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Andrew Bishop is pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia. You can (rarely) find him on Twitter @xiongandi.

I spend far too much time on my phone, and I believe that many of us in the grad school community face this problem, too. We lose hours of time and countless moments of interpersonal interaction to our screens, even when it is against our best interests. If you want to find evidence of this, take a moment next time you are in class and observe how many of your peers are glancing down at their phones rather than listening to what is happening at the front of the room. Look around when you are out to eat and count how many people are on their phones as opposed to talking to the person in front of them. Consider the time you have spent on the device on which you are reading this post.

It’s important to recognize that this technology is not all bad. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops have revolutionized the way we communicate and receive information. This revolution has had dramatic implications across many different fields, including the field of education. As a teacher, I learned how to integrate technology daily in order to create an engaging learning environment that would prepare my students to work with and around these devices. A number of colleagues at GradHacker have written about innovative ways that grad students can incorporate technology in their teaching and work. Yet it is key to remain mindful that the more time we spend with technology, the harder it is for us to break away from it.

In his new book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport argues that this does not have to be the case. Rather, we should consider spending more time away from our devices in an attempt to live happier and healthier lives. One of the first steps that he recommends as a part of this journey is a “digital declutter.” In order to engage in this process, Newport suggests that you should identify all optional technologies and take a thirty-day break from them. Once this is complete, you can gradually “reset your digital life” through the reintroduction of technology. The idea is that quitting the apps and websites on which you spend the most amount of time will allow you to see how unnecessary they actually are.

Upon first reading this book, I must admit that I was a bit skeptical that this process would work. I was also concerned about how much I would miss out on since I would no longer be on social networks I previously used multiple times daily. However, I’ve been a fan of Cal Newport for many years and have found his book Deep Work and many of his blog posts incredibly insightful. I also assessed how much time I spent on my iPhone using the Screen Time monitoring system and was shocked to see just how much time I wasted. As a result, I decided to give it a shot and jump into the digital declutter process.  

My primary focus was to eliminate unnecessary social media usage. I immediately deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone. I also decided to try to limit my phone screen time to less than one hour a day. Although Newport would likely disagree with me, I decided that time on my computer would not count due to needing it for my coursework.

In reading Newport’s book and going through this process, I can identify a number of key lessons that I learned about my technology consumption habits that I believe other grad students may find useful in reducing their own consumption of technology.

1. Spending less time on social media really does free up space in your schedule. I know this may seem obvious, but I found that I was able to replace much of my screen time with more productive pursuits. As the weather warmed, I started running again and ran three 5ks during a busy school week. Using the time I normally would have spent scrolling in the evenings before bed, I finished two books. I also reallocated time to hang out more with friends in person rather than simply texting them. It’s highly likely that without having this time away from social media, I would not have “had the time” to do any of these things.

2. It can feel good to break free from social media. In stepping away, I quickly realized that I did not need to spend my time mindlessly scrolling through a feed filled with nonsense. This was a freeing feeling, and one that I believe motivates me to continue following through with this process.

3. You will begin to see just how ingrained your desire to visit certain websites has become. I remember on my second day of the declutter that I was sitting at school talking to a colleague. My computer was open in front of me, and as we were in the middle of talking I almost subconsciously turned to my computer and began typing in a social media website. Without taking part in the declutter process, I believe that I would have diverted my attention from the conversation in front of me and spent time on the website instead. These almost unnoticeable desires popped up quite frequently and highlight how dangerous this type of tech addiction can become.

I finished my 30 days of declutter earlier this week. I would argue that my declutter had mixed results. It was easy to keep myself away from the websites I banned. However, fully keeping my time below one hour proved challenging. Spring break definitely did not help, as I had much more free time than I normally would. I also noticed that some apps I previously rarely used began taking up much more of my screen time. However, it is important for me to recognize that this stems not from a failure in Newport’s process, but in my own inability to fully eliminate all digital distractions.

Overall, I am glad that I engaged with this process. My consumption of Twitter and Facebook is minimal and related only to work, while the apps remain off of my phone. I also feel much more in control of my tech habits and am aware of when I start to slip into overuse. I really appreciate Cal Newport, and recommend you take some time to learn more about him and the work he is doing.

Have you had the chance to read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism? Do you plan on starting your own digital declutter? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Image taken and submitted by the author.]