Friday 22 March 2019

Digital Decluttering, by Dan Metcalf

Anyone here subscribe to fantasy author William King’s email newsletter? 
You should
A few weeks ago he posted a newsletter titled ‘Digital Hobo’
in which he discussed the concept of digital decluttering, 
and introduced me to the daddy of the movement, Cal Newport:

"Newport’s last opus, Deep Work, profoundly affected my thinking 
about work, writing and how to deal with technology. 

 His new book has had a similar effect.

I am convinced by his arguments that our attention is being fragmented
by our use of technology, 
particularly smartphones.

Newport’s thesis is that our attention is snared by companies like Facebook
using similar methods to those used in casinos. 
We become like Skinner’s pigeons, 
constantly tapping away at the screens of our smartphones
to the detriment of our concentration and our work."

I was unaware of the term but had already started to take steps towards
what I saw was an essential change in my life. 

Sometime last year, I got rid of my smartphone and instead
bought a tiny, distraction-free dumb phone. 
The AIEK device (I’d never heard of the company either) 
is smaller than a credit card and has minimal functionality. 
It can text and make calls… that’s about it. No internet, wifi, games or apps.
It’s like going back to the late nineties but you can't even play Snake

I made the change because even when I had finished a day at the laptop,
I was attached to my phone, looking at twitter, facebook, youtube etc.

I even started to get an ache in my thumb on my right hand from scrolling and swiping. 
So in the interest of sanity and being more connected to my family, I ditched it. 
Now my free time is exactly that - free. No pings of emails from the smartphone.
It also means that I only check social media in work hours which saves a lot of time.
I find I have become more streamlined, only checking notifications
(which I have silenced for all but my favourite FB groups) 
and not scrolling town the feed/timeline.

The theory behind this is considered and rings true. 

The aforementioned Cal Newport defines DEEP WORK 
as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task
and the thesis of the book is that 
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare 
at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. 
As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, 
and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task?
 Sounds like writing a book to me 
(other examples are coding software,
 extrapolating data from complex spreadsheets and databases
and getting to grips with difficult concepts in a small amount of time. 
But for our purposes, let’s stick to books). 

As a writer, the ability to concentrate on the task of telling a story is paramount,
and digital devices are fragmenting that attention
 to the point where the author would be better off going offline
and hiding in a hut far from civilisation to finish the work-in-progress.

So what to do? Newport suggests the digital declutter -
I’m reading Deep Work at the moment and have yet to come to that part
but William King suggests using FREEDOM,
a service which allows you to block certain websites or the entire internet
for periods of time (9-5, say). 

Remove games and other temptations from your work PC. 

Go to a workspace that doesn’t have wifi (increasingly tricky I find). 

Swap the tablet for an old-school amazon kindle, 
the kind with e-ink and no swizzy apps. 

Better still, swap the devices for good old books - they don’t run out of battery.

And if all this sounds a bit over-the-top ask yourself this: 
do you want to spend your time answering emails, reading tweets
and scrolling through pictures of your old school friend’s holidays, 
or do you want to get that book written?

Dan Metcalf is a children's writer from SW England. His book Paw Prints in the Somme, based on the life of a cat in the trenches of WW1 is available here.

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