Digital Reduction Experiment
Table of Contents
Intro / Motivation #
I know I’m a walking millenial trope, but I’m starting a deliberate experiment to dramatically reduce my internet engagement. Especially while I’m quarantined for who knows how long, I want to almost entirely stop:
- checking Twitter;
- reading about the virus throughout the day;
- checking email;
- reading blogs frequently; and
- constantly texting with people (mostly about the virus).
Instead, I want to focus on:
- doing lots of (ML) research;
- spending time outside;
- video calls with friends;
- reading books; and
- writing more blog posts.
This is largely inspired by Cal Newport’s writing, in particular Digital Minimalism. As he discusses, I hope limiting my mindless browsing and procrastination options will force me to spend more time thinking and even being bored. While I expect I’ll also be more productive, I’m explicitly not setting increased productivity as a goal since I want to give myself freedom to avoid my usual procrastination sources without feeling like I’m forcing myself to just work all the time.
My overall strategy is going to be a combination of app-enforced blocks and accountability measures for tools that I need more flexible access to.
App-enforced Blocks #
In order to accomplish these goals without totally shutting myself off from information about the virus and my favorite news sources/blogs/science Twitter, I’m going to apply the follow.
- Use StayFocused to limit access to the browser and email on my phone except during 30 minute windows on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
- Use StayFocused to set a daily 45 minute limit on access to messaging apps on my phone (Messages, WhatsApp, Messenger, etc.).
- Use LeechBlock to only allow me to access blogs / social media / etc. for an hour a week spread through 1 hour evening time windows each day.
- Use LeechBlock to limit access to web-based messaging equivalents to 45 minutes per day.
Accountability Measures #
The above blocks don’t cover email on my computer and leave me free to multi-task by texting while working without hitting my limit.
Email is hard for me to limit because I rely on it heavily for research and therefore often spend more than 30 minutes composing long progress report emails. It’s arbitrary but I consider twice a day a reasonable maximum number of email checks that will allow me to deal with research and any other important school/career stuff I need to but won’t allow for email multi-tasking.
Texting is also hard because I use it as a valuable way to stay in touch with my girlfriend / friends, which matters to me given our current level of social isolation. However, I want to avoid texting while working but know that my 45 minute time limit won’t prevent this on its own.
To deal with both these and other examples that I probably haven’t thought of without giving me free reign to procrastinate in new ways, I’ve installed RescueTime on my computer and (will install it once I’m no longer blocked from the Play Store) on my phone. Each day, I’ll post screenshots of my dashboard under the ‘Tracking’ section of this post. I expect that knowing that whatever I do will be posted here for all my (hypothetical) readers to see will guilt me into acting in line with the spirit of this experiment even though I have potentially no readers.
Daily Plans #
I’ve been casually writing Cal Newport-style daily plans for a few months and intend to continue doing so as part of this experiment. In line with my comment about productivity above, I’m intentionally not going to try to meaningfully my overall work hours because I worry doing so would cause my subconscious to revolt by reverting my typical procrastination activities.
Other Digital Activities #
I rarely listen to podcasts in the first place but have been occasionally listening to them while working out. I’m giving myself the option to keep doing this as it feels different from the other forms of procrastination I described above and helps me stay motivated to exercise.
TV / Movies #
TV / movies are tougher because I can binge both but both help me relax in small doses. As a compromise, I’m going to allow myself 1 hour a day of TV screen time with the option to ‘save up’ credits during the week for movies. That means if I don’t watch any TV one day, I can use the hour from that day to watch a movie later in the week.
Video Games #
I haven’t played video games in a long time and will continue not playing them.
Substitute Activities #
Another thing Cal Newport often harps on is the importance of finding substitute activities to replace mindless internet / app use. In that vein, I want to have trigger-action plans for the different urges that generally drive me to switch to mindless browsing. I intend to keep updating this list as I notice new things throughout the experiment.
When I want to browse blogs / mindlessly read in general #
I can instead:
- read a book;
- take a short walk;
- do Anki cards;
- think about research;
- think about random questions; or
- mess around on Roam.
When I specifically get tired of working #
Instead of tab switching to a procrastination website or email, I can:
- take a short walk;
- read a book;
- play a game of pool.
When I want to specifically read about the virus #
Instead of reading that second, I can:
- talk to my family about it and hear what they’ve been reading; or
- write down specific things I want to know and look them up in batch during my chunk of time.
When I crave social interaction #
Instead of messaging, I can:
- schedule a call with a friend;
- talk to my family;
- play with dogs / cat;
- read a book; or
- talk to my imaginary friend (just kidding).
When I want to tweet #
Instead of doing it that second, I can write it down in Roam and post it later.
I’m going to use this post as a journal in addition to a repository for posting RescueTime screenshots. By recording things I’m struggling with on a daily basis or things that work well, I may get some insight into latent factors that drive me to compulsively procrastinate / do mindless browsing.
I didn’t post yesterday because I considered the post itself my first ’entry’ so I’ll discuss both days here.
Yesterday went great and today went OK. The main issue today was my sneaking around my webpage block using an incognito tab to click a few virus-related Twitter links my friends sent. I also spent some time watching lifting YouTube videos, which is a grey area for me, since it’s sort of procrastinating but also is actually related to something important to me. I’m going to see if I can get LeechBlock to block incognito windows and also remember to write things down instead.
I say yesterday “went great” because I got a lot of work done and felt unusually calm.
Without further ado, my RescueTime data for yesterday and today.
So obviously I’ve been bad about posting daily updates here. I’m going to try to get better but no promises since my priority is keeping to the experiment guidelines not posting.
I’d say the past week has been OK. I just plugged the incognito window loophole that allowed me to access any site in an incognito window, which I hope will help prevent the small amount of cheating I’ve been doing. For the next 7 days, I want to really practice writing down things to look up rather than cheating.
I’ve also decided to stop posting RescueTime screenshots. I haven’t been impressed by RescueTime’s labeling of browser use and already track my work time using Toggl so RescueTime doesn’t provide me much additional value. Given that, it seems silly to use it just for the purpose of posting screenshots.
As may be obvious, the first iteration experiment failed. Starting today, I’m going to try again. In the mean time, I’ve spent some time doing an informal post-mortem to think through what went wrong and came to the following conclusions:
- I didn’t do a good job of writing things down to look up later.
- I assumed that having blocks on sites would work perfectly rather than presenting an inconvenience for my wily side.
- Allowing myself 30 minutes on both weekend days devolved into weekend days becoming free-for-alls.
Given the above, I’m changing a few things about the experiment this time around:
- Make sure to write things down to look up later from the beginning.
- Less focus on blocking sites and then trying to improve those blocks when I find a way around them.
- No temporary weekend internet browsing sessions during the month-long experiment. This is something I’ll instead consider introducing if the first month goes well.
- No RescueTime.