I’m currently reading Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. Even though I have only read a third of this book thus far, I highly recommend it. I have experienced a number of “aha moments” and powerful insights, some of which I may share here as I process them and apply them to my life. We’ll start with a concept that most of us probably don’t associate with technology, digital devices, or minimalism: the importance of solitude. After reading Newport’s thesis, it makes perfect sense to me how solitude relates to technology and it’s very much in line with my 2019 “freedom” theme and many of the other topics I write about on this blog.
What is Solitude and Why Does It Matter?
As someone who spends at least half of my time alone, I would have thought that I experience more than enough solitude. If I go by the Merriam-Webster definition of solitude as “the state or situation of being alone,” this is true, but Newport presented an alternate definition that has serious implications in today’s digital economy. Newport defined solitude as
“A subjective state in which your mind is free from the input of other minds.”
Given that we can easily be connected with others 24/7 with a quick finger swipe or mouse click, many of us are rarely free from the input of other minds. Even if we’re not texting regularly or spending hours on social media (the daily average is now 2 hours and 22 minutes!), easy access to podcasts, television, and radio often result in very little time spent engaging with our own thoughts.
Why does this matter? There are three crucial benefits afforded to us by solitude:
- New ideas
- An understanding of ourselves
- Closeness to others (this is paradoxical but true!)
Being free from the input of other minds gives us the time and space necessary for creative inspiration, self-reflection, and appreciation of those closest to us. Spending time alone – truly alone – can help affirm our bonds to others, and alternating social interaction with regular doses of solitude makes for a healthy and well-adjusted human being. All of this is now at risk as a result of technological advances -and specifically the smartphone, which has led to a condition Newport has termed “solitude deprivation.”
Solitude deprivation is defined as
“A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
Modern technology affords us the ability to be continuously distracted from our own thoughts. The situations that used to provide us with pockets of solitude – waiting in line, going for a run, doing the dishes, etc. – are now occupied by glancing at our phones. In fact, the average American checks their phone every 12 minutes, for a total of 80 times per day!
Not only are we less likely to experience the benefits of solitude outlined above, solitude deprivation also has some serious side effects, including increased anxiety. When Newport spoke at a well-known university before writing Digital Minimalism, an administrator told him about the dramatic increase in mental health center visits for what used to be a relatively rare affliction. Seemingly all of a sudden, many students were suffering from anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. This increase coincided with the first incoming class of students who had grown up with smartphones and social media. These students were sending and processing messages on a constant basis, which seemed to be negatively impacting their brain chemistry.
This connection was validated by psychology professor Jean Twenge, who has been studying the generational differences in American youth for over twenty-five years. She noticed that rates of depression and suicide had skyrocketed among members of “iGen,” those who were born between 1995 and 2012. These shifts corresponded almost exactly to the time when American smartphone ownership became commonplace and could not be explained by other potential contributing factors. As Twenge shares in her September 2017 Atlantic article, the more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression and suffer from loneliness. They’re also less likely to get enough sleep, plus they spend less time with friends and go on fewer dates.
While most adults are not as constantly connected to their smartphones as members of iGen, they still suffer from milder forms of solitude deprivation that result in low-grade anxiety that permeates their daily lives. While many people will attribute their anxiety to factors like the 2009 recession, the 2016 election, or just “normal adulthood stress,” it’s clear that the lack of time and space alone with our thoughts is contributing to our distress. We need solitude to thrive as human beings for the reasons mentioned above. As Newport succinctly puts it, “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”
My Experience with Solitude Deprivation
I had no idea that a lack of solitude was a problem for me before reading Newport’s book. Rather, I thought a big reason for my low mood was because I spend so much time alone and don’t interact with others often enough. I never considered that the podcasts I listen to for entertainment, learning, and “company” could be to my detriment and I certainly never thought they could be responsible for my increased anxiety. I also thought it was simply mindless amusement to scroll through Reddit occasionally when I wanted to take a break or get a little “downtime.” I considered this site to be preferable to Facebook because I mostly act as a “voyeur” there and don’t feel like anyone is expecting my engagement.
I have been a lot more anxious in recent years, but I attributed that to loneliness, hormonal shifts, health issues, and life uncertainties. But what if it’s simpler than all of that? And what if my consistent insomnia also has to do with my technology usage and the associated solitude deprivation? Could cutting down on my digital time help me to achieve increased peace, happiness, and freedom? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? Yes, that would be a good thing for all of us, but how do we go about reclaiming some solitude in our lives?
Ways to Reclaim Solitude
After outlining the dangers of solitude deprivation and its insidiousness in modern society, Newport shared several simple and effective practices to help us reclaim more solitude in our lives.
Leave Your Phone at Home
We don’t need to always have our cellphones on hand as if they were an additional appendage. After all, people got along just fine without them for many years and some of us are old enough to remember those times. Most of the time, the presence of a cellphone is not vital to our daily existence. Newport recommends that we regularly spend some time away from our phones on most days. This could take the form of running a quick errand without your phone or leaving it in your car while you enjoy a meal out with your spouse or a friend. If you do encounter any sort of emergency, your phone will be close by, or you could always borrow a phone from someone else should you absolutely need one. But it can be helpful to remember that most emergencies aren’t.
Take Long Walks (Sans Phone)
Walking is one of the best sources of solitude, but people usually have their phones with them on walks these days. The best walks are long walks, as they allow us ample time alone with our thoughts and often lead to creative bursts and problem-solving ideas. While we walk, we’re able to reflect on various aspects of our lives and unwind from the stress of work or family obligations. Newport also recommends talking long walks alone, preferably in scenic places, without your phone. If you’re unable to leave your phone at home for logistical reasons, one idea is to carry a backpack and put your phone at the bottom – or simply turn it off while you’re walking.
“Write Letters to Yourself”
This is Newport’s version of keeping a journal or maintaining a notebook of ideas, reflections, goals, and areas of focus. Most people who journal nowadays do so online or via a smartphone app, but it’s all too easy to become distracted by all of the “shiny objects” available with a quick click or finger swipe. Journaling in long hand is a lost art, but it’s a powerful way to incorporate solitude and introspection into your life.
How I’m Reducing Solitude Deprivation
I know that Newport introduces additional digital minimalism suggestions as the book progresses, but as I said, I have only read a third of the book thus far. One thing that he recommends is a thirty day “digital detox,” which can look different for various people depending upon how they define their individual parameters. I will likely take this challenge on soon and I will surely write about it. I have already taken a lot of steps to decrease my dependence upon technology, but clearly it’s not enough given my solitude deprivation and increased anxiety…
Removing Social Media Apps
I already did some digital detox last year as part of my “essential” theme. I removed most social media apps from my phone at that time or earlier, but I recently got rid of Reddit as well because I found myself spending too much time scrolling through that feed. I can still peruse Reddit and other social media sites on my computer or tablet, but I’m less likely to gobble up tons of time that way. I haven’t missed having Facebook and Messenger on my phone and have no intention of adding them back. I still spend some time on Facebook, but only on my computer and a lot less often than I used to (two or three times per week vs. daily or multiple times per day usage).
It’s hard for me to believe that just over three years ago, I used to spend upwards of twenty hours a week moderating the group I started, reading and responding to Facebook threads, and messaging with friends there. But the subconscious desire to escape my thoughts and pacify myself is strong, so replacement “pacifiers” have come into play, including the aforementioned Reddit and podcasts. My Reddit usage is way down since I removed the app from my phone, but I still peruse the internet quite a bit and spend hours each day listening to podcasts.
Decreasing Web Browsing, Podcast Listening, and Gmail Usage
I just took the podcast and Google icons off of my smartphone screen. Now I will have to access these programs via the apps menu instead of by a quick click. I did this with Gmail last week and I have found myself resisting the “twitch” to check email multiple times per day. I don’t even get all that much email anymore and very few time-sensitive messages, so it was just a habit to which I had grown accustomed.
I’m considering removing Gmail from my phone completely, as I almost never respond to messages there. I don’t do well typing on the phone and prefer to write to people on my computer whenever possible. The podcasts will be a bit trickier and I think I need some rules/guidelines to cut back on my time there. I would like to add an hour or two of solitude back into my days, whether it be from taking walks alone or doing household tasks quietly without having a background soundtrack on.
How Does Music Impact Solitude?
One question I have that Newport didn’t address is how listening to music impacts solitude. I have found that I often get creative inspiration while working out at the gym and I always listen to music on my iPod there. Does music count as being exposed to “the minds of others”? Does it make a difference whether or not there are lyrics involved vs. just instrumentals? I’m willing to cut down on listening to music, too, if it negatively impacts solitude, but I’m just not sure if that’s the case. If any of you have insights about this issue, or if you know what Newport has to say about it, please let me know. Perhaps this is covered later on in Digital Minimalism, but I haven’t seen anything about it yet.
Conclusion and Your Thoughts?
Anxiety is a big problem for many of us. I addressed my own issues with anxiety and depression in a three part-series previously (see HERE, HERE, and HERE) and presented my suggestions and those from readers for cultivating increased happiness and peace in our lives. I knew that Facebook caused me anxiety, which is why I have continually decreased the time I spend there, but I had no idea that listening to podcasts, mindlessly scrolling through Reddit, and reading entertainment articles on Google could produce a similar effect.
Now that I know about the benefits of solitude and the dangers of solitude deprivation – including increased anxiety and insomnia, I’m going to work on reclaiming some of my lost solitude. I look forward to quiet walks, silent chores, and continuing my regular journaling and meditation practices. I hope that finding more time for solitude in my day-to-day life will help me to be calmer, happier, more creative, and more engaged with life and those around me.
I’d love to get your thoughts on this article. Here are a few questions to spark your insights, but feel free to comment however you’d like:
- How much real solitude (as per Cal Newport’s definition above) do you get on a regular basis?
- Do you feel that you suffer from solitude deprivation?
- If so, what do you see as the negative impacts in your life?
- How do you plan to reclaim some more solitude for yourself?
- What additional suggestions do you have for increasing solitude?
Thanks for reading and I look forward to whatever you have to share.