Digital detox reflections/an update on this space

Posted on Sep 21, 2021

An update

So, as I mentioned in this post, I tried a “digital detox” for about 30 days. Overall, I’d say it was a worthwhile experience, one with some surprising outcomes.

A bit of housekeeping regarding this space — I gained a newfound appreciation for simplicity during that time. In that spirit, I decided to import all of my “longform” blog posts here and moved the domain name for robertsapunarich.com to point to here, and retire my Github Pages site. So, if you’re subscribed to robertsapunarich.micro.blog, go ahead and update your subscription to the feed here (those of you who follow me in the Micro.blog app may have missed a post from the other day due to the domain name change).

Manton’s done a great job with Micro.blog, and its simplicity works for my purposes. I have an about page, and links to writing elsewhere. In a roundabout way, the clarification of values that came from the detox led to this decision — something I’ll discuss in a bit.

Why

I don’t use any social media at all. I don’t need to belabor the reasons why — others have already done that work better than I ever have.

Nonetheless, we are all victims of the global lobotomy to some degree, and I’m no exception. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the machine has become so totalizing in its effects that its influence can be felt even if you don’t explicitly opt in to it. Less opaquely, I would argue that the feedback mechanisms of The Bird App, et. al., have in various ways shaped journalism, literature, language, and human behavior so that it’s optimized for consumption and engagement. The fact that I regularly hear the term “content” unreflectively deployed in everday conversation is but one example of what I’m talking about.

But I would also argue that distraction and self-justification are innate human desires that the Bay Area overlords are simply exploiting and cultivating, not creating. So, despite my preference for RSS and newsletters, they still act as means for me to pursue my inveterate need to sate those desires. For me, knowledge has always been something I used to define, or defend myself.

So it came about that sometime mid-August of this year, I found myself unable to focus, anxious, depressed, cranky, cynical, and bitter. I don’t remember the exact impetus, but I realized that I needed to change some things.

The detox

Cal Newport’s book helpfully outlines instructions for a digital detox, especially some strategies for those whose work requires they be chained to certain technologies. While he assumes readers are currently using social media, his advice is still applicable for those who don’t.

Basically, my rules were:

  • Slack removed from the phone.
  • All email accounts removed from the phone.
  • Web browser disabled on my phone.
  • No reading newsletters.
  • No reading blogs.
  • No checking micro.blog.
  • No reading news. My wife would summarize the headlines for me in ten seconds.
  • No web reading, really.
  • Deleting all articles from pocket that weren’t work-learning related.
  • Check work and personal email once a day.

Additionally, I used Freedom to create blocklists and all day sessions to create some friction. Since I’m a Firefox user, Impulse Blocker also augmented the friction nicely.

Excessive? Maybe, but so were my digital habits.

Findings

  • The first week was difficult. The FOMO was real. But the second week of the detox, we went on vacation with some friends to Hatteras. I can honestly say that I did not miss the online world. Games, beach, reading, and just lounging around were sufficiently preoccupying.
  • Most news, when discussed, felt increasingly irrelevant.
  • The assumption that I need to be “plugged in” or “participating in ‘the discourse’” seemed increasingly silly.
  • I sometimes found myself thinking of clever things to share, or thinking that something would make a good blog. I realized I had become habituated to living a performative life. Having been a regular user of the internet for the past 16-ish years, this was unsurprising.
  • Once I left my phone at home when we went to church. At times I would instinctively reach for it, but I actually didn’t feel that disconnected. It felt very normal to be without it.

Outcomes

Let me be clear — I didn’t become hyperfocused, found a new company, or master the piano as time went on. If anything, I found myself becoming contented with limits. But, I would say the outcomes have been surprising and still beneficial.

  • I decided that a smartphone is worth having. Mostly for maps and music, but also messaging friends and sending pictures. BUT…
  • I can do without the browser. If someone sends me something to look at, I can look it up later. I don’t need to react then and there.
  • Work Slack can stay — my company respects the lives of their employees, so it’s not much of an intrusion. But recreational Slacks provided too much distraction.
  • I unsubscribed from blogs and newsletters with abandon. I don’t have a count of how many I dropped, but I’m confident that I deleted more than I kept. Particularly, I ditched most stuff that’s mostly concerned with politics/current events/The Discourse.
  • I began to look at my stack of unread books in a different light. This one was interesting. I realized how I often would pick up a book because it seemed like something I should read or be knowledgeable about, rather than something that truly interested me. Charlottesville has a lot of little neighborhood libraries that’ll ensure these books get to good homes.
  • I started playing guitar a lot more, and now I’m getting to play music in church, which I haven’t done for almost ten years.
  • I realized how much of my identity I had tacitly wrapped up in writing, even if I didn’t write all that much. I’m an English major who pivoted into software. When I was in undergrad, I received accolades and awards, was invited to present at a conference, and was strongly encouraged to pursue a career in academia. It came naturally for me. And I long harbored a desire to work with words again. But I’m not what I produce, and for too long I’ve believed that I am. Consolidating my web presence here was a way of decisively removing any notion of a “professional” web presence. I know what I need to do to grow in the work I have right now, and it doesn’t involve a blog.

I’m unsure of what all the above means, and I don’t think that I’m immune to picking up old habits again. But, I’m thankful for the experience and the things I’ve learned from it. I highly recommend everyone do this. You might be surprised what you learn.