Testing Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” at CEEALAR

I just arrived at the CEEALAR. In this post I describe the project I will be working on while I’m here.

Background:

I was highly persuaded by the claims in Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Check out this summary on Goodreads. I really recommend reading the whole book—I personally found it more mind-changing and action-inspiring than anything I’ve read in a while. Here is a central passage (emphasis mine):

Assuming I’ve convinced you that digital minimalism is worthwhile, the next step is to discuss how best to adopt this lifestyle. In my experience, gradually changing your habits one at a time doesn’t work well—the engineered attraction of the attention economy, combined with the friction of convenience, will diminish your inertia until you backslide toward where you started.

I recommend instead a rapid transformation—something that occurs in a short period of time and is executed with enough conviction that the results are likely to stick. I call the particular rapid process I have in mind the digital declutter. It works as follows.

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.

  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.

  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

In the book, the benefits of a “digital declutter” are claimed or implied to include: lower anxiety, more social integration, working more efficiently, rediscovering the time and motivation to {play music/​read novels/​draw pictures/​write fiction}, having a more rewarding relationship with your significant other or your kids, and improved decision-making.

I myself tried a digital declutter last year and got mixed results, in large part because the pandemic prevented me from socializing. I am now planning to run the experiment on myself and several other people here at CEEALAR, semi-rigorously.

Project summary:

I will get a handful of people at the EA Hotel who are motivated enough to participate in a digital declutter. I will manage their setup and facilitate self-enforcement. I will take some data and write up a report, which I will post on the EA forum.

Motivation:

I want to know if digital declutters are easily doable by EAs, and if they make a measurable impact on effectiveness and/​or quality of life. If the answer is yes, I want to get the word out and have specific evidence to point to. I see some potential for high impact.

More personally, I really want to help my old friends from high school and college. A lot of them are struggling with life in weird ways that I would have confidently anti-predicted 10 or 15 years ago. I have multiple hypotheses about this, the top one being that modern device usage is harming their minds: reducing attention spans, interfering with action-reward patterns, creating addictions (such as outrage addiction & compulsive phone checking), displacing social interaction, and both directly and indirectly increasing anxiety. I think it’s not just my friends though; I hear that mental and behavioral health problems are rising in the general population, and especially rapidly in young people. I would be happy to find a way to make even a moderate dent in this.

Project outline:

  • I get about 5 people in the intervention group and 5 in the control group. Before any (intentional) intervention begins, all participants track their screen time, mood, and productivity for a week or so, in order to record their baseline.

  • I meet with each declutter participant privately to discuss their personal goals, expectations, and concerns. Each person submits a declutter plan and ruleset. I critique the plan and discourage any rules that are wastefully lax or hopelessly strict.

  • In crafting the plan, I help them put behavior-shaping systems in place. These may include browser extensions, time/​location restrictions, device encumbrances, enticements for wholesome activities, etc.

  • I meet with participants a couple times a week to discuss how it’s going, collect soft data, and consider changes to their plans/​rules. In the spirit of anti-akrasia, participants are encouraged not to modify their rules before talking it over at one of these check-ins.

  • To help take people’s minds off the painful “detox” phase of the declutter, I organize group activities in addition to the ones that already happen.

    • Group exercise, jigsaw puzzles*, group writing pomodoros, beach walks, board games, mini-hackathons, movie night, etc.

  • After 4-6 weeks, the program is over and I hold exit interviews to gather a final chunk of soft data.

  • I conduct followup interviews/​surveys 3 weeks and 6 weeks after the end. I try to get some idea of which things changed, which things didn’t, by what mechanisms, and on what timescale.

  • I write up my analysis, evaluate for effectiveness, make some recommendations, and warn against pitfalls. Post on LW, EA forum and maybe elsewhere.

Example ruleset:

Since I am planning to do a digital declutter alongside the rest of the participants, here is the plan I have made for myself.

  • I will turn off all push notifications and badge icons. I will handle messages only during the hour after breakfast and the hour before dinner.

    • I previously found this to be surprisingly easy to get used to.

  • No Twitter, No Reddit, no Tumblr. (My Facebook usage is already well under control.)

  • I can read as many blog posts as I want, as long as I print them out at least 24h beforehand. (Printing out a bunch at once is cheating.)

  • No more than 2h of TV per day.

  • Phone can be carried in a bag, not in a pocket.

  • Bedroom is a device-free zone, except for making calls. No screens after sunset. (For reference, today’s sunset will be at 9:21pm.)

  • No idle phone usage. Every time I pull out my phone, I must have a good reason, and then must put it away once that reason is satisfied.

  • Long stretches of laptop usage are to be broken into pomodoros, regulated by a timer.

  • Listen to music as a full-attention activity, not in the background.

  • Keep a pen & notebook within arm’s reach.

Existing literature:

I did some basic searches on google and google scholar. At present, the literature seems to be pretty thin and not highly informative for my purposes.

This literature review reports “inconsistent findings” due to available studies being highly heterogeneous. Notably, only 4 studies (out of 20) involved detox periods longer than 5 days, and the analysis did not control for this variable.

Also, it looks like a lot of the existing studies are done on undergraduates, and I don’t expect this to change any time soon. It seems possible to me that EAs who are doing self-directed EA work may show significantly different effects than undergraduates (or other groups), in a way that matters.

My anticipations:

I expect more of the signal to come from soft data in the interviews than from the survey responses.

I see more than a 10% chance that the declutter turns out to have direct, lasting, and clearly worthwhile effects on every participant. They all end up very satisfied with the results, even though there was a painful adjustment.

(Rot-13, to avoid affecting the results):

V rfcrpvnyyl nagvpvcngr cnegvpvcnagf rzcunfvmvat ubj vzcbegnag gur shyy guvegl-qnl crevbq jnf. Guvatf yvxr “V gubhtug gung zl cerivbhf gjb-qnl grpu ergerngf jrer nyernql trggvat zr zbfg bs gur orarsvg ohg V jnf jebat. V qvq abg frr jung V jnf zvffvat hagvy qnl sbhegrra, naq V qba’g guvax V pbhyq unir znqr creznarag unovg punatrf orsber qnl gjragl.”

V chg zber guna bar-unys cebonovyvgl ba ng yrnfg bar svsgu bs cnegvpvcnagf (abg vapyhqvat zr) fnlvat gurl srry “uvtuyl zbgvingrq” gb uryc n sevraq qb n qvtvgny qrpyhggre.

Recap:

  • I think the core claims in Digital Minimalism are probably basically correct.

    • There are big personal gains to be had by changing how one relates to one’s devices.

    • Small, piecemeal interventions are not enough to get these gains.

    • A life overhaul of 30+ days (aka a “digital declutter”) may be enough.

  • If the core claims are true, a declutter may measurably raise both the effectiveness and the quality of life of the EAs (or just people) that try it.

  • I’m going to help a handful of EAs execute a digital declutter.

  • I will semi-rigorously take notes and data. I will publish my analysis & conclusion.


*surprisingly effective in my experience