Tactics for Digital Wellbeing
December 31, 2018
I thought it might be interesting for the first post that I write explicitly for this blog to be on things I do and have tried to improve my digital wellbeing. As has been gaining more coverage on the news recently, there is an incredible amount of content on the web nowadays, and a lot of it is designed to be as addicting as possible.
I’ve tried a few things that have stuck over the years to reduce the amount of noise I’m exposed to and slow down the flow of information. I’ve found that they make my digital life more sane and enjoyable while still retaining much of the modern web’s most useful features, and I thought I’d share them. The irony is not lost on me that I’m adding to the internet’s noise with this post, but I hope it helps more than it hurts, and anyways it is but dust in the desert.
As the two primary platforms that I use, I’ve divided this into mobile (Android) and desktop sections. And of course, these tactics are what work for me and what I care about - they may not make sense for you. Without further ado:
Mobile (stock Android):
Facebook has a few useful features, but the app itself serves primarily as a vehicle for delivering addictive content and adds via the newsfeed. The signal-to-noise ratio on the feed is too low, and I’ve found that I usually hear about stuff I would really need to know via other channels. The Facebook features I still want are primarily events and messaging which I can still access via the Messenger app, connecting my Facebook events to my calendar, and finally using the mobile-browser as a backup (a painful enough experience that I don’t use it often/get sucked backed into the newsfeed).
Move addictive apps off the home screen
I move apps that I want to make sure I’m using only in an intentional manner off the home screen. This means less mindlessly opening the app and then discovering half an hour has gone by, as I have to explicitly search the app out. Apps that I’ve given this treatment to include Instagram and Chrome (which I buried in a folder instead of totally removed).
Disable swipe-left for Google
The ability to swipe left from the homescreen to get an ever-refreshing feed of articles picked just for me claimed countless hours of my life before I figured out how to do this. At least on the Pixel-2, you can hold anywhere on the home screen to see “Home Settings”, and clicking this will take you to a page that lets you toggle this feature off.
Disable Facebook newsfeed
The negative consequences of Facebook’s newsfeed have been described ad-nauseum by this point. Fortunately, on the desktop you don’t need to block the site in its entirety, and, assuming you’re browsing with Chrome, you can instead use the beautifully simple Kill News Feed extension. In my experience, removing the Facebook newsfeed completely nullified Facebook’s addictiveness without going me having to go full-bore and delete my account.
Blacklist distracting websites to encourage intentional browsing
While in college, I noticed that I often ended up wasting a bunch of time on the internet even when I had every intention to begin doing something productive. What happened was that I would open a new tab and, without even thinking, tap the couple keys required to browse to a gaming or news or social media website. Since I visited them so often, Chrome would autofill the url after one or two characters, meaning I could get to somewhere like the New York Times or Kongregate with just a few key presses. These pages were of course designed to hook my attention as soon as I landed on the page, so, that tiny unconscious action would often translate into hours of wasted time.
I didn’t want to block these sites outright, and working on self-discipline seemed too challenging, so I ended up building a Chrome extension called Blacklist to solve the problem. Blacklist is a website blocker with the twist that it’s actually easy to unblock a website - you just have to wait 15 seconds to do so. This has the effect of requiring visits to a site to be intentional - seeing the blocked website after unconsciously navigating to it short-circuited my cycle of procrastination. I’ve been using the extension continuously for the last six years, and interestingly I hardly ever see blocked sites anymore because the extension has trained me not to go to the sites on which I traditionally wasted a lot of time.
One thing that didn’t work, but might in the future
I was really excited for Siempo when I first heard of it - it’s a home screen for Android that tries to be explicitly un-addictive. It’s primary features were (as of late 2018) replacing colorful app launchers with generic grayscale icons and text and batching notifications (every 30 minutes, for example) to reduce interruptions. Siempo was honestly very effective at reducing compulsive phone usage, and it was incredibly refreshing to have control over when I got interrupted by notifications.
Unfortunately, as a newly-released product, Siempo struggled with a lot of instability that went past making my phone less-addictive to also occasionally unusable. It would sometimes just refuse to show me any of my apps, meaning I couldn’t launch what I needed, and often Siempo lagged or even crashed. This became frustrating enough that I returned to the standard Google launcher after several months. However, I can imagine trying Siempo again in the future in the hopes that it’s become more usable.
Having written these tactics up, the general philosophy behind what I’ve tried seems to be inspired by the notion of limited willpower. We have limited amounts of willpower to expend on resisting addictive digital content, so I’ve focused on identifying the addictive parts as granularly as possible and then using tools to neutralize their effectiveness, removing willpower from the equation altogether. Hopefully these tactics are inspiring or helpful for you in the quest to regain control over your digital life. I’d love to hear from you with any techniques you use (rahul.guptaiwasaki(at)gmail.com), and I might include them in an update to this post!
A blog by Rahul Gupta-Iwasaki