Digital Reduction: Making Room for Running

As you may have picked up from my recent articles, my running’s been a struggle of late. In my January article, I set the goal of “creating breathing room for me in my life” by early 2020, but I’ve come to realize that’s not soon enough. I need to do more to improve my life now, and so I’m getting to work on it. With that in mind, I’ve started what I’ll call a “digital reduction” in hopes of freeing up some time and headspace. While there’ve been immediate benefits, it’s been surprisingly difficult at times.

To be clear, a primary reason for embarking on this path is to create more time for and a better relationship with my running. As I’m sure is the case for many of you, there are far too many things in our days and not enough time to do all of them. Certainly, there are many things that can’t be cut out of our lives, at least not simply or without great cost. On the other hand, there’s lots of easy fluff to cut. On a positive note, I’ve cut much of the easy-to-find fluff, but that means I had to look at little deeper and that’s where my death-by-a-thousand-cuts digital disturbances popped up. By cutting them down (I have no illusion of completely eliminating them), I hope to have more time to run as well as be in a place mentally with regard to work and necessary life tasks such that I can be less anxious about taking time away to go run. This second part is just as important for me, as I feel horrible on my runs after bouts of anxiety, which, then, makes me anxious about running because I’m worried that I’ll feel awful, so I put it off… and, oh, how the anxiety snowball builds! In all honestly, this has made my relationship with running all winter, and likely a good bit longer than that, a drag more often than not. Although the specifics might be in my own head, I suspect I’m not alone in admitting that the digital world can sometimes take away from real world… or in trying to find a solution. Here’s my current journey in search of one.

Time for Tuk

In reality, I kicked off this digital reduction roughly 6-8 weeks ago when I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. I had no moral imperative for doing so, but I’d find myself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook once I got in bed, before rising the next morning, and countless times throughout the day. Not only did I find this practice wasteful of my time, but I also found that during my scroll sessions, some post or another could instigate anger or jealousy or some other unpleasant emotion that would bring me down. Gone.

Then, there was a silly game I downloaded to my phone while visiting my sister and her family last November. I’d play it here and there throughout the day, including before sleeping and after waking. I’d pick it up for a few minutes of distraction at my desk or while I was heating up lunch. The same goes for during plane flights and car rides (as a passenger). Knowing I was wasting plenty of time, I’d wanted to delete it for a few weeks… but I didn’t want to give up my “progress.” Oh, how stupid! Last week, I held my breath just as I would before getting a needle prick, deleted the app, and the world kept spinning. It has ever since.

Late last week, I also rearranged the three screens of icons on my smartphone. The first screen is now half a page of minimally interactive apps… or at least apps I’m not tempted to spontaneously pick up and indulge in for some inordinate amount of time. The second screen holds work-centric apps, including some that I’d previously pop open and peruse without thought. There lives Twitter and Instagram and Facebook Pages. The third and final screen has a few non-work apps and some random stuff. It includes the App Store app (I don’t know why, but I refresh it to update apps multiple times a day), Strava, and Wunderground, because why do I need to check the weather in multiple cities multiple times a day… when I can go see the nowcast out my window anytime I like. Perhaps you could also ask yourself if a few minutes of digital reorganization could cut down on your distractions and seemingly create extra time out of nowhere. I know it has for me!

During and since this iPhone reorganization, I’ve also deleted a few apps that “I might need,” but never use. They just take up space, tempt me to update them, and clutter things up. They spark no joy, in the sense of Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Perhaps most importantly with regard to my relationship with my phone is that I’ve cut my tether to it. I don’t take it everywhere all the time. The office where I spend 12+ hours a day is an external room off our home, and I’ve stopped taking my phone into the house when I head there for x or y task. When I’ve gone to bed the past week, I’ve immediately set my alarm, put the phone in airplane mode, and slid it into the drawer in the nightstand. It’s done for the day. In the next few days, I’ll take this one step further. I’ve ordered an inexpensive analog alarm clock and once it arrives my phone will stay in the office overnight.

Little Alarm Clock

My new alarm clock just arrived.

Ah, and what about the overwhelming number of hours I spend in my office each and every day? Previously, I’d left my phone plugged right in front of me on my desk all day. Now, I charge my phone first thing before putting it away in a drawer until I actually need it. (I should note that I turned off nearly every notification on my phone many years ago and I love that it rarely forces intrusion.)

However, that still leaves the elephant in the room… my computer! I sit in front of it for 12-14 hours a day. All day, the endless wormhole/timesuck that is the internet sits at my fingertips ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice. I’ve not yet developed a personal standard operating procedure (SOP) for dealing with all the distractions the internet provides. That’s a problem, and one that I plan to tackle in a thoughtful way in the coming weeks as I feel out what works and what doesn’t. For now, I’m engaging in the willpower tug of war of simply trying to use non-productive aspects of the internet in a more conscious, less voluminous way. That means consuming and creating less social media, reading less infotainment (sports, financial news, tech stuff), researching less for speculative/non-immediate needs (buying a camera lens, insulating an attic, transferring an ancient 401k), and so on.

Now, as hinted at, without a clear SOP, this use-less-random-internet-at-my-computer directive requires willpower* at countless moments of possible distraction throughout the day. Literally, in the midst of writing that last sentence, I opened up Chrome, where I would have opened Gmail and Twitter, a combination of acts that plentiful practice now allows me to complete in under two seconds in total… but I caught myself after the first few fractions of a second and didn’t open up those web apps. Phew. Even if I can catch myself 9 out of 10 times in such instances, that’s too many chances to fail. I’ll get to work on that SOP! ;-)

I’m guessing that pretty much everyone does something along these lines. Probably all the time. During a brief stint of counseling a decade ago, I learned about the concept of avoidance. That lesson still guides me today. In avoidance, we unconsciously move away from a task that makes us uncomfortable to something (anything?) that makes us less uncomfortable. Sometimes that avoidance can even be “productive,” such as replying to work email or performing some banal administrative task. However, we’re really avoiding. What might we be avoiding? Anything from a difficult work or personal conversation to merely finishing writing a sentence that’s not coming easily in an article very much like this one. So, bringing this back to the topic at hand, sometimes I’m good at consciously recognizing and mitigating my own avoidance behavior, but it sure would be nice to have a code by which I interacted with the digital world.

In the short term, removing many of my most common avoidance methods has left me feeling like a toddler who’s had his blanket taken away. Oh, it’s not comfortable at all! When I catch myself going to grab my phone or open a browser window, I get fidgety. I mentally reach out again for my blanket and catch myself. I sit there thinking “ACK!” In a few moments, I catch myself, back out of that discomfort, and move on with my day, but it’s not the most fun!

While I love the initial improvements that cutting down on my distracted phone use has yielded, I’m almost giddy at what I might accomplish if I can stay on task at my desk, both in terms of how much I can get done and in how much free time I might create. I mean, it’s 9:35 a.m. on a Sunday morning (the first morning of daylight saving time //shakes fist//, no less), and I’ve already drafted most of a 1,000+ word article. Now, as soon as my just-finished breakfast settles, I’ll head out for my run having accomplished my most important task for the day. I’ll do so without having built any work-related anxiety and with the lightness that comes from knowing I’ve done what I most needed to do today.

All these changes are made in the hope that I’ll spend less time on non-productive pursuits leaving me with more time for those pursuits I determine to be most meaningful to me,** including running and other outdoor activities. Might you, too, join me on this journey?!

* Insert the electro-chemical/physical algorithm replacement for freewill, for those who don’t fancy the existence of freewill.
** At some point later this year, I hope to take a personal retreat to reflect on this subject. In October of 2017, I took a three-day solo retreat to contemplate iRunFar and it was hugely helpful in shaping my path since then.

Call for Comments

  • When and why have you caught yourself struggling against digital intrusions into your life? If so, what did you attempt–both successfully and unsuccessfully–to rein in your digital consumption?
  • If you’ve ever successfully reduced your digital indulgences, what did you fill that space with?
Pack Creek Sunrise - March 2019

A recent sunrise at home on my also newly adopted earlier wakeup schedule.

Random Related Thoughts

  • I really wish I’d picked a character, an interrobang (‽), for example, and inserted it every time I caught myself trying to open up an app to go about a distracting task during the hour I spent writing the first draft of this article. It’d be telling.
  • A few days ago, I received the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. While I have no intention of going about his full 30-day “digital declutter,” there were lots of great concepts, thinking points, and tools in the book. Awesomely, being able to read a book is one of the things that stepping away from my smartphone and computer have given me. To give perspective, I’d only read one short, work-related book in the previous 10 months.
  • Over the past few days, I’ve been daydreaming of creating greater structure in my days. At the moment, I spend nearly my full day at my desk, with a near random mix of iRunFar work, various life tasks, digital entertainment, etc. I’d love to try a one or two ridiculously focused blocks of time for iRunFar work every day and other smaller times set aside for creative thought (iRunFar or otherwise), research and contemplation, life errands, indulgent entertainment, and so on. I’d aim to do each of these with much greater focus and intention. I know from experience that task batching works well, but where might I take this with broader categories of my life?
  • In contrast to time blocking, for a long time I’ve liked the concept of doing any tasks that will take less than five minutes as they come up. I’m now contemplating whether I might set a period every day to do such tasks after having jotted them down through the day. I’ve noted two such tasks as I’ve written this article.
  • I’ve started a DO and DON’T list I plan to post over my computer monitor. It’ll be a mix of small- and large-scale stuff. Interestingly, so far the DOs tend to be big-picture items (i.e., get outside, cultivate health) while the DON’Ts are smaller in scale, so far focusing on lessening digital avoidance, work-related or not.
  • Perhaps interestingly, I have few plans to generally reduce digital intrusion while I run. Photos and audio indulgence are here to stay. I love taking and sharing photos while I run, and plenty of folks have said they enjoy the images that I share. I also love listening to podcasts and audiobooks when I run. This is one time I’m 100% comfortable indulging in edu-tainment. Bring on 99% InvisibleTides of History, The Indicator from Planet Money. Lemme listen to The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs or the Four-Hour Work Week for the umpteenth time. :-) One thing I hope to eliminate is checking email, social media, messages, and the like during my runs. This is rare enough, as most of my running is outside of mobile service, but the little pick-me-ups that I occasionally get from these in-run checks are far outweighed by the negative emotions that come up.

There are 24 comments

  1. Joel

    Great insight Bryon. I hope these changes, and future ones you make will create all kinds of new time, energy and joy for running and any other activities you choose. No doubt many of us relate to poorly managing our time on our phones & computers and we would benefit from some similar action steps as those you’ve implemented. Thank you!

  2. John Vanderpot

    Congratulations — long journeys begin with first steps, think of HR?

    From the start I’ve thought of phones the way most people around here think of cigarettes — just something you’d obviously avoid for obvious reasons?

    I work with kids, have a front-row seat to what’s coming, it’s gonna be ugly!

    More should speak up…

    1. Ryan Hogan

      I agree John. My wife is a junior high teacher and to hear what these kids are doing just to stay connected at all times is very scary(not to mention the vaping epidemic!!!). It is definitely something that should not be taken lightly or looked at as just an issue with that generation. Because as Bryon has pointed out, we adults are very much in the same boat.

      Great article once again!! Thats two today on irunfar!!!

      Uhan’s Plyo article was great as always!!

  3. Yitka Winn

    Thank you so much for sharing this reflective and honest (and relatable!) piece. Having recently finished reading Digital Minimalism, I was excited to recommend it to you, but I got to the end of this and saw you’ve already gotten there. :) Like Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows (always worth a reread, especially when gathering motivation for making lasting changes), it helped remind me that many of my digital habits/compulsions aren’t as harmless as they seem in the moment–and many are, in fact, directly at odds with my bigger life goals. Through written nearly a century ago, Max Ehrmann’s words from Desiderata ring true as ever: “Remember what peace there may be in silence.”

    Thanks, too, for sharing some of the practical changes you’ve been experimenting with. Love the analog alarm clock suggestion. I also recently reorganized icons on my phone, and dumped any social media ones into a folder on the very last screen–so they require multiple taps to access, which at least slows down the compulsive tic to check Instagram throughout the day. (Taking a three-month hiatus from it altogether was also a useful detox that helped me reset my relationship with it; I’m probably due for another one soon.) I’d also told myself for years that I couldn’t possibly quit Facebook because I needed it for work, but reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work convinced me that I didn’t REALLY need it–at least not as much as I NEEDED to free up more mental space/energy in my daily life for more important things. It helps that even after having deactivated my Facebook account, I can still use Messenger to communicate with people should I have a need to reach out to, say, an interview subject for whom I don’t otherwise have contact information. (I mention this only because I’m not sure everyone realizes that it’s possible to deactivate one’s Facebook account without also deactivating Messenger.) I’ve also found that committing to devoting 10-15 minutes each morning to deep reading (in a book, to be clear) before checking any email or other digital things helps set a calmer, more intentional mood for my day. In a perfect world, I’d add a half-hour morning journaling session (in longhand) to that as well, but I’m not quite there yet. One step at a time. :)

    I look forward to hearing more about your ongoing digital reduction journey! Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to write and share this post.

  4. Trevor

    I can’t say how much my life has improved since leaving Twitter! Great jokes, and while I’d always be ‘clued in’ first to breaking news events, there was so much pollution and bad information it wasn’t worth it. Its a toxic space– same with Facebook.

    still use strava on occasional runs to push myself– other times its great to just run free (and slow).

    also lately I’ve reduced my time on instagram but not 100%. don’t want to rant but IG has had a very poor effect i think on the world of ultrarunning

  5. olga

    Main reason I do no install any apps. Also, backpacking! taking pictures with real camera (digital, yes), but no phone altogether!

  6. AJW

    This is really great Bryon! Thanks for sharing it. In our house we still use my LED alarm clock from college and it works like a charm. We still have to re-set it manually when daylight savings comes around but that’s OK. Also, we have what we think is a great system for “putting our phones to bed.” We have a 5-outlet charging station that resides in our basement. Everyone in the family is required to have their phones in there by 9am each evening (unless there are extenuating circumstances like late evening conference calls or homework) and cannot be picked up until 6am the next morning. Just that 9 hour break seems to keep everyone a bit more sane.

  7. Josh T

    Excellent article Byron. I appreciate your willingness to be open and honest about this, and I can certainly relate with everything you stated … except checking email during runs!? This has re-inspired my journey of living a more intentionally scheduled, happy life. Cheers,

  8. Jeff Rome

    Thank you for writing about this! I was a late adopter to the smart phone, and finally got one last August. Pretty soon I had all the apps. And in September I sprained my ankle and soon became depressed from seeing so many running pictures and not running myself, so I uninstalled Instagram, Facebook, Strava, all the big ones. I realized after that I wasn’t putting myself out of touch. I still have Facebook messenger, and found myself reaching out to people individually more–by texting, messaging, and even postcarding. I think I had an easy transition out since I only used the apps for several weeks. It was enlightening to see what life is like on the apps, but I’m finding myself much happier without them (a healed ankle helps, too). Happy de-digitizing!

  9. lou

    immediately logged into amazon and ordered digital minimalism for my kindle (ha). then scrolled through amazon aimlessly buying random stuff for 30 minutes. This seems to be going well.

  10. Susan Cable

    At the risk of writing more for anyone to read on a screen… loved to hear what you are up to. So great that you aren’t putting it off until autumn!

    Here are a few things we do:

    Low power home modem only works in the main room, not in bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. Phone alarms work fine on airplane mode. Minimal data plan, so no phone surfing at work except while on break/lunch at a store with a free connection. Work computers are monitored, plus ethics say no goofing off there.

    Social media… mostly only follow runners: mostly local runners, all with mainly positive messages with convincing stoke-level. If someone who is special to me posts more than once a day I snooze them for 30 days, then look at a few newsy posts after 30 days, then snooze again. Non-special over-posters or posters of negativity get unfriended. Need to bring me joy (aside from the occasional bad news we all need to share, deaths and such).

    Reading the news: Typically news articles are written with the most newsy parts at the top, and for many items the title is enough. I browse quickly through a few local news sources, opening any articles which truly interest me in a new tab before quickly scanning through the articles and quitting when I’ve gotten the gist of each. I skip celebrity and sensational news, unless there is a factually compelling reason to dig in a bit. For running news I just try to be selective — so much of it interests me!

    TV – we converted it to a computer monitor in the living room. That only-decent-computer-in-the-house we share to somewhat limit how much time we each use it. During the day I work and my bae goes out to do projects in the shop or around the property.

    Streaming video – Anything much over 10 minutes needs to be a podcast to listen to during mundane productivity.

    Weekday runs are first thing after early rising, when there are no interruptions or excuses, just strait to it. This especially reduces hesitation in less-than-optimal weather — we aren’t really alert enough to consider changing the run plan, just dress for it and go. For an intense workout maybe a snack or energy drink while getting ready. Saturday long run is preceded by a quick, easily-digestible breakfast, but no lolly-gagging over a screen or waiting around for grease to digest. Sunday is a group run followed by social breakfast. Two rest days per week; we are older and feel the pressure of streaks would make running a drag.

    Happy screen-free time!

  11. Sabrina Little

    This is such a good read, Bryon, and I’m going to follow suit. I set my social media at a 30-minute cap per day, but then I click around doing other things, being unproductive…This post definitely is making me think about how I can reduce media further.

  12. AT

    Great article. We’re all flying by the edge of our seat with the increase in transparency into all our lives the last decade. I deactivated FB in 2011, and deleted twitter last summer. I do enjoy Instagram and try and be selective about when I use it. I avoid strava, and while I am sure it can be helpful, depending on your tendencies to view your own training, it can surely be a rabbit hole for some. I try and limit screen time to almost nothing in the evening, and if I don’t, my eyes can burn and it’s harder to fall asleep.

  13. Paul Lieto

    A good read Byron. Thanks for sharing. I went through a similar purge a few years back, but feel it’s something I continually need to address as apps and digital commitments seem to find their way back into my life. Keep at it!

  14. Joe G

    This was great and FINALLY got me to delete the weather app. The amount of times I’ve looked at it, saw no rain, then walked outside into rain and been pissed I didn’t have an umbrella…. when I could’ve just looked out the damn window.

    Good luck Bryon. Keep fighting the good fight.

  15. Lucy

    I think it’s more the matter of discipline – maybe? For whatever reason I’ve never developed a fondness for digital media, so shutting the alarm off on my phone & not using it at all is not an issue. But I can just as easily stay up way past my bedtime because I absolutely Must finish a book :)
    One can hit the proverbial snooze button 50 times, on a regular alarm clock and the result is the same essentially, right? I read a poem once about people who start the day by greeting the ocean, maybe it’s just the matter of reminding myself that the ocean (and the rest of my life) deserves my full, well-rested attention (not sleep deprived because I stayed up reading whatever medium), because it’s such a beautiful thing, being able to greet the ocean first thing.

  16. Daisy

    Your timing is perfect Byron! It is so darn easy to get sucked into the digital trap, especially in the winter months when I struggle to get out as much as I want. My training goal has been to challenge myself more in the coming years, as I want to get more disciplined, faster, stronger and just more in tune with my running body and mind. Your new habits are excellent tips for me to employ. I will be adding many of them to my digital “diet.” I have also stopped reading on my phone. Mostly because the screen is small and I’m old. But seriously, I enjoy holding a real book, turning pages and the meditative quality of reading. First up, Deena Kastor’s “Let Your Mind Run.” Next, deleting FB app on my phone. Thanks for this! Keep us posted.

  17. Bryon Powell

    Hey all,
    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Thought I’d share that this week I read “Digital Minimalism,” my first book for pleasure (I’d read one for work) in 10 or 11 months. It’s been great to relax (without a screen) for a bit of time before bed. I’ve got some more books queued up for the coming weeks.

    My little alarm clock arrived at the start of the week and I can only imagine that I’m saving 30-60 minutes of screen time every night and likely the same every morning. It’s been great!

    While making a quick lunch this afternoon, I found myself at my stove waiting for my ramen to cook. Without a phone to futz with, I was with my thoughts. Nothing profound, but it’s nice to have space with my thoughts during all the random breaks in my day rather than killing a few minutes here and there with screen time.

    I also spent a little time socializing this weekend: a dinner with neighbors both nights and a run with a neighbor this afternoon. This is time that I don’t normally give myself… I guess both the socializing and the reading. I wrote that the digital reduction was to make my running more enjoyable, but it’s also intended to make my life better. And, so far, it has.

    I’ve also been hugely productive with iRunFar, preparing our house for our annual spring move out, and taking care of some other big life stuff. I feel less overwhelmed and more getting after it with gusto. That’s good, because this next week will be a big challenge, as we move out of our house for the season. Aside from literally moving our stuff out, I’ve got a bunch of outside work to do, as it’s been too snowy for the tasks up to this point. Some might just have to wait until various short return trips in the coming months.

    I do admit that I occasionally drift off to mindless internet use on my computer during the day, but it’s much, much less. And, I do give myself time periods for it. Anytime before 9 a.m., I can browse the internet however I like… but I’ve also made it the time for me to do various tasks (ordering this, sort mail, packaging an iRunFar order, triaging email) before getting into my major tasks at 9. I also allow myself a bit more leisure browsing once I wrap up for the night. Tonight, I’ll comment here, read up a bit on the Sixers win over the Bucks today, answer a couple emails, and check Facebook…. but I also won’t let that go on to long, as I want to go read.

    Just thought I’d give a weekly progress report!

  18. Rima Lurie

    Hi! Since I STILL prefer life in the Stone Age (!), I just read this today, Sunday, March 24! I am proud of you, Bryon, for posting this, and for your awareness, intentions, and progress! More power to you! :-). I, gratefully and purposefully, have no internet access, no TV, and no cell signal in my simple, off-the-grid mountain home! I love to read, love quiet, and love just to contemplate the beauty, wildlife, weather out the window! And, getting out in Nature, running, of course, and otherwise! I do have an iPhone, which I had to get for my Hospice/Home Health job some years ago, so, when I am “out in the world” and have cell service, I do avail myself of some of the modern technology; I surprised myself, a few years ago, when I discovered that I do appreciate email, texts, and especially being able to take, send, and receive photos! I have never “done”any social media, and choose not to! Life is always full-to-overflowing, as it is! I suppose it helps that, being 70-something (!??!), I grew up in an era without all of those things! Also, grew up in quiet mountains, without TV or any digital distractions, wandering in Nature, reading, contemplating, listening… I DO enjoy and appreciate iRunFar, and have gotten more in the habit of tuning in…. Oh: and, I also unplug my landline at home much of the time, too! I suppose that having lived for years in the old homestead cabin on my land, without any modern amenities, helped me to realize that we don’t have to be “available” all the time! One more: I find it invaluable to just sit quietly, at dawn, or , pre-dawn, and after returning home from being “out in the world”! I love learning from all of you, on our journeys of being/becoming human! In many ways, being “only 71”, I feel that I am in pre-school! Thanks for all of the sharing! Blessings, Rima

  19. Quigley

    I found making all of my runs on Strava private by default helpful, but I think it would be helpful to totally ditch the gps watch and totally run by feel. When I run, I need to think only about running, and when I am not running, I should not be thinking about running. I wonder if there have been any studies done on whether Strava has made anyone faster, and more relevant to your great article, how much looking at Strava runs that other people have done when people should be working has killed productivity…

  20. Delia

    Thank you so much for sharing your process.

    I’ve been using the Freedom app for my computer and have been pleased with the results. Starting a session has become a way of setting an intention to focus on the task at hand, so I rarely even try to view the websites I’ve included in my block lists when a session is running (sorry to admit that iRunFar is on one of my block lists).

    Unsubscribing to my list of podcasts was helpful too. Trying to keep up with an automatically-refreshed list was triggering unhelpful behavior (listening to podcasts all the time) and emotions (guilt that I had such a backlog). Now I have to positively decide that I want to listen to something, then choose to download it, then listen to it. On the other hand, I love when I get into a really excellent audiobook – means have to go on those long runs to keep listening.

  21. Peter

    Loved this. Digital Detox really works. Modern phone are like being in Las Vegas – constant dopamine drips. Consider setting certain times of the day to check email and voice mail. And join me in going back to a flip phone with nothing to destract from your productivity but retaining the ability to text those you love.

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