Crawling out of bed in the morning, I reach over and grab my phone to read the Bible from an app on my phone. There are times after reading a little I turn on some worship music to begin the day with. Turning on my secure tunnel (VPN) I begin to scroll through the four email box on my phone. There are usually way more than I want there to be. My “do not disturb” feature turns off at 7:30 am and messages from the three communication apps (again security) begin to ring calling for my attention and response. After taking time to read the threads from the group chats and the messages for me, I then hop on my computer to access the two really secure emails and spend time responding to the emails from my sending “company” and other teammates. There are days that I spend most of the day working on the computer while also communicating with teammates using one of various apps. So minimizing my digital time is often very difficult especially concerning work.
Cal Newport in his book Digital minimalism1 takes time spelling out some of the concepts he talked about in his book Deep Work. One aspect that I enjoy from this digital minimalism is that focus on getting out and doing something with the family. For me screen time is a necessity of work but I do have to choose to put it away when my daughter comes home. I do choose to sit next to her and ask her about her day (whether she likes that or not). I do need to plan outings or our family vacations that include doing something together, taking a trip, hiking or going somewhere and eating something that we have wanted to eat. I love planning times that my family can be together or even those times my wife and I can see a movie or have dinner. All this takes time and intentionality. I can see why people spend so much time on screens especially because it does take planning or negotiating of everyone’s schedules. Intentional time with the family in our world is not something that happens by accident. Even today we “mafan” 麻烦 (encourage…ok really means bother..a lot) our kids so we can talk with the two studying in the states. We have to really be intentional or this doesn’t happen. We have made a choice that we will sacrifice and spend time with our kids at Christmas time even if that means we fly to someplace warm to meet them. Our family doesn’t have a lot in material possessions but what we do have are moments together and desire to continue to be together.
We are far from the perfect family but I do realize that not every family seeks to spend time together. Recently, I was talking with someone that works with American University students. This man has seen a dramatic shift in the way students engage each other as well as responding to teachers and older adults. He said that students are not used to mirroring or reacting expressively when having a conversation. Today, they don’t usually smile nor react because of too many years of looking at, talking and reading screens. They have been raised by screens without parents engaging with them one on one. He was telling me that it is a bit odd to talk with some of them and have them straight faced staring at you. It makes one wonder if they are even hearing what is being said or taught. When I hear stories like this it reminds me that personal conversations with my kids is critical to the development of their whole self. After I have been gone for a week or so, I often go into my daughter’s room and lie on her bed. She usually lets me lay there asking her questions about her life for the week that I missed. I will admit when she has had enough dad time she usually says something like, “Dad have we spent enough time together?” I often tell my children that God has gifted me with the spiritual gift of annoyance and they are privileged to be around so I can share it. I know, dad joke, but sometimes it works.
Newport spends time talking about the importance of intentionality. However one reviewer points out that Newport in his numerous examples of tinkering, 3 hours playing poker with the guys…etc doesn’t address the obvious conversation that would need to take place between husband and wife about watching the kids.2 This reviewer also thought that Newport’s early book, Deep Work, was written with males in mind as well. This was due to the many example from a male perspective. As important as managing the projects around the house or spending time having face to face time with people, conversations with one’s spouse is critical to help create an atmosphere the promotes a healthy home.
I don’t believe we should ban phones but I do think something needs to change in the realm of communication and engagement. Quite possibly the “fasting technology” idea or “freedom” app that Newport refers to can help individuals or families that are struggling with creating a space for conversation to develop. We have had real struggles when we talk to students coming to China for an “internship” be it 2 weeks or 10 weeks. We often tell them that for relationship and security reasons, we ask that they don’t call home but once a week. We also do not want them to bring their phones with them. We have had some that loved the idea and embraced China and its culture. We have had others that snuck phones in, and found internet hot spots to stay connected with “their world”. How they engaged when they were here was directly reflected in how they enjoyed their time as well as how much they gathered friends around them.
Cal Newport’s book is really written for those that already see the value in downsizing their digital fingerprint and spending time with real people. I felt like his three points were a bit straightforward.
1.Clutter is Costly -When our lives are swamped by devices it creates isolation.
2. Optimization is Important. What tech is good for what you think is important? Use only what you feel will be beneficial.
3. Intentionality is satisfying: Meaning comes from intentional choices. 3
I do think that a push to intentionality when concerning relationship is always important. I suppose if it helps people formulate a plan to limit their own time than I guess the purpose for this book has been fulfilled.
1 Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism : Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. New York]: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019.
2 https://lauravanderkam.com/2019/02/digital-minimalism-a-review/ accessed March 22, 2019
3 Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism : Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. New York]: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019.