Think back to the last time you ate a real blow out meal, the kind that causes you to unbutton your pants and double check your antacid supply. Remember the sensation of discomfort, bloat, and regret?

That's how a lot of folks are feeling about their digital diets these days. After gorging on the mental equivalent of junk food -- nasty political rants, time-wasting quizzes, compulsive browsing -- they're looking up and telling themselves, "Something has got to change."

Along with Facebook's recent privacy scandals, this feeling is one of the big drivers of the #deletefacebook movement. But just as we vow to improve our diets (or our drinking habits) after a bout of gluttony and then quickly backslide, going cold turkey on social media is most likely a recipe for failure.

After not too long, some clickbait headline or pang of boredom will lure you back to your old ways. Instead, you need a way to clear your head, clarify which aspects of your digital life are actually working for you, and build willpower by reconnecting with other activities to fill the void created when you abandon unhealthy habits.

In short, you need a better way to reset your digital life. Computer science professor and author Cal Newport has a suggestion: Try a 30-day digital declutter.

One month to a healthier digital life

"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," he reported on his blog recently. "I expected around 40 - 50 people would agree to participate. ... My guess was wrong. More than 1,600 people signed up."

So what did Newport ask these folks to do? Rather make some radical long-term change to their online lives, he instead asked them to quit all social media for just one month, observing how their behavior and emotions changed. "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," he explains.

How did it go? In the post Newport reports on what he's learning from participant feedback and also shares some of their stories, like these (in Newport's words):

  • 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. [He's not the first to note that cutting back on social is a great way to find more time to read.]

  • 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. 

  • 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. [Science backs up Bob's observation that constantly checking screens can be insidious for relationships.]

  • 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."

  • 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."

No less informed, no less social

Reading through these responses, Newport detected a theme. Kicking the social media habit clarified that people were using these services for very real reasons -- connecting with others and consuming media. It's just that social media meet these needs in suboptimal ways.

Folks are legitimately hungry for information and human contact, but social media fills them up with junk food. When they took a temporary break from social media, participants were forced to find more nourishing ways to meet these needs (like books, blogs, and talking to the actual human beings around them).

"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," Newport writes.

That didn't just better nourish their brains and relationships; it also strengthened their resolve to maintain a healthier digital diet when they did eventually sign back into their accounts. It's hard to have FOMO when you're painting, devouring a great book, or having a real heart to heart with your spouse. So killing that fear of missing out will help you click more mindfully once your declutter is over.

Or as Newport concludes: "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." 

Are you up for giving a digital declutter a try?

Published on: Apr 2, 2018