A couple of weeks ago at bed time, I got into a huge screaming match with my daughter. This isn’t totally out of the ordinary—bedtime is often frustrating because it’s usually when she realizes things like, Oh, there’s a Disco Day at school tomorrow and she's responsible for making the disco ball! Or, she suddenly remembers ALL THE HOMEWORK SHE TOLD ME SHE DIDN’T HAVE. But on that night we were fighting about my nemesis: screens. The iPad. Or my computer. Or my phone. All of which she uses to watch shows or YouTube or occasionally play games. I think this is the problem for every modern family whose children were born after smartphones and iPads: how often, how much, do we let them use the damn things?
That night she’d taken my phone to “write me a note.” It was after nine, which means I’m super-fucking-cranky because in this season of book writing I’ve been getting up extra early to write and so by 8pm, I’m toast. By 9pm, if I’m still up, I’m homicidal. I’d already taken the iPad away, and then she grabbed my phone.
“Just one second mama, I’m going to write you a note!”
“Okay, but hurry. 30 seconds.”
Thirty seconds passes.
“Alma, enough, give me my phone.”
“Hold on, I’m almost done.”
Thirty more seconds.
“Hold on! I’m trying to finish!”
Two more minutes….
I lost my shit.
I mean, I really, really, really lost my shit.
I went Linda Blair on her.
Now, it’s hard to startle my kid. She enjoys a good screaming match. But she finally stopped what she was doing and she handed me the phone (ok, she threw it at me). I went downstairs to collect myself, and after a few minutes, returned, and we talked.
I explained to her that I wasn’t mad at her, that I hated these damn things (pointing to the phone and the iPad stacked on the dresser), that I hated what they’ve done to me, and I hate that I see them doing the same things to her. I hate that they’re always in our hands and that we ignore each other because of them and that it’s a struggle every night for her to turn the iPad off and that it’s also a struggle for me to turn off my damn phone. I yelled at her because I was frustrated and angry because it feels completely out of control.
I told her I was mad at myself.
I’ve had many moments like this over the years, where I’ve realized my use of social media seems to have me by the throat. I remember the first time I started thinking in Facebook status updates, as in, I’d write a post in my mind to describe something I was experiencing to try and find the best, funniest, most catchy way to phrase it. Then, it turned to Instagram. When I started using social media for my work and not just my personal life, it morphed into a different thing entirely. Because I started to equate the number of followers I have with how successful I am, or could be. And so even when I felt like it was making me feel crazy, I simultaneously felt like I had no choice but to be there if I wanted to stay in the game. Even though I noticed, over and over again, how much time and attention these little apps on my phone pulled away, I couldn’t stop hitting refresh 100x a day. I justified my time on there (upwards of 5 hours/day, according to the new iOS Screen Time functionality) as being “important for work” and “part of my job”. And to be honest, having my attention on my phone, accumulating likes and responding to comments and feeling that temporary hit of accomplishment or connection—even just mindlessly scrolling, long after the images and words have any meaning—it was easier and felt better than being in the moment, whatever the moment was.
So, I thought, I just need to have more rules around social media. Social media was the problem. I deleted Facebook off my phone, that was easy. Twitter too. With Instagram, I took a few breaks, including a months-long one last year. When I came back, I created rules around it, like deleting it off my phone at a set time each night, then re-installing it the next day. Deleting it on the weekends. Creating a time limit within Screen Time. I tried to control the problem the same way I tried to control drinking: No hard liquor! No brown liquors! No drinking Monday-Thursday! A glass of water between each drink! It worked for a while, but eventually I’m waking up face down on my bed, fully-clothed, with the imprint of my phone on my face from passing out mid-text. Ughhhh.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, and I started to feel anxious about it all again. And then Meadow mentioned she was reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and it was blowing her mind. I told her I wanted to read it yet I couldn’t take in anything new right now with the writing, but then I gave in and bought it because I had the sense there was a message in it I needed to hear.
It highlighted not only the issues I suspected with social media, but also that the problem was really my phone in general. I knew this in a vague way, because I’d get pissed off about having the damn thing with me CONSTANTLY, like an appendage. I’d noticed how anxious I felt without it, how I’d get really pissed off when Alma would grab it from me, and how I rarely did anything—not even going to the goddamn bathroom—without it.
Then I started to think about all the things I use it for in a day: an alarm clock, a meditation app, to play music in the house and while I run, to check email, to text, to FaceTime, to make phone calls, to buy things on Amazon, to read the news, to take photos and doctor them up for social media, to post on social media, to comment on social media, to monitor my steps, to make Marco Polo videos with friends, to listen to podcasts, to check the weather, to pay for Starbucks, to book appointments at my gym and check yoga schedules, to book flights, to transfer money on Venmo and PayPal, to access Google docs, to edit my website, to check my bank balance and deposit checks, to read books, to listen to books, to schedule appointments, to manage the temperature in my home, to pay credit cards, to play games, to online date (when I was doing that), to make dinner reservations on Open Table, to arrange Ubers, to watch YouTube videos, to manage the forums for my courses, to look up recipes, to find quotes on Pinterest, to manage all my passwords.
Um…yeah. On one hand, it’s like Sweet! I can basically manage my entire life from my little phone weapon! On the other hand, it’s totally gross and terrifying.
I’m a technology nerd. I’ve always loved it. I played with the first computers when they came out and I have pretty quickly adopted every new device and software and marketing tool available. I had an 15-year career in digital marketing. So, I have only really ever seen this stuff as cool and positive. I mean, I knoooow the way we all kinda know that it’s a little obnoxious to see people at dinner gawking at their phones instead of speaking to each other, or to watch that episode of Black Mirror and think, Yeah, that’s pretty fucked up, but I didn’t really put together how completely ubiquitous it’s all become. I didn’t put together why I felt so frayed, and why, for years now, I have heard that small voice inside me say, Quiet. Less. Shhhh.
I thought it was about social media. But it was about all of it. It was about being on, all the time. Being connected, and open to connections, and available, and expected to respond and expecting to get a response, and creating thousands upon thousands of tiny slivers of interactions to “connect” and “be productive” simply because I could. It’s actually worse than that. I had fallen into a very intentional trap laid by tech companies who only make money if I keep picking up my phone and putting my eyeballs on their apps.
So. What to do?
First, read the book. The author, Cal Newport, is not against tech either, he’s just against using it without understanding whether it aligns with your values (meaning you have to determine what those are first), making sure you’re intentionally choosing the best method to achieve your specific goals (e.g. not using multiple methods to do the same thing), and he’s against using it without constraints. The book lays out psychological research on the effects of social media (again, not really new to me, but packaged differently), explanations for why text and social media conversations are deleterious to your relationships (new to me), how to go about determining the digital footprint and strategy that works best for you, and a concept called “Solitude Deprivation” that really made everything click for me.
I was already a huge fan of his because I read his prior book, Deep Work, and this is a perfect follow-up and complement. It sort of completed the picture for me.
These are the steps I’ve taken so far, and a few more things I’m thinking about for the future:
On my phone.
Checked my phone usage to get an accurate read on how much I was using it and on what (image to the right). This is done on an iPhone in Settings —> Screen Time. Beware, if you haven’t done this before, you might be shocked.
Daily usage: ~5 HOURS A DAY, which was down 18% from the week before.
Weekly total: 34.17 HOURS PER WEEK.
Another stat you don’t see here: I was picking up my phone on an average of 100 TIMES A DAY.
Disabled ALL notifications from my phone. Including text messages. Including calls. If I want to see if I have new text messages, I have to purposefully go into iMessages.
Deleted all social media apps. (I’ve been using a web version of Instagram—yes, it’s possible!—except for a couple instances in which I’ve downloaded the app to post a story and deleted it after posting).
Deleted Mail completely off my phone (yep, if I want to access email, I have to use my computer). This one has been tricky—I rely on quick access to information in my emails and it’s caught me off guard a few times. But I remind myself that I lived without email on my cell phone for a very long time, just like I lived without a cell phone for a very long time, so I just need to properly organize myself again.
Deleted all apps that I can otherwise use as a website. See: Amazon, PayPal, Stripe, Expedia, etc.
Put my phone permanently on Do Not Disturb, which means all calls go to voicemail first, except my “Favorites” (family, a few friends, emergency numbers).
Shut it off completely each night at 9pm, or before. I turn it back on two hours after I wake up. I’m using the good ol’ fashioned alarm clock again, and I may consider getting a house phone because it does concern me to not be reachable in emergencies.
Deleted my Twitter account (again), with 4k followers.
Deleted LinkedIn (never used it).
Deleted Snapchat (no idea why I had this).
Deleted my Medium account, with 3k followers.
After I post this, I am deleting my Facebook business page with 19k followers. I’m keeping my personal account up because I like the archive of memories and keeping in touch with a few friends and family in different parts of the world, but I’ll be narrowing the people I am connected with to those I actually know. I rarely post there or check it anyway.
Instagram — for now, because I like the idea of one platform and I still find value there. But, limiting use to posting from the web browser once a day.
Pinterest — because my assistant posts my blogs and podcast episodes there, and it is a good traffic generator for my website—I don’t use it otherwise.
What I’ve noticed so far.
I’ve used my phone significantly less. Current usage averages 1-2 hours a day, including FaceTime and reading books (I have a Kindle on the way so won’t be using it to read anymore, which is annoying anyway).
I’ve been far more productive with my writing than ever before.
I still find myself reaching for my phone quite often, but once I check for texts, there’s honestly nothing else to do on it so after a few unsatisfying moments, I put it back and find something else to do.
I’ve had better nights with my daughter on the whole. I used to do everything I did with her with my phone in my hand: eat dinner, help with her homework, watch a movie. I was half with her, half in my phone. Again, it was a whole lot like how I used to drink wine in the evenings. I’ve been leaving it in my purse, upstairs in the bedroom or wherever, and forgetting about it. It’s an adjustment, but so far I feel a lot less frayed overall. Like there’s not something I’m constantly missing, or needing to see, or catch, or respond to.
What I’m aiming toward.
When I think about how I really want to spend my life, these are the two primary things that come to mind: being with and there for the people I love, and writing books. There are more, of course. I love teaching, and speaking, and traveling—I want to do a lot more of all those things. I love running a business, and I want to keep growing it. I want to play, and explore, and create art, and learn an instrument. I want to buy a home on the water and have a big library and an art room and perhaps live in another part of the country. I would love to have a partner. But when I really boil it down, those are the two things that always remain, and so, when I look at how I spend my time through that lens it makes decisions relatively clear (not always easy). Does what I’m doing support my primary relationships and my writing, or not?
I like to imagine a social-media free life in theory, but for now, I’m keeping Instagram. And, because I do love to write, and emails still feel intimate and fun to me, I’m going to have my email list be the primary way to stay connected with people who want to hear from me. There are also business reasons to do this: nobody “owns” the people who follow them on social media. If Instagram or Facebook or Twitter decides today to change their algorithm or do away with the platform entirely, those connections are gone, instantaneously. The services are free and we aren’t owed anything. The fact that email lists require a consent on both my part and the subscriber makes it different—we both, ostensibly, want to be there. And, we can both opt out at any time. Plus, I pay for an email service and I’m very clear on what it offers and how it works. Facebook and Instagram? Nobody really knows. The latest statistic I read said that posts on both platforms now reach 5% of your following. That’s 5 out of 100 people. They’re of course doing this because they want people to pay to play. Fair enough. But as a marketing strategy? No thanks.
There is some definite fear around this, in terms of what it might mean for my business and my ability to sell future books. Publishers want bigger platforms, not shrinking ones. But they also like actual books, which require actual time and attention to write. There’s also the fear from a personal standpoint. Will I lose connection to people outside of my primary circle by being less available, less everywhere? The answer is probably yes. But I have to trust it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. I keep reminding myself that Mary Oliver never stepped foot on social media, and somehow I found her, and so did millions of others.
I will continue to podcast every week, because I love it. And also, to blog here occasionally: quality over quantity.
Wish me luck. And I wish you luck, too. And of course, please subscribe to my newsletter below. :)
If you’re interested in going even deeper on this, this week’s Spiritualish episode will take you there. Listen to Ep. 56: Digital Minimalism.