I still remember vividly the time when one of my colleagues looked at me with derision when I mentioned nonchalantly that I did not have my phone with me. She had texted me just a few moments prior and had expected a quick response. I do not recall the content of the message but to her it was urgent and therefore important.1 I was stunned by the look of bewilderment in her face upon learning that I had left my phone unattended somewhere in the office. After that awkward moment, I realized then that I had come face to face with what Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World identifies as a person hooked on the “digital attention economy.”2
The demands of life in our modern world are difficult enough without the added pressure of constantly checking our digital devices for updates. This is one of the reasons I have learned early on to adopt a lot of suggestions in Newport book. He calls for more people to join the Attention Resistance3, to be more minimalist in their adoption of technology.
Perhaps the best tool or discipline that has helped me personally to remain focused on the important things in life, while at the same time help mitigate the constant distractions from social media is journaling. Newport calls this the practice of writing letters to yourself. He writes on Moleskin journals; I type mine on a document on my laptop. He writes topically; I write about my random thoughts at random times. He writes to himself on an irregular basis; I try to write regularly. Some of his writing gets included in published works; mine will never see the light of day.
I have maintained an electronic journal since 1989, right around the time the Mac was invented. Transitioning from the typewriter, in which a lot of my college papers were written, to this new invention whose primary benefit at the time was its ability to save work and allow editing was a treat. It was also during this uncertain period of my life that I decided to adopt the discipline of journaling. Most people who journal write using the traditional method—pen on paper. I do mine on a Word document I keep on the cloud. That is intentional. I have given some thought about my preference of typing my thoughts on a computer because it provides some advantages. This is in deference to Newport’s admonition to ask this question before adopting new tools: “is this the best way to use technology to support this value?4” In my situation, the answer is yes. The value is in my ability to search the past more easily and systematically. I share some of those values here.
Format: Every new entry starts with the date and time. The date and time helps me locate and situate myself in history. I want to be able to capture the moments of my thoughts. This way I can better compare how I felt and imagined certain things between periods of my life. Did I mature in my thinking over time? Have I become a better person compared to a year ago?
Setting: Here I describe the place where I am, the weather and other relevant events around the time of writing. Again, this helps me not just get reacquainted with my state of mind, but helps me recall how I felt, getting connected emotionally with the content of the entry. I spend time trying to describe in detail where I am sitting, the room I am in, the noise level, the colors of the room, the people around me or absent from the place. Is it sunny, cloudy, raining or humid, etc. All these descriptors help me relive those moments, good or bad.
Content: Since I have determined in advance that this journal is not going to be shared with anyone I am free to include anything without fear of being judged. This is between God and me. I have no restrictions as to whether I write formally or informally; coherently or incoherently. I incorporate my best ideas and half-baked ones, joys, despairs, prayers and answers to them, lessons I’ve learned and habitual sins I struggle with. Most of the time it’s crying out to God for help.
Practice & Solitude: Writing is not only a good skill to have, but it is indispensable for leaders. Good leaders communicate constantly and clearly to their constituents, keeping them informed of goings on at the organization. I have found it extremely helpful to accustom myself to the habit of writing, expressing my thoughts and ideas to keep me mentally, spiritually and emotionally sharp. Since solitude is more about what is happening in the brain5 as opposed to the environment around us, writing gives me the space to be creative and explore original thought.
Cal Newport has given us shape and form to some of challenges of our hectic modern lives. He asks us to always check our value system, is what we are engaged in shaping us into better people, contributing to human flourishing? In a Christian context, are we doing things that contribute to loving others as ourselves? To be a digital minimalist is to say like the Apostle Paul said “…but I will not be enslaved by anything…”6
1 Charles E. Hummel, Tyranny of the Urgent (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 1.
2 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 237.
3 Ibid., 213 – 253.
4 Ibid., 32.
5 Ibid., 96.
6 1 Cor. 6:12