Ditch the Social Media Itch – Discussing Digital Minimalism and Prioritising Productivity

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This topic has been rolling around in my mind for a few weeks now, sparked by two books that I recently finished – Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, both by Cal Newport. Both focus on taking back your time from technology and the distractions using it brings, and both were absolutely brilliant reads. I preferred Digital Minimalism over Deep Work as Digital Minimalism discusses the use of social media more, which is an area of my digital life that I wanted to take back a little bit more control over. I decided to share with you guys the 3 things I took from both books (Digital Minimalism more so, but Deep Work laid the ground for my motivation!)

If you asked me how my relationship with social media is, I would say that now, it is pretty balanced. It definitely wasn’t in the past, or during the earlier years of my use of it. I’m VERY glad I didn’t have Instagram during medical school, because I think it would have been an absolutely terrible distraction for my medical final exams! Of course, I did have whatever social media tools were ‘trendy’ back then (I think it was mostly Facebook), but they definitely didn’t have the same hold over my life that I think Instagram does for many people today.

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Why is it important that we work on our relationship with social media? Good question, and I have two good answers.

First, diving into your phone to use social media very often becomes a literal time warp, which means GOODBYE to your productivity, whether that’s to study for exams, do an assignment or do your tasks as part of your job. We’ve all been the person (on many occasions!) who responds to ‘just one’ notification which then turns into half an hour of scrolling, flicking through Insta-Stories, and often forgotten why we actually picked up our phone in the first place. Sound familiar? I hear ya.

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Second, as you may have seen in a recent guest post on my blog by psychologist Joe O’Brien on phone use, addiction and mental health (have a read here), while the research might still lag a little behind in terms of showing us the harms social media may have on our mental health, I do think there is a lot of growing concern that much of the effect it has, especially in over-use and at the expense of real-world activities and interaction, is negative. Ever scrolled through your Instagram feed and exited the app feeling just a smidge inadequate? I have. It might have been because of a perfectly curated meal photo I saw posted, or maybe someone looking like they’re smashing their workouts everyday, but regardless of the (highlight reel) content, we might not always benefit from this excessive time spent in a fake world.

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What would you do if social media just disappeared overnight? Would you have family and friends you see, hobbies you love, a purpose to keep you happy and fulfilled? I hope that answer is yes. It should be for all of us. Because genuinely, any app could be gone in the morning. The little online world that exists through Instagram (I’m using this as an example as it really is the most popular app for most people) will not be around forever – none of us have any idea when, but there were more popular platforms before it, and I’m sure more will follow after it. This is a big reason why I continue to write, create and share my blog and Podcast content (besides the fact that I love doing so) – because should social media disappear overnight, I know I’ve got my blog and Podcast content coming every week to share my message with you guys. And from a personal perspective, I also know I have a strong why in my career as a doctor, and a lot that fulfils me outside of work too, from family and friends to hobbies.

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So with all of this in mind, I’m going to share with you the 3 main strategies I use to cultivate my own version of digital minimalism in my life. It’s nowhere near as extreme as that described by Cal Newport, but it’s what’s working for me right now! Have a peek as well at my previous post on the concept of Digital Detoxing!

1.Turn Those Notifications OFF.

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If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again – and then one hundred times more. Doing this is a literal GAME-CHANGER. I did this last year, for all of my social media apps, and recently, after thinking about it for a while, and finishing reading Digital Minimalism, I turned off my WhatsApp notifications too. I haven’t regretted it for even one second. The amount of time and headspace you take back from doing this really simple thing is actually quite hard to adequately describe – but in short, it’s amazing. You do not need to know every time someone likes your latest Instagram post, or Tweet, and equally, if a WhatsApp flies in from a friend, you definitely do not need to reply in that exact instant. If you did, for example if it was something urgent or emergent, that person would be phoning you! So I wouldn’t say to turn off EVERY notification – I leave phone calls on for that reason – I do want to be contactable!

Give a try. Take back your time. I turned off notifications and instead, gave myself set times during the day when I would check – in fairness, I generally check my WhatsApps more often that I do my social media as it’s my main mode of communication with family, friends and college buddies. But regardless, that’s my time and my decision to check – not my phone buzzing to ask me to look. If doing it all at once sounds like a lot, why not try just one app at a time? Genuinely, I have yet to meet anyone who, having turned off notifications, wanted to turn them back on.

2. Find Alternative Ways to Occupy Your Mind

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In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport talks about the importance of cultivating ‘high quality leisure time’ in place of the time spent on social media, and I couldn’t agree with this more. As I said in the intro for this article, if social media disappeared tomorrow, it’s so important that we know we would have work, hobbies, activities and people in real life that last and and fulfil us. So if you feel like technology uses up a little bit too much of your time, it might be worth jotting down a few things you can do (and enjoy!) instead of using your phone. That might be at specified times of the day such as first thing in the morning or last thing at night, which is where I started when I began to cut down my phone time. I made myself a little rule – no social media for the first hour of the day! It was actually a LOT easier to stick to than I thought it would be. I love to move, in whatever form that may be, for the first hour of my day instead – either at the gym, doing a yoga class or flow at home, or going for a long walk with a Podcast. That to me is a form of high quality leisure time for my mind and body. I’m also working on the last 30-60 minutes of my day, swapping out phone use for reading my book, and I have to say, setting myself a 2019 resolution to read a LOT more (fiction and non) has made this much much easier to stick to.

Ultimately, I would love to get myself to a ‘screen-free‘ day, but I also think I’ve got enough control over my phone use that I can take or leave social media at any given time, outside of wanting to have it to share a particular post, recipe, article or Podcast episode. It’s worth considering though, because I do think we should be able to have a day away from our phones, or even half a day, without feeling the pull towards them. It’s the perceived ‘need’ to check social media that fascinates me, because I feel it myself, and actively resist it (not always!), and in Digital Minimalism Cal Newport talks about the targeted way in which technology companies try to manage our attention, treating social media like a ‘slot machine‘. Go again, you might win (i.e. get a new ‘like’, message or comment), you might not, but its the unknown ‘maybe’ that seems to draw us back again and again. Reading that perspective and the book overall, and watching this Ted Talk by Tristan Harris convinced me to reflect a LOT more on my phone use and take back more control to be more productive.

3. Move Your Phone Out Of Your Mind

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This final tip is a little bit more from my own train of thought than from what I learnt from reading Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, but it to me is one of the most important things you can do to take back productivity. When you’ve got tasks to do, whether that’s for work, college, school, exams, assignments, etc – remember the phrase ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. That might mean popping your phone into a deep pocket of your bag, or if you’re working at home, move it into a different room! This honestly works a treat for me, especially moving the phone out of the room I’m in. My Fitbit buzzes to remind me to get up and move ten minutes to the hour, nearly every hour if I’m sat at my desk or in the library, so when it does, I get up, move around, check emails and WhatsApps, and then put the phone back out of sight and get back to work. This means I’m checking these things on my time, and gives me the best shot at getting my jobs for the day done efficiently and properly, with all of my intention and attention engaged on them. Why not give it a try? Zip your phone into the small pocket or your bag, or jacket pocket – just move it out of your line of vision, and see the difference in it’s potential to distract you from doing so. I know some people also put their phones on Airplane mode while they work – I don’t do this because with the exception of calls, all of my notifications are off anyway.

Finally, on this point it’s worth saying that I also definitely think it’s a great idea to stick to the ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ rule while you meet family or friends to catch up or do activities together. They deserve your full time and attention and you theirs, so make the most of your time together and be in the moment!

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And that’s a wrap for this week guys! I really hope you enjoyed this post, and I would love to hear from you if you read it! Let me know your favourite digital minimalist strategies if you have any! You know where to find me – @theirishbalance  on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!

Ciara 🙂 x

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