About once a year I need to take steroids for a sinus condition. My family finds this quite amusing, as the effect the drugs tend to have on me is that I go into hyperdrive, doing all sorts of long-neglected tasks around the house. And, inevitably, I end up organizing the cupboards and the pantry. Perfectly.
The decluttering of these spaces has a peculiar effect. There’s a spaciousness. A freshness. Contentment.
Recently, fueled by curiosity rather than steroids, I decided to undertake a decluttering of my mind. And I can hardly believe how good it feels.
I’ve read about digital detox before, and have admired those who could put their phones away for weeks at a time, even if I wasn’t so envious of the circumstances that often brought them to that point. But, I reasoned, I’m not that badly addicted to my phone, and so maybe detox was taking it too far. So when I heard a podcast recently about a more pragmatic approach that recognizes the role of technology in our work lives and family lives – he called it digital decluttering – it sounded like something I might be up for.
Here’s why I was ready to try it. Over the past several years, my digital devices have stealthily claimed more and more of my head space. I found myself checking my email first thing in the morning, followed by a few dozen more checks throughout the day. My phone almost always accompanied me to the bathroom, where I would while away a few minutes on Facebook. I’d whip out my phone while waiting in line, or waiting at the doctor’s office. My phone was my nearly constant companion.
But what is more insidious, I started to notice that my idle time was almost completely dominated by technology. Don’t get me wrong. I have productive days, and I exercise often. I interact with my family and I snuggle with my dogs. But when nothing else is going on, I’ve been reflexively reaching for my phone or my computer. I was spending less and less time on hobbies and creativity and play, and more and more time on the internet. Sometimes with a purpose. Sometimes not.
When I heard the term “digital decluttering,” I got really curious about what it might feel like to reclaim a sense of quiet, a sense of stillness, even a sense of boredom. And after jumping into this experiment, I feel an enormous sense of gratitude and joy. Just like with the pantry after my prescription-drug-fueled overhauls, in my mind I feel a nearly forgotten spaciousness. A delightful freshness.
Unlike a detox, digital decluttering isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Here’s what it’s meant for me. Email can wait each morning until I’ve started my day on my terms, having invited a bit more space and clarity before I dive in to what awaits in my inbox. For me, this means doing a whole bunch of things that are more important than email – a bit of stretching, maybe reading some of my favorite poetry, noticing the snow glistening on the trees, taking a walk, making breakfast for my family. My wife isn’t quite sure what to make of me some mornings, as I sit on the couch with my coffee, just looking out the window.
It’s also meant that I won’t take my phone with me to all the places it once had access. Throughout the day, when I feel the urge to check it, I just let that urge pass. I’ll check email when it seems important, instead of just because I can. I’ll take a walk or run an errand, and leave the phone behind. It sounds silly when I write it, but maybe some of you can relate. My addiction to my phone wasn’t ruining my life, but it was undermining the stillness and quiet that gives life more richness.
I came across a line from Rumi recently that was perfect: “Your old life was a frantic running from silence.”
Yup. That was me. Seeing the truth in that, continuing the decluttering has been easy, because it’s not about holding my feet to the fire, but about knowing how much I treasure the silence and spaciousness and all that they give birth to.
The most awe-inspiring thing about what I’ll call “emptying my mind” is that I have no idea what gifts will emerge, but I can count on gifts showing up. It’s kind of like the beautifully wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree, or exchanged for Hanukkah. These gifts, though, are wrapped in stillness, and what is unwrapped or revealed is sometimes hoped for, but more often surprising and unexpected.
Allowing stillness where I once was unwittingly frantic and busy, my mind feels more alive. Here are some of the gifts I’ve unwrapped lately: I’ve had a pleasant gusher of creativity and ideas and motivation. I dusted off the guitar and started teaching myself to play again. I’ve just sat and noticed beauty in such ordinary things. I’ve felt more connected to my family. And in the midst of it all, there is more space. It’s calmer. It feels like the dust has settled – the dust that I had gotten so accustomed to that I didn’t even realize how dusty it had become. And I know there is always more to come, the more I welcome the stillness.
When we bravely disconnect from our devices, we mistakenly call it being “unplugged.” But that’s backwards. It’s in stillness, in quiet, in spaciousness, that we are fully plugged in to the source of so much of the rich and juicy stuff of life. It’s when we step away from our virtual, digital lives and come back to the beauty of the present moment that we find we’re plugged in to the intelligence of the universe.
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You are covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you have died.
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
Yep! I have recently set new boundaries with my phone, which has made some irritated with me as I rarely respond to texts quickly anymore. I leave my phone charging in the kitchen when I’m home. It does not come with me to the barn. The horses, even poop scooping, is my time. The phone has no place. It makes all the difference. I don’t open my computer on the weekends anymore. No work on the weekends. I don’t want to read emails on the weekend either, personal or work. And, I’ve really gotten away from all social media. I do a little to keep up with the boys, but no more social media. What I’ve found is all of a sudden I’m wanting to do things I’ve not had a desire to do in a really long time, like take good photos or play my violin again. I crave the days when I didn’t have a cell phone or a personal computer.
So great to hear about your digital decluttering, too!
What most excites me about your experience and mine is what shows up anytime we touch that place of quiet mind – whether or not we put down our phones, whether or not we have busy lives and lots of responsibilities. The gifts of presence and stillness are available any time, and it’s just so cool to experience the unexpected gifts of dropping into that space.
are you referring to Ryan Holiday’s “Stillness is the key” or to Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism”? Your post reads as you read both. Newport, I thought, makes some powerful arguments. Beyond the fact that our attention is being rubbed from us by tools designed to be addictive, he also mentions the growing rates of depression in teens and the cognitive necessity to be alone with/in our minds. The portability of those devices has been quickly killing those much needed moments truly alone.
Thanks for your comments. So nice to hear from you!
I was referring to Cal Newport, although I am also enjoying Ryan Holiday’s book currently as well, so you are astute to pick up on both!
I think it’s important to keep it simple in our understanding that stillness is never more than one moment away, one thought away, despite the distractions and the pace of life. I am grateful for the easing of the grip that technology has had on me, but I’m even more grateful to see that I always have access to a quiet mind, no matter the circumstances.
Hope you’re well!
This is really beautiful, Jason. And just the reminder I needed. It’s so habitual. Time to wake up. Thank you.
Thanks Dina! So glad it was helpful.
“Waking up” seems like the perfect way to put it.
I really like your article and I love the sentence”…we mistakenly call it being “unplugged.” But that’s backwards. It’s in stillness, in quiet, in spaciousness, that we are fully plugged into the source”
Thanks so much, Monica. I have a hunch that you are very familiar with that “fully plugged into the source” feeling!