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Digital Minimalism

By Cal Newport

My rating: 6/10

Date read: 2019-07-03

Book on Amazon.com

A nice book on a more thoughful and scrutinizing approach to the screens and distractions in our lifes. Mostly a collection of practices you can follow to "reclaim your attention".

Notes

“An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape

The key to thriving in our high-tech world, they’ve learned, is to spend much less time using technology.

I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

In our current moment, smartphones have reshaped people’s experience of the world by providing an always-present connection to a humming matrix of chatter and distraction.

One of the major selling points of the original iPhone was that it integrated your iPod with your cell phone, preventing you from having to carry around two separate devices in your pockets. [Not all the apps and internet]

“This was supposed to be an iPod that made phone calls”

These changes crept up on us and happened fast, before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade.

The source of our unease is not evident in these thin-sliced case studies, but instead becomes visible only when confronting the thicker reality of how these technologies as a whole have managed to expand beyond the minor roles for which we initially adopted them. Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable. What’s making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control — a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child’s bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience. It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy.

The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

These apps and slick sites were not, as Bill Maher put it, gifts from “nerd gods building a better world.” They were, instead, designed to put slot machines in our pockets.

Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.

Our brains are highly susceptible to these [two psychology] forces. This matters because many of the apps and sites that keep people compulsively checking their smartphones and opening browser tabs often leverage these hooks to make themselves nearly impossible to resist. To understand this claim, let’s briefly discuss both. ■ ■ ■ We begin with the first force:

intermittent positive reinforcement. Scientists have known since Michael Zeiler’s famous pecking pigeon experiments from the 1970s that rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern. Something about unpredictability releases more dopamine—a key neurotransmitter for regulating our sense of craving.

Alter goes on to describe users as “gambling” every time they post something on a social media platform: Will you get likes (or hearts or retweets), or will it languish with no feedback?

Attention-catching notification badges, or the satisfying way a single finger swipe swoops in the next potentially interesting post, are often carefully tailored to elicit strong responses.

Let’s now consider the second force that encourages behavioral addiction: the drive for social approval. As Adam Alter writes: “We’re social beings who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us.”

If lots of people click the little heart icon under your latest Instagram post, it feels like the tribe is showing you approval—which we’re adapted to strongly crave.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

the hot new technologies that emerged in the past decade or so are particularly well suited to foster behavioral addictions, leading people to use them much more than they think is useful or healthy.

We didn’t sign up for the digital lives we now lead. They were instead, to a large extent, crafted in boardrooms to serve the interests of a select group of technology investors.

Digital Minimalism 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.

minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.

The average Facebook user, by contrast, uses the company’s products a little over fifty minutes per day.

THE PRINCIPLES OF DIGITAL MINIMALISM

Principle #1: Clutter is costly.

Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

Principle #2: Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

It’s true that it takes more time to walk to town than to ride in a wagon, Thoreau notes, but these walks still likely require less time than the extra work hours needed to afford the wagon.

How much of your time and attention, he would ask, must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter?

This is why clutter is dangerous. It’s easy to be seduced by the small amounts of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resource we possess: the minutes of our life.

treat the minutes of our life as a concrete and valuable substance—arguably the most valuable substance we possess—and to always reckon with how much of this life we trade for the various activities we allow to claim our time.

more often than not, the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.

When considering personal technology processes, let’s focus in particular on the energy invested in trying to improve the value these processes return in your life, for example, through better selection of tools or the adoption of smarter strategies for using the tools.

If you increase the amount of energy you invest into this optimization, you’ll increase the amount of value the process returns. At first, these increases will be large. As the law of diminishing returns tells us, however, eventually these increases will diminish as you approach a natural limit.

The reason the second principle of minimalism is so important is that most people invest very little energy into these types of optimizations. To use the appropriate economic terminology, most people’s personal technology processes currently exist on the early part of the return curve—the location where additional attempts to optimize will yield massive improvements.

Finding useful new technologies is just the first step to improving your life. The real benefits come once you start experimenting with how best to use them.

The Amish prioritize the benefits generated by acting intentionally about technology over the benefits lost from the technologies they decide not to use. Their gamble is that intention trumps convenience—and this is a bet that seems to be paying off.

The sugar high of convenience is fleeting and the sting of missing out dulls rapidly, but the meaningful glow that comes from taking charge of what claims your time and attention is something that persists.

The Digital Declutter ON (RAPIDLY) BECOMING MINIMALIST

The Digital Declutter Process Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

Much like decluttering your house, this lifestyle experiment provides a reset for your digital life by clearing away distracting tools and compulsive habits that may have accumulated haphazardly over time and replacing them with a much more intentional set of behaviors, optimized, in proper minimalist fashion, to support your values instead of subverting them.

STEP #1: DEFINE YOUR TECHNOLOGY RULES

The digital declutter focuses primarily on new technologies, which describes apps, sites, and tools delivered through a computer or mobile phone screen. You should probably also include video games and streaming video in this category. Take a thirty-day break from any of these technologies that you deem “optional”—meaning that you can step away from them without creating harm or major problems in either your professional or personal life. In some cases, you’ll abstain from using the optional technology altogether, while in other cases you might specify a set of operating procedures that dictate exactly when and how you use the technology during the process.

In the end, you’re left with a list of banned technologies along with relevant operating procedures. Write this down and put it somewhere where you’ll see it every day. Clarity in what you’re allowed and not allowed to do during the declutter will prove key to its success.

STEP #2: TAKE A THIRTY-DAY BREAK

This detox experience is important because it will help you make smarter decisions at the end of the declutter when you reintroduce some of these optional technologies to your life.

With this in mind, you have duties during the declutter beyond following your technology rules. For this process to succeed, you must also spend this period trying to rediscover what’s important to you and what you enjoy outside the world of the always-on, shiny digital. Figuring this out before you begin reintroducing technology at the end of this declutter process is crucial.

underscoring the sheer quantity of the time that can be reclaimed when you sidestep mindless digital activity to once again prioritize the real you.

comes time to make clear decisions at the end of the declutter. The goal of a digital declutter, however, is not simply to enjoy time away from intrusive technology. During this monthlong process, you must aggressively explore higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you’re avoiding. This period should be one of strenuous activity and experimentation. You want to arrive at the end of the declutter having rediscovered the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life—one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.

STEP #3: REINTRODUCE TECHNOLOGY

With this in mind, for each optional technology that you’re considering reintroducing into your life, you must first ask: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? This is the only condition on which you should let one of these tools into your life. The fact that it offers some value is irrelevant

Once a technology passes this first screening question, it must then face a more difficult standard: Is this technology the best way to support this value?

We justify many of the technologies that tyrannize our time and attention with some tangential connection to something we care about.

If a technology makes it through both of these screening questions, there’s one last question you must ask yourself before it’s allowed back into your life: How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?

value (if it’s not, replace it with something better). Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

Your monthlong break from optional technologies resets your digital life. You can now rebuild it from scratch in a much more intentional and minimalist manner. To do so, apply a three-step technology screen to each optional technology you’re thinking about reintroducing. This process will help you cultivate a digital life in which new technologies serve your deeply held values as opposed to subverting them without your permission. It is in this careful reintroduction that you make the intentional decisions that will define you as a digital minimalist.

PART 2 Practices

Spend Time Alone

Why is solitude valuable? Kethledge and Erwin detail many benefits, most of which concern the insight and emotional balance that comes from unhurried self-reflection.

solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.

Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.

“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”

Storr’s conclusion is that we’re wrong to consider intimate interaction as the sine qua non of human thriving. Solitude can be just as important for both happiness and productivity.

His survey of the relevant literature then points to three crucial benefits provided by solitude: “new ideas; an understanding of the self; and closeness to others.”

That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened.

for the first time in human history solitude is starting to fade away altogether.

Solitude Deprivation A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

PRACTICE: LEAVE YOUR PHONE AT HOME

I argued earlier in this chapter that smartphones are the primary enabler of solitude deprivation. To avoid this condition, therefore, it makes sense to try to spend regular time away from these devices

It does aim, however, to convince you that it’s completely reasonable to live a life in which you sometimes have a phone with you, and sometimes do not.

PRACTICE: TAKE LONG WALKS

The details of this practice are simple: On a regular basis, go for long walks, preferably somewhere scenic. Take these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone.

PRACTICE: WRITE LETTERS TO YOURSELF

Earlier in this chapter, I introduced Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin’s definition of solitude as time spent alone with your own thoughts and free from inputs from other minds. Writing a letter [or journal entry] to yourself is an excellent mechanism for generating exactly this type of solitude. It not only frees you from outside inputs but also provides a conceptual scaffolding on which to sort and organize your thinking.

Don’t Click “Like”

“we are interested in the social world because we are built to turn on the default network during our free time.” Put another way, our brains adapted to automatically practice social thinking during any moments of cognitive downtime, and it’s this practice that helps us become really interested in our social world.

humans are wired to be social.

Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.

The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable.

the value generated by a Facebook comment or Instagram like—although real—is minor compared to the value generated by an analog conversation or shared real-world activity.

Our analog brain cannot easily distinguish between the importance of the person in the room with us and the person who just sent us a new text.

Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.

Turkle, for example, introduces her readers to middle school students who struggle with empathy, as they lack the practice of reading facial cues that comes from conversation,

“Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance.” On the other hand: “When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits.”

The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship.

Anything textual or non-interactive — basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging — doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection.

In this philosophy, connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.

conversation-centric communication.

Notice, in true minimalist fashion, conversation-centric communication doesn’t ask that you abandon the wonders of digital communication tools. On the contrary, this philosophy recognizes that these tools can enable significant improvements to your social life. Among other advantages, these new technologies greatly simplify the process of arranging conversation.

In short, this philosophy has nothing against technology—so long as the tools are put to use to improve your real-world social life as opposed to diminishing it.

You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia.

PRACTICE: DON’T CLICK “LIKE”

concern about this reaction motivate you to invest the time required to set up a real conversation. Actually visiting the new mom will return significantly more value to both of you than adding a short “awww!” to a perfunctory scroll of comments

As an academic who studies and teaches social media explained to me: “I don’t think we’re meant to keep in touch with so many people.”

I urge you, for the sake of your social well-being, to adopt the baseline rule that you’ll no longer use social media as a tool for low-quality relationship nudges. Put simply, don’t click and don’t comment. This basic stricture will radically change for the better how you maintain your social life.

PRACTICE: CONSOLIDATE TEXTING

keep your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default. On both iPhones and Android devices, for example, this mode turns off notifications when text messages arrive.

When you’re in this mode, text messages become like emails:

You can now schedule specific times for texting—consolidated sessions in which you go through the backlog of texts you received since the last check, sending responses as needed and perhaps even having some brief back-and-forth interaction before apologizing that you have to go, turning the phone back to Do Not Disturb mode, and continuing with your day.

Once you no longer treat text interactions as an ongoing conversation that you must continually tend, it’s much easier to concentrate fully on the activity before you.

It might also provide some anxiety reduction, as our brains don’t react well to constant disruptive interaction

You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emojis can provide.

By simply keeping your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default, and making texts something you check on a regular schedule—not a persistent background source of ongoing chatter—you can maintain the major advantages of the technology while sidestepping its more pernicious effects.

PRACTICE: HOLD CONVERSATION OFFICE HOURS

conversation office hours strategy. Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversation.

This practice suggests that you follow the aforementioned executive’s example by instating your own variation of his conversation office hours strategy. Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversation.

When someone instigates a low-quality connection (say, a text message conversation or social media ping), suggest they call or meet you during your office hours sometime when it is convenient for them. Similarly, once office hours are in place, it’s easy to reach out proactively to people you care about and invite them to converse with you during these hours whenever they’re next available.

I’ve seen several variations of this practice work well. Using a commute for phone conversations, like the executive introduced above, is a good idea if you follow a regular commuting schedule.

Coffee shop hours are also popular. In this variation, you pick some time each week during which you settle into a table at your favorite coffee shop with the newspaper or a good book. The reading, however, is just the backup activity. You spread the word among people you know that you’re always at the shop during these hours with the hope that you soon cultivate a rotating group of regulars that come hang out.

you can also consider running these office hours once a week during happy hour at a favored bar.

I’ve also seen people deploy daily walks for this purpose.

The conversation office hours strategy is effective for improving your social life because it overcomes the major obstacle to meaningful socializing: the concern, mentioned above, that unsolicited calls might be bothersome.

People crave real conversation, but this obstacle is often enough to prevent it. If you remove it by holding conversation office hours, you’ll be surprised by how many more of these rewarding interactions you can now fit into your normal week.

Reclaim Leisure

In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness.

It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping.

Harris felt uncomfortable, in other words, not because he was craving a particular digital habit, but because he didn’t know what to do with himself once his general access to the world of connected screens was removed.

If you begin decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life before you’ve convincingly filled in the void they were helping you ignore, the experience will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worse.

When the void is filled, you no longer need distractions to help you avoid it.

Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.

“People have the need to put their hands on tools and to make things. We need this in order to feel whole.”

One way to understand the exploding popularity of social media platforms in recent years is that they offer a substitute source of aggrandizement. In the absence of a well-built wood bench or applause at a musical performance to point toward, you can instead post a photo of your latest visit to a hip restaurant, hoping for likes, or desperately check for retweets of a clever quip.

Craft allows an escape from this shallowness and provides instead a deeper source of pride.

Leisure Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.

Playing games also provides permission for what we can call supercharged socializing—interactions with higher intensity levels than are common in polite society.

Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.

THE LEISURE RENAISSANCE

On the contrary, the internet is fueling a leisure renaissance of sorts by providing the average person more leisure options than ever before in human history.

to escape the drain of low-value digital habits, it’s important to first put in place high-quality leisure activities.

A foundational theme in digital minimalism is that new technology, when used with care and intention, creates a better life than either Luddism or mindless adoption. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that this general idea applies here to our specific discussion of cultivating leisure.

PRACTICE: FIX OR BUILD SOMETHING EVERY WEEK

learning and applying new skills is an important source of high-quality leisure. If you can achieve some degree of handiness, therefore, you can more easily tap into this type of satisfying activity.

PRACTICE: SCHEDULE YOUR LOW-QUALITY LEISURE

You can’t, in other words, build a billion-dollar empire like Facebook if you’re wasting hours every day using a service like Facebook.

Here’s my suggestion: schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes. If you want to binge-watch Netflix while live-streaming yourself browsing Twitter: go for it. But outside these periods, stay offline.

First, by confining your use of attention-capturing services to well-defined periods, your remaining leisure time is left protected for more substantial activities.

The second reason this strategy works well is that it doesn’t ask you to completely abandon low-quality diversions.

PRACTICE: JOIN SOMETHING

Few can mimic the energy Franklin invested into his social leisure, but we can all extract an important lesson from his approach to cultivating a fulfilling leisure life: join things.

few things can replicate the benefits of connecting with your fellow citizens, so get up, get out, and start reaping these benefits in your own community.

PRACTICE: FOLLOW LEISURE PLANS

It doesn’t matter if it’s a local sporting league, a committee at your temple, a local volunteer group, the PTA, a social fitness group, or a fantasy gamers club: few things can replicate the benefits of connecting with your fellow citizens, so get up, get out, and start reaping these benefits in your own community.

In the professional world, many high achievers are meticulous strategists. They lay out a vision for what they’re trying to accomplish on multiple different time scales, connecting high-level ambition to decisions about daily actions.

Here I want to suggest that you apply this same approach to your leisure life. I want you, in other words, to strategize your free time.

A good seasonal plan contains two different types of items: objectives and habits that you intend to honor in the upcoming season. The objectives describe specific goals you hope to accomplish, with accompanying strategies for how you will accomplish them. The habits describe behavior rules you hope to stick with throughout the season. In a seasonal leisure plan, these objectives and habits will both be connected to cultivating a high-quality leisure life.

Here’s an example of a well-crafted objective that you might find in a seasonal leisure plan:

Objective: Learn on the guitar every song from the A-side of Meet the Beatles! Strategies: Restring and retune my guitar, find the chord charts for the songs, print them, and put them in nice plastic protector sheets. Return to my old habit of regularly practicing my guitar. As incentive, schedule Beatles party in November. Perform songs (get Linda to agree to sing).

Moving on, here are several examples of the other type of item found on seasonal leisure plans, the habits:

Habit: During the week, restrict low-quality leisure to only sixty minutes a night. Habit: Read something in bed every night. Habit: Attend one cultural event per week.

The Weekly Leisure Plan At the beginning of each week, put aside time to review your current seasonal leisure plan. After processing this information, come up with a plan for how your leisure activities will fit into your schedule for the upcoming week. For each of the objectives in the seasonal plan, figure out what actions you can do during the week to make progress on these objectives, and then, crucially, schedule exactly when you’ll do these things.

Becoming more systematic about your leisure, in other words, can significantly increase the relaxation you enjoy throughout your week.

doing nothing is overrated.

investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much richer rewards.

Join the Attention Resistance

[Twitter] scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.”

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services—dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut.

PRACTICE: DELETE SOCIAL MEDIA FROM YOUR PHONE

by 2017, mobile ad revenue rose to 88 percent of their earnings, and is still climbing.

PRACTICE: TURN YOUR DEVICES INTO SINGLE-PURPOSE COMPUTERS

If you want to join the attention resistance, one of the most important things you can therefore do is follow Fred Stutzman’s lead and transform your devices—laptops, tablets, phones—into computers that are general purpose in the long run, but are effectively single purpose in any given moment.

PRACTICE: USE SOCIAL MEDIA LIKE A PROFESSIONAL

Checking in on your close social circles is a useful feature, but it’s not one that requires a lot of time (a reality Facebook hopes you ignore) [if done right]

approach social media as if you’re the director of emerging media for your own life. Have a careful plan for how you use the different platforms, with the goal of “maximizing good information and cutting out the waste.”

To a social media pro, the idea of endlessly surfing your feed in search of entertainment is a trap (these platforms have been designed to take more and more of your attention)—an act of being used by these services instead of using them to your own advantage.

PRACTICE: EMBRACE SLOW MEDIA

It’s a general rule of slow movements that a small amount of high-quality offerings is usually superior to a larger amount of low-quality fare.

Another important aspect of slow news consumption is the decisions you make regarding how and when this consumption occurs.

The key to embracing Slow Media is the general commitment to maximizing the quality of what you consume and the conditions under which you consume it.

PRACTICE: DUMB DOWN YOUR SMARTPHONE

Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance.