A few days ago I sent an email to my readers asking why they had clicked on a podcast, but didn’t listen. After the following response from a reader, it was clear that we need to tidy up our digital lives.
I’m so entirely sick of having to listen to everything! I open my email daily to 20–30 videos, podcasts, & YouTube links. I’m over it! Let’s go back to reading!
If people’s physical lives were anywhere near as cluttered as their digital lives, their kitchen sinks would be full of dishes, their closets would be overflowing, and their houses would be a mess. But our digital lives are contained within our devices, so we don’t notice how cluttered they are.
- How much email in your inbox is completely irrelevant to your essential priorities?
- How many of the apps on your phone do you never use?
- How many newsletters have you signed up for that you don’t read?
- How many browser windows do you have open?
- How many digital distractions are currently competing for your attention?
If the answer to any of these is more than 4, your digital life is cluttered.
When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see any issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them. From the moment you start tidying, you are compelled to reset your life — Marie Kondo
There’s only so much you can pay attention to on any given day. Yet, we let our inboxes pile up with newsletters we don’t read. Our newsfeeds are filled with updates that we could care less about. We’re subscribed to 100 podcasts, but only listen to a handful. Rather than unsubscribing just once, we go through the motions of taking out our digital trash each day.
If you’re drowning in the noise of the world around you, it’s impossible to connect with the world inside you. And the world inside you is how anything worth doing begins. It’s how you translate ideas into results.
If you’re addicted to the highlight reels of other people’s lives, it’s inevitable you’ll be filled with envy, comparison, and anxiety.
Your digital life is one of the environments that make up your life. Is it conducive to the person you want to become? If not, keep reading.
Become a Digital Minimalist
To prepare for my conversation with Cal Newport, I quit social media for 30 days at the beginning of the year.
During that time, I published a blog post every day, made progress on a book outline, and was much happier. To make space for what matters, we have to get rid of everything that doesn’t.
So much of what we’ve allowed into our digital lives is a bit like my parents' garage. We don’t know what the hell it is, why it’s there, and it doesn’t really matter.
By adopting a philosophy of Digital Minimalism, we can reclaim our time and the currency of our attention. There are 3 core tenants to Cal’s philosophy of technology use:
- Clutter is costly.
- Optimization is important.
- Intentionality is satisfying.
Unlike your physical space, it’s easy to wipe the slate clean in your digital environment. Even if you delete every app on your phone, nothing would happen. You can just reinstall the ones you use.
Start with a Digital Declutter
- Clear your browser history.
- Unsubscribe from newsletters, podcasts, blogs and anything else you consume.
- Delete all the apps that are currently on your phone.
- Do the same with your desktop or laptop (as long as you don’t have to buy a new version of anything).
Be brutally honest with yourself about what’s optional. Is not uploading pictures to Instagram for 30 days going to have any negative impact on your life or your business? Unless, you’re a professional photographer or someone who lands clients because of Instagram, the answer is probably no.
How Much Value is This Adding to Your Life?
How do you decide what to keep and what to delete? The best filter for this is to determine how much value something is adding to your life. Avoid what Cal Newport calls the “any-benefit” mindset, particularly when it comes to social media.
Once you’ve identified the class of technologies that are relevant, you must then decide which of them are sufficiently “optional” that you can take a break from them for thirty days of the declutter process. My general heuristic is the following: consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt your life. — Cal Newport
Social media celebrities will always rave about some social network. A year ago, I heard a well-known internet celebrity say that everyone needed to be on Snapchat. He also happened to be an investor in Snapchat. Don’t fall into the trap of treating guidance as gospel.
When you reduce the inflow of information into your life, you’ll increase your creative output. You’ll be able to consume less and create more. And the internet rewards creators far more than consumers.
Reducing the Impact of Distraction
If you want to reduce the impact of distractions on your life, you have to design an environment conducive to that. As Shawn Achor says in *The Happiness Advantage, “*It’s the accessibility of distractions that makes them so tempting”.
Use a Distraction Blocker
Willpower doesn’t work. Checking email, Facebook or Twitter is an impulse, not a choice. The best behavioral scientists in the world have worked their asses off to make that happen.
Nobody puts a cigarette break on their Google Calendar. They just feel the urge to smoke and do it. The same can be said for social media, which is why Mark Manson has said that cell phones are the new cigarettes.
- Rescuetime: Rescuetime not only allows you to block distractions. But it also gives you an opportunity to set goals and it sheds light on how you’re spending your time. If you don’t know how you’re spending your time, it’s hard to know how you’re wasting it.
- Focus: The thing I love most about this app is what they call “hardcore mode.” In hardcore mode, you can’t turn off the blocked distractions. You can also set it up to automatically block parts of your day. Because mornings are my most productive part of the day, I have it set to block distractions from 6am-9am.
Work in Full-Screen Mode
“Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have a restricted ability to distribute, divide, and sustain attention, to actively hold detailed information in mind, and to concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals” says Adam Gazalley.
Working in full-screen mode prevents you from distributing and dividing your attention. It decreases the competition for your attention. Most word-processors are terrible tools for writing, but great for editing and formatting documents. This is why I used Notion to organize my ideas, manage my projects, and do all of my writing.
Leave Your Phone out of the Room
If you’re serious about doing deep work, leave your phone out of the room.
We went decades without having smart phones. But these days, phones have become appendages. When I saw Jerry Seinfeld recently, he joked about how much people lose their shit when their cell phones are about to die.
Having your phone in plain sight distributes and divides your attention.
Keep Your Inbox Closed by Default
When I teach productivity workshops to high performing teams, I’m always baffled by how much time people spend reading and responding to emails. In some cases, the highest performers are spending 3–5 hours a day checking and responding to email.
An open inbox splits your attention. When you discover some fire you can’t put out immediately and return to the task at hand, you experience attention residue. You’re thinking about the fire in your inbox, but what you’re currently working on suffers.
Now that you’ve wiped the slate clean, it’s time to create a digital environment that sparks joy.
Design A Digital Life That Sparks Joy
“Keep only things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” — Marie Kondo
Every app you use, social network you join, link you click, blog or newsletter that you read, and podcast you consume has an impact on your mindset and thinking. Does it make you happier, more productive, successful or speak to your heart? If the answer is no, then why would you allow it into your world?
The Devices You Use
Imagine your devices as physical space. Would your desk have folders and files all over it? Probably not. We can actually set up our devices not only to be less cluttered but also to spark joy.
One of the easiest ways to do this is with the wallpaper on your phone or laptop. People use pictures of kids or important moments in their lives for a reason. My desktop wallpaper is one of my favorite pictures of my sister’s wedding. If you download a tool like HiddenMe, it also hides all the icons on your desktop and it’s less cluttered.
Figure out what you’re tolerating. It could be software updates you haven’t installed, cracked screens or slow performance. If you’re spending so much time dealing with how a device functions, you’ll have a hard time using that device to be creative, productive, and prolific.
Apps and Tools
When it comes to apps and tools, you have to eliminate what’s optional and prioritize what’s essential. As a writer & podcast host who also does a lot of visual work, I have about 20 essential tools and services that I use to run The Unmistakable Creative. If you haven’t used something in 30 days, chances are it’s not essential.
Most of what you’re allowing into your life is not a deliberate choice. You signed up for some service, app or newsletter months or years ago, but never bothered to delete the app or unsubscribe.
Most people’s content consumption is not deliberate. They just click on whatever rolls through their feed. You’d never do this at an all-you-can-eat buffet, so it makes no sense to do it online.
The way out of this mess is deliberate consumption. Imagine your digital life as a new home that you’re building from the ground up. You want everything from the dishes to the paintings on the wall to be deliberate choices.
- Unsubscribe from everything.
- Choose a handful of podcasts and newsletters.
- Make sure your consumption habits are aligned with your essential priorities.
For example, one thing I decided to do was to spend several weeks reading one writer’s blog. By going deep into one person’s body of work, what I’m hoping to uncover is the progression and patterns that have made this person successful.
If you consume less and are deliberate about it, you’ll get more out of the content you consume. You’ll be more likely to transform information into knowledge and wisdom.
Treat the information you consume like the food you put into your body.
1. Carry A Notebook
Not only did the Moleskine notebook succeed in the face of disruptive digital competition, it situated itself as the ideal companion to smart phones, tablets, virtual note management services and digital illustration software. It grew so successful that it changed the behavior of a generation that was supposed to eschew handwriting into one where the paper notebook is omnipresent. — David Sax, The Revenge of Analog
It might seem ironic that the success of Moleskine’s business coincided with the rise of blogs, and individual content creators. But a notebook is truly a platform for the imagination. That’s why you should always carry one. There’s no better distraction-free tool than a physical notebook. I can trace every book or creative project I’ve created back to the pages of one of my notebooks.
2. Read Physical Books
Every best-selling author I know swears by physical books. In my experience, we retain more when we read physical books. My writing improved dramatically when I ditched my Kindle and started reading physical books. Reading physical books is a more embodied experience.
While it’s not always convenient to go analog, it provides us with solitude and forces us to focus because there’s nothing else competing for our attention.
3. Meet People in Person
The digital to human contact ratio in most of our lives is out whack. We get more text messages than phone calls, and we value the attention of strangers on the internet more than the affection of the most important people in our lives.
Online communities are not a viable substitute for human contact. One of the biggest reasons I’m planning a conference for 2020 is because I want to meet my listeners in person. I’d choose an intimate conversation with 400 of my listeners over a million anonymous downloads any day.
When you tidy up your digital life, lots of things will change for the better. You’ll be better at managing your attention. You’ll have deeper relationships. And you’ll make progress on your most important goals.
Originally published at https://unmistakablecreative.com on July 3, 2019.
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