In this digitalized era, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, when Internet shopping, remote working, and online learning are currently in vogue, I appear to go against the norm trying to relay this message.
As a teacher, I am grateful for the opportunity to teach online these days, and because I am using this digital platform (Facebook) to spread the word, I am not opposing the advent of social media or any online tools. Almost every invention is brought to us for a good cause, but the way people utilize it has been derailing its initial purpose. Worse, many users find themselves enslaved by modern devices. An endless bombardment of news, notifications, images, and gossip has rendered us manic information addicts.
So how do you free yourself from the shackles of email, social networks, smartphones, and screens? Unfortunately, I am not going to give you any spoilers here; you would rather check this book out yourself if you are serious about being in command of your own life. You had better hear the insights and techniques directly from Cal Newport, since he certainly does a better job in putting them into words than I do. As a dedicated digital minimalist, Newport has never had a social media account, and you may find his digital doctrine fairly extreme or rigid. That being said, you can choose to follow only suggestions that work for you, or adapt relevant ideas to suit your lifestyle.
What I can do, however, is to share with you a couple of my personal accounts revolving how I have embraced the concept of digital minimalism (living better with less technology).
In January this year, I had a two-day trip to a farm lodge in Lam Dong Province (about 25 km away from downtown Da Lat). Neither Internet connection nor television was available. Having been informed that there was barely any cell signal to receive inbound calls, I was still taken aback by the seclusion of this scenic area. No Wi-Fi meant no chance for glossy check-ins. Only room for humans, pets, and Mother Nature. The chirping birds, streaming waterfalls, thriving pine trees, shimmering stars, cozy campfires, and picturesque landscape were what made the experience here heavenly. During my retreat, I was able to truly unplug from the hustling noise of urban life, reconnect to myself, reclaim leisure, and just live slow. Yet, this was not the first time I had myself disconnected from the digital world.
By the time I resumed my online presence in late 2018, I had undertaken an approximate two-year hiatus. No Facebook, no Instagram, no Viber, no WhatsApp. Social applications went uninstalled in my phone. It was the time when I reckoned that I had hit the lowest low in my life. Job dissatisfaction, family bereavement, severely ill father, heartbreak, backstabbing: all flooded at once, leaving me trembling and devastated. I could hardly stand firm on my feet. People who were unfamiliar with me and baffled by my disappearance speculated that I was trying to escape from the world. Some added that keeping a low profile was indicative of cowardice, that I was not bold enough to confront the issues, that I failed to measure up to their expectations. I silenced. Because they were partially correct.
In the months that followed, I locked myself in my room, doubting if someone was willing to hear me out. Though I knew there existed that someone, I wished a divine power could have given me strength to open up. Apart from my inner circle, I talked to nobody else. Peace talks were what I did when there was only me, myself and I. I kept chanting “Everything will be fine,” and it was. I carried my resolve that I could cure my own problems, that I should shoulder the burden of trauma and heartache, that wounds would heal. Without any distractions, I found it much easier to declutter my mind, stay true to my feelings, find the guts to weather the storm, and regain balance. It was also the time when I started to practice meditation as part of my quest for inner serenity.
In retrospect, I have to say it was the most liberating experience I had ever had. A blessing in disguise. A life-changing milestone. It was those two years of hibernation and dormancy that brought me clarity to an array of pressing questions about my own identity, my life purpose, and my everything. I was able to rekindle my spirit and revitalize myself. I was able to walk the very first steps of the path I carved and reap the first fruits of my labor. To my amazement, I came out as a bigger person and a stronger human being. I began anew.
It suddenly dawned on me that life without social media was possible.
The urge behind my online comeback should be covered on another occasion. What I am trying to convey here is you do not have to undergo any personal crisis or tragic incidents to opt for digital minimalism. You can still manage to be online while maintaining a ‘lagom’ amount of usage (lagom means just right). Here are what I have been doing for the sake of online detoxification.
- Turn on airplane mode. It helps me cultivate intense focus and dive into deep work when I want to concentrate on having my work done for a few hours and if I am not expecting any phone call or text message. This mode is also activated while I sleep.
- Set time limits for applications. I am not sure of how other brands work, but for iPhone users, you can either choose daily limits for entire categories of apps (such as games, social networking) or add limits manually for each app. Go to Settings > Screen Time > Tap App Limits > Tap Add Limit. For parents who seek to monitor and restrict your children’s phone usage, you can create a Screen Time Passcode. Once the kids have hit their time limits on apps, extensions cannot be enabled without entering the passcode.
- Monitor screen time. Go to Settings > Screen Time > Tap on Screen Time. With this tool, I receive a weekly report (every Monday morning) about the percentage increase or decrease in the amount of time I spend on my phone compared to the previous week.
- Delete unnecessary applications. Put more energy into what makes you happy, and ruthlessly strip away the things that don’t.
- Turn off push notifications. I have this function activated for most of my apps and check the notifications during my allotted time for online entertainment.
- No phone while eating and sitting with family or friends. The benefits go beyond being able to relish the moment; you show respect for those you spend quality time with. Be fully present.
- No phone use 1 – 2 hours before bed. The blue light from screens suppresses the release of sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Also, refrain from keeping your phone under your pillow; keep it at least a few feet away from your bed. Phones emit radio frequency energy, which some scientists believe could increase the risk of brain cancer.
I am not pretending to be a role model or any equivalent title. Once in a while, I fail to live by the rules I set. There are days I choose to respond to messages just before bedtime, or ignore my time limits because of some alluring content. But it is just better having a plan that helps me stay guided and get back on track the next day than none. I am still learning.
Be mindful about your online consumption. With self-control and discipline, you will make it.