Digital Addiction Getting You Down? Try an Analog Cure.Article Written:
Digital Addiction Getting You Down?
Try an Analog Cure
By Cal Newport. New York Times
April 8, 2019
Arnold Bennett was an early-20th-century British novelist, playwright and critic. He’s perhaps best known for his detail-oriented novels set around the Staffordshire Potteries. In 1931, during a trip to Paris, he ignored a waiter’s advice to avoid the restaurant’s tap water and soon died of typhoid.
So, yes: Mr. Bennett is not a name that typically comes to mind when seeking advice about our current high-tech moment. But he should be.
In 1905, Mr. Bennett stepped away from his traditional genres to produce a short but remarkable volume of self-help literature titled “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.” Targeted to the middle-class, white-collar workers who were filling in the growing London suburbs, Mr. Bennett argued that making the most of their leisure time was the key to cultivating a meaningful life. His suggestion for doing so was clear: rigorous intellectual self-improvement through reading and concentrated thought.
The specifics of this vision, in which the British “salaryman” scrutinizes Dante, are obviously dated. But there’s a deeper general truth lurking beneath the details: What you do with your spare time matters.
This idea, of course, is not new. In “The Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle argues that true human flourishing requires activities like philosophizing that are pursued for no other reason than their intrinsic quality. Seneca had similarly lofty visions for our time off, writing, “I am not sure that we cannot serve [the Commonwealth] better when we are at leisure to inquire into what virtue is.”
The wisdom of this timeless emphasis on quality leisure was made clear to me recently. Early last year, as part of the research process for my new book, Digital Minimalism,” I asked for volunteers willing to spend January avoiding optional digital technologies in their personal life, including social media, online news, video games and streaming. Because this was a big sacrifice, I was expecting around a dozen brave souls to join me in this adventure. Instead, 1,600 people signed up.
Many of the participants in this digital declutter sent me reports about their experiences. One of the more striking findings was the degree to which low-quality, algorithmically optimized digital content had colonized their leisure time. When they powered down their devices, these declutterers were suddenly confronted with empty stretches that they had no idea how to fill.
Inspired by Mr. Bennett, I encouraged them to aggressively reintroduce high-value leisure activities that had nothing to do with glowing screens — even if these activities required more energy and commitment than clicking “next episode” or scrolling a Twitter feed. Many embraced my advice.
A graduate student named Unaiza replaced her habit of browsing Reddit at night with reading library books, finishing eight during her digital declutter.