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On the Pleasures and Sorrows of Life Without Screens

Photo by Marketa.

I recently received a message from a friend of mine, a young man named Mike. He told me that Digital Minimalism had changed his life. Naturally, I asked him to elaborate what he meant.

In response, he listed the following changes:

  • He lost 15 pounds and dropped his body fat by six percentage points;
  • he went from being terrible at dancing to pretty good (he sent me a video of him in a dance circle to prove this claim);
  • he developed a Brazilian Ju-Jitsu practice;
  • he strengthened many relationships.

This list might seem surprising: my book is about technology, and yet none of the changes listed by Mike seem to have anything to do with social media or smartphone settings. But as I’ve learned over the past few months, his experience is actually quite common among those who take the minimalist plunge.

* * * *

When people contemplate the declutter process I suggest in my book, in which you spend 30 days away from optional technology as a prelude to simplifying your digital life, they often predict that the main challenge will be compensating for the benefits and features they’ll miss out on.

But this prediction is almost always wrong. Most people report that after a week or so of some mild withdrawal symptoms, they’re surprised by how little they miss the features of services like Twitter or Instagram.

The real problem — and this surprised me — is figuring out how to deal with all the free time this move toward minimalism suddenly injects into your life.

Here’s how a reader named Laurie described the experience of going through my digital declutter:

 “I learned that a lot of actions in my day are mindless. We all have much more time than we think we do; we just fill it with lots of scrolling.”

“Here’s what I realized: I am addicted to using my phone, specifically, using my phone to curtail boredom during ‘free periods’ in my life…My problem, which is apparently common amongst people who have done this same digital fast, is that I didn’t have a good downtime activity to engage in.”

Another reader, a philosophy professor named Anna, put it this way:

“I was left with a lot of silence.  What do I do in the evening after work when I’m home alone and really tired and it’s raining hard outside?…In the beginning, I spent a significant amount of time being bored.  I wandered the house in circles looking for something to do.”

We convince ourselves that we use our phones to fill in occasional idle moments, but stories like Laurie and Anna’s point toward a more troubling conclusion. Perhaps we initially used our phones in this manner, but over time, their role expanded, subtly pushing aside other, more sustaining activities in our lives.

Like the once purely social drinker who ends up hiding empty beer cans from his family, all this tapping and swiping has a way of shifting from an occasional distraction to a default behavior. So when you finally remove it, you’re suddenly left with a whole mess of “silence,” just you and your feelings, and an uneasy sense of not knowing what to do next.

Which brings us back to Mike.

* * * *

Faced with the sudden stretches of free time generated by minimizing his digital life, Mike decided to aggressively fill in these blanks.

He began by following my recommendation from Chapter 4 to inject more solitude into his life. He deployed what he called the “AOB method” with his phone (as in “Airplane mode, Off, and in my Bag”), to force himself to regularly be alone with his own thoughts and start getting in touch with what he cared about, what he was missing, and, most importantly, what he wanted to do with himself.

Because Mike is young (in his 20s), much of his socializing happened online, so he also decided to take proactive steps to replace this sense of connection after minimizing his digital life.

To do so, he instituted regular “office hours” each week — prescheduled time periods during which his challenge was to connect with people he cared about, either in person or on the phone.

As Mike explained to me, he ended up getting back in touch with people he hadn’t really talked to in years, and the longform analog conversation fostered a sense of connection deeper than anything he had experienced in recent memory.

Finally, Mike made a list of the concrete personal goals he wanted to pursue. He recruited a “board of directors” — an expert mentor for each goal — to help direct him and hold him accountable. It didn’t take long before the accomplishments that opened this essay began to pile up.

Laurie and Anna had similar experiences.

Though Laurie reports she’s still looking to “develop a quality leisure activity,” she’s been investing heavily into real world interactions with her friends:

I’ve met with friends for lunch, hung out with friends casually, hung out with family casually, played tennis with friends, run with friends. I even spent a weekend away with my running friends from New Hampshire.

Anna, for her part, also parlayed her boredom into more meaningful activities:

“I wrote a letter to a friend who is struggling right now and I wrote cards to some graduating seniors at my college.  I texted a friend and made plans for getting together over the weekend.  I practiced yin yoga.  And I went to bed early.”

She ended up cancelling the Netflix subscription she previously relied on to escape from life.

* * * *

This is all really hard work. It’s much easier to simply fill your time posting to Instagram or passively gorging on autoplayed video.

But Laurie reports a reduction in anxiety and stress, coupled with an improved mood.

Anna gave the following summary: “I noticed that I felt better.  Calmer.  More in touch with who I want to be and with what matters to me.”

And I’ve never seen Mike happier.

52 thoughts on “On the Pleasures and Sorrows of Life Without Screens”

  1. Great post, and I can relate. One of the most surprising things is that I find myself more willing to actually do things. After the first week, I found myself with more free time and this time is also uninterrupted. I am now going to the gym six days a week, and it’s already showing. I am also back training in martial arts. I read more (I already completed my Goodreads challenge of 25 books for 2019 and it’s not even June). The most surprising thing of all? Chores are not THAT bad. Cleaning the dishes? Fine, it’s time to think about something. Sweeping? It’s time to be alone with my thoughts. I have to say that Transcendental meditation is also helping with this inner calm too. I don’t miss social media, however I dedicate about 10 to 15 minutes to it a week.

  2. I really want to do the digital declutter and improve my life, and I’ve attempted it a few times, but the strength of my addiction is such that I can only manage 4 or 5 days through the experiment before I give up and binge-surf. It really sucks.

    • You said 4 or 5 days. That’s fine.
      Do it one more time, and get to 7 days.
      Then if you fail to continue, try one more time and get to 10. Then 15 and so on.
      I suggest that you read Atomic Habits.

    • Something I’ve observed is that those who try to just white-knuckle the declutter, often have a hard time making it through and sparking lasting change. By contrast, those who aggressively fill the space created by the declutter with reflection and experimentation, that is, to rediscover what they really want to do with their time outside of work, tend to be much more successful. I’m not sure if this is the case here, but my suggestion would be to turn some focus on the question of what you want to be doing instead of looking at screens before attempting the declutter again.

  3. I love your books, specially this one. I’m a lawyer who works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and i’m also an autonomous singer/songwriter who wants to share his music. I think of music as a second career and not just the pursue of a passion (i also loved “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”). I struggle with the decluttering idea, because i think if i stop using social media i will dissapear as a musician. I’d really be very grateful if you or one of your readers give me some advice about this. Thank you so much for so many other lessons i’ve learned in this blog.

    • Just a thought: you can try time blocking specific hours during the week when you will deal with your music-career social media.

    • I agree with Markos. Also narrow down which social media matters most and just do that.

      You ca probably also batch your posts ahead of time and pre-schedule them to be released at certain days/times.

    • Try the 3/60 rule: log on to social media no more than 3 times a week (using a laptop/desktop, on a schedule) for no more than 60 minutes total. If you work hard to make the most of those 3 quick sessions, you’ll probably find that you’re maintaining 95% of the professional benefits of social media with only 5% of the costs on your time and attention.

      That is, turn social media into just another tool in your musician’s repertoire, like a particularly good capo — something you use occasionally for a particular purpose.

    • Your more likely to disappear as a musician by disappearing in “the crowd” of social media.
      As a music producer, I reluctantly began Twitter in 2016 to be “seen”.
      Music production slowed, creativity decreased as a result of the time I spent saying “look at me, look at me – and the silly concern of Likes, hearts and re-tweets
      On the plus had gained hundreds of “followers”.
      In 2017 I studied the actual ROI on this platform and shut down the account.
      My music plays did not decrease….Till later in the year when the MUSIC I CREATED
      IMPROVED. (Because I was not distracted- and was able to create!)
      Its inverse to common social media “tactics” (But I get it because I read So Good they cant Ignore you).
      My Advice?
      Build your music craft- and let others “re-tweet” your above average work for you!

      • *I forgot to add that I have found having lots of “followers” is roughly equivalent to being rich at Monopoly.

        • Agree with Scott. I also like the 3/60 rule Cal mentioned. I’m going to test that out on the fine art website that I post my photographs to. It has networking features like social media, and find it more constructive use of time staying directly on the platform I used to share to social media.

      • To add to this, a couple years ago I corresponded with a successful professional songwriter. She had the exact same experience. Her need to cultivate her online persona sapped her creative production. Putting that aside to focus on actually writing better songs changed everything.

        A friend of mine who is a professional comedian told me a similar story. He was a blue checked Twitter personality, but realized that he had never booked anything through Twitter. Every break had come from someone seeing him perform and liking what he saw.

        I typically suggest the 3/60 rule as a way to ease people from constant social media use without the fear of disappearance. Most people who try this strategy end up, after not to long, replacing it with the 0-minute rule once they encounter the reality of what value social media actually delivers.

        • I strongly disagree with any advice to quite social media for good if you are an emerging artist. I quit social media for 2 years in 2017. In this time fellow artists built an audience of 10/ 20/ 50 thousands on instagram, they sell prints, books and workshops and I’m still like… on the beginner phase. Someone actually told me that I’m not a relevant artist because I don’t have followers on social media.
          It’s sad but that’s the way it is the world today. Don’t quit social media, be strong and learn to use it.

    • I really aprecciate all your comments. I value what Markos and Scott said and i know which platforms give me more benefits, so i will try the 3/60 rule Cal mentioned. But i agree with Scott: social media is not going to make me a better singer/songwriter, so i aspire to not use those tools and just create music that be shared by its own merits. For now, as i said, i will try the 3/60 rule. Thanks again!

  4. In the early 2000s, I participated in a weekly Saturday morning conference call with a group of 4 friends. We called it “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (stealing a movie title from the time). The idea was to discuss self-improvement in all areas of life: professional, health, relationships, and so on. The League lasted for several years before the calls petered out. Since then, one of the participants has died, and another disappeared to China. I texted the remaining two participants to see if they would be interested in a “mid-life catch up call,” and received an enthusiastic “yes!” from both. I’ve been on the digital detox officially for two weeks now. Without the detox, I doubt that I would have thought to restart the call…Saturday mornings were previously filled with mindless Twitter activity.

  5. These stories are amazing and inspiring. And I’d like to add a benefit I haven’t heard but think is a no brainer–digital detox can ultimately lead to much improved income.

    • Could you elaborate on how that happens? Do you get more ideas for side projects which lead to income? I’d love to know more about this!

  6. This is a great post. I decided to riff of of it and write my own blog post today (link below).

    A few weird tricks I’ve been doing that have been helpful include banishing the Twitter app to my mobile phone Siberia (and basically going cold turkey as a result), logging off of FB when not in use, and when posting on Twitter (browser from my desktop) I try to write my post and log off all in one breath (!).

    My blog post is here for any who are interested:

  7. I want to thank you again Dr.Cal, your book has changed how I use digital tools, esp social media. Along with your tips in Deep work, I am now much more productive, I have so much more time and energy to pursue my other interest, I no longer look for distractions when I bored, I no longer have anxiety, I cannot begin the describe the mental clarity I have now, thank you !

    • The connection between ubiquitous screens and anxiety is massively important and under-discussed. We all just shrug our shoulders and assume the background hum of unease is normal. Good for you for discovering there’s a better way to live!

  8. I’ve been sent here by my brother and it’s my first contact with this idea and Cal Newport.

    This is very interesting. Although I don’t spend much time on instagram besides posting and answering messages, I did and still do feel that boredom and a little lost in free time after I stopped playing video games everyday, which I’ve been doing for years.
    I’m thinking about joining a class and developing some other skill or trying something new.

    Any recommendation about what to do with that free time is welcome!

    • Commit to the following three things right away (trust me on this):

      * Build something (this could be a skill).
      * Join something (a group, team, whatever — so long as it meets in person and is local)
      * Connect 5 hours a week (in person, or on the phone…you’ll probably have to work pretty hard to fill this quota at first…set up calls with people you haven’t spoken to in a while; outings with friends; etc.)

  9. Forced, down-your-throat ads popping up on youtube and smartphones sure make it easier to give up screens, part in protest, part in disgust, part in reevaluating priorities in life. I also noticed that peers may or may not be supportive of our efforts, especially when they can’t reach you and realize that the cell phone has been turned off for a week at a time. I guess they will have to get used to it.

    My greatest “allies” in digital minimalism self-liberation are probably the outdoors and the libraries. I lived just fine without all the electronic crap in the 1980s, back when BMX brought me more joy than Pac-Man.

  10. Best vacation ever. Tiny town Los Algodones in Mexico just across from Yuma, AZ. Went for major dental work (excellent & cheap). Had planned on 5 days but husband needed very major fixes so it turned into 2 weeks. We parked on the USA side and walked over. Didn’t want to risk having a stray bullet found in Mexico so didn’t take the chance. Left our phones in the car. Mexican TV was almost unwatchable so we walked, ate, bought stuff, talked w/ the locals, swam, and had probably the best vacation ever even w/ root canals and worse. We believe it was due to not looking at the news constantly and checking these d… phones.

  11. Interesting. I’m in my mid 40’s but have eschewed smart phones. I greatly understand their utility and use, but only miss their helpful potential on rare occasions – if I’m driving someplace new. My spouse has an iphone and I’ve seen her slowly become more and more fixated on it and it’s always a bit unnerving. This technology that’s designed to slowly pinch away pieces of your free will and attention. I admire those that have gotten too far down the rabbit hole and are able to back out.

    I do have a phone, a flip phone. It can call and text (alpha-numeric) and take rudimentary pictures. For me it’s the right amount of technology, but it’s taken a large amount of deliberate decisions and ignoring the comments of others to avoid a smart phone. It might be a solution for those who want to stay in touch but want to stop their smart phone habit.

  12. Many years ago I discovered that being a volunteer helping other people prevented any thought of boredom on my part. In fact. Volunteering has enriched my life in many ways. It has made me more aware of the problems and needs of others less fortunate than I am and made me focus on things other than myself. The knowledge that I have picked up by listening to others is priceless. I also spend more time with my family and my dogs and am getting more exercise. Sometimes I am tempted by social media and all its temptations but I am mostly uncluttere

  13. Thank you. I would also suggest looking at “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” by Jaron Lanier (a computer visionary and entrepreneur). He explains just how toxic these companies are. Learning about how they use your data and manipulate you psychologically might motivate you to turn them off or reduce usage.

    • Absolutely recommended. This book is what finally got me off Facebook and to be much more deliberate about my instagram posting, following and connections.

  14. The article is necessary today, and I wish more people give it a try. I’ve been on the minimalist side for what feels like forever, but is probably three-four years. I have a smartphone, but I’m not active on social media. I was addicted to TV shows, but now I’m slowly cutting these out of my life too, to replace them with creative writing and music lessons. The problem is, I feel so isolated. Everyone’s talking and sending stuff to each other through social media so I’m always missing out. Sure, my friends will let me know when they want to meet, but then they’ll be talking about something or other that happened online or some TV show. Kind of feels sad, how pulling the plug makes me feel good but also so bad. Not sure for how long I’ll keep to it.

  15. I’m just on my 2nd day of digital declutter and I’ve already noticed my habit of browsing FB automatically right after I use Messenger. I removed FB on my phone yesterday so I was always at a blank after sending messages. I gained a lot of time since yesterday and I’m excited to learn more about what this digital declutter will bring me this month. Thanks a lot!

  16. Glad to have read this article. I am fortunate enough to be able to telework for the last year. As soon as I finish, the personal computer comes on. Social media is not an issue because I refuse to be such a public person, however seriously addicted to games and surfing news and then television until bedtime. I have a room full of supplies and materials for my used to be hobbies that I never seem to have time for. Duh!

  17. Looks like my boomer-age parents were right about me being on my screen too much. This article reminds me of a book I read called “The Tech-Wise Family” by Andy Crouch.

  18. What about digital detoxing in terms of reading the news? For me, the news is often the first thing I check when waking up, and I typically spend hours on my phone and computer reading. I would feel guilty and uninformed if I don’t read the news regularly to catch up on what’s happening in the world, yet I also want to cut down on the amount of time I spend. I would really appreciate any advice on this.

    • Hi Jade, I’ve had the same problem, feeling uninformed when I don’t read news and anxious and stressed when I do. I’ve completely quit reading news online (in the first week I had to block these sites manually), and have rediscovered radio news – on public radio stations. Here in Germany we have a few public radio where you can get information without falling into the trap of clickbait titles or ads, you are informed about what’s happening without spending hours on the internet. Another method could be to read the paper version of a newspaper, but only on weekends.

  19. Loved Deep Work and have recommended it to many people. I am stunned each time by how people resonate with this and are hungry for this. Have just listened to Cal’s interview on the Rich Roll Podcast – brilliant – and am going to order the new book.

    It may be covered in the book but I wonder if anyone can advise me: I am really struggling with how much time I spend watching Netflix. It used to be once or twice a week. Now it is every night for a couple of hours and I feel like my creative time is just draining away. And then at lunchtime, I often watch YouTube videos whilst I eat. These are informative and work-related but nevertheless – I just seem to watch the screen all the time. So for me, my phone isn’t a problem, social media isn’t a problem – I don’t really go near either (it helps having no mobile signal . . . ), but Netflix and YouTube really are proving tough for me to crack.

    • What Cal would recommend, I think, is a 30 day period in which you abstain from all digital distractions (The Digital Declutter). That includes streaming services, like YouTube and Netflix. This period is a reset for your habits and only after the declutter is over you can think about re-introducing certain digital services into your life. What you have to do during the declutter is fill the time you usually spend watching a screen with other activities. Mostly, you have to think about why you are using these services in the first place and what you want to do instead. The activities you should be focusing on are: developing a skill/building something, joining a club/group involving your interests (offline) and spending time with people face to face.

      I highly recommend the Digital Minimalism book as a lot of other topics, like the importance of solitude, are explained as well.

  20. Working 9 hours a day, 6 days a week gives real hard time to follow music. In today’s life style following the interest that too with netflix and youtube make harder

  21. I haven’t read the book yet and heard an interview on Hurry Slowly podcast. It ties in so well with at the moment – taking a sort of Sabbath on Fri-Sat, even though I’m not Jewish! Great to read through comments too. Such an important topic that I feel will headline mental health in a few years!

  22. I love reading these comments. I am going in order and am reading “Deep Work” right now. In the post, you say “a young man named Mike contacted you”.
    I looked under contact on your website and it said you don’t answer email. How can someone contact you with a question? Mine is: Do you conduct any learning programs about the concepts in your non-academia-books, and if not, do you mind if someone uses what you describe to create or integrate some of your material? I always like to ask permission but it is hard if there is no email address.

  23. How to survive with out using screens on daily life? It’s possible to do for some. The reality is we are now living on digital world. Using an internet is part of our daily lives. Balancing our time is the top priority to full-fill everything on time.

  24. Great article Cal. Although I’ve been off social media for a while now, I’ve recently taken the extra step of turning off the email notifications on my phone. Previously, I didn’t recognise the insidious little craving to check my phone, but since allotting a couple of periods throughout the day for email, I’ve been more engaged and able to maintain flow in work and leisure activities.

  25. I, on the contrary, have so many ideas on how to fill these free time gaps. Saying goodbye to extra digitalization is still the hardest thing for me.

  26. I know you don’t reply to all of your emails, comments, etc. Which is fine. I love you set these boundaries. It’s incredibly important. That said, thank you for the way you are challenging countless people to really consider the way they live their lives. I won’t spend 5000 words explaining what this looks like for me, but even if you aren’t making the argument people *should* get dumbphones, that people *shouldn’t* have social media accounts, I’m finding your arguments, coupled with the research I’ve seen elsewhere (Alter, Turkle, Carr, Postman, McLuhan, etc.), are enough to keep me on my trajectory. Technology isn’t evil; you and I both know that. But man, being overly connected… I never really counted the cost until now, and I wish I would have done so sooner. So again, thank you for what you’re doing. You are legitimately changing lives.


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