Breaking the Loop
One of my key principles in life is this: If something isn’t adding, it’s subtracting. This could be taken as a statement of intent, in a way. A reminder to pare down to the essentials and remove all distractions and obstacles.
Over the past few months, I’ve started to experiment in ways I could turn this into a full-fledged philosophy; a series of principles to guide my actions. And many of the ways this started to manifest is through what we would think of as minimalism.
In addition, I’ve started to become more and more bothered by screen time. I’m far from technophobic (you’re reading this on my blog, for one) but some of the more harmful effects of technology have become bare to me. I started to resent the way technology is gamified to occupy as much of your attention as possible.
Like many people, my phone is my alarm clock, so the first thing I did in the morning was pick it up to turn it off. Then you’re inevitable confronted by the first method smartphones are designed to occupy you: notifications. When you wake up, there’s almost certainly notifications on your phone, something that must be dealt with, something to respond to, or at least something to clear.
After feeding into this cycle for the majority of my life, I started to become sickened by it. Just staring at a screen for so long everyday, without actually using the tool efficiently, became a weight on me.
The nail in the coffin came for me when I travelled to Copenhagen this past Autumn with my girlfriend. After landing in the city, we had no means of charging our phones, and so I left mine in our rented apartment for the first few days exploring in the city. In place of the phone, I had my notebook, and the city map.
In my pocket notebook, which I always carry with me, I had written some important information. The directions to our host, as well as her address and contact info. The information regarding the US Embassy, some to-dos. On the pages that followed, I had copied over some information on things we wanted to do, as well as suggestions from friends in the area, and our host.
And all the while, while we were exploring and never once did I miss my phone. If it’s not adding, it’s subtracting.
Since that time, I have made a conscious effort to limit the time I spend on my phone each day, as well as making sure the time I spend on my computer (while still a lot) is productive rather than procrastination.
While I could have just deleted my accounts and gotten rid of the technology I was using, I thought that would be more avoiding the problem rather than addressing it. Besides, most of the traffic to my website is from links shared on Facebook (hello beautiful people), and Twitter is the best means I have of connecting with a few of my internet friends. But that doesn’t mean there was nothing that could be done.
Inspired by my friend Devine Lu Linvega, I began tracking my time. Everything I do goes into a spreadsheet on my Google Drive account. That way I know what I’m spending time on, and what I need to monitor more. While his tracker is beautiful and evolving (and something I’d like to institute for myself), it doesn’t need to be more than just a sheet in a notebook. Whatever you can use to log the time you spend is worthwhile.
Next, I went through streamlining my phone to make it as efficient as possible. That way, when I am on it, I can accomplish what I hoped to without distraction. My phone has two home screens. The first contains a clock, the week’s weather forecast, and six shortcuts to commonly used apps. These are:
- Shortcut to my time tracking spreadsheet
- My photos
- Instapaper (so the time I do want to spend idly can be put to use catching up on articles)
- Google Drive
- Google Maps
In my dock, I have access to my dialer, my emails (which I have to manually check rather than being push-notified), my app drawer, Chrome, and my texting app. The second window contains my calendar and all my to-do list items.
Everything else I commonly access is done through gestures. Double tap the home button to pull up the camera. Swipe down on the screen for audio recorder. Swipe up for Twitter. Double tap the screen to make a new note in Evernote. While I still have to look through my apps every once and a while, this is few and far between. This has made a large effect on the amount I use my phone.
I have also made an effort to drastically reduce the amount of time I spend on social networks. I removed Facebook and the Facebook Messenger app from my phone. I turned off notifications on mobile and desktop. Coincidentally, while I was trying this experiment, so was one of my favorite bloggers, David over at Raptitude. Here’s his writeup. (He also wrote about tracking, which you can read here. Seriously, it’s a good blog)
He experienced a lot of the same things I did. And the scariest of which is the lengths Facebook will go to get you online. If you’re not online, they’re not making money with advertisements. Now, any time I log onto Facebook (by typing my password into the website) I am confronted with upwards of 40 notifications. I am not that popular of a guy.
Facebook generates notifications to get you online, ideally once an hour minimum. These are things like inviting you to look at a page you follow, or seeing what a friend might have posted. It doesn’t necessarily need to involve you; in fact, often it doesn’t. They aren’t messages to respond to, or people trying to communicate with you. It’s just noise.
After turning off Facebook notifications across all platforms, it did something I didn’t expect. I received an email from Facebook, telling me I had X number of notifications pending. So I disabled emails right away. (my inbox never has more than 25 messages in it, total. I’m a stickler for unsubscribing and inbox housekeeping)
Now, the only things my phone notifies me about are texts, calls, and twitter mentions.
Did it work?
It’s a step in the right direction. I’ve started to suppress the urge to methodically check my phone, or reach into my pocket whenever I have to wait somewhere. It is okay to wait. It is a gift to pause. There are still improvements to make.
In college, I took a class on existentialist philosophy. We covered Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ essay, in which he talks about the Dasein, the being-in-the-world. You cannot divorce yourself from your environment, because you are part of the environment. He talks of the anxiety we feel when we are confronted with this reality. To demonstrate, without warning my professor stopped talking. The class was small, under ten students, and entirely discussion based. We sat there for two minutes, in silent. Just looking at one another. This is not something we do often in the current world.
Next time you’re waiting in a coffeeshop, just stand there. Look at the people, smell the coffee brewing. Be in the moment. Maybe you’ll notice something new.