Rowson illustration
Illustration by Martin Rowson

This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist

Are we spending too much time staring at screens? Debates about how long we spend with new technologies have been around since at least the first newspaper, but they have gained new energy with the triumph of the smartphone over the past decade. The debate can often feel highly polarised, with tech evangelists promoting constant connectivity, Luddites comparing smartphone use to smoking, and the other 95 per cent of us stuck somewhere in the middle.

Digging into this led me to a new book, Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology, by computer scientist Cal Newport. The book aims to strike a calm balance in the screen time debate by redefining the debate itself. Newport argues that the question shouldn’t be whether technology is inherently “good” or “bad”, but whether we’re using it in a way that adds the most value to our lives, while doing the least harm. Newport suggests some tough life experiments for the reader, confronting where tech really does and does not add value. As something of a phone addict, I was keen to give his ideas a go.

When I first got a copy of Digital Minimalism, I was a pretty heavy phone user. According to my ScreenTime app, about 20 hours of each week were spent looking at this one screen, much more than I’d have guessed, with the biggest culprits being WhatsApp (five hours), Netflix (four), Twitter (three) and YouTube (two). This was pretty sobering – other than sleeping and working, no other activity took up as much time in my week as looking at my phone. At the same time, I often complained how hard it was to find the time to do the things I really cared about, like spending time with my friends or reading. Seeing this 20-hour figure, it was hard not to draw the link between not doing those things I cared about and all the time I was spending watching videos that “totally destroyed” various political arguments on Twitter. But I also enjoy using those apps, so I wasn’t just going to quit digital life altogether.

Newport’s approach is quite straightforward: there is nothing inherently bad about using your phone or computer, the challenge is to make sure that you’re using it in a way that contributes to something you really value, such as keeping in touch with family and friends or learning. Newport says the best way to work out how tech adds value to your life is to try going without it and see how that affects you. He proposes a 30-day detox, a whole month in which you try not to use any “optional” technology. So, if you need your email app for work, feel free to keep using it, but for me this realistically meant no use of my top apps – YouTube, Netflix, Twitter and WhatsApp are definitely classed as “optional”. During those 30 days, Newport challenges the reader to fill the new-found time with activities that more explicitly add to your higher values. That might be going for a meal with a friend, or reading, or trying a new hobby. Once the 30 days are over, Newport suggests now letting that optional tech back into your life, but by first asking, “Is this adding to my inner values?” and then, “Is this the best way to add to those values?” Interested to see how I could claw back some of those 20 hours spent on my phone every week, I decided to give it a go. Whether this new-found motivation would overcome long-standing habits was another question. I guessed I’d last just a few tech-free days at most.

The first step in this “detox” is setting out your values. Looking guiltily at what I could have been doing with my 20 hours of screen time each week, I decided to focus on conversations with my partner, friends and family, physical fitness (basically at zero) and learning. Defining these values sets the stage for getting rid of “optional tech”. Rather than think, “I’ll miss watching John Oliver’s rants”, the idea is to think, “This’ll free up my evening to call my brother.” Getting rid of “optional tech” then seemed pretty straightforward: I just deleted my Netflix, YouTube and Twitter apps and set most WhatsApp groups to “mute”. But I found I would then go on YouTube or Twitter via my phone’s web browser, often without realising what I was doing, so I took the more radical step of deleting the web browser off my phone and, for good measure, all personal email apps too. Unable to use these apps, it was interesting to see how often I’d find myself casually picking up my phone to open Twitter for a quick distraction, only to remember I couldn’t. I’d then reluctantly get back to whatever I was really meant to be doing in that moment. It was only with these apps now blocked that I realised just how compulsively and unconsciously I had been using my phone.

While reducing my use of these apps, I also followed Newport’s advice to find activities that do add to my values. Interestingly, I found that the best way to do some of these meant using technology, such as video-calling a friend, which is totally fine in Newport’s world, if the use of that tech is in service of something I really value.

So how did I fare without those deleted apps? Surprisingly well. While, at first, I did feel a bit bored when I turned to my phone for a distraction and found nothing there, I soon found that the freed-up time did allow me to focus on things I really valued. I set up phone calls with friends and family (often using WhatsApp, as it was fine to use it in service of a value), I took up running and other exercises (all tracked with apps) and read a lot more, helped by the use of, yes, audiobooks on my phone. In all, within a few weeks of starting the detox, I had read a new book each week (as opposed to a maximum of one a month previously), been running three times a week, done some other exercise a further three times each week and had many more phone calls with friends and family than I normally would. I also seemed to sleep more, as I couldn’t stay up idly scrolling social media in bed.
These results were surprising. It seemed that my phone hadn’t just been taking up time before this “detox” – it had been providing an easy distraction every time I thought, “I should really be doing something now.” Now, unable to find that distraction, I was forced to find other activities.

By chance, about three weeks into the “detox”, I managed to drop my phone, totally smashing the screen. While I waited for a new phone to arrive, I used a classic old £10 “brick” phone, capable only of calls and SMS. This was very minimalist. While I was glad to get back to a smartphone not long after (I had, after all, found some very valuable things to do with it), I found it remarkable how well I could function without any mobile internet access at all.

As I reached the end of the 30-day detox, I had to decide which tech to allow back into my life and how. While I’d expected this to be a difficult decision, realising what I’d been able to do without so many distractions made this decision simple. None of the deleted apps, not even my web browser, were reinstalled. Beyond initial teething, I just didn’t miss them. I was now down from 20 hours per week of phone use to just eight, with three of those hours on a fitness videos app. The screen time metric hides the time I spent on audiobooks and calls, as the screen isn’t in use for these activities, but the point was not, strictly, to reduce time spent using my phone. The point was always to ensure that I was using it well.

It’s now been three months since I finished Digital Minimalism. I still use my phone for around eight hours per week but haven’t always been as good at keeping up with reading or exercises as in the beginning, instead getting sucked into more WhatsApp conversations than I really should. I’ve also seen that, with the apps deleted on my phone, I sometimes use my laptop for Netflix or YouTube, albeit much less than before. But that doesn’t mean failure: I’ll try blocking those on my laptop for 30 days too and see how that goes, expanding the “digital detox” to another device. I find that I need to keep reminding myself to use well the time no longer spent on my phone.

My experiment is still ongoing but, in changing the value I get from technology, it so far seems to have worked. Newport has hit on a genuinely practical way to address and reframe the screen time debate, which is so often centred on whether technology is “good” or “bad”. Taking the time to first define what we value and then asking where technology does and doesn’t add to those values, rather than attacking the idea of tech itself, allows us to celebrate technology where it adds real value, and put it aside when it doesn’t. It is rare that a book can really, meaningfully make your life a bit better. If they help you to reduce even a little distraction or get a bit more meaning from your tech use, Newport’s ideas are worth reading.

“Digital Minimalism” is published by Portfolio Penguin