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“I Was Lacking in Enough Energy, Time and Attention”: Another Digital Minimalism Case Study

August 17th, 2019 · 32 comments

Something I’ve learned reporting on digital minimalists is that the definition of “minimal” differs greatly from person to person. As part of my effort to share more case studies about this philosophy, I thought it might be fun to visit someone who falls on the extreme end of this spectrum.

Robert (as I’ll call him) recently walked me through some of the major changes he instigated to reclaim his life from his devices. He summarized his reasons for this transformation as follows:

“I was lacking in enough time, energy, and attention to get the things done that I wanted or needed to do…I didn’t like getting insufficient sleep because I was browsing nonsense on my phone until the wee hours, or that I was stressed out with my professional work due to constant procrastination/distraction…or that I wasn’t exercising consistently because I’d happen to browse the same nonsense right when I was about to start.”

Driven by these somber realities, he came to a simple revelation: “life would be better if I cut back.” A decision, as it turns out, he took seriously.

Perhaps most notable among the many changes he executed, Robert replaced his smartphone with a Nokia 3310 (see the above image) — a popular alternative among the digital minimalists, as it boasts clean interfaces and its battery lasts forever.

He also setup parental controls on his main computer and gave the passwords to his wife. On most days, these controls are configured to provide him only 30 minutes to browse personal email and distracting web sites. He also moved his GTD productivity practice and workout logs to paper-based notebooks, and ditched his kindle for old-fashioned “physical” books.

As Robert explained, this extreme shift toward digital minimalism transformed his life:

“Time alone is better. I think I’m more productive, deliberate, calm, and mindful; better at professional work, and more consistent with exercise. I think I’m more present and in-tune with anyone that I’m interacting with, especially my kids.”

Like many others who make similar efforts to take back control of their life from technology, Robert found the experience somewhat disorienting: “I feel like an alien at times since the pace and nature of my day-to-day affairs is quite different from those that are not digitally minimalistic.”

But as Robert learned, the real alien behavior is arguably what everyone else is doing, with their heads buried in their phones, frantically tapping and swiping, saturated with anxiety and wondering why even after all this “busyness” they still feel like something is missing.

32 thoughts on ““I Was Lacking in Enough Energy, Time and Attention”: Another Digital Minimalism Case Study

  1. Bebo Singh says:

    Hi Cal,

    I had removed facebook few months back from my phone and a week back uninstalled instagram as well after reading all 3 books of yours. However, inspite of planning carefully sometimes I feel the itch to log in just one time. Especially this weekend. Though I haven’t. Any tips to curb this urge??

    1. Jan says:

      Just unfollow everyone, it is easy to do. To log in sometimes, there is nothing wrong with that.

      1. JAN says:

        Yes, and I always log out and do not let it to remember my password.. However, Facebook a few months ago deleted the possibilities to show page with new posts from last week or so of your friends (I do not why), which I usually checked, so now I have nothing to do on the site…

        1. Joey says:

          It will pass. I used to spend hours every day on Instagram. At first after deleting the app (and blocking it on my laptop) I was feeling the urge to check what is there every 15-20 minutes, however then I became extra busy at work, barely having time to eat lunch, so it stopped thinking about it completely. Now I log in via laptop every Sunday (otherwise it is blocked) and check a couple of regular accounts. I do not feel need to post or check accounts more often. That period in my work was a bit extreme, but probably you need to fill in your day so you don’t get bored, and after a while you will forget Instagram ever existed.

    2. Brad says:

      Every now and then I will log in to Facebook from a desktop browser to see if there’s any messages from family. I’ll have a quick scroll of the timeline to see if there’s anything of interest taking place, and every single time after one or two scrolls of the mouse I realise that removing the apps from the phone was a great move and I’m still missing absolutely nothing at all.

      1. Study Hacks says:

        I second these ideas: curate followers heavily and check the site only on your desktop computer (use the mode in your browser where it doesn’t place a cookie and keep you signed in — creating a little extra friction). If you’re like most people, your itch will diminish quickly…

        1. Bebo Singh says:

          Thank you so much for writing these amazing books and especially this blog. This convinced me to quit cold turkey. Though it’s still too soon to comment about benefit of quitting social media, I am already lot calmer and in the moment.

      2. Aaron says:

        I ended up using the same strategy for Reddit and Twitter (deleted FB last year, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr). Logging on to use both of these services via laptop/desktop loses it’s appeal in about 15 minutes, yet I can go hours and hours on the mobile versions of these sites. These apps are definitely meant to keep your attention trapped to your smartphone.

    3. Mel says:

      The urge fades with time. Your brain is like an addict’s brain – it’s accustomed to its frequent doses of dopamine. There’s no magic cure for an urge you’ve spent years (decades?) building. It’ll fade as long as you keep going at it.

    4. Caio Messias says:

      I would say logging on social media every once in a moon is not a problem, as long as you don’t return to your old habits and do it for a good purpose.

      I had this problem with twitter, in which I would check my feed multiple times a day, wasting 20-30 minutes every time I did. After removing twitter from my phone, I use a browser extension called Leech block, which can block websites on certain days, while on a specific time of the day or after a period of usage, such as 30 minutes. Now I only browser twitter after a certain hour in the day and for only 10 minutes. It’s been much more healthy to me and I can still maintaining contact with some of my friends there.

    5. Jim Upchurch says:

      Option 1: Go nuclear and delete your accounts. I was able to do it, no looking back.

      Option 2: Use Screen Time (if you have iphone) and let someone else set the passcode. I did this with the browser and haven’t missed it.

      1. Scott says:

        Option 1.
        Problem solved!

    6. Alex says:

      Same as the other person said — unfollow “funny memes” pages, generic info pages and other stuff. De-clutter your feed.

      My Facebook is mostly people I know in real life, and even then, I unfollowed those that over-share crap I don’t care about. So at the end of the day, I could scroll through my feed and catch up in 15 minutes or fewer. That’s my mental sweet spot. The same for Instagram, I only follow people that I know – no “influencers”, no “diet gurus”, motivational quotes and other assorted failure. When I have a specific need for ideas/information, then I google for ideas and I might end up with someone’s feed; but as a one-time thing, it’s ok.

      1. Scott says:

        Good point(s) Alex.
        Two years ago nuked ALL internet “notifications” .
        Ive discovered, the less I “know” ,the less Im in a screen and the more I am “me”, in MY life!
        Now, I want something I go looking for it as well.
        Search, read ,done.

  2. Raphi says:

    Does anyone know a “dumb-phone” which supports dual-sim ? I have a personnal and a professional phone number, and i find carrying two phones quite annoying.

    1. The Nokia 3310 4G version I’ve read has dual SIM. Though I can’t find it available in the USA. I’m presently using the Kyocera Cadence, which I find to be a solid and durable flip phone, compared to the ones I used years ago. I love this little thing!

  3. Austin says:

    I’m happy for Robert and his deliberate improvements. However, I couldn’t help but notice that some of his behavior was also symptomatic of adult ADD/ADHD. I wonder if it’s worth exploring as a future topic that of adults with ADD who have learned to increase focus and deepen work habits as for them minimizing digital distractions is just one aspect of their life long challenges with productivity.

    What I mean is that amid all the great examples and case studies, perhaps a triumphant minimalist who also deals with adult ADD would be a powerful example as, well, after all, if they can do it, so can others without ADD.

    1. Mark Sappington says:

      I concur. I find myself struggling to find role models who also have attention deficit…is that because they’ve grown out of it through practice?

    2. Elliot says:

      I’m a long-time devotee of Cal’s who also was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and attempts to be a digital minimalist. He’s a short list of some of my strategies:
      (1) Using StayFocusD and tomato-timer browser extensions to limit non-work surfing on my work computer;
      (2) Using the Bare Phone launcher on my Android phone, and disabling Chrome and Gmail (you cannot uninstall without rooting/custom roms); I still use Texting, Phone, Maps, Podcasting, Audiobooks, Work email, and Calm on my “smart” phone;
      (3) deleted all social media accounts;
      (4) time blocking (Cal’s method of scheduling every minute of the day);
      (5) working as much as possible with paper and pen;
      (6) mindfulness meditation;
      (7) studying habit formation (I’d recommend Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin; The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg; and Atomic Habits by James Clear as a start); and
      (8) take my medication

      I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have or offer any advice from my (limited) experience.

  4. Mel says:

    I’ve found the same thing happen. Time seems to have expanded. My evenings seem like huge things to fill. I’m bored more often (and this is a good thing). I’ve been better at work, better about exercise, reading more, and become much more likely to reach out to friends to go do something… in real life.

    That said, you can rip my Kindle from my cold, dead hands 😛

    1. Raphi says:

      Same here 🙂

      I keep my Kindle for travels, but when i am home i now favor the feeling of having a nice, heavy, hardcover book.

  5. EA says:

    Unfortunately I can’t due to my job (law enforcement administration, public administration) which requires some checks of Social Media feeds, but I think that the key is to become very methodical. I check my social media accounts at very specific times, and for a specific amount of time, unless we have some emergency that requires checking the pulse of the public conversations, as it happens sometimes. However, the Nokia solution is a good one for those who can go that route.

  6. This story is awesome. I gave up my smart phone nearly two years ago, and have been living a very productive lifestyle ever since. I wrote a book (The Dumb Phone Experiment), maintain a blog site on personal productivity, work out 5-6 times a week, meditate 5-7 times per week, generally relax at night, and all while working a full time job as a data scientist.

    In addition, I am a devoted husband who arguably is more present with my wife and friends.

    I am interested in who else has given up a smart phone, what your experiences have been?

  7. Scott says:

    I worked in the cell industry for (way too long) – left that circus in 2008 when the “smart” crap started. (where IS the smart in smart phones anyhow?)
    At the peak of my addition, I had 2 phones on me at all times – had to “know everything”
    With the exit of the industry, I GOT SMART and left my “phones” on the table- never to look back.
    Since 2009 its been a flip phone using voice and limited text only that has restored my SANITY. Ive slowed to the speed of life. I enjoy a bicycle ride, walk in the park or a good book (like any of Cal’s) with out phantom vibrate syndrome.
    I like ME- and my real life first. Ive come to find that if I pay more attention to others lives, remotely through a screen, that IM NOT LIVING MY LIFE, so whats the point?

  8. Neeraj says:

    Is there a dumb phone with google maps? That’s the only map I need

    1. Jem says:

      No, but you can use app blockers to “brick” a smartphone and end up with something that is way less distracting but can still do some things you might “need” (e.g. in my case maps and data messaging as nobody will be convinced to use SMS).

      1. Joe says:

        SMS might make a comeback. I had people I’ve known for years start texting via SMS in the last few months. We had always communicated by various messenger programs, but now I’m down to just one and there’s only 2 small groups that I regularly meet with that use it to coordinate day/time/location. I don’t know how many will make that move back, but the dumbphone revolution probably will help.

  9. Rafael says:

    Mr. Newport, have you ever thought to translate Digital Minimalism to Spanish? Technological skepticism is rising, and a major media company has released a campaign for responsible smartphone use.
    I believe your book would be useful to Spaniards, and be well received.

  10. Julia says:

    I thought I needed a smartphone, so I could manage my online business (and see all the pretty pictures on the infinite feeds better), but how wrong I was.

    After I have deleted my social media accounts completely, I barely look at the smartphone any more. It has lost its addictive charm. I still use the camera and Open Street Maps when I’m hiking (better than Google Maps and they don’t track you) and this is actually the reason why I don’t switch to a flip phone, but most of the time the phone sits in a drawer.

  11. Brian J. says:

    Anyone receive a mass e-mail from Newport late last night promoting “Mizzen+Main” shirts? I’ll confess that I was shocked at that. I signed up for studyhacks e-mails to be notified when a new post goes up, not to receive advertisements.

  12. Job Kwara says:

    I agree with the idea of unfollowing those pages or people that make facebook a lot of fun. I was struggling with this at some point, installing and uninstalling until i was able to create a balance in my mind and only go online when i need to complete a business. It worked for me.

  13. JJ says:

    What do people with kids do about photos? I rely on my iphone to make sure I can take photos of my kids at important (and not so important) moments. I confess I recently heard of Cal on the Hidden Brain podcast, and I have just ordered two of his books (Digital Minimalism and Deep Work) because I have been trying to cure my phone addiction for over 7 years (and my laptop addition prior to that). Maybe the books discuss the camera aspect. I hate to miss out on photos of my kids because I don’t have a smart phone. 🙁

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