The Declutter Experiment
In late 2017, as part of my research for a book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I invited my mailing list subscribers to participate in an experiment I called the digital declutter.
The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.
I expected around 40 – 50 people would agree to participate in this admittedly disruptive exercise.
My guess was wrong.
More than 1,600 people signed up. We even received national attention when the New York Times wrote a nice article about the experiment.
Since January, I’ve been reading through the hundreds of reports that participants sent me about their experience with the digital declutter. I’ve been learning a lot from these case studies, but I want to focus here on one observation in particular that caught my attention: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.
Here are some real examples of this behavior from my digital declutter experiment…
–> An engineer named James realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).
–> Heather, a writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others. “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.
–> An IT professional named Andy noted that he typically reads 3 – 5 books a year. Free from the time sink of social media, he’s on track to finish 50 books in 2018.
–> Angie is a yoga instructor, but she also has BFA and used to be a professional artist. “Not spending time on social media had me thinking,” she told me, “what do I want to get good at? Making social media posts, or getting back into painting?” She choose painting. During her declutter she booked three new art shows and had her work accepted at a juried exhibition. “For me, it was simply a refocusing of my time and commitment to myself, to get better at something I love,” she said.
–> A retired stockbroker named Bob began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.
–> A PhD candidate named Alma described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”
–> Another PhD candidate named Jess tackled Anna Karenina and Infinite Jest during the declutter. “Now that I feel like I’m actively choosing what I do with my downtime, I find [hard] activities like reading more pleasurable.”
–> A government worker named Ari replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the Wall Street Journal print edition. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.
–> When a publishing executive named Leonie gave up Facebook, she had an epiphany: “I do want to connect socially,” she told me, “but for a bigger purpose, and with a specific group of people, and to share a valuable message.” So she started her own blog on a topic she finds important. “It’s early days yet, but I’m enjoying this redirection my time and creative energy into making something that’s uniquely me, instead of getting caught up in the ‘compete and compare’ culture of social media.”
–> David was a former professor looking for a new job after moving to a different state. Ignoring the traditional advice that social media is key to finding jobs (as I also recommend), he deleted his accounts and dedicated his newfound free time to a more traditional job search. “I started getting more and more job interviews,” he told me, attributing his success to being able to deeply research open positions. This effort culminated in the last last week of the declutter: “I had five job interviews in five days and two offers.” He also competed a full rewrite of a young adult novel he was writing. “So I would say this experiment was a wild success,” he concluded.
Analog Social Media
My initial interpretation of stories like the above was that tools like social media consume lots of time. Therefore, when you minimize their role in your life, you free up time for other, more valuable pursuits.
On closer inspection, however, I refined this take. Many of the people who sent me declutter stories were not simply replacing social media use with unrelated activities. In many cases, they were instead finding improved sources of the benefits that drew them to social media in the first place.
- One reason people use social media is that browsing their accounts provides a quick hit of entertainment. As many of the participants in my declutter discovered, however, old fashioned, analog activities can provide much richer entertainment. Just ask Angie about her rediscovery of painting or James about the return of his chess hobby.
- Another reason people use social media is to connect with family and friends. But many of my participants found that real world efforts to stay in touch proved more rewarding than clicking “like” or scrolling timelines. We see this, for example, in Alma spending more time with her daughters, or Bob investing energy into seriously listening to his family.
- People also use social media to stay informed and learn new ideas. But a consistent theme in the declutter stories was the overall negative impact of trying to keep up with breaking news online. Ari’s experience, in which he discovered that reading a print newspaper kept him both informed and much less anxious, was shared by many participants who explored “slower” ways to keep up with the news. And when it comes to learning new ideas, perhaps the most common observation made by declutter participants was that they ended up reading many more books. Jess and Andy’s experience of rediscovering the joy of reading are just two case studies among many similar stories that I received.
In some sense, the participants in my digital declutter experiment developed analog alternatives to social media, in which they recreated many of the benefits promised by these digital tools using more intentional real world activities.
The resulting analog social media tended to prove significantly more satisfying and rewarding than the addictive experiences offered through screens by the algorithmic attention economy. It also had the advantage of freeing participants from the sense that their personhood is constantly being sliced, diced and packaged into digital bundles to be sold to the highest bidder.
Beyond Loss Aversion
In recent decades, our culture has developed a strange loss aversion when it comes to digital consumer products.
Even people who are fed up with the deprivations of the algorithmic attention economy are often reluctant to give up services like social media because doing so might lead them to lose some benefits. Loss aversion teaches them to avoid such losses at all costs.
The experiments in analog social media described above, however, highlight an alternative to this obsession with loss aversion. Instead of treating all benefits as equal, you can instead ask what activities provide the best benefits.
Facebook, for example, might help your social life. But redirecting the 50 minutes per day the average Facebook user spends using these services toward phone conversations and real world outings will likely benefit your social life much more.
To focus on the latter is not missing out on the benefits of Facebook. It’s instead replacing Facebook with an activity that boasts an even better return on investment.
To state this more abstractly:
Focusing on the most beneficial activities to the exclusion of less beneficial alternatives can leave you better off than trying to clutter your life with everything that might offer some value.
This idea is not new. It’s the foundation of all minimalism philosophies, including my own concept of digital minimalism. But I wanted to emphasize its importance in our current moment because I think it should be part of the recently energized cultural conversation surrounding social media.
When it comes to tools like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: don’t let the fear of missing out dictate how you live your life. The most productive and fulfilled people I know often got where they are by doubling down on the activities that return them huge benefits, while happily ignoring everything else.