Becoming conscious

My desire to live simply was born in part out of my frustration with personal computing. I've been using Apple devices my whole computing life and for awhile I felt like I needed them to survive the 21st century. I know how dramatic that sounds. In retrospect, my first iMac was big, heavy, and slow, but I never noticed its quirks because it teased a whole new world of opportunity. Then PCs got smaller, sleeker, more powerful, and I grew to rely on my MacBook for all things creative.

Then iPhone happened and I never could have predicted how integral a computer would become to my life. Apps. Twitter. One day I woke up realizing I had consented to something so brazenly invasive, something I never saw coming. I have more computing power in my pocket right now than I had with any of my first few PCs. We all do. And all of a sudden we’re not speaking to one another at the dinner table. We're lonelier than ever, gawkily bungling about with our noses pressed to a screen.

Dings, pings, rings, chirps, buzzes, and vibrations took over my life and arrested my attention. I had a song for every moment, a friend to confide my every thought in, a feed to browse every morning, a feed to catch up on every evening, my entire day and every thought documented in thorough detail to a ledger I simply thought of as 'sharing'—I couldn’t even fall asleep without a some background noise. I was losing to the light, to the glow of the screen.

When I joined the company I work for the lines between work and life were blurred by my phone and computer, causing further frustration. Emails, texts, calls from clients, calls from solicitors—I felt the need to answer every one as each arrived. The to-do list beckons and my device rules my day. Before I know it my day is over. I’ve neglected rest, neglected family, neglected genuine conversation.

Perhaps worst of all, I neglected real obligations in favor of the silly little things I knock out on-screen. Every time I chose emails over wiping up the kitchen I substituted fake productivity for the real work needing attention. The desire to disconnect led me to rethink everything I was subconsciously consenting to: Debt, 'the American dream,' societal and familial norms...

For three (nonconsecutive) months last year, I did what I called the Digital Detox. It was hard. At that time, I logged out of all social media, turned on Do Not Disturb for all callers who aren’t in my Friends & Family contact group, removed all casual browsing apps like Reddit or Pinterest, and I deleted all news apps, video apps, and apps I’ve not used in the last 90 days.

This was a wonderful break from my phone. I found that during this time my attention span seemed to increase. Weirdly, I was actually less bored as I was finding unique new ways to entertain myself when waiting around for something. And I was able to read and retain so much more without my phone distracting me.

I also tried quitting the phone cold turkey. I bought a 'dumb phone'—called a LightPhone. With Light, I had a phone in the event of an emergency and I was no longer tempted by my iPhone. There were only three problems: I missed text messaging for quick missives (“omw. be there in 10”); The battery life was so-so; I found I desperately needed Google Maps, Uber, my bank app, and a weather app when traveling.

At that point I revised my Digital Detox and created a new plan. Nothing on my iPhone but a camera, flashlight, alarm clock, weather, maps, and Uber. I used parental controls to remove the Safari browser. I even went as far as to install a profile that would stop my iPhone from checking for updates.

Digital minimalism doesn’t have to be difficult. Delete every app you can from your phone and treat it first and foremost as a phone. Learn to see it as a tool. Turn off all notifications and answer people at your own leisure—there are so few true emergencies. Put your phone out of reach before bed. Put your phone away at the table.

As for my computer, once again, I have been learning to see it as a tool. I dedicate time to emails and entertainment—no Gmail, YouTube, Netflix, podcasts, or Spotify except at a designated time each day. I’ve uninstalled everything but an app I use for writing (iA Writer) and an app I use to edit photos (Lightroom). Critically important files are backed up to my two hard drives, while my computer’s internal hard drive remains empty. I don’t use cloud services.

With regard to hardware, I took a little advice from Joshua Becker. He draws a contrast between ‘technical obsolescence’ and ‘functional obsolescence.’ Technically, both of my personal devices are obsolete; Today, there are faster, more capable devices than my 2013 MacBook Air and 2016 iPhone 7. But functionally both of my devices are still going strong. They’ve been dropped and they’ve had coffee spilt on them but they’re still ticking. I think that’s important. So what if I don’t have the latest and greatest gadgets? I have what I need.

By now maybe you’re wondering what the point of all of this is. I recently reread George Orwell’s 1984. It’s as poignant as ever. The screen—if we let it—can absolutely rule our lives. For some it's comparison to others over social media, or how a phone can arrest their attention, or how they fear they're missing out when they aren’t swiping, scrolling, and double-tapping. Heed Orwell’s words: "Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious."

Further reading: "On Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport; "Device Advice," by Joshua Becker; "Letting Go of Distractions" by Leo Babauta; "Five Steps to Tackle Digital Clutter" by Brittany Bruce; "How I Simplified My Phone" by Rob Rhinehart.