Digital Reduction: Making Room for Running

Looking toward reducing digital consumption to create more time and headspace for running.

By on March 13, 2019 | Comments

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.
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.