I recently received a message from a friend of mine, a young man named Mike. He told me that Digital Minimalism had changed his life. Naturally, I asked him to elaborate what he meant.
In response, he listed the following changes:
He lost 15 pounds and dropped his body fat by six percentage points;
he went from being terrible at dancing to pretty good (he sent me a video of him in a dance circle to prove this claim);
he developed a Brazilian Ju-Jitsu practice;
he strengthened many relationships.
This list might seem surprising: my book is about technology, and yet none of the changes listed by Mike seem to have anything to do with social media or smartphone settings. But as I’ve learned over the past few months, his experience is actually quite common among those who take the minimalist plunge.
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When people contemplate the declutter process I suggest in my book, in which you spend 30 days away from optional technology as a prelude to simplifying your digital life, they often predict that the main challenge will be compensating for the benefits and features they’ll miss out on.
Last week, the British novelist Mark Haddon wrote an essay for the Financial Times about his recent decision to take a break from Twitter. What I liked about this piece is that it unpacked a nuanced back-and-forth thought process about social media.
Many of the narratives surrounding these services stumble toward an extreme: social media ruined democracy! social media is more important than the printing press!
The people I talked to while researching Digital Minimalism, however, tended to report a more conflicted experience. Not unlike a once happy relationship that’s begun to sour, they can easily list things they like about services like Instagram or Facebook, but ultimately, with a shake of the head, they conclude that keeping it in their life is no longer sustainable.
This is the story Haddon tells.
The bulk of his article lists the many novelties and happy swerves of attention that Twitter provided him. But he still felt he needed to walk away. Why? Here’s his pithy explanation:
“I am taking a long break because every tweet had begun to feel like a peep of steam through my whistle — Listen to me! Listen to me! — which reduced the boiler pressure I needed to write another novel.”
And so it is in the real world with many who find their patience wearing thin with social media: it’s nice; it’s sometimes spectacular; but in the end, it has a way of bleeding away the steam of life, one interrupted moment at a time, until you find yourself no longer tackling the harder, analog, striving endeavors that make a good life good.
Speaking of the pros and cons of social media, my friend (and immensely talented filmmaker) Rob Montz recently released a powerful, short documentary on the harm Instagram is causing among teenagers. Take a look.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review’s website about the excesses of email culture. In an effort to destabilize the perceived necessity of our current moment of hyperactive communication, I explored a thought experiment in which email was banished altogether and replaced with pre-scheduled office hours.
“Office hours might not work for every organization,” I wrote, “although, as I’ve argued, they would probably apply in more settings than you might at first assume.”
Given the semi-satirical undertones of this exploration, I gave a nod toward Swift in the article’s title: “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”
I’m bringing this up now because a reader recently pointed me to a Reddit thread from last month that discusses this older piece. Overall, the thread is varied and fascinating. I want to highlight here, however, a few comments that I think are representative of a general line of resistance I often encounter — usually from fellow engineering types — when I write negatively about new technologies:
“…people seem to severely underestimate how valuable it is to search past conversations, not to mention having a timestamp of when assignments and decisions got made”
“I am totally with you here. Email is THE SUPERIOR tool for communication. People simply lack the discipline to manage their inbox.”
“Having lower cost, lower friction communication is an absolute positive development.”
These points are an example of what I’ve come to call the utility fallacy, which is the tendency, when evaluating the impact of a technology, to confine your attention to comparing the technical features of the new technology to what it replaced.
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