Digital minimalism when you work online

Cal Newport

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while may remember my guide to improving reading speed, which referenced the book Deep Work by Cal Newport (whom I also was lucky enough to interview). Cal’s blog is superb and he is something of a guru when it comes to digital minimalism. This week he wrote an interesting blog post where he coined the term Facebook Phreak, to reference people who have installed apps and other mechanisms to reduce the number of distractions Facebook unleashes upon us.

In the blog post he referenced people who cull their friends, use Facebook specifically for special interest groups, deleted the Facebook app from their phone and installed blockers on their browser to kill the news feed. It turns out I am a Facebook Phreak because I do all these things.

Digital Minimalism is becoming very important to me, it is something where I have made some massive strides but also fall back into bad habits often. I use Freedom.to to block distracting websites when I work, I have removed email and browsing apps from my phone (if it wasn’t for podcasts and a weather app I’d be using a ‘dumb’ phone right now), I have started to mute a lot of political words from my Twitter, I only use Twitter socially in very specific time periods and I have even blocked the news channels on my TV. Watching people lose their shit over Donald Trump and arguing with people online about relatively trivial things is something I am trying to put to an absolute minimum in my life.

There is a problem, however, in that for my day job I need to stay plugged in to social media and news. I am the editor of a large poker website and a lot of my job includes working with our social media accounts and writing industry news (most of which comes one way or another from social or news sites). This naturally is at odds with my desire to keep my online interactions controlled and to a minimum.

I’ve by no means perfected this, but here are a few ways in which I have managed to stay plugged in without letting social media overwhelm my working day.

Freedom.to

I’ve recommended this before and it really is a game changer for me, it’s an app that blocks out distracting websites at set times. I, for example, cannot check my email or any social media before 9.30AM and ditto will be shut out again after 7pm.

I use the time in the morning to do my most important work of the day which requires my full attention and in the evening to spend the time relaxing and shutting my brain off.

I wish I could use it for longer but work needs dictate when I do, but there is no need to start the day distracted and at least I can always guarantee I have done something important before the non stop influx of data comes my way.

Kill News Feed

This is a Chrome Extension as mentioned earlier in this post and it has effectively got rid of Facebook as a distraction in my life. It literally shows you a blank page for your Facebook feed. The only thing you can do is look at groups, go directly to a friend’s page, send messages and, in the case of people who use Facebook for work, make posts.

Tweetdeck

There are other Twitter dashboards available but this is the one I use. Tweetdeck does several things very well, perhaps most of all enabling you to schedule Tweets in the future, so you can handle all the Tweets you are going to make in batches rather than returning to it constantly. You can also opt to NOT show your replys and/or feeds, meaning if you only want to use Twitter to post from your account, this is the best way to do it.

Tweetdeck also allows you to control what you see, so if you do not want notifications every time you get a ‘Like’ but do want to see replys, you can easily set it up to do so. I also highly recommend setting up ‘Twitter Lists’ where you can group specific accounts you follow together and only see them. So in my case I follow famous players and industry insiders in the poker industry who tweet specifically about things related to my work, so I can avoid the people I followed for posting funny dog memes.

I also highly recommend the mute word feature both in Twitter and a version in Tweetdeck, which I started using after Trump’s Inauguration. I’m as guilty as anyone of being somewhat addicted to what the floppy haired buffoon will say next as well as the over-exaggerated meltdowns from his detractors, but it is a massive time suck and distraction. So I have muted political words like ‘Trump’ and ‘Democrat’. By no means does it stop the flow of political tweets, but it massively reduces them.

Work & personal email

I’ve written about this before and it’s another good way to encourage a healthy work/life balance, and that is I have a separate email for work and a separate email for personal use, using different providers so I cannot get distracted by one or the other. I use Gmail for personal and OutLook for work, and block them both at different times using Freedom.to. It’s a great way of clearly defining work time and leisure time, especially when you work from home.

 

I hope that advice helps and before I come across too much as a preachy hipster of Digital Minimalism, I should state I fail at all of the above more often than I wish I did. I check email when I shouldn’t, I get sucked into Twitter arguments more than I want to and find myself going down many a rabbit hole of clickbait (I am proud to have almost been email and social media free on my phone for an entire year though) All I can say is that my weakness in this area does provide me with an easy way to compare how much better life is when I am sticking to hard rules with distractions than when I am not (anecdotally I eat better, exercise more and generally feel less anxious when I am keeping my online activity to a minimum).

Now if anyone can share with me any hacks to keep my Skype usage to a healthy but productive minimum, I am all ears.

If you are interested in the psychology of why we are so easily offended these days, I’m writing a book about it. You can get a free copy of an early draft chapter by joining the mailing list below:

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