Digital essentialism

Or why this blog even exists.

At the end of 2020, inspired by the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I decided to go on a 30 day social media detox where I uninstalled both Twitter and Instagram — and I never fully came back from that. (TikTok was never in the picture for me.)

There are many reasons why I decided to try out this detox. I was exhausted from the constant stream of attention grabbing stimuli that was optimized for instant agreeability and likability with little room for nuance. I didn’t like having to compare my life to the sum of everyone else’s highlight reels. I didn’t like that I too was part of the problem, and I would catch myself not living in the moment, and instead thinking about how it can be best shared in some relatable story or tweet. I didn’t like that my attention span seemed to be getting shorter and shorter. I didn’t like being told that the world is going to ruins in a million different ways, and I hated not knowing what to do about any of it, or having the headspace to form my own thoughts around it all.

So I took the leap. I hit the x button on the worse offending apps on my Home Screen. During the first few weeks, I would catch myself unlocking my phone to open Twitter or Instagram, but finding neither app. For the first months or so, I would still compose tweets in my head, or think about how nice some photos I took would look in an Instagram story.

But all of that faded rather quickly, and I noticed myself in a state I hadn’t been in a while: I was bored!

Before, when my brain experienced any kind of idle state, I would reach for my phone, open Twitter or Instagram, et voilà, an endless stream of stimuli. Now, I was left with nothing but time and space for my own thoughts.

A healthy brain is, by nature, very curious. It doesn’t want to do nothing. The difference now was that I could use my newfound boredom to be intentional about how and how much to fill this nothingness, instead of letting Twitter and Instagram’s algorithms decide that for me.

I won’t get into what I did with this newfound time and space quite yet (that can be a topic for another post), but I know that I enjoyed my time off Twitter and Instagram so much that I still don’t have those apps installed on my phone.

But I still haven’t attempted to address this apparent contradiction that I am writing this blog post about how great it is to not use Twitter or social media platforms, and then proceeding to sharing it on Twitter. Let me try to explain.

It took me a year and a half, but I’ve come to the conclusion that despite its problems, the Internet is a beautiful place. It is where I’ve met new friends, found inspiration, and learned new things.

The conclusion that I’ve come to is that I don’t necessarily want to minimize my interaction with the digital world, but to identify what is most essential to live a life that is most fulfilling to me.

But I needed this initial minimization to zero to give myself the mental space to figure out what is most essential to me.

For me, Twitter has always been a great tool to connect with people around the world, as long as it doesn’t keep me distracted all the time. As an experiment, I’m using Twitter only through the mobile website, which I find far less addicting to use (perhaps due to its clunkier interface), and continuing to rely on it as a platform to share longer form thoughts I put here on this blog. As for Instagram, I still haven’t figured out a more mindful way of using it, so if anyone has had any success there, please let me know.

Anyway, thank you for reading until the end (you must have a decent attention span 😉), and please let me know what your thoughts are!

Resources:

Here are some of books that helped develop my thoughts around digital minimalism / essentialism:

  • Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
  • Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
  • Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Anna Lembke

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6 responses to “Digital essentialism”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Ayaka. I feel where you’re coming from and appreciate the way you’ve articulated the quandary of existing in our digital age. I’ve been working through this myself and certainly don’t have all the answers. I’m grateful for the positive nudge you’ve provided.

    I’ve yet to read Anna Lembke’s Dopamine Nation. Were there particular insights that stood out to you from her book that were not present in the others?

    • Hi Jon, that is a great question, and thank you for reading my blog post (and being the first to comment)! What I liked specifically about Dopamine Nation is that it focuses more on the science of how our brains get addicted to dopamine and how to combat it (in a very engaging and non-dry way), whereas the other books seemed to focus more on personal experience and philosophy. I hope that helps. If you liked the other three books, I think you’ll enjoy this one too. Let me know if you end up reading it!

      • Thanks so much for the added insight into Dopamine Nation, Ayaka. I value approaching things from a grounded, scientific perspective, so imagine I’ll get a lot out of it. I’ve placed a copy on hold at my local library and look forward to digging in.

        Over the past few years, I’ve learned that nearly all of the deep psychological tactics employed by modern social networks have been pioneered by alumni from Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, which was headed by BJ Fogg at the time. While I’ve yet to read his 2002 book, Persuasive Technology, I’ve found it helpful to take in some of the other work he’s published in order to get a better handle on the mechanics underlying my own responses to these technologies. To Fogg’s credit, it’s heartening to know that he has come to recognize much of what you’ve laid out in this post and, among other positive pursuits, is currently spearheading research into helping people reduce unproductive time spent with technology on a global scale.

        I admire your work and appreciate the perspective you bring, Ayaka. I’m excited to hear more about what you’ve done with the newfound time and space you’ve unlocked.

      • I just finished Anna Lembke’s Dopamine Nation. It certainly delves much deeper into what’s happening on a neural level with dopamine. In contrast to the other three books, which focus more acutely on social media use, I was not expecting some of the darker corners of the human condition and addiction that it explored. The point she makes towards the end of the book about the fact that any behaviour that leads to an increase in dopamine has the potential to be exploited I think succinctly encapsulates the potential hazard of the current state of social media.

        Anhedonia (the clinical condition of no longer being able to experience pleasure) was a novel concept to me. I appreciated the way that she paralleled the addiction pathway that leads to this mental state to her own journey reading romance novels. Reading the same thrilling novel a second or third time won’t yield the same dopamine rush as the very first time and by the nth time the pleasure of the experience becomes increasingly negligible. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that it is feasible to cross over the clinical point of anhedonia scrolling on the social media timeline treadmill.

        The most exciting prospect I learned reading Dopamine Nation is that exercise has been shown to promote the growth of new neurons—which is something I had previously understood to be impossible in adulthood. I’m still digging into the actual science behind that claim, which only appears to have been verified in mice and rats as far I can tell so far. Coincidentally, the title of one of the papers is ‘Effects of Chronic Treadmill Running on Neurogenesis’ which feels a bit uncanny on the heels of the preceding paragraph.

        I learned a lot that I wasn’t previously aware of through this read. Thanks for the recommendation, Ayaka.

      • I’m glad the book was able to surprise you by bringing up some of the darker corners of the human condition. It surprised me as well by bringing forth a stark juxtaposition of our addictions to screens (quite literally lit by nits) and the darker, less palatable additions, such as to sex (as for one of the author’s patients) and romance novels (as for the author herself). The fact that these addictions are equivalent at a chemical level helped me further take social media addiction as a serious issue, but more positively, something that can be treated in a similar way as other types of addictions.

        I too am excited about the prospect of exercise being able to promote the growth of new neurons. I’d love to hear what you end up discovering in your digging behind the science. Speaking of treadmills, I really don’t like treadmills and get more tired after a 10 minute run on a treadmill compared to a 1 hour run outside — maybe there is some sort of metaphor there as well. 🙂

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book, Jon. I might have another book recommendation (related to exercise), but I can’t currently remember that much about it besides the fact I enjoyed reading it, so more on that later once I can better support my recommendation.

      • I’m with you on not enjoying treadmills. I’d much rather go on a trail run. Likewise for paddling. It’s rare I last longer than 20 minutes on a rowing machine, but can go for hours when it comes to being out on a canoe or paddle board. Sculling, which is a bit more analogous to being on a rowing machine, isn’t something I’ve had as much access to, but even on those rare occasions I found that the time out on the water passed quickly. I imagine the feeling likely has psychological parallels to Dan Ariely’s Lego experiment that explored what motivates us to persist in doing things. The findings of the study essentially distilled down our need to feel a sense of purpose in what we’re doing and to have a constant feedback loop of progress in order to thrive in the activity being pursued. Neither of those needs is fulfilled particularly well on a treadmill, but both are inherent in going for a run outside.

        I’m interested to hear what book you have in mind. On the subject of running, I enjoyed Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run when I read it a number of years ago. I found the follow-up, Natural Born Heroes, less cohesive, but still drew several memorable learnings from it. Mostly pertaining to myofascia and the history of parkeur, along with the food and landscape of Cyprus.

        Congrats on recently completing your first half-marathon! That is a notable feat.

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