One of the surprising lessons I learned working on Digital Minimalism is that when it comes to reforming your relationship with your devices, successful outcomes are less about deciding to stop harmful digital behaviors than they are about deciding to start committing to meaningful analog alternatives.
If you simply resolve to quit social media, and end up sitting on your coach, bored, white knuckling the urge to check Twitter, you’re unlikely to experience lasting change.
On the other hand, if you fill your life with hard but satisfying analog alternatives — activities that resonate with our primal urges to connect, to move, to reflect, to be surrounded by nature, to manipulate elements of the physical world with out hands — you’ll find the appeal of animated GIFs and ASCII snark to be greatly diminished.
With this in mind, I’m introducing the Analog January Challenge. It’s a collection of five commitments that last one month. They’re designed to provide you a crash course introduction to the types of satisfying analog activities that will reduce the anxious attraction of your screens.
(Note: you don’t have to begin exactly on January 1st; just block off four weeks starting on whatever day in the month you initiate the challenge.)
Here are the five commitments that make up the Analog January Challenge:
A few days ago, I took my two older boys to a small stage production of A Christmas Carol. Afterwards, me being me, I decided to read up on Charles Dickens and the backstory of his famed novella. In doing so, I came across a neat deep work-themed holiday nugget (the best type of nugget).
According to biographer Claire Tomalin, Dickens crafted much of the tale in his head while engaged in nighttime walks that covered 15 to 20 miles. As a result of this ambulatory cogitation, the entire story took only six weeks to complete in the late fall of 1843.
I like this anecdote: it provides a reminder of what’s possible when you’re able to devote hour after hour of deep thinking on one focused target.
My friend Eric Barker recently pointed my attention to an intriguing paper published earlier this fall in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. It presented a careful meta-analysis of 124 studies looking at the connections between digital media and well-being.
There’s been a lot of academic ink spilled on this subject recently. As I wrote in Digital Minimalism, correlational behavioral studies are exceedingly tricky — you can’t expect slam dunk consistency, but must instead look for general trends in the literature pointing toward some underlying signal in the noise.
Which is all to say, you shouldn’t don’t take any one study too seriously. Even with these caveats, however, I did find this one interesting, as it featured some heavyweight authors, and was clearly written to offer some authority on where the noisy literature seems to be trending at the moment.
The analysis was complicated and contained multiple noteworthy findings, but there was one result in particular I wanted to highlight:
Toward the end of class today, one of my students asked me what advice inspired by my books I’d give them as they headed into the university’s final exam period.
I thought about it for a second before recommending a simple hack that I’ve been experimenting with recently and finding useful:
Use your smartphone only for the following activities: calls, text messages, maps, and audio (songs/podcasts/books).
I suggested that my students try this for one week while studying for their exams. I further suggested that they actually record on a calendar or in a journal whether or not they succeeded in following the rule 100% for the day. One slip to check social media, or glance at email, or look up a website, and they don’t get to mark the day as a success.
In Digital Minimalism, I argued that our relationship with social media was transformed when the major platforms updated their designs to make these services less about checking on other peoples’ status, and more about checking incoming “social approval indicators,” which arrive in the form of likes, retweets, shares, hearts, streaks and tags.
This key shift, which took place between 2009 and 2012, is largely responsible for retraining us to think about social media as something to check all the time. Our current moment, in which we both accept and lament the status of our phones as constant companions, was a direct consequence of these tweaks to social media technology.
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