I Guess I’m A Digital Minimalist Now

My digital declutter ended about three weeks ago. After submitting a short article about it to the editor of the local magazine I freelance for, she had some logistical questions. I thought that the most beneficial way for me to answer these questions (and some others that I’ve gotten from friends and clients) would be to work them out in real time, on the blog. That way you can benefit from the broken-down, simplified answers. It’s important to be philosophical and introspective, but what about real-life application and practicality? This post is meant to wrap up my digital declutter series by breaking it down to it’s simple foundation – the “bones” of the experiment. That way you can move forward with practical tools and ideas to help implement digital minimalism principles into your own life.

Question 1: Was quitting all unnecessary technology hard?

The short answer is yes. Like any major lifestyle change, it was difficult for about the first week while I re-acclimated. That is exactly why I constructed a plan to implement less technology use over time, that way when I went “cold turkey” it was not such a shock to my system. I also defined what things I absolutely “needed” for my safety, and for my business to function properly, so I did not go 100% tech-free. Remember, it is a “digitally minimal” lifestyle, not a lifestyle completely devoid of all technology use.

The key to success is to have a plan. It’s as simple as that.

Question 2: What was your plan and how did you implement it?

The first thing I did was figure out how much technology I was using to begin with.

I would like to stress this point:

WITHOUT KNOWING HOW MUCH YOU ARE USING TECH, YOU WILL NOT HAVE AN OBJECTIVE STARTING POINT FROM WHICH TO REDUCE IT.

Numbers don’t lie.

For six months prior to my declutter experiment I tracked social media, texting, emails, and miscellaneous internet use, totaling out everything and writing the times down in my journal. I made it a point to reduce my consumption, if even by a small percentage, or a few minutes each week. After six months, I had reduced my consumption significantly (by about 80%) by just tracking it, and reducing it by nominal, almost unnoticeable (at the time) increments. This helped me to put into perspective how much time I was wasting, and how truly unnecessary most of the technology we spend our time with is.

The next part of my plan had to do with the actual 31-day period of time when I’d go without any technology that was not “necessary.” This means being extremely honest with yourself.

JUST BECAUSE YOU LIKE IT DOES NOT MAKE IT NECESSARY FOR YOUR HEALTH, SAFETY, OR MAINTENANCE OF YOUR LIVELIHOOD.

Seriously.

I went through all the things I use and basically figured out what I could omit without it having serious real world implications for myself personally, or for my business.

I:

• Deleted email, social media, entertainment streaming, and shopping apps off of my phone. I decided that I could check email at work during business hours only, and taking a break from all the other things would be FINE.

For all of you small business owners who think the world will go up in flames if you do not participate in social media for one month, this is for you:

IT WILL NOT. AND YOU NEED THIS EXPERIMENT MORE THAN ANYONE TO SHOCK YOU BACK INTO HAVING SOME PERSPECTIVE.

I was you. The time away will HELP your business.

• Did not watch TV unless it was a movie that I specifically wanted to watch as part of a social activity with others. So no streaming, mindless watching, watching anything alone, commercials, or background noise. Yep, this means if you cohabitate with others who watch TV, you will spend a lot of time in the other room. This will be weird and isolating at first, but then you will realize it’s actually quiet and wonderful alone time.

• Only texted and checked emails during three fifteen minute, predetermined time frames. This included personal and business text/emails. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. If I was at work that day, I would schedule these in so I wouldn’t miss them, giving me an excuse to check my phone later. If someone wanted an immediate response, they would have to CALL me. All business was responded to during business hours, and NEVER outside of them. I set up an auto-text response so these hours were very clear for clients.

• Allowed myself to use technology that does not drain my energy, but enriches me. I know this is very subjective, but I encourage you to really dig deep when determining what these areas are for yourself. The whole point of this experiment is to differentiate between technology that promises value, and technology that actually delivers it for you specifically. I allowed myself unlimited podcast and audiobook listening. I still used my phone calendar, weather app, to do list app, my fitness apps, and Pinterest (for recipes only!).

• Did not use my phone for ANY internet surfing or searching at all. I set this hard and fast rule so that it couldn’t spiral out of control. If I needed to look anything up, pay bills, or do things for my business that required the internet, I waited to do it at work.

• Allowed myself room to fail. I had a situation come up where it was necessary that I use the internet to email and sign documents. I did this outside of my normal digitally minimal parameters. But in my opinion, it was necessary and I wasn’t going to let that ruin the rest of my experience. So I just made sure to take care of business, and then go back to my plan.

Question 3: Did your husband do it with you? How did that go?

No he did not. In the beginning it was difficult to see him constantly watching TV or being on his phone when I wanted to interact or not remove myself from the space he was in to go be by myself. But I got used to it after about a week. And I did notice as time went on that he was watching a bit less TV so we could eat dinner together, or relax before bed together which I really liked. He respected my boundaries but all in all, we did spend a lot more time apart.

I realized that just because we’re in the same room does not in any way mean that we are actually spending quality time together, and being around a noisy TV puts me in an instant bad mood if I don’t like what’s on. So after a while, I started to value my quiet, alone time, and noticed that when I get to spend my time reading or listening to a podcast instead of passively watching something I don’t like, I’m in a much better mood, and I’m much more relaxed after a long day. Noise just drains my energy.

Question 4: Have I gone back to how I was before?

No. Nor will I. I have made slight adjustments, but plan on living a digitally minimal life moving forward. I am much happier, and more mentally alert and productive this way.

I obviously have gone back to posting to social media and my blog once per week. I do not go on social media more than this. I download the apps to my phone to make my posts and then delete them right after. I plan to post using this same method for my business on occasion, but this stepping away from social media has actually had positive impacts on my business, allowing me to work on bigger ideas and projects which produce better, tangible results. If my books are full at work then it is irrelevant how much time I spend on social media.

I do not plan on putting email back on my phone ever. Checking it at work is just fine. I no longer respond to potential business through social media – everyone gets an auto response to call or email. This will not change. I did not reinstall any other streaming or shopping apps. I don’t need them, and they are a waste of time.

I have been more lax with my internet and texting use – straying away from the fifteen minute intervals, three times daily. But I can already notice that this is beginning to drain my energy, so I plan to figure out a happy medium where I can use the internet and check texts, but not do it all day. I like to be able to plug my phone in and just leave it alone.

And with TV, I have started watching some again, but I plan to make sure that the time spent there remains small.

Question 5: Would you recommend a digital declutter for others?

Yes. Just have a plan and stick to it. I wouldn’t waste time doing it for any period of time shorter than 2-3 weeks. Less than that, and it’s not long enough to reap real benefits, in my opinion. I felt like a month was perfect.

Question 6: What was your favorite part of your experience?

Aside from learning A LOT about myself, it was all the reading I did. My attention span dramatically increased and my real, true love for reading and learning was reignited. I read FOURTEEN books in January. Last year, I read 21 TOTAL.

My new life goal is to learn how to feel like my true self- how I felt in my favorite wedding picture of myself, as often as possible. Purely happy and free.

_____

Photo: Hennygraphy https://www.hennygraphy.com

Resources: https://www.calnewport.com

Digital Declutter Diaries Part 2: I Can Feel

Being underwater dulls everything down. Light and sound. You try to laugh but it’s hard. You try to see but that’s hard too. You try to listen but nothing sticks. The details are all lost anyway.

All you know is that for some reason it feels as close to good and familiar as you can get with your head dunked slightly below the surface. Everything’s fuzzy. Slower. After a while it becomes normal to feel that way. Watching your life through a blurry lens of indifference and numbness.

You try to believe you’re happy. But deep down you understand that knowing you should feel happiness, and actually experiencing it are two different things. You think you’re sad, but at the end of the day you could take or leave whatever made you feel that way. Disappointment isn’t real, anger is just a response to another thing that isn’t real. Love feels real, but comes with a handful of emotions that are fuzzy now too.

So back underwater you go. Lukewarm.

Sometimes you can’t help it and you get upset – you don’t even know why. But you enjoy being angry, because at least it’s something. The few things you do care about, you distance by a few degrees just in case.

That was me. That is me still, sometimes.

Compartmentalized.

I had accepted this as my normal. It’s like being outside where everything feels bad for so long that you put a protection around yourself that makes everything feel about half (or less) of what it should. It’s okay at first. But then time went by and I started to worry that I’d completely forget how to really be happy, or sad. Or anything. I just wanted to feel a genuine emotion that I wasn’t capable of putting inside a box and neatly stacking on a shelf of 10,000 never-again-opened boxes. It had become SO easy to do that.

What’s it like to feel real joy? Or gratitude? Or disappointment? Without immediately putting it in check with the opposite emotion.

Neutralize it.

During this process of decluttering my mind I realized that my emotional shutting down happened in two stages.

The first began as a defense mechanism-type response to an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship I was in for about four years in my early twenties. Until I conducted this experiment, I hadn’t even realized, let alone accepted that what I had gone through was actual abuse.

Yet for years I lived in a constant state of isolation, uneasiness, fear, and defensiveness. I lost myself navigating the complexities of loving someone with mental illness, depression, and sometimes uncontrollable, unpredictable anger. I developed resulting post traumatic stress, and have often found myself exhibiting those same destructive behaviors – learned out of necessity to protect myself, then. Now I’m finally realizing that I can stop living a defensive life. Everything isn’t an argument; constantly worrying about my plans going off track is unproductive. I don’t need to always be on the highest alert.

Back then I retreated inside. Put up protective barriers. And apologized. A lot. I numbed myself to my reality because after years of mental manipulation it becomes extremely difficult to separate what’s real from what someone tells you are just your own “unreliable” emotions. It’s even harder to accept what you know is true when the good times are good, and when everyone around you seems to think everything is mostly fine.

And then there is the shame and the fear. I chose to be there, so obviously something must be wrong with me because I stayed. I’m not a “victim.” I’m smart and capable. So it must be my own fault for not leaving. It’s my own fault for not bringing it up until now. It’s my own fault.

I spent years worrying about his mental health and everything I was doing “wrong,” while my mental state and self worth deteriorated. But I couldn’t see what was happening.

That lightbulb didn’t even begin to flicker until about a month ago when I read Gavin DeBecker’s book The Gift of Fear. I thought long and hard about all the behaviors that he argues are precursors to violence, and how our intuition knows before our minds do that something is wrong. Back then I had gotten very good at ignoring my intuition and rationalizing behaviors that I now see as completely dangerous and unacceptable. I never once worried about my own safety, focusing primarily on getting him help for his mental illness. Only now that seven years has passed do I realize that I should’ve been extremely concerned about my own mental and physical well being.

The second stage of my emotional shutting down happened after he died, about three months after our final breakup. For more information about this please reference my first ever post, Context.

A huge part of my identity and self worth was caught up in a person who made me feel disempowered and small. Overnight, I lost everything I thought stabilized me, and I couldn’t help but feel partially responsible. I feel guilt now, as I write these words. But staying silent hasn’t helped me to heal. And protecting his memory and family should’ve never taken precedent over my own mental health.

The tragic reality of what happened to him, coupled with the awkwardness people feel discussing death and trauma had effectively rendered my experience within that relationship invisible. Somehow petty and unimportant. So I threw myself into a full fledged effort to convince myself it was petty and unimportant. And I simply cannot live that way anymore. In sharing my experience, it becomes visible, and there is freedom there. For me, and others like me.

I think that ever since I was a little kid I’ve known that I feel very deeply. That I can absorb energy from those around me, and that I can sometimes tap into the pain and sadness and love and happiness of animals and other people that I may not even know. Until I got into that relationship, I felt confident to exude that passion is everything I did. In my learning, in my work, in my friends and family. I felt deeply and unapologetically about everything. And I wasn’t even the slightest bit ashamed or afraid to show it to the world- thanks parents.

In a nutshell, I loved being me and I was not afraid to show it, and tell everyone about it.

And then all that passion and self confidence evaporated and I accepted it.

My therapist has asked me on multiple occasions if I minded being alone. My answer has always been a hard no – ask my husband; he knows. I love spending time alone. What I believe she should’ve been asking me (now that it’s 2020) is if I like being truly alone. Without all the things that make it so easy to never actually be by yourself. No phone, no internet, no TV. Because my answer would’ve likely been something like: I don’t know. Because I’ve never tried that. Solitude wasn’t something I had prioritized.

I thought I’d been healing myself the best ways I knew how. And I suppose to a degree, I have been. But I’ve always felt like I was hitting a wall, beyond the healthy eating, and exercise, meaningful work, therapy, and positive, supportive, loving people in my life, something still eluded me. Something still felt like a hole in my heart. A missing piece.

After a month of solitude, and A LOT of thinking, I realized that the missing piece was partially realization and acceptance. Moving through my past. The other part was remembering the confidence in my own spirit and abilities that used to come so easily, and the permission to feel everything and anything again.

I condensed about five years of therapy into one month, just by allowing myself to really think. I’ve already started to see glimpses of my “old self,” but in a new way, still trepidatiously approaching emotion. I can finally begin to heal the parts of me that have developed as coping mechanisms, shields, and responses to trauma. I can forgive him and let him go – he was hurt too.

I’m not sure if my mind had guarded me from my full reality on purpose, or if I was in denial. I’m not sure if I was being protected from recognizing my past as what it truly was until I was strong enough and stable enough to handle it. Or if I was consciously shoving it aside because it was too difficult to look at.

All that matters now is that I am beginning to see love in little things again and am so overwhelmed with gratitude on a daily basis for every wonderful and painful part of this life.

_____

Artwork by: TanyaZCdesign https://www.etsy.com/shop/TanyaZCdesign

Digital DeClutter Diaries Part 1: I can think.

On the fourth day I began to think I had gone down some sort of mental rabbit hole that I wasn’t sure I could retreat from. That statement likely comes across as unnecessarily melodramatic, but it remains the best way to describe the swift losing of what I thought was my mind, in order to replace it with what actually is my mind, or rather myself.

Let me explain.

As the month I spent without unnecessary technology use comes to a close, I realize that ultimately my month “away” gave me the opportunity to temporarily grasp a small piece of what it feels like to be me. A pinhole glimpse into my understanding of who I’ve become. Not nearly large or tangible enough to hold onto or fully comprehend. But just wide enough to intrigue my interest and teach me that this experiment was really just the beginning of some more complex journey to widen that pinhole, if just slightly. Draw out the blackened edges little by little. Turn what feels like a metaphorical lesson from a dream into something I can hold in my hands.

What I thought would be 31 days to reduce anxiety, social pressures, and redefine what activities are important to me turned into 31 days of exploring around in my own head. I thought it would be all reading, and working out and time with friends and family without constant pressure from emails, social media, TV, and texting. It was all of those great things, but I had to go through this experiment in order to stop missing the point:

The real opportunity to learn lies beyond the simple omission of all the world’s noises and ideas. What remains in their absence is room for myself, which is the most important discovery of all.

The clean slate I forgot I was even capable of being. The ability to let my mind wander however it wanted to, sometimes for however long it could, with no interruptions. The freedom from input, from distraction and attention-grabbing, from anything that is the opposite of solitude. Which I still define as simply being alone with your own thoughts, not necessarily physically alone.

In the beginning it was easy. I liken it to a food detox. You feel great for that first couple of days. It’s easy and simple. I can give it up, no problem. Life without it will be so much better. Healthier. It’s quiet here. No one to bother me. No TV or internet to distract me. Reading all day with a cup of tea feels like vacation. Until it’s your third day in a row, and all the errands that used to take days to complete take a few hours, total. And I’ve worked out, and meditated, and spent my allotted fifteen minutes texting clients back, and cleaned the house, and did all my laundry, and it’s somehow 10:30am.

I seriously began to wonder what I was going to do with 31 days as I anxiously awaited a work day. A clear direction, tasks. It’s that moment when you realize you are truly addicted to sugar and you cannot possibly go without it because it is literally in everything. How is it in everything?!

Time slowed down and I watched it happen. It began to creak by, painfully slowly.

I had to have that moment of panic to realize that what was happening to me was exactly what I asked for. For life to slow down long enough for me to think. On the fifth day I woke up, meditated and immediately thought to myself: For the first time in as long as I can remember, my brain is waking up. I feel like I’m thinking clearly.

For the last decade or longer I’ve felt like someone sitting in a room while twenty radios play just as many different stations at miscellaneous volumes. I picture myself strapped to a chair with something covering my eyes. While it’s difficult to focus on one song long enough to really hear it, if I manage to do so, it would only be for a second before another song would cut in. Twenty songs or commercials or news reports always competing. If something familiar comes on, maybe I could concentrate on it long enough to sing along, only to have that song end and another immediately begin. What this model promises is always the same, whether we enjoy one of the stations, whether we recognize a song or find value in one of the news reports, the ultimate result remains identical: The last thought I have time, space, or energy for is the one in my own head.

Everything is a response to something else.

I went from that room, to a room with nothing in it at all. Or at least that’s what it felt like at first. Just me inside an empty room with the loud sounds of my own breathing. No blindfold because there’s nothing to see. No chair because there’s no where to go. Once the initial panic starts to wear off I realized that I can put whatever I want inside that room. I was the one who put the radios in, and cranked them up, and refused to remove them. I was the one that blindfolded myself and refused to get out of the chair, and now I was the one that decided to shut it all off. Suddenly. And I can always leave the room. Or put things back into it.

That’s when things shifted from scary to interesting. Because holy shit; I can think.

On day six I wrote: “All I know is that right now I feel like the volume of my thoughts has gotten turned way up, so I’m trying really hard to listen.”

Although this post is rife with metaphor (apologies), there is truly no better way to explain this experience. My attention and concentration has improved, my dreams and meditations are more insightful and introspective, and I’m beginning to remember myself.

On day nineteen I continued: “As I think about how my mind feels woken up and truly focused for the first time in years, I wonder what that means for my brain – what dormant state has it been in? I wonder if anxiety isn’t always a response to something outside myself, but rather my own thoughts suppressed to the point that anxiety and depression manifest from their frustration and inability to break free – to get out.”

Which leads me to my next observation: I can feel.