Digital declutter: My plan to take a 30-day break from optional technology

I was wary of the role technology played in my life before I became a mother, but I began more closely examining this part of my daily existence after having a child in November 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic, winter in New Jersey and caring for a newborn all united to make what I already felt was a problematic relationship with my phone worse.

I found myself aimlessly scrolling social media feeds while watching my son. I carried my phone with me everywhere, and, at the slightest hint of boredom or social anxiety, I took it out to fill the time. I tried to limit my phone usage in a number of ways over the last 22 months, including:

  • Using Android’s Digital Wellbeing & Parental Controls settings to put limits on how much time I could spend using certain apps in a day. These were mostly social media apps, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but also included a few news apps and Two Dots because I can’t get enough of that game.
  • Turning off notifications for most apps.
  • Pledging to plug and leave my phone in a room other than the one I’m sleeping in for the night (and usually sticking to that pledge for about a week before I returned to the habit of keeping my phone bedside).

Even with those changes — or attempts at changes — I was still frequently using my phone more than I wanted or had planned. I first heard about Cal Newport’s “Digital Minalism” while reading the comments on a Facebook post (of course) of a friend who was expressing concern about his own smartphone use. The idea of taking a different approach to technology was appealing to me, so I found Newport’s book in my local library, and I read it in early August.

I’d recommend it to you if you ever questioned why and how you use your phone, and I’d particularly recommend it to you if you are interested in making changes in the way you use technology in your life. Newport’s book provides clear and simple advice to help you set workable boundaries for your phone and other distracting digital technology.

One of the first steps is what he calls a “digital declutter.” The “digital declutter” is a 30-day break from any apps, websites, streaming services, games or other new technologies in your life that you deem optional. To Newport, optional means “you can step away from them without creating harm or major problems in your professional or personal life.”

For everything that’s not optional, you create a set of standard operating procedures to manage your use of them. Here are a few of the standard operating procedures I plan to use for mandatory technologies in my life when I officially start my digital declutter:

  • Facebook & Twitter: I manage social media accounts for my day job, so I can’t stop using them completely. They are, however, some of the biggest time sucks for me, so my plan of attack is to only check these accounts during the work day and on my work computer.
  • Google: I spend a lot of time searching the web for random things that come up during the day. My plan here is to use Google, as needed, for work searches. For personal searches, I will compile a list of items I want to search for and set aside time on the weekend to look them up.
  • PBS Kids/HBO Max: Both streaming platforms carry Sesame Street, which my toddler loves and which helps me manage being a full-time working mother while not feeling as guilty as I would if the show wasn’t educational. So, PBS Kids/HBO Max are mandatory but only to be used for limited Elmo time.
  • Calls/texts: I’m using the ability to schedule “Do Not Disturb” windows of time on my Android to limit when I can openly receive calls and texts from anyone. I also created a priority list of contacts who can reach me no matter what.
  • Camera: My rule for my phone camera is that I will only use it to document something novel or new that I can’t capture on pen and paper. This means I will probably still take too many photos of my toddler but maybe fewer photos of things I can just as easily write down to remember.

I’m officially starting my digital declutter on September 1. I’ll report back on my progress.

In addition to, and ideally before, the digital declutter, Newport recommends developing a seasonal leisure plan that sets goals for what you want to accomplish during your leisure time. Newport refreshes his seasonal plan three times a year, but you could do a quarterly or bi-annual plan. Since I also work in a university environment, I liked Newport’s approach of planning in late August/September for fall/winter, mid-January for winter/spring and May for summer.

Since I’m trying to use my phone more thoughtfully and less frequently, I took the opportunity of developing a seasonal leisure plan to buy myself a planner. I bought the Clever Fox planner for $24.99 off Amazon. As someone who previously used cheap, daily planners from pharmacy chains, this is the most I’ve ever spent on a planner, and it isn’t for a full year. I bought it because I liked that it was dateless, so you could start at any time. I also wanted something with long-term goal-setting pages and daily scheduling pages, and this planner has those features too.

I started using the planner last week to set up my long-term goals, and I just started using it on a daily basis today. I’ll certainly have more to say when I’ve used it for an extended period of time, but, so far, I’ve found it helps clarify my thinking about what I want to get done and the time I have to do things. The seasonal planning process has helped me clarify my short-term and long-term goals, and I expect the weekly planning I’ll be doing will help me be more productive at work and on personal projects.


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