An abysmal failure for the summer

In June I wrote about my “radical experiment for the summer,” in which I vowed to only read print during my downtime.

The experiment yielded a very unpleasant surprise, and also a strong positive takeaway. It also prompted a specific question I have for you below.

But first, as promised, I’m reporting back now that my kids are back in school:

I failed abysmally.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the cause. I feel even stronger now that minimizing mindless smartphone use is key to greater productivity and results.

I simply sold out and chose to ignore my vow. It’s been about 10 weeks since I started, and I achieved print-only downtime during just two of those weeks.

At home, when work was done and the laptop was shut, and nobody in my family was directly engaging me, I’d revert to old habits and whip out the phone.

During the workday I’d say, “I’ll just check the news real quick” and then things would get away from me and 35 minutes later I’d be muttering “this is a pure publicity stunt” while reading about some B-level celebrity throwing shade at some other B-level celebrity.

The behavior I regret most came on the nights in bed where I’d hop from link to link, seeking some kind of intellectual “hit” like an internet junkie. And when I’d finally look at the time, realize I’d wasted an hour-plus of valuable sleep and gained no wisdom in return.

I might have even forgotten my promise to follow up with you, except magically, this week, with the kids back in school and me back into more of a routine, the urge to resume the print-only surged within me.

It feels great – last night I read a really insightful article in the (print) Atlantic about the radically different skills knowledge workers need in the coming decades. And during my lunch-ish breaks, when I previously “checked news” (but really web surfed), I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which obviously helps with motivation.

My takeaway from my failed experiment? To defeat the addict-manipulation wizardry of the Silicon Valley geekgods, we need to connect our desired behavior change with deeply held values. For most people, it’s not enough to choose a new set of daily routines. We need to step back and recognize how much LIFE our tech overuse is costing us.

I can feel a specific and dramatic difference in my quality of thinking and creativity when I reduce digital stimuli. That means my desire to manage smartphone distraction is much more significant than a simple self-help goal. Instead, it means nothing less than the improvement of every single important aspect of my contribution to life and the world.

Hopefully that firm conclusion will be the result of this summer experiment that sticks.

Now, a question for you. When I started speaking and writing about managing digital distraction five years ago, it was a pretty radical stance for a PR coach. Over that time, more bestselling books emerged advocating digital minimalism: Essentialism, Newport’s previous title Deep Work, plus loads of articles in business magazines.

Are you aware of any books or studies or magazine articles that provide a counterargument? That claim people are happier and/or more effective when they continue using all their technology all the time? This is a sincere question that I’d really like to research. Would love for you to share a link to any resource that advocates for using Slack and checking email all the time and keeping one eye on social media – you know, the typical workflow of today’s knowledge worker.

This article was originally published on September 5, 2019

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