In the fall of 2016, I read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In it author Cal Newport suggests that many of us are engaged in shallow work — putting out small fires and meaningless wheel-spinning — that keeps us from engaging in the focused, planned-for time that true work really needs.
It was the sort of book I couldn’t keep quiet about. I took notes in my bullet journal, posted about it here a couple of times, talked it up with author friends and even my agent. I also signed up for Cal’s e-newsletter to keep his concepts fresh.
A few weeks ago, Cal mentioned a Digital Declutter experiment he wanted to conduct to collect information for his next book. The declutter would be about “confront[ing] life directly, without the dulling mediation of a screen, allowing you to rediscover which activities and behaviors really provide value in your life, and which are mindless distraction.”
Well. If you’ve read here any length of time, you might have picked up on the fact I love a challenge. I love the chance to try something hard in an attempt to learn something new. Add to this the opportunity to really put into practice the concepts in Deep Work, and I’m all in.
“The high-level idea for the experiment is to take a break from optional digital technologies throughout January…When the month is over… you[‘ll] leverage these insights to reintroduce these technologies into your life in an intentional manner — clearing out the clutter and putting back only those digital habits that truly matter.”
There is no specific way the break is spelled out. Participants are encouraged to “interpret this phrase in a way that makes the most sense for both your personal and professional constraints.” Cal does, however, suggest these things:
- “Don’t log into any social media accounts.”
- “Don’t read news online.”
- “Don’t use the internet for entertainment. In more detail: Don’t web surf. Don’t browse YouTube videos. Ignore clever links lurking in email forwards. Though I hate to suggest it, take a break from blogs as well.”
- “If you’re a heavy text message user, consider serious restrictions on when you read and respond to these messages.”
- “It’s likely too prohibitive to ignore personal email accounts during this entire period, but you probably shouldn’t check them constantly.”
A social media break won’t be too hard. I do this every July already. To remind myself of this promise in down moments, I’ve taken Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram off my phone.
I rarely read news online, unless I catch sight of important breaking news. This should be easy.
I follow a handful of blogs via email (do people still use readers for this? I haven’t for years). All in all, I’ll be fine taking a break, though I’m really going to miss reading up on the life of “June Gardens” at Book of June — a blog I’ve followed pretty faithfully for five years.
I really only text two friends (and the occasional family member who needs a ride or sends me ridiculous emojis [the second would be my husband]). I’ll let everyone know I’ll check in once a day, around ride-needing time.
Email, email, email. I’m not good at limiting the number of times I check, and I’d like to change this — have tried to change this often. My goal is to check in after the kids leave for school, before I head to the gym or out for a run. I’ll take a quick peek before lunch and a final read before I shut down for the day. This sounds reasonable and doable. Hold me to it.
Here’s a hard one. After a wonderful boost in sales last fall from the podcast I recorded at the Read Aloud Revival, I’ve fallen back into the (bad) habit of habitually checking my Amazon and Penguin Random House Author Portal numbers. This is not helpful, whether the numbers are “good” or “bad”, and can affect the way I approach my work. I’m welcoming the break from this information (though, Sarah Mackenzie, wow. Anytime you mention one of my books, sales soar. Thank you.)
Finally, I’ve decided I won’t listen to audiobooks while walking the dog, running, or cleaning. Oh my goodness, this sounds unpleasant. I love getting to read while doing mundane tasks, but I also know this can block out times to think and process. Regular readers might remember I took a break from audiobooks a few months ago when I did my week without reading (as I said, I really like challenges). I brought back the audiobook with gusto. Ideally I’ll come away from this time with the desire for silent walks a few times a week. It’s good for me, for life and work. (What’s not good for me, however, is running in silence. That is just plain awfulness. If I’m not with my running partner, Beth, I’ll be listening to music and using my Nike Run App, thank you very much. See? Interpreting the break in a way that makes sense to me.)
So, there it is. I’ll still blog, as that’s job-related, but you won’t see me elsewhere until February.
January will pass, whether I commit to this digital declutter or not. I’d love to come out on the other side with new insight and a renewed desire for the focused, planned-for time that deep work (and rich living) need.