I’ve always been fascinated by technology. I remember playing with my dad’s old gadgets – a little voice memo recorder comes to mind – and was delighted whenever he let me keep one. I used my own money to buy a PalmPilot and later a PocketPC in elementary school, wishing I had phone numbers, calendar events, and notes to store, but mostly just tinkering with the devices and, of course, playing games. When I got my first cell phone – a basic little Nokia – I explored every entry in every menu to see what it could do. As an adult, I still love exploring new tech; it’s so shiny and exciting, so full of potential uses.

Two very old handheld computers, a Palm m105 and a Dell Axim v50.

While still in elementary school, I bought a used PalmPilot – something like this m105 – and later a Dell Axim PocketPC. Oh, the memories. Images from https://old-organizers.com/MorePicts/MP150.htm and https://www.theregister.com/2005/01/17/review_dell_axim_x50v/.

But sometimes those many uses are too much. Sometimes we use technology simply because it’s there, and it gets in the way of what we truly care about doing. As my time and mental energy have become more scarce, and as technology has become more addictive and manipulative, my attitude towards the digital world has changed. I’m now rather skeptical of the real value of each new thing. I try to make deliberate choices about when and how to use technology, whether for work or play, rather than allow it to become the default tool or activity.

Many factors have led to this attitude shift, but one of the biggest has been my kids. Not long after my son learned to talk, he began reprimanding me: “No phone!” His not-so-polite pleas were a much needed reminder that life is too short to spend it reading the latest news articles or scrolling through feeds; there are other things more deserving of our attention, like cute little two-year-olds.

In subsequent years, I tried many typical solutions with little success. Sheer willpower was no match for the addictive appeal of my phone. Timers on apps were too easily bypassed. Quitting distracting activities, like podcasts or Twitter, helped for a time but never seemed to stick.

Then, during 2022, I read several books1 that helped me change my mindset and my behavior. The first of those books was Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. Newport argues for “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” He highlights the opportunity cost we pay each time we watch an online video or browse social media, explaining that the benefits of most of these online activities simply don’t compensate for the time and energy we could have spent focusing on what we really value. Even when our technology use nominally supports our values, other activities could often support them more effectively.

I did Newport’s suggested 30-day declutter, cutting out all non-essential digital activities for a full month and then re-introducing the ones that were worth my time only after creating a plan for their use. In the end, I reduced my podcast consumption, entirely cut out what little social media I was using, and silenced all notifications on my phone except for actual phone calls. My brain felt less busy, in a good way.

Covers of Digital Minimalism, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, and Bored and Brilliant

Images from Amazon.com

Digital Minimalism pushed me from “I need to spend less time on my phone” to “I need to do more of the things I care about.” During and after my 30-day declutter, I took Newport’s advice and replaced the time previously spent using technology on other activities that meant more to me. I’d been reading quite a bit since the beginning of the year and was able to enjoy even more books without so many digital distractions. I also started spending more time outdoors, encouraged and inspired by several nature-related books that I read throughout the year.2 And I increased the quality and quantity of family time.

While Digital Minimalism helped me take practical steps to redirect my energy, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life by Albert Borgmann exposed me to a more philosophical view. (It’s a dense book – the subtitle is A Philosophical Inquiry – but if you can handle that, it’s a great read.) Borgmann argues that technological “devices” have altered the way we view the world, causing us to focus on commodified versions of what were previously “focal things”, such as replacing live music with a stereo set.

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life was written in the 80s, and Borgmann talks about technology in a much broader sense than we typically do today, encompassing everything from record players to fast food. He broadened my view from computing technology to all the various things that we invent in the name of convenience or productivity. Reading this book helped me see that our culture is obsessed with “progress”, celebrating each new technology without even stopping to consider what is lost along the way.

Towards the end of the year, I was slipping slightly backwards in my goals. I was spending most of my travel time listening to podcasts, which then occupied my brain even after I had arrived. And I was frustrated that despite having eliminated everything interesting to do on my phone, I still found myself pulling it out of my pocket all the time, purely from habit.

Around this time I read Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi. I learned about all the ways that being bored is good for me and was reminded that smartphones have stolen our boredom from us. As a result, I stopped listening to anything – podcasts or music – while driving and biking to school. The first week or two were a bit difficult, but I’ve come to enjoy having some quiet time to think things over and clear out my brain.

Zomorodi’s book also inspired me to start carrying my phone in a bag. Although it seems like a small change, keeping my phone away from the easy reach of my pocket has made a big difference. I’ve managed to stop checking my phone so frequently now that getting it out takes a bit more effort. What’s more, it’s become easy to leave my phone out-of-reach; I often keep my bag on the kitchen counter at home or leave it with my shoes when visiting someone. (A bag also has the added benefit of letting me carry a few more useful things – pen, notebook, etc. – without stuffing my pockets.)

A cross-body bag resting on the table

My phone now spends much more time in this bag, sitting on a table or counter, than in my hands or pockets.

Since making those last few tweaks, I finally feel like I’ve conquered my phone. It’s a tool (or sometimes still a toy) that I use how and when I intentionally choose, not a distraction that’s constantly begging for my attention. I actually manage to forget about it most of the time.

Getting to this point has taken lots of thinking, reading, and experimenting. I’m certainly not done – my computer use still has plenty of room for improvement – but I’m happy with my progress. Treating technology as a tool, as a means instead of an end, has allowed me to enjoy family time more, explore new ideas more deeply, and get outside more often; it’s helped me find more meaning in my life.

  1. Besides the three mentioned in this post, I also found How to Do Nothing, Should You Believe Wikipedia?, and Reader, Come Home relevant. You can see all the books I read on the Reading page↩︎

  2. The Lost City of the Monkey God, The Stranger in the Woods, Braving It, and The Last Cowboys↩︎