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DevOps Engineer | Pluralsight Author | Speaker | Blogger | PowerShell Advocate


Digital Declutter: Discovering the Power of Self-Reflection and Deep Thought

Simply sitting here watching my children play a voice says “Aha! Yes, this is the life beyond the screen.” How much more valuable is it to be present in life than to have others “like” the life I virtually display. Even if that presence is an idle observing presence with no pressing aim.

What you’ve just read is an entry I wrote in my pocket notebook while on a thirty day digital declutter. It captures a moment, a moment of being completely present. Being not only physically present but mentally present as well. I now understand that, prior to this experiment I didn’t actually understand what it meant to be present. I thought as long as I was physically there, I was present. I could be eating dinner with my family, but still “productive” solving problems at work or elsewhere. After all if you want to be productive you have to be busy all the time right? No time to waste! Chop Chop! More Work!

Listen to the Sysadmin Show Episode 041 - Digital Declutter with Josh Duffney.

Digital Declutter What & Why?

Why would I do a digital declutter? I have been on this path for a while now and had already done a lot to reclaim my life from technology and the attention economy that now plagues our lives. The answer is simple, I was slipping, slipping back into a distracted passenger watching my life unfold. YouTube would find its way back onto my phone. I would check my bank account way more than necessary and I would endlessly scroll through all the books on my amazon wishlist. This might seem minuscule, but I assure you it isn’t. It prevented the self-reflection required to discover I was spending all my energy on things that only took my energy. Leaving me burnt out, frustrated, and unhappy. Without these little moments I found myself back on that damn treadmill again…

What is digital declutter? I’m glad you asked. It is the process of going through your life and listing out all the optional technologies. Not just the ones you think are optional. All the ones you can disconnect from for thirty days and not die. Which, if you’re honest with yourself, that list will be pretty long. With the list in hand, you create an agreement with yourself and write operating procedures for problematic technology, like email. You might need an email to do your job, fine, but you don’t need to have it on your phone checking it every fifteen minutes after business hours. The agreement helps put constraints on technology and gives you a set of rules to impose on yourself. Trust me, you’ll need them. Where did I get this brilliant idea? This particular experiment came from Cal Newport’s most recent book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. I highly recommend that you read the book to learn more about the digital declutter process. You can also find my digital declutter document below.

Why should you care and or read the rest of this blog post? As I sat down to outline this blog post I was able to reflect on the experience as a whole. I reviewed my notebook and bullet journal to get a better understanding of the impact it’s had on me. I can confidently say that this experience has improved every area of my life. There is simply no way I can allow myself to return to my old ways. This blog post serves as a reminder for how impactful the experience was and to unplug others from the Matrix. In the rest of this post I’ll share with you the journey I went over those thirty days. I hope it will both inspire you to do the same and also give you practical advice on how to take advantage of and sustain a decluttered life.

TheDigitalDeclutter.png

Image links to a Google Doc with additional information.

Week 1

I felt very anxious. During the first few days my mood was noticeably different. I was agitated most of the time and easily upset. I felt I always needed to be busy and was very uncomfortable being bored. I was told I’ve become quieter. Which is probably not a bad thing. Natalie, my wife said “I don’t know if you should continue this…”

Reflection: Re-reading this entry at the end of the experiment I’m alarmed at how much control the technology I use had over my thoughts. I remember being consumed by the feeling of missing out or wanting to check up on things. What if I had an important email or my boss or boss’s boss just hit me up in slack?! The feeling of missing out and boredom left me feeling very anxious. Which led to me getting agitated and angry quickly.

Week 2

Checking email twice per week is proving to be difficult due to some community involvement. I may need to adjust this to a scheduled time once per day. LinkedIn checking has snuck back in. I need to push back on this impulse. I have begun to feel a renewed sense of peace in the second week. I have a lot more mental space than before. I do get bored at times and with that boredom comes tiredness.

Reflection: After the second week I had to adjust my protocol to allow for more frequent, but scheduled checking of email. Scheduling it was critical because without that specified time, I felt free to check it whenever I had a spare moment and I ended up checking it ten to twenty times a day. The next discovery was that I was too vague with my Linkedin rules. Checking for community opportunities could be justified at any point during the day and I took advantage of that. Instead of it being vague, I also set a schedule for checking Linkedin once a week.

At the end of week two was when I started to feel a shift in my mind. I felt myself returning to the person I was when I wrote Detaching from Distraction. My life had been decluttered, however, my mind hadn’t; it was still fragmented. I would still get bored and in the boredom I would do one of two things; fill it with thoughts that took my energy and or be completely idle. I’d often obsess over work-related problems. Most of which I cannot completely solve but only influence. It left me feeling very frustrated and unhappy. I also made an important discovery. When I would allow myself to be completely idle, I’d get tired. I knew I had to do something about that. Something that didn’t involve more screen time.

Week 3

I started to check email every day. I have good reasons as I’m working on an opportunity and want to be responsive. I’m pulled to check it multiple times when I get bored. My mental state has improved tenfold. I am able to deeply think again! I had the idea of a summer vacation home for the family. I imagine a cozy little house near water and/or mountains. Inside the home there is a small couch with a table full of books behind it and a fireplace. Natalie told me I’ve become a better listener. She told me she feels more heard and understood. I’m also more present and available for conversation.

Reflection: Aside from a minor setback with email, week three was the week I started to change. I began to embrace boredom and I no longer felt anxious due to missing out. Boredom became mental space, space I could use to think about the bigger questions I’ve been faced with lately. Questions such as; Where do I want my career to go? What type of husband do I want to be? How can I support my wife? Where do I need to improve as a father?

Something unexpected also happened. I discovered what it was like to have a real conversation. A conversation where each person is fully engaged in it. There is a richness to that experience that I didn’t even know I was missing. It’s sad to me how rare these conversations are because we’re distracted. Even if we’re attempting to hold a conversation, it’s a struggle to go to any depth. Holding a conversation is a skill I’ve always written off as a skill some people naturally have. A rather fixed mindset view, I admit. I’m glad that I now realize yet another skill you can improve and one I will be focusing on.

Week 4

I feel as if my mind has become linear again. I complete what I start and have begun to fill my idle time with meaningful and valuable work. I’m able to focus and pour all of my efforts into a single task.

Reflection: I learned about the term linear mind in a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In this context I’m using it to describe the process in which I was thinking about the task in front of me and completing tasks. In week 4 I started to notice how much mental energy I had. With that surplus of mental energy I could put more effort than I have ever put into a single task. Being able to apply all of yourself to a single task is one of the most satisfying feelings. That state of mind is often referred to as flow. A state I could only really get to with coding, but now I could get into that state when replying to an email, providing feedback, or learning something new. It was within week 4 that I started to realize, there is no turning back. I need to make this change permanent.

Week 5

Natalie was taken aback by the depth of the analogies I used in conversation. She said I’m a very deep thinker. I’m starting to explore what the next steps in my career could be. I’ve been advised to explore options beyond a paycheck and to think about where I want to end up. I’m on my second iteration for my definition of success. As I think about my own career’s success, I’m starting to see doors open and opportunities present themselves.

Reflection: Being described as a deep thinker caught me by surprise. I’ve never really considered myself an intellectual of any kind. Which is what I think about when someone says you think deeply. I asked her to expand on what she meant by deep thinker and she replied with “You have a way of painting an elaborate picture to help me understand what it is you’re saying.” I thought about that statement for a while and it made me realize the importance of communication. That’s not a revolutionary discovery, but it was for me. I had always thought “Well..I write code and other technical things, how important could communication be? I’m not a manager or in a “leadership” position.” Which is true, I’m not a manager and do not ever plan to be one. However, what about when I have an idea and I want to influence others? That was my aha moment.

What’s Improved and What’s Changed

  • My ability to listen.
  • I’m more available for conversation.
  • Greater appreciation for the life I live.
  • Ability to deeply work on a specific task.
  • Willpower to resist low quality leisure activities.
  • Mental space to think about larger questions

New Habits

  • I wear a watch.
  • I carry a pocket notebook and pen as a replacement for my smartphone.
  • I take more breaks during the day away from the screen.
  • I go outside more. I often take walks midday or in the mornings after a workout.
  • I reflect on conversations and do weekly reviews of my work.

An Invitation

I wrote his blog post almost a year ago and for one reason or another, never published it. After a gentle nudge from Dan Wahlin, I re-read this blog post and decided to publish it. After reading it and reflecting on it, I am grateful for how much of it has stuck with me. At the same time, I realized how much I miss the person I was at the end of that blissful 30 days. The pendulum has swung too far and it is time to push it back. Over the next 30 days, starting on 3-16-2020 I’ll be doing another digital declutter. During the first digital declutter I cut out nearly all technology after work hours. This time around I will not be as hardcore, but without sacrifice there is no reward. Ironically, I’ll be using social media and you as my accountability partners. This time around I will be documenting not only my thoughts and reflections, I will also be sharing the protocols and tactics I use. I invite you to join me in this digital declutter. Here is how you get started.

Next Steps

  1. Pick a date to start the digital declutter
  2. Create your technology rules
  3. Buy a notebook and pen or pencil
  4. Find an observer
  5. Share your results
    • Mention or @ me on social media or direct message me.

I’ve mentioned my wife, Natalie a few times in this post. She’s been a critical piece of the digital declutter. I needed someone to be my observer in a sense. I wanted to get accurate feedback on what changes happened to my behavior. She’s also my partner in life and the most qualified person to give me this feedback. Hearing such positive things from her made me realize the true impact the experiment had on me. I recommend finding someone close to you, to be this for you as you go on your journey through the digital declutter.

You can follow me as I go through the digital declutter on Twitter, LinkedIn, and SoundCloud, where I’ll share the experience.

Tip: Buy or pick up that book you’ve been wanting to read.