My Experiments With Digital Minimalism
Even before mindfulness around use of technology became mainstream, I was ill at ease with my relationship with the digital world. Many years ago, when I was a student at a management institute, I used to get tortured by what we labelled as ‘Sunday evening waali gandi feeling’. (The dreadful feeling on Sunday evening). It was a feeling emanating out of having wasted the entire weekend binge-watching Friends when you know you could have put that time to much better use; the way you planned it on Friday afternoon. Increasingly, I was getting that feeling almost every day having mindlessly scrolled down the rabbit-hole of either Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or all of the above. This was accompanied by self-loathing and a resolve to make tomorrow meaningful, only to get back to the same place each evening.
Over the years, I tried several things to overcome this. I bought a Samsung Guru feature phone which had no internet on it and even typing a short message, required monk-like patience. I had to frequently request the missus to book an Uber for me or let me use her phone for maps and I soon realised that I had thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Next, I tried apps that blocked apps with some initial success but the ease of unblocking (invariably, just this once) proved too strong to resist. Attempts to access the Internet at only fixed timings during the day also met with the same fate.
That is when, like the frustrated guy with a paunch finds ab-cruncher (as shown on TV), I found a book by Cal Newport called Digital Minimalism. I am not a big fan of the self-help genre especially when it comes with woolly advice like ‘Always be positive’ but I am all for knowing about specific productivity hacks from practitioners and at least giving some of them a spin. I had found Cal’s earlier book ‘Deep Work’ quite insightful as it had some specific and executable recommendations.
The aha moment from Digital Minimalism for me was – ‘Think about what you really care about and only keep those technological tools that help you in those pursuits. Mercilessly get rid of all else.’
So one evening I listed down things I cared about. The list came to four items.
- The missus, a few members of the family and a few friends
- Physical fitness
- Peace of Mind
As an aside, the list of people I really cared about came to just 14 and surprisingly, I hadn’t met three of those 14 in the past two years. I then listed the apps I needed for these four things along with utility apps like Uber, Maps etc.
Apart from the office desktop, I have three digital devices ; two phones and one tablet. I created an app architecture of allowed apps for each of these devices and deleted all the rest.
My daily average screen time before this weekend of epiphany was 5 hours and 7 minutes and the apps that I had deleted put together had contributed 2 hours and 18 minutes to this.
The chief culprits were WhatsApp (1 hour 5 minutes), Twitter (30 minutes), YouTube (23 minutes), Instagram (15 minutes) and Facebook (5 minutes). So, by deleting all these, I potentially created over two hours in my waking day.
I have been on this Digital Minimalism program for eight weeks now and my average screen time is down to about three hours, so unlike what Yogi Berra thought, there was no difference between theory and practice at least in this case.
To be sure, the idea here wasn’t to target a specific screen-time but to have zero regret about time spent.
My workouts are on an app and that gets counted as 45-60 minutes of screen time each day, in most meetings I tend to use EverNote which gets counted as screen time and on a long commute one day I watched a movie on the tablet which got counted too – so be it.
But I can proudly say that upwards of 95 percent of my screen time would have been for the four things I listed above and that made the Sunday evening feeling go away.
I understand that not everybody can get off these apps; like my fashion designer friend who says Instagram is a livelihood app for her or people for whom WhatsApp is a work app but I am quite convinced everybody has some amount of mindless screen-time that can be pruned. Or there are blessed people like my wife who do not ever get the Sunday evening feeling. When I explained to her what I was trying to do she said I was solving a problem that didn’t exist (for her). In her technology world view, most days she wakes up with a 40-50 item To-Do list and she will do what it takes to execute that To-Do list efficiently. There were others who thought I was going to turn into Subodh from ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ (a popular Hindi movie) – the guy who has his week planned to the minute, including 5 a.m. Yoga sessions on Sunday. I don’t think I have become a timetable but I think I have gotten better at channelling more of my time towards things I want to do.
From hereon I am just listing some of the experiences, insights and results from this eight-week experiment. This is in the nature of a travelogue and not prescriptive in any way. If it inspires, helps or even triggers a strand of thought somewhere, I would be very happy. Some results first.
- I have worked out almost every day for the past two months and this has been one of my most consistent streaks of working out. I ran two 10K runs, finishing one of them in under an hour. All put together I would have run about 100 kilometers in the past two months.
- I slept for about seven-and-a-half hours most days and was up before six a.m., feeling fairly refreshed. For a long time, I have struggled to get this rhythm and the trick here was to not let any digital devices infiltrate the bedroom. Oft cited reason for having a phone by the bedside is the morning alarm. I think this is like eating chips for nutrition. The many disadvantages of eating chips far outweigh whatever minuscule nutritional value they may have. My best ‘productivity’ purchase has been a bedside alarm clock.
- You don’t need to see how the U.S. markets closed first thing in the morning and let that green or red tick or an overflowing inbox dictate terms to you. On most days, I have managed to not look at the phone till after breakfast when I am on my way to work and you know what, no catastrophe has happened.
- Two areas where results have been short are more long form reading and establishing a meditation practice. I am not fretting about this though. I didn’t expect to go from Gangadhar to Shaktimaan in eight weeks.
- The toughest challenge was WhatsApp withdrawal symptoms for a couple of days. It was like hunger pangs you feel for first few days of a diet. The hack in both instances is to become an observer, acknowledge and label those pangs and watch them throw a mental tantrum at you, without giving in. I am sure most parents are adept at this technique. If you can tide over the moment of peak tantrum you have not only succeeded, then but also weakened the intensity of subsequent attacks.
- Before going on a WhatsApp sabbatical, I had sent a message to most of the groups that I am going off the grid. That helped create some reverse psychological pressure to stay away, especially in the first few days.
- The other worry that I had was FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). What if I miss some Breaking News on a stock that I own, and I am at a disadvantage as an investor?
- A few insights there - these days there is hardly any news that is not breaking. I would love to see a ticker say ‘not-breaking news, read whenever you have time, if at all’. Slow media i.e. newspapers actually do a good job of curating and summarising the breaking news of earlier day. I have managed to read two business dailies over last eight weeks and I must confess I have become a newspaper fan again. It’s extremely time-efficient, gives you the gist of what’s happening without the rabbit- hole or echo chamber risks of getting your news from social media. By not being on social media I was possibly late on ‘Breaking News’ by a few hours and that’s alright.
- Being off the grid, also helps you side-step frenzied but eventually useless speculation. For instance, on March 27, it was announced that the Prime Minister will address the nation at 1 p.m. From about 10 a.m. till the actual address ended would ordinarily have been a time black hole. Fortunately, I was cooped up in a meeting room and spent those hours in blissfully ignorant productivity.
- I must confess that I have an enviable network of voracious reader friends and I was relying on them to curate and send interesting material my way which they did. I term this ‘Moriarty-isation’ of reading, named after Sherlock’s nemesis Dr. James Moriarty who sits at the centre of London’s web of crime. As an aside, even as a kid, I have loved Sherlock but have been mesmerised by Moriarty.
- No matter how dedicated a productivity paragon you are, you need some frivolous entertainment; what we used to call ‘TP’ (time pass) growing up. You need to acknowledge this truth and should pre-plan for it. I found a terrific answer in Bombay Times - it’s that part of the newspaper which you see, don’t read, takes less than five minutes cover to cover and is a great micro-dose of TP. I also engaged in some old-fashioned TP with office colleagues with random, almost pointless conversations about everything under the sun and reveled in the ‘Voldemort goes chirpy’ image makeover that this facilitated.
- I had intended to use some of the freed-up time for one-on-one face-to-face interactions, a skill that in general we are deteriorating at. I made (an admittedly audacious) list of people who I admired and would love to spend an hour with and sent over a dozen ‘No Agenda’ meeting requests to close friends as well as people I barely knew. The response was overwhelming.
Some of the insights gained from these meetings are worth a separate post but I rediscovered the pleasure of ‘making conversation’ and the importance of facial expressions, voice tone and gestures; things that can’t be replaced by an emoji.
The chances of being misunderstood in a face-to-face conversation are minimal, more so when compared to digital interactions.
- Given this dynamic, it’s likely that a person will open up more about his/her true feelings, views and opinions in such interactions, rather than in digital medium or at a public talk. That’s where I feel a deeper individual connect happens rather than at a networking events or online. I remember everybody I met in these weeks and the broad contours of what we spoke about and I am sure so do they. It’s important though to set the context of these meetings right. An environment where one party wants to impress /influence the other (like in investor meetings) or is expecting some outcome, is unlikely to reveal people’s true selves.
- An unintended form of physical interaction I got into was elevator chats - it’s an underrated art form that I am going to master. There is a delightful scene in the movie Anand with Rajesh Khanna and Johnny Walker, where both chat like long-lost friends, only for Rajesh Khanna to reveal later that they had just met. Khanna calls Walker Murarilal in the movie and I met a few Murarilals in last couple of months. People want to talk, they really do.
- I decided to take a peek at WhatsApp on Gudi Padwa and had set aside two hours of the day to respond to messages received over past many weeks. Amongst the hundreds of messages that flooded the green app exactly two needed responding to. One was from my accountant (who later called up to convey the message) and other from a friend who had lost her father (I called and met her). Apart from that there was absolutely nothing of significance there. I finished ‘responding’ in less than five minutes and deleted the app again. FOMO was truly dead and buried.
- Lastly, I have realised that every five to six weeks I need a weekend to myself, ideally away from home; to pause and review, get the mind rested, organised and de-cluttered. Same way as a wood cutter would periodically sharpen his tools. There is nothing more frustrating than banging on a tree with a blunt axe.
So what now? I am not thinking too far out. I like this newfound super-power of (largely) being able to channelise my time and effort into things that I care for. Many years ago, I had read an article that explained the concept of being a time billionaire. The word billionaire is narrowly defined to mean owning and having control over a lot of money but if you can reach a stage where you own and control hundred percent of your time, you would still be a billionaire but on a different dimension. Could that be a much better dream to chase? I am searching for the answer.
Swanand Kelkar is Managing Director at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. Views are personal.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.