At this point in the school year, the purpose and practice of great teaching can get foggy. The stress and challenges and changes of the year accumulate, and our minds and hearts grow dim.
The last part — doing what we know works — is the central thrust of These 6 Things. Just keep doing six things, again and again, the simpler the better, improving along the way.
But I've not written a book on resisting distraction, and so in this little thread of posts, I'm dealing with how we think about the most ubiquitous source of distraction in our lives today: digital tools. Much is written on using digital tools in the classroom; little is written on how teachers use digital tools in their lives. So, we're using Cal Newport's new book as a guide.
It's one thing to philosophize about digital minimalism (as I did in a previous post), another to do it. How do we claim more time and space in our lives to think and live and teach and grow? To paraphrase an old stoic: Vain is the philosophy that doesn't actually help us live.
So, if you're sensing that your relationship with technology is out of whack, join me in a 30-day experiment from Newport's book to get us learning by doing. It's called the digital declutter. I think this will give us that rejuvenating feeling you get when spring cleaning.
The experiment has three steps:
1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism, p. 73
2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
3. At the end of your break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.
Let's flip the order on these. I want to examine Step #2 first (because that's the “get to do” stuff that makes the discipline for the digital declutter fun), and then Step #1, and then (briefly) Step #3.
Step #2. Activities and behaviors that will replace my compulsive technology use
What life-giving activities would you love to have more time for?
Here are four things I'd like to do more and better. These are wise investments, both short- and long-term.
Connecting: With my wife, my children, my colleagues, my students, my friends.
Running: Just two miles per day, a few days per week. Enough to get my heart rate up.
Reading: You know I love me some reading. I've got probably 50 books on my “to read” pile right now.
Writing: 1,000 words per day x 5 days per week — that's the rate that has worked well for me in the past. I've lost track of that the past few months. This takes 30-60 minutes per day.
The idea is that I'll take the time that's not dribbling away with optional technologies (described below) and put it fully into these activities. Obviously work and sleep take up good parts of my days, too — those won't change.
Step #1. A break from optional technologies
The focus of the declutter experiment is refraining from all optional technology use for 30 days.
According to my phone, my browser history, and a recent survey I took of where my time goes, below are the technologies I use the most. I'll include a description of what I use them for and how I'll use them (if at all) during the 30-day declutter experiment.
The key with all of this is to interpret the word “optional” strictly. If I can
survive not get fired while skipping the tech, then it's optional.
At times in my career, I've been disciplined with email. For the past few months or so, I've not. I check it a few times a day, get overwhelmed by its contents, and close out the browser. Every time I check it, I get either a small dose of dopamine (“Ooh, an email I want!”) or a small dose of anxiety (“Ooh, 74 unread emails!”). I can't get rid of email, but I can drastically reduce check-frequency and change what I do when I check.
Digital Declutter Rule 1: Check work email 1 time per day, 5 days per week. Check personal and blog email 3x/week, weekdays only. There's no need to check any of it on weekends. Those work emails previewing the week to come? They can be checked on Monday morning.
Digital Declutter Rule 2: When I do check email, use OHIO: Only Handle It Once. Either delete it, respond to it, or schedule it. The last two are the hardest for me. Sometimes I get emails where a person asks me a complex question, and I don't have the wherewithal to give a thoughtful answer at the time of checking. The solution here is to just answer with what I have at the time. Perfectionism behind!
Probably the harder email case for me is with scheduling, as this requires speaking with Crystal if it's for anything in the evenings or on the weekends. Scheduling things during the working day is the hardest, just because of how precious those non-teaching/prep hours are. (It is difficult to run a blog on 10-15 hours per week, let me tell you!)
So, I just need to get less emotional about saying “no” to folks who want my time when I can't give it. This goes back to the “savior vs. professional” idea I've written about. As my friend John says, “The need is not the call.” (That's like a proverb right there, and proverbs are like hard candy: you don't eat them with a single chomp.)
I think these two declutter rules alone could have a radical impact on how I experience time and anxiety and decision-making. We'll see.
I'm amazed at how addicting the news is today. Media outlets on all sides seem to have mastered bringing us back, day after day. The little spot that I check each day at TheWeek.com says it best.
Our news and politics, at least in the USA, have become a real-life reality TV show. Online news is now clickbait; cable news is an intravenous line for outrage.
So here's the thing: knowing the day's news isn't mandatory. I don't need to know the latest from the White House or Congress in order to be a responsible citizen or a wise father. And really, that's the goal: not being informed, but being wise.
Digital Declutter Rule 3: No online news. I don't have cable, so that means my only shot at knowing the day's news is listening in the car on the five-minute ride to school.
There are some cases in which short clips on YouTube are very helpful in the world history classroom. It adds something to listen to Churchill's “never give in” speechor to watch every use of nuclear weapons from 1945 to 1998.
So, I'm not going to make a rule blanket-banning YouTube for the next 30 days.
But I am going to ban accessing YouTube outside of teaching hours.
Here's why: in moments of stress — like moments when I need to make a decision on a complex issue or write the next paragraph in a tricky blog post — I often open up YouTube and find something to watch. Typically this ranges from the educationally entertaining — like the Kurzgesagt channel where they describe what would happen if you blew up a nuclear weapon at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — or the purely entertaining — like watching replays of Michigan's win over Kansas in the 2013 NCAA Tourney, or viewing the latest Star Wars trailer for the tenth time.
In all cases, it's just a smidge to the left of a total waste of time and attention. The solution to stressful moments isn't to jump out of them into digital distraction. This creates more internal fragmentation and fidgeting, not less.
So the rule is simple.
Digital Declutter Rule 4: No YouTube except during teaching.
During the past week, in preparation for this rule, I've made a note of every time I check Twitter. What was I checking for, and what did I get out of it?
The pattern is that I check 1-2 times per day, often in the same “stress-twitch” way that I use YouTube. I check my “notifications” — with the addicting little number beside them — and sometimes I'll check someone else's feed (like Jenn Gonzalez, or Kelly Gallagher, or Elon Musk — you know, world changers).
The thing is, none of those trips to Twitter in the last week have produced anything of lasting value.
Re: my notifications, it is nice to see when someone positively mentions These 6 Things, but reading nice things about my book isn't why I write books. I write books to help. And by this time I've seen enough feedback on the book to know that it helps. Fixating any longer on this is vanity and ego — simple as that.
(Now with that said, let me be clear. Not only do I appreciate kind words about my work — I depend on them! This blog only reaches new readers through the word of mouth of its current ones! I'm just trying to say that it's vain and egotistical for me to check Twitter just to read these things.)
And re: finding interesting things from other people on Twitter, sure, it's interesting to see what Gonzalez just published, or what Gallagher is thinking about, or what Musk is up to. However, my life isn't devoid of interesting things. It's time and attention and focus that I could sorely use — not more interesting things!
It's just my opinion, but I think I'd be better off reading books. I want and need wisdom — a very different thing from information.
One more thing: I've been told by many that as an author, you've got to manage and grow your Twitter presence. The bestselling books, the thinking goes, are written by the people with the biggest Twitter followings.
My goal is to achieve bestselling a different way: through doing excellent work that people naturally share. I've tried the “manage your personal brand” thing. It is exhausting and dehumanizing.
(And speaking of dehumanizing, what is up with making the number of followers that someone has such a prominent stat? Making an option for users to turn this off would be amazing.)
Okay, end rant. All of this rough draft thinking is simply to say that Twitter is optional tech. So.
Digital Declutter Rule 5: I don't check Twitter.
(I'll revisit this technology, and all the others, after the 30 days.)
Sometimes I forget that I have a Facebook page for this blog. Every new post I write gets automatically posted there, and for many, that's how they read my work. I'm super bad at checking it, though. I actually think checking FB weekly might be a habit I want to add after this declutter is over.
But to stick with the spirit of the experiment:
Digital Declutter Rule 6: I don't check FB.
These are the areas I've identified for my digital declutter, but we'll see if any new ones develop during the thirty days. Newport offers a whole chapter on the digital declutter, complete with examples from the mass digital declutter experiment he led through his blog. This chapter alone makes Digital Minimalism worth the price of admission.
Step #3. After 30 days, reintroduce optional technology thoughtfully.
Step #3 is where the fun starts. What did the 30 days teach us? Which of the rules are worth keeping? Did any not go far enough? (E.g., can I get away with checking email 3 times per week?)
But that's all speculation at this point. I'll see you on the other end of the thirty days. And if you're into this kind of thing, feel free to join me. Share your rules in the comments!
Note from Dave: I read Newport's Digital Minimalism, as well as over forty other books and sources, as I prepared my new, all-online, schedule-friendly professional development experience: Ten Exercises in Time Management. The first cohort, which will have limited enrollment and will include perks that subsequent cohorts will not include, opens soon. Get on the waitlist here.