I knew I was watching too much Netflix when I realized that I didn’t want my husband to know just how much I was watching.  I felt a bit like an alcoholic hiding wine bottles.  And I was vaguely aware that I didn’t actually enjoy being glued to a screen.  It just seemed to – happen.

I’m not alone.  Companies are getting better and better at keeping us glued to our screens, watching and clicking.  We slide into passive consumption of content, mindlessly drifting from one shiny thing to another.  I don’t decide to watch cat videos, binge on Netflix, or spend hours catching up on celebrity gossip.  It just happens.

In an effort to return to mindfulness, I recently completed Cal Newport’s 30-day digital declutter challenge:

  1. Articulate which digital technologies are optional for you and which aren’t.
  2. Remove all nonoptional technologies for 30 days.
  3. During those 30 days, think about your values and goals, figuring out what matters to you.
  4. After the 30 days, reintroduce digital technology.  Be selective and cautious; allow only what is effective in helping you live your values and move towards your goals.

I took a deep breath and jumped in.  Essential digital technology uses: Checking work email, texting close friends and family, reading the daily newspaper, looking up specific information (like the weather or the location of a store), and watching the final episodes of Game of Thrones.

Nonessential: Everything else.  Netflix.  Social media.  All my news apps.  Mindless surfing and looking for answers to random and unimportant questions.

I pulled my old radio out of the closet.  I hid the remote control to the TV and deleted all news and social media apps from my phone.

I was left with a lot of silence.  What do I do in the evening after work when I’m home alone and really tired and it’s raining hard outside?

I’ll just watch …..   Oh.  Wait.  Right.

In the beginning, I spent a significant amount of time being bored.  I wandered the house in circles looking for something to do.  I opened the freezer and looked for ice cream.  (Nope.)  I sewed a button back on my shirt and I vacuumed the bedroom.  I wandered around the house again.  I listened to music, I read novels, I listened to radio programs, and I planned my garden. 

And I reflected on values and goals: What matters to me?  Friends and family came up first.  I came up with an alternative for times when I was too tired to talk: I wrote a letter to a friend who are struggling right now and I wrote cards to some graduating seniors at my college.  I texted a friend and made plans for getting together over the weekend.  I practiced yin yoga.  And I went to bed early.

After a few days, I noticed that I felt better.  Calmer.  More in touch with who I want to be and with what matters to me.

Three things became clear:

  • I turn to digital technology when I feel bored, tired or sad.  But it doesn’t help me feel better.  It just distracts me from paying attention to how I am feeling.  And if I don’t even notice how I feel, I can’t deal with the problem.
  • Boredom is calming and motivating.  After staring at the emptiness for a while, I start seeing clearly and I notice how I feel and what I want.
  • Screens are addictive and I’m weak.

So yes.  I canceled my Netflix subscription.

The fine print

Cal Newport outlines the 30 day digital declutter in Digital Minimalism – one of my favorite books so far this year.

My suggestions on how to review your values and goals here and on setting priorities here.

More on what I learned from the digital declutter here.

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