I’ve never been big on setting resolutions or goals for myself at New Year’s. All respect to those who do (and more to those who stick to them!), but for me it seems like the worst time of year to try committing to sweeping changes, between the post-holiday letdown and the energy-sapping short days and cold weather for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s not a context that sets one up for success, unless your resolution is to conserve your energy by napping more.

That being said, one annual practice I will sometimes dip my toe into is thinking about a word for the year. Some of the specific practices I’ve followed for identifying a word comes from Abbey of the Arts, a “virtual monastery” that focuses on Celtic Christian spiritual approaches, but you don’t need to view it through this lens to gain the benefits. Reflecting on the year that has passed and being open to thoughts for the year to come can yield “something to nourish me, challenge me, a word I can wrestle with and grow into. The [chosen word] has the potential to transform…”.

This year, the word I chose (or the word that found me, depending on how you look at it) is intention. I interpret this word in two ways: first, to spend some dedicated time identifying my intentions and directions for the months and years to come, and second, to be intentional about how I work and spend my time1. As a concrete example of the difference between the two, I may decided that writing on this blog is an intention I hold for this year, and to succeed in doing so, I choose to be intentional in holding time to write every week.

Digital Declutter

One intention I started a few days ago is a digital declutter. More than a simple “detox” or vacation from social media, the idea is to hit reset on all of those digital things – apps, platforms, games, and so on – that may feel useful or even essential in our day to day lives but really don’t enrich our lives. By cutting out optional tech for 30 days, we can better realize what we’re using in service of our personal values and goals as opposed to relying on to stave off boredom or engaging in simply out of habit. As a result, it’s less about taking a break and more about getting the necessary perspective on the role that tech plays in our lives – and more importantly, what we want it to be.

The digital declutter follows a pretty straightforward method, which is described by Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism and nicely summarized on Shawn Blanc’s Focus Course website (props to the latter for introducing me to the idea!). Choose a thirty-day period to take a break from optional technologies, fill that time intentionally with meaningful activities, and at the end, gradually re-introduce those technologies that fit our values and goals and are effective tools for the job. For those things deemed optional, we can either implement a blanket ban (e.g. No Facebook) or put into place specific conditions and processes for using that tool (e.g. log in to Facebook only to RSVP to an invited event when there’s no other way to contact the host, and in that instance access the event page through direct link and sign out immediately afterwards). Tools that are essential to well-being, including work and family life, are allowed, but we’re encouraged give some critical thought there too: texting with a close friend may be important if they’re going through a crisis, but sharing random memes may be less so.

In starting the declutter for myself, I have definitely identified some time sinks that are getting the boot for the next few weeks and perhaps beyond. While I’m not a prolific social media user (outside of professional conferences), I have in recent months started following a bunch of aviation-focused Twitter accounts: while interesting, they definitely count as optional. Tech-related websites and RSS feeds fall in that category too, as do any form of streaming media2. Finally, my beloved (and ever-expanding) list of podcasts is getting a break. My list of how to reallocate this time include reading, writing (including on this blog!), photography, longer walk with the dog (especially now that we’re getting out of the -30s and -40s in Saskatoon), and cleaning up some clutter, both in terms of physical disorder and a bunch of items in my personal and professional life that have languished on “put-off” lists for too long.

Next Steps

I’ll report back at least once on this experience, but even after only a few days I have noticed a difference in how I act. Instead of reaching for the phone when I have a few minutes of waiting or with “nothing to do”, I go for a book instead, or just look out the window for a few minutes, or take care of something that’s been on my mind (like writing this post!). I’m on the road right now so it will be interesting to see how things pan out when I go back home and fall into old habits, but my hope is to use the next few days to be intentional (see, there’s that word again!) in how I spend my time to avoid temptation.

If this whole idea intrigues you, why not try it yourself? Pick up Cal Newport’s book or just take a quick read through Shawn Blanc’s summary. Drop me a line if you do and need the moral support – just don’t contact me through a social media platform, at least for the next few weeks!

  1. A third interpretation came from my partner, who thought I was saying “in tension” when I told her my word – not my intention, but perhaps that homonym will make an appearance sometime in 2020?
  2. I am giving myself the leeway on the last one – I’m allowed to watch something with others as part of a social activity.