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What I learned from my digital declutter

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

I sat down and started writing this post quite a few months ago on the week of my birthday. One more year I had survived on a spinning blue green rock as it made another orbit around a sun some 150 million odd kilometres away.

My birthday was not a milestone or special birthday, but a birthday, nevertheless. I was but one of an estimated 323,545 born on the same day so it hardly makes me special. But as each year passes and I get a little closer to the top of the escalator, I guess every birthday increases in significance.

Not because I'm getting older, but because as each year passes, there is less time available to realise my dreams, complete that masterpiece, learn that new skill, achieve that goal or just be a bit better (or do a bit more) than the year before.

So here I am in 2020, another year older (and maybe a little bit wiser) and a mountain of opportunities and possibilities to explore. The only problem is, some of those opportunities were there last year ... and maybe even the year before. So, why aren't they being realised?

I think it was Tim Ferris that said “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. And I think he is right.

Setting a goal or a dream aside with the commitment that it will happen "someday" is just avoiding owning up to the fact that you can't or won't commit to making it happen. I feel that maybe this is an affliction that I suffer occasionally, and I'm sure many executives do also.

"'Someday' is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you."

Yeah I know. Who has the time to slam dunk every opportunity when you have to juggle work, family, friends, study, career, health, let alone any leisure time and hobbies?? I'm with you!

But then I thought some more about how I could make time. I've published articles on how to Make "Me" Time and referenced the counsel of the incredible Dr Seuss on making time for my goals. I even coach people on how to manage their time better. I have been making some good inroads and helping others, but surely there must be more I could do? And then it happened.... I discovered digital minimalism.

Cal Newport's thought provoking book "Digital Minimalism" had been on my radar for a while. I'd heard him speak about it on one of a few podcasts I listen to, and I had read a few reviews. I loved his earlier book "Deep Work" and the idea of a digital declutter sounded interesting. Not that I thought my digital time was excessive, but I figured it would be good to get back some time if I could.

So I decided I'll keep a log of my digital activity to get a handle on just how much of my time was being spent on my digital devices. In total I logged 55 days from 8 December to 31 January (the day before my birthday) on my iPhone and MacBook Pro and from 21 days on my iPad Pro from 3 January to 23 January. For recording my activity I simply used the Apple Screen Time function in Settings.

What did I find? Besides finding out that I care way too much about the weather, I discovered that these devices had taken way more of my time and attention than I had realised.

For now, I'll just look at my iPhone ( the Genghis Khan of digital domination marauding its way across my time and attention). In 55 days this is what my iPhone activity looked like:

  • 118 hours and 11 minutes of usage (an average of 2 hours, 8 minutes and 56 seconds a day)

  • 5,053 times I picked up the iPhone (an average of 92 times a day)

  • 5,757 notifications (an average of 105 times a day)

What was really staggering was that the Phone app was only in the top 10 apps I used in a day only 23 days out of the 55 days logged. So the "primary purpose" of my iPhone didn't make the top ten apps used on 32 days. Hmmm. Maybe it should have been called iApp.

Even more worrisome was the number of times the iPhone imposed itself on my day, by hitting me up with over 100 notifications each day. The biggest day for notifications was 187 times that the iPhone made a noise, vibrated or flashed at me demanding some attention. What a needy little fucker this not so innocent device now appeared to be.

Here I was thinking that my ever-present iPhone was "my" tool for "my" convenience and in reality it was a tool for an army of digital masters who were all intent on enslaving my attention. And not just a little bit of my time - over 2 hours a day on average and some days over 3 hours.

Things had to change.

“The time for action is now. It’s never too late to do something.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Adopting tips from Cal Newport and prioritising what I wanted to be spending my time on, I made a few changes and started to log my time on-line and became conscious of how I spent my time. I did this for the whole month of February and recorded it as a journal which I will produce in a post in the next few weeks.

The digital minimalism process defined by Cal Newport was a key reference for me. The key things I changed, and did were as follows:

  • I set my technology rules which was primarily that I would not access my iPhone or iPad before 8am unless I was using the device while exercising. i.e. to listen to a podcast, music, navigate a new trail or track my run.

  • I deleted most social media apps from my iPhone. Those that remained because I needed them for work, or were only mobile apps, had all notifications turned off so I could choose when I accessed the app. I set specific times in my day that I would access them.

  • I deleted all games from my iPhone and iPad.

  • I removed any apps that were not being used at all, or for a specific purpose.

  • I bought some pencils and new notebooks to write it and started writing notes to myself and journaling.

  • I set my alarm early and committed to reading in the morning for at least 30 minutes and also tried to reserve time to read every night.

  • I committed time to running and walking to create time to think and listen to podcasts.

  • I fought the compulsion to click "like".

For the first few days I noticed a little discomfort from the withdrawal which was a little like having an itch that you can't scratch or wearing jeans with no pockets and not knowing what to do with your hands. As the days went by though I started to settle into my new normal and within three weeks, I wasn't missing much of what I had turned off.

What I did start to notice was other people's infatuation with their smartphone, apple watch or similar. It started to piss me off, and I sensed I was becoming like a reformed smoker pointing out the evils of other's ways, neglecting the fact that less than a month ago I was no different.

The experience made me reflect on the social impact of smartphones and in particular their addictive nature, and how they dominate their owner's attention. Every time they are left unattended a beep, a vibration a screen message - something tugs at the attention of the owner. And if people can't find their smartphone, you can see the panic in their eyes as they frantically look for their precious device.

My mind's eye brought up images of J.R.R Tolkien's wretched character Gollum in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Gollum wants desperately to escape the addiction of the ring, his "precious", only to be forever its slave. It calls him back whenever he is without it and dominates his thoughts so he can't live without it. Even when he doesn't need to use the ring, he needs to know it is nearby and be able to look upon it, stroking it and admiring it.

Have you ever noticed when someone walks into a space, be it a room, train station, an office or a waiting area and they are alone? In nearly all cases, they will reach for their smartphone and gaze into its black screen, stroking it gently so it creates a distraction from them being alone with their thoughts.

Next time you get on a train or go into a public space and find yourself waiting for someone or something, leave your smartphone in your pocket or bag, and watch what others are doing. Then observe what is happening where you are waiting and allow yourself to let your eyes and your thoughts explore where you are. You may find it surprising.

It is now mid-June , almost five months since I removed games and non-commercial social media apps from my iPhone. I had also committed to not picking up a digital device until after 8am (I know - what a sacrifice), unless it was to listen to music or a podcast while on my morning run. By being mindful of my usage and consciously using my time to do other stuff I tried earnestly to reduce my digital time.

So how do you think I went?

Well, I checked out my usage for seven days last week and it was very interesting!

  • 5 hours and 28 minutes of usage (an average of 46 minutes and 51 seconds a day)

  • 402 times I picked up the iPhone (an average of 57 times a day)

  • 446 notifications (an average of 64 times a day)

I had reduced my average usage by 64% giving me back on average of 1 hour and 22 minutes a day - BOOYAH!

And, I had reduced the average number of times I picked up the iPhone by 37% and my average number of notifications reduced by 39%.

While I may not have slayed the digital demons stealing my time, I felt as if I had certainly tamed them. Looking at my usage and the apps that were consuming my time and attention, they were generally communication (email, messenger, messages, phone, slack), functional (navigation, trello, banking, settings, browsers) or health and entertainment (health, fitness, podcasts, music, camera). Not all of them were a must use, but they were mostly used for a specific reason, other than filling in (or stealing) space and time.

The irony of explaining my digital decluttering process on a digital publishing platform that is most likely being consumed on a smartphone or tablet is not lost on me. But consuming content is kind of a good purpose for those devices. It's when the devices are controlling you and controlling what you consume is when things start going pear-shaped.

I know now that reacting to the bombardment of sensationalised headlines, invitations to buy something, watch something, play something or "like" something is the bait that will drag me down the internet rabbit hole. A place where my clicks and time are little more than tradable commodities for the attention merchants.

With so many other things I want to commit my time towards, I needed to up the value I placed on my time and manage it better. Deleting some of the apps and not having access to things that I had previously used a lot was a little challenging. My highest scores on a few of my favourite games - gone! Facebook reminders and notifications - gone! Updates from other social media channels - gone! Weather and news updates - gone!

For a while I was actually avoiding deleting the apps and changing my ways on the excuse that "I don't have time." And when I stopped and reflected on what a pathetic excuse that was, I took action.

As Lao Tzu said:

“Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is to say, ‘I don’t want to'.” 

I'm not prepared to say, "I don't want to", not yet anyway. So that means a commitment to getting shit done and fighting what Steven Pressfield calls "the resistance".

I even found time to get this site up (which has been a long time in the thinking) and write a book (which is due out later this year). Not to mention reading 12 books so far this year (book reviews coming soon).

I've still got actions to progress from my notes that I wrote at the start of my digital declutter. But I'm ok with not actioning them immediately. I know I have time and I can probably create more time.

Do I miss any of those digital vices I used to rely on? Maybe a little, sometimes, but not enough to want me to go back and load them onto my iPhone.

Things to consider and ask yourself?

How much time are you spending on your digital devices?

And what could you do with an extra hour a day?

Let me know if you need some tips and keep an eye out for my post that captures the highlights from my declutter journals in the next week or so.

Be happy,


Image Credits:

Photo of Pencil by Yoann Siloine on Unsplash


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