Cal Newport, the university professor and researcher who famously has never joined any social media network, published a remarkable book this year that has received much attention. Digital Minimalism is Newport’s response to a culture of increasing isolation and higher levels of depression and anxiety.
In the book, Newport highlights research that suggests that high frequency dependence on digital devices is leading to previously unseen rates of depression and anxiety in young adults. His research finds that the spike occurred around 2007, at the beginning of the smart phone resolution. In the book, Newport talks to college mental health professionals who are seeing dramatic changes in their practice because of this shift.
Newport’s solution isn’t to buy a dumb phone and reject technology. His approach advocates for users to first define their values, and then only incorporate technologies that align with those values.
One of the biggest technology struggles that we face is the “quick glance.” In any moment of down-time, we reach for the closest device and try to fill the time. We’re afraid of being alone with our thoughts. I hate the feeling of the quick glance. I know that there are other, better ways to spend my time and engage with my family, but instead I’m refreshing the same website over and over to no end.
Many of us see our relationship with our phone as unhealthy. That’s a correct judgement. I’ve undertaken the digital detox laid out in the book, in which I define rules for my technology that I find problematic in my life for 30 days. After the detox is complete and my values are clear, I can add back the technologies that are most important to me.
One of my rules is that my cell phone lives on the kitchen counter when I’m at home, not in my pocket. When it’s in my pocket, I feel the weight and naturally reach for it. If it’s on the kitchen counter in the other room, I have to think for a moment and consider whether or not I need it.
This small behavior change has given me a tremendous amount of headspace. Instead of frittering away any available moment on my phone, I’m alone with my thoughts. And I have many thoughts. My mind has the time and attention it needs to work through problems, generate ideas, and even process my task list. I feel much more balanced as I go through the day, and my mood has improved.
Drowning out our thoughts in an ocean of distraction is not a way to live. Consider the technology that you use, eliminate the ones that don’t add high levels of value, and give your mind the space and peace it needs to work.