If an unaligned entity invests billions of dollars into an application which you use, where they benefit from wasting your time, and you haven’t at least done a cost-benefit analysis so that your usage minimizes your costs and maximizes your benefits—You are probably getting fucked over.

Mistake: Motivatedly avoiding thinking about the issue

Last summer, my friend Kurt Brown told me about Digital Minimalism. The modern world is mired in attention-sucking apps which compete to waste as much of your time as possible. The book’s remedy: stepping back from non-essential internet usage, so that you can evaluate what really matters to you. After a month has come and gone, you add back in those digital activities which are worth it to you.

Unfortunately, this is the part of the story where we all cringe at my past behavior. I gave Kurt some excuses, demurring from his implicit recommendation that I read the book. I asked more questions, but so that I could learn more about what he’d been up to. I wasn’t going to actually do it. I think it sounded monastic and uncomfortable and I’m not one of those people who needs it, I already have lots of locks on my devices.

And locks I had. I restricted my iPhone with a password only known by a friend, so that I was unable to access eg Reddit without wiping my device, or asking my friend for the code. My phone was in black and white to minimize how appealing it would be, I had an outdated model to make using my phone less enjoyable. I didn’t have notifications for anything but phone calls. I still wasted several hours a day on my phone, although I was always (motivatedly) surprised by this. I thought I was spending at least 70% of my phone-time productively, by reading LessWrong and Wikipedia, or engaging in work communication. In this scenario, I didn’t want to upend my life for a month in order to save less than an hour a day (even though it still would have been worth it in the long run).

This school year, I’ve had problems focusing and relaxing. I tried exercise, different medication, but nothing hit the spot. I wasn’t reading textbooks like I wanted to, my attention was fractured, I often felt behind my schedule. I was still doing my job and making progress—just not as much as I wanted.

Could this have anything to do with my attention problems?

This spring, I read a LessWrong post which mentioned Digital Minimalism. Luckily, this triggered my “if several reasonably smart EAs swear by the benefits of X, investigate X” trigger-action plan.

Digital Minimalism

I listened to the first half of the book on Audible in one night. As I wrote above:

If an unaligned entity invests billions of dollars into an application which you use, where they benefit from wasting your time, and you haven’t at least done a cost-benefit analysis so that your usage minimizes your costs and maximizes your benefits—You are probably getting fucked over.[1]

I was immediately convinced that this thesis is correct, and resolved to start my month-long “digital declutter” the next day.

Time costs

Consider why you originally bought a cell phone. It was probably to call people, to text people, to take photos, to get GPS navigation. Would you have bought it if you foresaw how you would feel an urge to check it even during a dinner with a friend you hadn’t seen in a long time? Would you have bought it if you knew you would take impatiently take it out of your pocket dozens of times a day, staring at it 2+ hours daily?

The point isn’t “phone bad, never use phone, quit now.” My phone provides me with enormous benefits. The point is where was the cost-benefit analysis, what tf has happened to us?!

Notice the middle stat: one third of daily waking hours. I am disgusted that some people try to make this number go up further. From AppAnnie.

Readers of this forum are probably better about their usage. Let’s be (too) generous and cut that to a mere two hours wasted daily on your phone, and 0 hours wasted on your other devices. That’s only one eighth of your waking year, or 1.5 waking months each year.

Attentional costs

But lost time doesn’t capture everything sucked away by your apps, by your email tics, by YouTube, by Reddit, by Slack, by Discord, by everything else which is after you. Digital Minimalism asked:

When was the last time you were bored and in silence?

I remember lazy summer childhoods, staring at the ceiling after I ran out of video game time. At my 2018 CFAR workshop, my phone dipped in a stream for several minutes and short-circuited. I was actually glad. I felt free. How strange, to feel free from a device I purchased! Perhaps I should have noticed the warning sign.

Since then, engagement has been a pocket-grasp away. I’d leave my phone in another room to work, only to find my way back half an hour later. Even now, I look down at my phone on my desk, and I feel it. I feel it calling to me from far away, whispering to me, urging me to check Slack or my email—just one more time.

These compulsions kill deep work in the cradle. My attention was fractured and strewn. I would anxiously procrastinate by flitting through tabs: Discord. Slack. LessWrong. Gmail. Even when I cleared time to think, I would periodically check my phone.

Implementing the declutter

At this point, you might be thinking “OK, but I can’t roam the mountains of Nepal for a month. I have work to do and that requires staying in touch with people.” Sure. The point of this post is not “no phone.” The point of this post is to build a digital life purposefully and carefully, because you reflectively endorse each component. The point of this post is to get people to do any cost-benefit analysis at all of the way they spend 1/8th–1/3rd of their waking hours.

My estimate of the daily costs and benefits for a better-than-average Facebook user (considering Messenger to be distinct from Facebook). In appendix 2, I detail how I extract all of these benefits for 40 minutes a month, instead of 40 minutes a day—a 30x improvement!

The declutter goes as follows:

  1. Identify the minimal set of digital affordances required to do your job and the other necessities of life (e.g. paying bills).
  2. Cut out everything else for one month.

The point is that these apps which are out to get you—they’re very good at what they do. It’s not enough to turn off notifications and enable app timers. Digital Minimalism argues (and I mostly agree) that you have to get out of the pond entirely and catch a breather. After the declutter, you can soberly analyze the costs and benefits of each digital activity you add back in.

My declutter rules

I went by a whitelist[2] in order to ensure there wasn’t a way to weasel around the rules. Here’s what I let myself do:

  • Phone
    • Voice & video calls
    • GPS
    • Audible
    • Uber/Lyft
    • Authenticators/alarms/other boring utilities
    • Roam/note-taking
  • iPad
    • Note-taking
    • Reading
    • Drawing
  • Computer
    • Anything offline (except music or video games)
    • Textbooks and Wikipedia and arxiv/google scholar
    • Overleaf for writing papers
    • Amazon and Upwork (for managing contracted-out labor)
    • Zoom for weekly meetings
    • Anki and Roam
    • Check email at noon on Mondays and Thursdays
      • I told people to call me if it was important. I didn’t get any calls.
      • I later let myself send emails without looking at my inbox. I recommend Inbox When Ready, which hides your inbox by default and prevents you from being attention-sniped.
    • Groceries / other mundane things
      • No Wealthfront—no reason for me to see how my portfolio is doing.

That’s it. No music (see appendix), no messaging, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Slack, no Discord, no anxious email checking, no Youtube, no nothing. I even bought a cheap watch so that I wouldn’t have to check my phone for the time. If I needed an exception, I’d first write a note explaining what I did, to be read by my girlfriend, Emma, who started her declutter soon after.

Why did I choose these rules? I won’t get unhealthily sucked into any of these activities. They all make me stronger. They let me do my work.

The world was not going to end because I stopped reading the news for a month—I understand there’s a war still going on in Ukraine, but that’s about all I know, and I’m not worse off for it. I resolved that if I wanted to build models of that part of the world, I’d do that on purpose. I won’t doomscroll through hyper-optimized interfaces designed to scam me out of my attention and make me anxious. I said to myself, my life is worth more to me than that.

FAQ

But TurnTrout, my job needs email / [other special reason why this doesn’t work for me].

I concede that my rules are probably not best for your situation. But have you thought about the issue for five minutes? Could you ask your boss if you can check email once a day and otherwise take phone calls? Maybe you don’t restrict email, but stop looking at websites like Reddit or Hacker News or Marginal Revolution or Facebook or Twitter? Are there other creative solutions waiting to be uncovered? Have you tried?

If your team uses Slack for asynchronous communication, once- or twice-daily checks should be fine. If you use it for synchronous communication, perhaps establish a daily “office hour” when you’ll be on Slack, or even coordinate with your team to establish a daily “Slack hour” where people are expected to be online. Or something else. The point is to establish the main benefits you reap from each digital affordance, and then find a plan which minimizes the costs you pay for those benefits.

I’m already good about my internet usage.

This might be true! I know exactly one person for whom I’m quite confident this is true (Andrew Critch), and maybe there are more among my friends whom I don’t know about. This might be you if you already use services based on their costs and benefits, often using websites in unintended ways (like blocking all recommendations on YouTube via the Unhook add-on [Chrome, Firefox]), and spending far less time than average (eg only checking email very infrequently).

I’d still bet against it. I would have said I was good about my internet usage, and it was true—in a relative sense. I think people (motivatedly) underestimate how much time they waste, perhaps because it can feel bad and embarrassing to admit the problem.

But how will I stay in touch with people? I’m already lonely.

Excellent question! Reallocate low-quality social time to high-quality social time. Instead of checking if some half-friends liked your FB status, call up a buddy and grab a beer, or go to a meetup, or join a club.

Benefits of the declutter

February 22nd: The First Day. I went running, and got back to the house 10 minutes earlier than usual. Huh.

I called my parents and went on a leisurely walk. Even so, I got my morning routine done 60 minutes ahead of schedule. I read half of a book on ordinary differential equations while lounging in my sunlit room. I did some deep thinking for an hour, safe from my phone’s dopaminergic temptation. I switched contexts and read about electrostatics. Still hours ahead of schedule.

The day yawned and stretched. I wondered if it would ever end. (It did.)

February 23rd: The Second Day. From my journal:

It's so relaxing not using my phone, and yet I can still feel my anxiety pulling me to my digital affairs.

Did my LW post get lots of upvotes? Are people criticizing me? Did I win a prize in the contest? Am I missing something on the EliezerFic server? I even thought about some identity-politics tweet I saw last week, on my run this morning... why is that garbage in my head? Good riddance.

And so unrolled the next day, and the next. Time laid itself out before me. With my reclaimed time, I went on walks, I read The Character of Physical Law, I read ~three physics textbooks, I tripled my daily Anki workload to 1.5 hours, and I still had time left over.

Life became leisurely. I wrote letters to my girlfriends—some of them were in French. I even had time to write poems. I talked to them more often than before, with nightly phone calls. I also called my family most mornings. I still had time left over.

Instead of trolling through Discord, I called some labmates at Oregon State and started a weekly dinner. If anything, I felt less lonely than before, when I had the world at my fingertips. I called people when I wanted to talk to them. I still had time left over.

I listened to a Stephen King book when I couldn’t sleep—I found it reassuring to worry about fortifying a grocery store against eldritch horrors, instead of worrying about fortifying our planet against artificial intelligence. I listened to Dune with Emma, clocking 21 hours over 2.5 weeks. I went on walks with her, and to a hot tub, and I still had time left over.

I did notice potential withdrawal symptoms (alarming!), mostly via increased baseline anxiety. Other explanations include “defending my dissertation & moving soon”, so I’m not sure if it was from the declutter.

Even assuming this month gave me unusually large benefits, I wouldn’t ever, ever go back. So when the declutter ended, I wasn’t clamoring to check the highest-karma Reddit posts from last month. I still feel the urge, but I resent Reddit now that I see what it takes away from me. That makes it easier to stay away.

Recommendations

This short post may not be convincing enough to try out such a substantial life modification. I’m not asking that you do a declutter right away. I’m recommending that you read the first half of Digital Minimalism, or listen on Audible (cost: a few hours and $14).

Let me sweeten the deal with a costly signal. If I’ve met you in real life, and you consume the first half of the book and find it unconvincing / try the declutter and it wasn’t at all worth trying in hindsight, message me on LessWrong and I’ll pay you $30.[3]

I think many, many people are shooting themselves in the foot, so I will be blunt. Please stop shooting yourself in the foot. Please do a cost-benefit analysis. I think many people have serious, serious problems with their internet usage. I did. You might. If so, you are leaving a lot of your life on the table.

Thanks to Meg Tong, Josh Turner, and Kurt Brown for feedback on this post.


Appendix 1: Declutter advice

Here’s my main tip to add to the book: Have well-defined exception handling which you never ever ever have to deviate from. When I read about how other people navigated the declutter, their main failure modes looked like “my dog died and I got really stressed and gave in” or “a work emergency came up and I bent my rules and then broke my rules fragrantly.”

Plan for these events. Plan for feeling withdrawal symptoms. Plan for it seeming so so important that you check your email right now. Plan for emergencies. Plan a way to handle surprising exceptions to your rules. Make the exception handling so good that you never have a legitimate reason to deviate from it.

My procedure was “If I need to use a forbidden functionality, then I have to write what I did down on a slip of paper and leave it on my girlfriend’s desk ASAP.” This worked because Emma would understand legitimate exceptions, but would look askance at me if I started flooding her desk with “and then I checked Reddit” notes. It's easier to hold promises to other people, than promises to yourself.

Appendix 2: My post-declutter rules

  • I only listen to music when:
    • Only listening to the music, to fully soak it in
    • Exercising
    • Reasoning on this point:
      • I think music generally makes me subtly dumber but feel cooler while I’m listening to it, so I listen to it a lot.
      • Music imposes its own form on my thoughts. My thinking and mood becomes governed by the song which happens to be playing, and less by the substance of my own thoughts. I don’t want my reasoning to hinge on “will Spotify shuffle to Attack on Titan or Coldplay next?”.
      • See also Gwern’s stub.
      • I do have Google Home, and often play nature sounds.
  • I only check LessWrong / Discord / Slack / Messenger / my text messages each Sunday at noon.
    • I write blogposts before then, and I won’t check their reception until the next week (I used to nervously refresh).
    • I’ve also adblocked the karma elements of the website, because I worry too much about them.
  • As I currently see it, I’m only logging in to the newsfeed part of Facebook two more times: To share this blog post, and after I receive my PhD.
    • After that, I’ll check its event page weekly, while blocking the notifications / other clutter FB tries to throw at me. This should take less than 10 minutes each week.
    • Here’s how to use FB more peacefully:
      • Install FBPurity; you can save time by importing my settings here.
      • Use UBlock Origin to get rid of the rest; here is my element blocking list for Facebook.
        • (I also hide the chat sidebar on the main page, which is a FB option)
    • I could also check a favorite page once a week (with the chat and comment elements blocked), if I need more memes in my bloodstream.
    • In combination with a monthly Messenger checkin, I’ve extracted my main benefits from Facebook, at a cost of at most 50 minutes each month, instead of 50 minutes each day!
      • Again, I don’t recommend doing small fixes like “just hide some FB elements.” These fixes don’t work for most people. This advice is aimed at post-declutter usage, which unfolds from your informed cost-benefit analysis.
Here’s what my FB news feed looks like now. 😌
  • For news, I purchased a digital+print subscription to The Economist. Once a month, I can choose to read the four issues for an hour or two.
    • I don’t need to read more than that. I can read about candidates before an election, and there isn’t much else that’s decision-relevant. If eg AI dynamics heat up and geopolitical understanding becomes more important, I’ll tackle that deliberately.
    • Looking back at my life, I see how often I’ve been hijacked by news websites. It makes me sick.
    • UPDATE: No longer recommend The Economist. Their cancellation process is scummy, recommend avoiding the defectors.
  • I’m basically not going to text anymore. I used to check it so, so often.
    • This was hard at first. One of my partners strongly prefers texting, and I liked texting her, and missed her a lot. With additional thought, we discovered that she really just wanted to asynchronously send me updates on how her day was going. I said she could text me as much as she wanted—but I’d read them during our next phone call.
  • I can watch movies and play video games if I’ve planned it out at least a few hours in advance.
  • I can check Reddit for specific question/answer threads.
  • I can check Twitter if I plan the session out in detail one day in advance.
    • Twitter is toxic for me, even though I originally made an account to promote an alignment paper and only subscribed to AI/math accounts.
  • My phone will still be in black and white and warm color temperature, to make it even less engaging compared to the rest of my world.
  • I never ever use my phone on the toilet. Ever. This has served me well and seems like a pure win.
  1. ^

    This is only a sufficient condition; the app need not be the child of a billion-dollar company. For example, I oft ragebaited myself about the culture war via Marginal Revolution and Hacker News. I even tend to get anxious about LessWrong usage, and I know that the team deliberately refrained from attention-hacks like red notifications.

    Even while using my Notion to edit this post and supervise research, I saw a red “5 notifications” marker, which gave me an overwhelming urge to see what the notifications are. With great effort, I ignored the impulse, and deleted the element with my adblocker.

  2. ^

    I just now picked up my phone and stared at it blankly. One month later. Yuck.

  3. ^

    Limit $300 total.

178

53 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:15 PM
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I really really enjoyed digital minimalism when I read it, but think it was somewhat harmful to my relationships, given how hard it says that only text-relationships are basically worthless. It took like a year but I happened to meet someone really cool who strongly didn't like calling and since the only way I could talk to them was texting, I sucked it up and actually found out that it's not so bad.

I think it did help me firm up the things I dislike about texting, and with some agreed about norms I think they can be mitigated. Wrote about it here: Why call? | Space L Clottey (spacelutt.com)

 

This post did A LOT for me in terms of my phone usage:

Distractions are a Nuisance, but Infinity Pools are the Real Problem | by John Zeratsky | Make Time | Medium

Actually, I want to walk back on this a bit. I was on a plane since this comment and the ten hours of no wifi was really nice and really unique and really focused, and I had absolutely no reason to check my phone because there was absolutely zero chance of their being a notification... I realised that I appreciated digital minimalism at the time because I had just come out of having no wifi forced apon me for a week and finding it really nice and really wanting to maintain it. I think I've just forgotten how nice it actually is

I want to second your first point. Texting frequently with significant others lets me feel be part of their life and vice versa which a weekly call does not accomplish, partly because it is weekly and partly because I am pretty averse to calls. 

In one relationship I had, this led to significant misery on my part because my partner was pretty strict on their phone usage, batching messages for the mornings and evenings. For my current primary relationship, I'm convinced that the frequent texting is what kept it alive while being long-distance. 

To reconcile the two viewpoints, I think it is still true that superficial relationships via social media likes or retweets are not worth that much if they are all there is to the relationship. But direct text messages are a significant improvement on that. 

Re your blog post:
Maybe that's me being introverted but there are probably significant differences in whether people feel comfortable/like texting or calling. For me, the instantaneousness of calling makes it much more stressful, and I do have a problem with people generalizing either way that one way to interact over distances is superior in general. I do cede the point that calling is of course much higher bandwidth, but it also requires more time commitment and coordination. 

I don't remember at this point what digital minimalism advocates, but I advocate doing cost-benefit analyses, which are naturally sensitive to the specifics of your situation. The question may become: How can I draw most of the benefits of texting, without checking my phone 40 times a day? 

And I think this question has meaningful answers, from batching responses eg thrice daily, to dedicated synchronous texting periods (like text-based phone calls!).

I remember lazy summer childhoods, staring at the ceiling after I ran out of video game time. 

 

I think this argument points in the opposite direction from your main post.  The most salient question for 'spend less time messing around on the Internet' is 'what will that saved time end up being spent on?'

Sometimes I watch cute Youtube video compilations of pets doing silly things.  

If this time trades off against writing a novel, or learning an interesting skill, or making friends, or exercising, then Youtube is wasting my time on unproductive things and I should try to waste less time.

But if this time trades off against staring at the ceiling being bored, then Youtube is making my unproductive relaxation time more enjoyable and entertaining, and there is no problem.

(Relevant xkcd).

That in turn is actually dependent on whether having your ambient thoughts occupied by YouTube is better overall than having them occupied by nothing for a while. There's a lot of valuable background processing that I suspect gets starved by constant stimulation. Of course, carving out explicit time for reflection or for a meditation practice or similar is also something one can do.

Pushback against (what seems to me like) an implicit assumption: In all probability, you are not evenly and strategically trading off "bored time" for "entertained time." You are trading off huge chunks of your non-bored time, not because you lack virtue, but because Youtube "wants" to waste your time. So this is, I think, a dangerous trade to try to make, at least without analyzing it first.

But if this time trades off against staring at the ceiling being bored, then Youtube is making my unproductive relaxation time more enjoyable and entertaining, and there is no problem.

Is there no problem? Sometimes being "bored" lets me focus on what it feels like to be a person, or feel grateful about my life, or just let my thoughts drift. This is pleasant, just like the quoted memory of staring at the ceiling. The sentiment was not "FML, my boring life sucks", but rather "-------- [relaxation]."

I also used to have thoughts race through my head when I turned in for the night, as if some great dam had broken, now that no distractions were occupying my attention. That seems to happen less now. Which, in turn, seems good.

Anyways—empirically, I have not spend much time bored. So the point seems moot, in that I am not advocating increased "bored" time, but reallocation. 

For what it's worth, I have met TurnTrout in real life, use social media, and was initially skeptical about the Digital Minimalism thesis. After reading this post, and having had it recommended to me by another friend, I read the first half of Digital Minimalism. I found it basically unconvincing. In particular, it seemed like chapter 1 was supposed to provide motivation for why social media was bad for me, but didn't really deliver - I didn't think the evidence given distiguished "social media is designed to be addictive" with "social media is designed to be valuable and usable". For instance, it seems to interpret social media tools that let you interact with your friends in ways that have significance for your relationship (e.g. tagging them in pictures) as a way to addict people, but it seems to me that that's just a nice feature. In some places it seemed sort of obtuse - the author talks about how the ostensive benefit of FB is letting you see things like friends' baby pictures, and claims that the like button increases addictiveness but doesn't help deliver the ostensive benefit. But it seems obvious to me that seeing which posts are 'liked' would help FB distinguish between pictures that people want to see (babies, engagement photos) and pictures that they don't (poorly-lit food photos, boring party pictures).

Strong-upvoted, even though I disagree on the overall argument strength (I think there were some weak arguments but in total the evidence seemed pretty good to me). I look forward to paying out if you want to collect on that.

Sure, I'll do it as well. For me: 

  • 1pm - Check snaps, messages, emails, discord team messages and accelerating alignment channel, & EAGx messages. Hard limit at 1:30pm (just set two alarms on my phone)
  • Whitelist - Roam/ research related searches. Phone calls/ texts are unblocked from a certain set of people, who I've told can reach me there. (I set them in the emergency contact list), but besides that, my iPhone is in "focus mode" with all notifications hidden. 
  • Exception handling: I don't think I'll need one, but I can let my roommate know and ask for his social support. (Specifically call me out if he sees me on my phone at other times, haha)
  • I normally journal, so that'll help with logging. 

(I think everyone should have well-defined exception handling, because some of you will have crazy shit happen, like "someone died", and that can make it hard if you're pondering "do I let myself have an allowance now?". Failing to plan is planning to fail (in not-wholly-improbable worlds).)

I'm unsure about this now. I think there may generally be way better ways to cope (eg sleeping, walks, reading a book, hanging with friends). 

A different thought: Clarifying the core thing you don't like about having media always on (maybe the compulsion that leads to distractedness) may make your idea easier to communicate and look different in actions/plans produced. Like I'm fine with watching a movie with a friend or playing a video game with my roommate for an hour. 

A slightly different thought: setting alarms on my phone if I'm looking at my phone for the time because I have a meeting, or I'm waiting on someone to message me timely information has been helpful. I can set a timer for an hour and check my phone then in case they've messaged. Or set the timer 5 minutes before my meeting, so I don't have to think about it.

Thanks for reminding me of my small concern: time-wasting, specifically doom-scrolling on Twitter. I will listen to the book!

So, I haven't read Digital Minimalism, but I have been becoming increasingly worried about attention-grabbing systems over the last ~2 years, culminating in me choosing not to have internet at my apartment when I moved last May (getting internet at a local library, with a ~15 minute walk there by foot), after having iterated through many versions of locks & blocks & deleted elements, all pretty much fruitless in the end.

So, yeah, I think already pretty good about my internet usage.

This has resulted in interesting dynamics: I often procrastinate by reading through my downloaded copy of wikipedia, or by weightlifting (!), when I don't want to do work. I am also much more vulnerable to overindulging when I'm at a place with internet, e.g. when I'm visiting my parents.

I have some predictions about your experiment:

  • You will continue in your current decluttered mode (70%)
    • You will temporarily fall back into bad habits (50%)
    • You will make it stricter after some while (60%)
  • Your initial productivity benefits will experience a regression toward the mean (80%)
    • The (perceived) benefits will continue outweighting the (perceived) costs (90%)
  • You will find yourself procrastinating in odd and novel ways, such as reading a lot of fiction, or exercising, or snacking a lot, or reading Wikipedia a lot (40%)

I also have experienced increased anxiety, which has persisted (and become slightly stronger) 7.5 months after moving.

I don't necessarily recommend such extreme measures to everyone, but I have the lurking suspicion that people tend to underreact to time & attention lost.

I'm unhappy that picoeconomics hasn't been further investigated on LessWrong, because, aside from the term being very cute, trying to balance the costs of accessing different resources that may be harmful in too large or small quantities seems pretty central to the endeavour of managing (if not defeating) akrasia.

A hypothesis could be that while human System 2 does exponential discounting, System 1 performs hyperbolic discounting, and we'd like to increase the cost of accessing e.g. internet services so that for that cost, our hyperbolically discounted value is smaller than the exponentially discounted value (ideas like this being central to picoecon).

Under this model, for myself, the time to remove ublock from my browser addons (or simply install another browser, etc.), which would take around half a minute, the hyperbolically discounted present value was not less than the exponentially discounted value, but the 15 minutes of going to the nearest library (or buying a router and installing it, or paying an additional 10€ for more mobile data (so here, expensive mobile data plans are better) would be, so I don't do it.

This has some interesting implications: The worse the problem of wasting time on the internet is for you, the harsher your measures will need to be, and the less you will want to carry them out (except in lucid moments).

I have an additional pet peeve about this post: It has the words "cost-benefit analysis" in the title, but doesn't have a cost-benefit analysis in the body (at least not of the juicy expected-value variety)!

Please don't use those words if you're not going to deliver ;-)

I have an additional pet peeve about this post: It has the words "cost-benefit analysis" in the title, but doesn't have a cost-benefit analysis in the body (at least not of the juicy expected-value variety)!

Oh yeah, I feel like a more natural title would be "PLEASE DO SOME ACTUAL EMPIRICISM".

I also have experienced increased anxiety, which has persisted (and become slightly stronger) 7.5 months after moving.

I have noticed increased anxiety in myself. I think it quite possible I already had most of it before the declutter, and instead wrapped myself in comforting mind-numbing internet usage which obscured it from me. Another person who has done the declutter, reported similar suspicions about themselves.

This has some interesting implications: The worse the problem of wasting time on the internet is for you, the harsher your measures will need to be, and the less you will want to carry them out (except in lucid moments).

This doesn't ring to my experience. Everything became easier when I said "No reddit", as opposed to ~"Reddit if I can find a good enough reason." 

I have an additional pet peeve about this post: It has the words "cost-benefit analysis" in the title, but doesn't have a cost-benefit analysis in the body (at least not of the juicy expected-value variety)!

Please don't use those words if you're not going to deliver ;-)

I included eg the Facebook usage meme (which is the real output of a CB analysis), and described the results of other analyses I did. I think the analyses were so lopsided, and the solutions so clean, that assigning numbers would be a distraction. Also, the point of assigning numbers to personal-utility-estimates is, I think, to throw them out after you do the estimate, and do what your updated gut feeling says.

I have noticed increased anxiety in myself. I think it quite possible I already had most of it before the declutter, and instead wrapped myself in comforting mind-numbing internet usage which obscured it from me. Another person who has done the declutter, reported similar suspicions about themselves.

A psyche might start
cutting itself, if it is
not dulled each fortnight

My personal antidote to the "check lesswrong. check mad investor chaos. work 5 mins. check mad investor chaos. check lesswrong" problem has been to channel everything I possibly can into an RSS aggregator. No need for me to be twitchily refreshing and checking; I have a computer to do that for me.

Also helps, I think, that I'm then removed from the algorithmically-mediated Skinner box of someone else deciding what my news feed is. I just get a simple chronological list of headlines from sites I've chosen - nothing that's being shared or promoted or trending or whatever, and with my own defined rules/filters to remove categories of post I'm not interested in seeing. Also no fear of missing out, because my unread items will still be there later whenever I come back for them.

Still occasionally has the problem of turning into an attention-suck by way of being subscribed to too many things, or to sites that produce too many updates. Still need to be alert to whether individual sites are a true benefit to be subscribed to. Still need to keep a lid on feed-reading from consuming all of my time. 

So it's not a solution to "I read too much internet", but I think it's at least an improvement over other ways of reading the internet.

May I ask what software you use for your RSS aggregator?

I checked out a bunch and chose inoreader, although I needed to pay to get all the features I wanted.

I'm using Inoreader, paying for the "Pro" tier of features.

I'm getting particular use out of their duplicate filters, regex-based content filters, receiving newsletters as a feed, and automated scraping/monitoring of sites that don't publish their own feed.

Have also used the custom CSS option to productively disagree with some of the choices made when they re-designed the interface. But I think that's available on the cheaper "Supporter" tier too.

There has in the past been a "buy 18 months for the price of 12" discount available at least annually (around Black Friday possibly; might have been New Years). Which I've used to keep the cost down.

Acknowledging that this is how people generally use the word "technology", I'd rather reserve that word for things that are involved in tekhne, i.e. tools, machines, devices, programs, components, factories, methods, etc.; things one uses to produce. I think you're centrally talking about networks and services. Richard M Stallman calls them "disservices", as in "Facebook provides an online social networking disservice". That it's even possible to seemingly unwillingly more or less ruin oneself using a thing, is evidence that one isn't centrally relating to the thing as a technology at all.

Originally titled "Do a cost-benefit analysis of your internet usage", but this makes it sounds like analyzing different internet service provider plans. "Social media usage" is too narrow. I'm open to suggestions.

"participation in networks"? IDK. Is "social media" too narrow? I intuitively include LW, blogs, forums, email, as social media. Youtube is a mix; I consider it social media when I'm using it as pica for talking to a person, and I endorse most of my other Youtube use (e.g. videos of natural phenomena, or documentaries, or clever inventions). But yeah I could imagine being seriously attention-sniped in some other unendorsed way.

"attention service usage"? "consumption service usage"? That's not really clear, though it does have a precise meaning that I think is what you're trying to point at: services (i.e. computer programs running somewhere else that do some computing task for you) which are attention / consumption based (i.e. the thing you're getting from the service is something you're going to just directly experience, as opposed to running it through some more computation). Services which are attention-based seem like the central type of technology that induces attention-sniping incentives. (Though it's not sufficient, e.g. Wikipedia.)

When was the last time you were bored and in silence?

For the record, it was 2 days ago.

like blocking all recommendations on YouTube via the Unhook add-on [Chrome, Firefox]

Woah — you just gave me agency over YouTube! Thanks so much, this is looking like it will really change my relationship with the site to be much more intentional (e.g. I like how it makes it so I can default to only seeing my subscriptions).

Here’s my main tip to add to the book: Have well-defined exception handling which you never ever ever have to deviate from... My procedure was “If I need to use a forbidden functionality, then I have to write what I did down on a slip of paper and leave it on my girlfriend’s desk ASAP.”

When I did 2 weeks of no devices, my procedure (which I remember telling you in a LW PM like 6 months ago) was "you can do a thing on your device if you wrote it down on a piece of paper yesterday". That worked well for me while I was in more of a vacation mode.

I write blogposts before then, and I won’t check their reception until the next week (I used to nervously refresh).

Very cool to hear you that you do this! Congratulations. For me I don't check until 24 hours have passed, and never do refreshes. I do like responding to comments faster than 1 week. But yeah, the repeated refresh while your post has no karma and one unhelpful comment is not worth it.

For news, I purchased a digital+print subscription to The Economist. Once a month, I can choose to read the four issues for an hour or two.

The one I've been meaning to move to is, once a month, check the top-voted stories on HN that month.

Random tip: If you want to restrict apps etc on your iPhone but not know the Screen Time pin, I recommend the following simple system which allows you to not know the password but unlock restrictions easily when needed:

  1. Ask a friend to write a 4 digit pin in a small note book (which is dedicated only for this pin)
  2. Ask them to punch in the pin to your phone when setting the Screen Time password
  3. Keep the notebook in your backpack and never look inside of it, ever
  4. If you ever need your phone unlocked, you can walk up to someone, even a stranger, show them the notebook and ask them to punch in the pin to your phone

The system works because having a dedicated physical object that you commit to never look inside is surprisingly doable, for some reason.

Yup, this is what I did, but I just didn't have the notebook. I like the bright line.

Ah — sorry if I missed that in the post, only skimmed

Please, please, please make more posts on this issue. I really like what I see here, I've found it very helpful, and I need to see more. 

Please message me on your thoughts if you ever have anything you'd like to share about this problem, e.g. what works, what doesn't work, what seems to happen to people, etc.

A book I highly enjoyed on the topic was Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was Neil Postman mourning the death of rational discourse from TV in the year 1985. Very highly reccomend.

Postman is a great writer and this is one my favorite books.

What's changed between 1985 and today is that human attention has become the scarcest (ie. most valuable) resource. Because of this, the Web is under immense market pressure to turn into a perfected form of cable TV as described by Postman. This is what's driving platform centralization (ie. Facebook, TikTok, etc.) as well as the one-to-many model where a handful of users (influencers) produce while a great majority merely consume.

We're not there yet, but we've swung strongly in that direction in just a decade with change. My hope is that counter-forces like Digital Minimalism as well as the inherent flexibility of the medium of the Web will arrest or even revert this change.

I think reading the book and/or trying it yourself would be very informative. You have at least until next Sunday when he reads this comment or potentially writes more.

You should message Kurt, who's mentioned in the post as TurnTrout's inspiration for doing this in the first place. Sounds like TurnTrout isn't going to be online/messaging much in the near future :)

Does anyone know about an addon to filter facebook notifications? I want to know about comments, but not reactions/likes

That's native to Facebook now, actually. I don't remember where, but if you dig around in the settings you can turn off notifications for reactions/likes.

Update: I had a few relatively anxious days, and decided to relax my music policy slightly. Sometimes I'd be a little too anxious to do work without music. While I fix this problem, I'm going to listen to music more permissively.

I think there's another trade-off to music while working, which is that it makes me more excited at the cost of making me slightly dumber. Sometimes this is worth it. Marking as something to analyze more later, as I currently (attempt to) refactor my internal systems so that they don't produce these anxious signals.

Also, added to main post: "I never ever use my phone on the toilet. Ever. This has served me well and seems like a pure win."

I really liked this post. As a result of reading it, I'm trialling the following:

Every time I go on my computer or phone, I need to specifically have a plan for one specific thing I am going to do. This can be "check all notifications from X/Y/Z), or "write this one long email", or even, "15 minutes of unstructured time", but it should always be intentional. If I get the urge to do something else, I need to save it for a future session, which can be immediately afterwards.

Interested to hear how this goes.

It's been hard keeping to it, but I do notice myself being more productive when I do. One thing that has stayed is not having an email tab always open. Hoping that over time I get better at following it strictly; it has such immediate positive effects that I'm not so worried I'll gradually forget and stop, like happened with other productivity attempts (e.g. making to-do lists.)

Yay! Keep up the good work :) I bet there's a way to stick to it better, I'd advise you to keep trying things on that front.

If you can get work done while having Wikipedia not-blocked, you are a better worker than I am. I will absolutely read about irrelevant, flagrantly not-even-wrong Medieval scholastic philosophers instead of doing chores.

I don't even possess a phone, and I hope to avoid getting one as long as possible.

Instead I spend all day in my room staring at a computer screen! Yay! /s

That said, I have successfully avoided visiting Facebook for months now, so that's something. I realized a while back that Reddit mainly kept my attention due to all the political stuff I felt the urge to argue with, so after I unsubscribed from every sub that has anything like that, I no longer felt the urge to visit it except to ask specific questions, for the most part. Lots of good advice in this post though that I'll have to incorporate - computers are, after all, just as bad as phones in this respect.

This post led me to remove Chrome from my phone, which gave me back a few productive minutes today. Hoping to keep it up and compound those minutes into a couple of solid workdays over the rest of the year. Thanks for the inspiration!

I even thought about some identity-politics tweet I saw last week, on my run this morning... why is that garbage in my head? Good riddance.

I noticed this when I did a similar ban on technology usage. It's bizarre how I could still have some YouTube video frequently pop into my thoughts, weeks after I stopped watching YouTube entirely.

What do you think about the effectiveness of the particular method of digital decluttering recommended by Digital Minimalism? What modifications would you recommend? Ideal duration?

One reason I have yet to do a month-long declutter is because I remember thinking something like "this process sounds like something Cal Newport just kinda made up and didn't particularly test, my own methods that I think of for me will probably better than Cal's method he thought of for him".

So far my own methods have not worked.

This post is at least one more data point that Cal Newport’s method worked for someone else.

Kurt Brown (mentioned in the post) did an experiment on this, helping residents of CEEALAR (formerly the EA Hotel) do their own Newport-style digital declutter; you can read his preliminary writeup here.

this is great,thanks!

Thanks Alex for the helpful recommendation! I got the book and read the first half. I'd like to do a declutter at some point, still figuring out how to handle non-optional technologies (e.g. work slack tends to be a major distraction for me, which is probably best coordinated with my team as a whole). 

What apps are you (and commenters) using to enforce declutter/reduce the System 1 instant refresh urges? I'm looking for phone and computer blockers/filters and other suggestions.

I just wouldn't use most apps or websites. By adopting a bright-line whitelist approach with clear, universally applicable exception handling and scheduled eg email checks, I didn't have constant temptations to rationalize breaking my own rules, like I did when I was sometimes allowed to use a service.