is making completely clear goals. IE: no Facebook at all, or no Twitter at all. Or No social media on weekdays for example.

Trying to limit these in other ways hasn’t worked all that well. In those cases I’ll jump on social media when I’m low on energy, or between tasks. Setting those clear yes/no days forced me to find something else to do at those moments. Sometimes (often) that meant being uncomfortable and not being sure what I’d do. After a few days of that though, I found myself reaching for my phone less often!

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