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Managing Technology in Your Life Part 1

Several months ago someone asked me to write about teens and technology use.  I thought it sounded like a fun topic, so I researched the subject. I fell down a rabbit hole of books about tech and kids, tech and society, social media, etc. Then I read Digital Minimalism–by far the best of the lot–and was thoroughly overcome with a sense of inferiority. I knew that no blog post I could ever write would be anywhere near as good as that book. And I also knew that I couldn’t just write a blog post that said, “Read Digital Minimalism. Just do it. You will be happier.” 

So I didn’t write at all. But I finally decided that I just had to share its ideas. You should really just read Digital Minimalism, but I will try to make this blog post the next best thing. 

Start with a plan

When you’re coming up with screen time rules for your kids, the most important thing is to have a coherent idea of the role you want tech to play in your life. Making up arbitrary rules doesn’t work. You need a coherent and principled system, like digital minimalism. 

On his blog, Cal Newport (author of the book Digital Minimalism) defines digital minimalism as “a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

It’s not about going home and throwing out your TV, your smart phone, or your laptop, unless you decide rationally and intentionally that this is what is best for you and your family. You might, but that’s not really the point. The point is to use your technologies to help you get what you want, rather than letting them run your life. 

What do you want?

So the first step in coming up with a tech plan is to list your goals as a person and as a family. What would your perfect life look like? What do you want to achieve? What kind of leisure activities would you like to spend your time on? What would you like your kids to be and do? What sort of quality time do you want to spend with your children? What talents do you want to develop? What talents do you want your kids to develop? What big financial, relationship or personal goals do you have in your life? 

Really take some time to think about these questions, because the answers will be the basis not only for a sound tech strategy, but also for a happier and more fulfilling life.

What tech do you use?

The second step: List all of the tech you (and your family) regularly use. This includes devices (eg. Laptop, smart speakers, ipods, smart phones, TV, gaming consoles, etc.) It also includes services and social media platforms. (eg. Cable, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) 

Be thorough. Really take stock of the technologies you use and how you use them. And how much you use them–which might be hard. A time tracker might be useful for this. There are automatic time tracking programs for both computers and phones which can tell you how much time you spend on which apps. If you want to track all your activities, not just the ones on particular devices, you can also use the pen and paper method, or there are apps that you can use on your phone to track your activities of all kinds. It can be quite interesting to see how much time you spend on different things, but time tracking is hard. I tried it for about 3 days (using a simple app) and by the third day I gave up, exhausted from the effort of trying to be always aware of what I was doing. 

Cal Newport actually recommends taking a 30 day break from all inessential technologies just as a sort of detox, so you can think more clearly about what you have been spending your time on and whether you want those things back in your life. This might actually be easier than tracking your activities.

Is your tech helping you get what you want? 

Step three is to compare your two lists. Look at each technology in your life and ask yourself three questions. 

  1. Does this device or service help me achieve any of the things I have decided that I value? 
  2. Is this device or technology the best or only way to achieve that goal? 
  3. How can I minimize the downsides of this technology and improve its effectiveness for my purposes?

If anything on your list does not pass the first test, then get rid of it. If it’s not making you happier or helping you achieve your goals, then you don’t want it in your life. 

The second question is where things get more complicated. An example would be Facebook. Let’s say I’ve decided that keeping in touch with my family is very important to me, and Facebook helps me do that. But is Facebook the best technology for helping you stay in touch with family? Or when you log in, do you mainly see angry political ranting and cat videos that distract you for the next 15 minutes (or the next hour) and take you away from your family who is present. Consider alternatives. I, for example, don’t use Facebook for anything personal. I have some friends who live elsewhere who I want to keep in touch with, and I have chosen to use a group chat instead of Facebook, because I think that this maximizes my meaningful interaction with my actual friends in ways that Facebook does not. 

But maybe you decide that Facebook is indeed the best choice for you. This is where question 3 comes in. How can you use Facebook so that you minimize the negative consequences of it? I do use Facebook. I used to find it irritating, frustrating and time wasting. I was frustrated that my email was constantly full of updates. But I had found that it was the most effective way to advertise my blog, so I had to figure out how to mitigate the negative consequences of having it in my life.

Because my only purpose for having Facebook is to advertise my writing, I blocked all email notifications. I have Facebook only on my laptop, and not on my phone. I post links when I write a new blog post, and then I leave. I have learned that looking at my Facebook feed makes me angry and sad, so I pretty much limit my Facebook use to posting links and leaving. (I also occasionally network using the private messenger function, but never on my phone.) This works very well for me.

Other people might need to use Facebook because of a Facebook group that they participate in. It is possible to bookmark that group’s page, so that when you need to check your group you can go directly there without looking at things that irritate and distract you.

These are just examples. Maybe the technology you’re looking at is Netflix. Maybe you have decided that watching a TV show or film with your spouse or your kids is a valuable way of connecting with them, and that Netflix is the best way of accomplishing that. But maybe you are frustrated because you find that every time you look at Netflix you spend half an hour being irritated because you can’t figure out what you want to watch. Maybe a good choice for you would be to make a rule that you don’t open up Netflix unless you have already decided what to watch, or that you will set a 10 minute timer, after which you will pick whatever has looked best so far.

The point is that every technology you have, every service you subscribe to, everything you own, takes a certain amount of space, time, mental energy, and sometimes money to maintain. Is it worth it, and how can it be minimized? This is the decision you have to make, based on your own goals for you and your family

Now that you have made a coherent and principled system for making technology decisions, now you are ready to tackle the sticky issue of how much and what technologies are appropriate for your child to use. 

That will be for next time. 

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Is Minimalism For You?

You hear a lot about minimalism these days. But there seems to be a lot of confusion about what it is. According to Merriam Webster it is “a style or technique (as in music, literature, or design) that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity.” Wikipedia says that “In visual arts, music, and other mediums, minimalism is an art movement that began in post–World War II Western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s.” But when most people talk about it nowadays, they have no intention of referring to a school of art. Minimalism is a lifestyle choice. But even here there is confusion. What kind of minimalism are you talking about?

Generally speaking, minimalism means living with less, but as it turns out, there are a lot of ways of doing this, and a lot of different definitions of what “less” is, and why living with less is something you would want to do. It is a choice that can be made for dozens of reasons. Some people become minimalists because they like the way it looks. Some live with less because they want to be able to move easily. Some just find that clutter irritates them and that having less stuff can contribute to productivity or happiness.

Apartment Therapy describes 6 kinds of minimalism in an entertaining, but rather tongue-in-cheek article. But I think that we can narrow it down to three main types, each based on a different principle of action. Then we can determine if this kind of minimalism is for you, and if it is consistent with a full, happy, human life.

The Extreme Minimalist:

The extreme minimalist takes as her mantra: “Less is more!” And tries to live up to it. Anything that is not immediately useful is thrown away. Often this kind of minimalist chooses an arbitrary number, like 100, and decides to have no more than that many things. Her clothes are chosen for their versatility rather than any other feature. She has a “capsule wardrobe.” Her cooking is done with the smallest possible number of utensils. She has as little furniture as she can get by with.

Her house is certainly not cluttered, she probably never loses her keys—there’s nothing for them to hide behind—but is it practical?

Happiness test:

A full human life, by nearly any definition, includes relationships of various kinds with other people. A complete, happy, successful human will generally have a whole collection of ties to other people. Most adults get married, and have an extremely intimate relationship with their spouses. But it is generally agreed by psychologists, social sciences, and common sense, that you need more friends than just your spouse. Now one of the most basic acts of friendship is to invite people over for dinner or for some other occasion. If you only have 100 things, it is unlikely that within that number you have budgeted for extra plates, forks and chairs, not to mention cups, napkins, etc. You could, I suppose, get paper plates for the occasion and then throw them away, but is this really the best option?

Also, back to the part about most adults being married. If you are married, then you will probably have children. Imagine trying to raise a child without extra changes of clothes, for one thing. Anyone who has ever dealt with a baby knows that they make laundry at a truly astonishing rate. Your capsule wardrobe would probably not be up to the strain, and neither would the baby’s.

Also, besides friends, another excellent way to enrich your life is to have a hobby. Hobbies that require hand-eye coordination and mental activity (that is to say, just about any hobby that isn’t Netflix, TV, or Youtube) can protect people from Alzheimer’s, not to mention excessive boredom. But, sadly, hobbies require stuff. I sew, and this means that I have a few boxes of fabric, a bunch of thread, pins, needles, a sewing machine, and a fascinating button collection. Gardening requires shovels and hoes and trowels, not to mention seeds etc.

Extreme minimalism therefore is only practical for a single person living alone with no friends or hobbies. Which is probably not the person you want to be.

The Aesthetic Minimalist

This is the kind of “minimalism” that you see advertised in the really expensive catalogs. Minimalism in this sense, is mostly a look. You’ve all seen it. Everything is gray or white, and simple geometric shapes. It is clean and almost sterile in appearance. Furniture is chosen for its simplicity rather than for its comfort or beauty. Wall art is generally abstract and simple, like a black and white photo of a dew drop, or a few lines or dots on a white background in a white frame, like this overpriced item at Athropologie. Decorations are simple and abstract as well.

Your house looks like a magazine cover, but is it sustainable?

Happiness test:

What is your home for? This is the first question you need to ask before you choose a system for decorating, organizing, or furnishing your home. If your home is supposed to be a display piece, or a background for your instagram life, then this type of minimalism is definitely for you.

But if your home is supposed to serve some other purpose, like being a stimulating and practical environment for raising children, or a welcoming place to invite friends for fun gatherings? Well, let’s think about it.

The first thing that everyone knows about small children is that they make messes. Now having fewer toys is actually good for your children, so the toy mess might be manageable, and you might be able to put all the toys in a perfect storage cube that would effectively hide them out of sight. (You do have to live with the possibility that your child may prefer playing with the storage cube. My baby’s favorite toy seems to be the wastebasket.) But what about your older children and their hobbies? Will they fit in with your décor? Will your white carpet or your pale gray sofa withstand the efforts of marker-wielding toddlers? Or will your magazine-perfect home become a war zone where you side with your house against your children?

So much for practicality. What about other factors? Children need beauty and order and mental stimulation. Children’s books with attractive pictures and such things are good for your children’s development, and while your baby books can probably also go in a storage cube, what about their hobbies when they get older? A home that encourages independent pursuits and hobbies will probably not be ready for a photo-shoot. And that’s okay.

And lastly, even if you don’t have kids with hobbies or dirty diapers, does having an Instagram-ready house actually make you happy? Or does it put you right back in the mainstream of consumerism? Despite the counter-cultural vibe of aesthetic minimalism, it can be just another way of being consumerist and keeping up with the Joneses, or maybe even the Kardashians. If minimalism, rather than liberating you, becomes another source of stress and conflict in your life, then you might want to try something else.

The Practical Minimalist

Now, you are probably getting the idea from all this that I think minimalism is stupid. But I am in favor of a less consumerist way of living, and I really don’t like clutter. I even like Marie Kondo, who a lot of people love to make fun of. But I think there is a balance, and that an anti-consumerist lifestyle should be practical, fun, stimulating, and inexpensive too.

So what would practical minimalism look like?

Well, let’s focus on the practical first. You want a home that’s easy to care for, so that you can spend your time doing things like spending time with friends, reading books to your small children, or engaging in hobbies instead of having to do housework all the time. Not that housework can’t be fulfilling or enjoyable, but there are probably more worthwhile things to do than dusting a fancy collection of glass figurines.

So, to be practical, you wouldn’t have sixteen shelves full of delicate glass figurines. Walls are nice, they don’t need to be hidden behind stuff. Or if you really have to hide your walls, try flat wall art, wall hangings, like this awesome one, or anything that’s not hard to clean. This will also have the benefit of making your home feel less cluttered.

Next, if you have things that are useful, but not attractive, or hard to keep neat, like certain kinds of kitchen tools, or computer accessories, you can put them in boxes or cabinets that organize and conceal them. A lot of craft stores have great sales on pretty storage boxes once or twice a year. This is a great time to stock up. Covering these types of things makes your house feel less cluttered and makes it easier to keep it clean.

Kid’s toys should have places too. A storage cube is a great idea, but you can do other things too. (I just covered a diaper box in white copy paper and colored tape the other day because I needed a box for my baby’s toys and I didn’t want to spend money.) The great thing about having a toy box is that you can make sure your kids’ toy collection doesn’t get out of hand by making sure that it can fit in the box. If it gets too big, you can start weeding out. Then your kids won’t feel overwhelmed by having to clean up their toys, and they will actually be able to play with and appreciate the ones they have. Psychologist John Rosemond has a fantastic chapter on kids’ toys in his Six Point Plan for Raising Happy Healthy Children, (which I highly recommend).

Now for the minimalist part: The practical minimalist makes it a rule not to buy anything that isn’t necessary, definitely going to be used within a reasonable time frame, or so beautiful (decorative items) informative or interesting (books etc) that it’s worth the money, time and space it will require. She also tries to find items that serve multiple purposes, like storage ottomans, and she tries to prioritize the function of the items she buys. For instance, sofas are for lounging comfortably, so they should be comfortable, and of a color and material that holds up under wear and use. Following these simple rules will make it easier to resist ads for the latest gadget, and incidentally, stay within your budget. It should also prevent the buildup of clutter.

This simplicity has many benefits. It should streamline housework, and I’m a big fan of anything that streamlines housework. It should minimize conflict, as the furniture and other items are meant to be used, not gazed at or photographed, and there will be fewer fragile items laying around to break. And it should liberate the minds and hearts of the people in the home, allowing them to seek beauty, peace and fulfillment without the pressure of having to conform to some advertising ideal.