Jia Tolentino’s Quest to Be Less Online

One of the internet’s sharpest voices talks about getting off the internet, on How To!

Writer Jia Tolentino.
Writer Jia Tolentino. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for the New Yorker.

If you think it’s hard to get off the internet, try doing it when your job is to be Extremely Online. That’s the predicament of Jia Tolentino, former Hairpin and Jezebel editor, current New Yorker staff writer, and author of the essay collection Trick Mirror. Earlier this year she wrote about limiting her own smartphone use, following the advice of computer scientist Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism. Both Tolentino and Newport joined Charles Duhigg on a recent episode of How To! to lay out their strategies for cultivating a healthier relationship with the internet. Some highlights of their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, are below.

Remove all the games and apps you don’t absolutely need, and go without them for 30 days. Then ask yourself what you really missed and, more importantly, what you didn’t miss.

Cal Newport: You start by taking out all of the optional technologies in your personal life—for most people, this is social media, streaming video—and then you take 30 days. The whole idea of the 30 days is that you actually need a little bit of time and a little bit of space to get back in touch with what do I actually want to do or what’s really important. Then when you’re done with the 30 days, you say, “OK, now what do I want to add back?” Hopefully, now you’re doing it from a place that’s a little bit more informed than when you started.

Jia Tolentino: I tried it, and it was wild. That’s when I realized how fully and permanently I am still tied to the internet and social media for work. I gave myself an hour a day where I could try to cram in all of the research for the pieces I was working on, and I went from four, four and a half, five hours a day on my phone to very, very little. It just makes you bare to the fact of being alive and the sort of existential dread and wonder of it. It was a doozy.

Charles Duhigg: So did you like it? Did you feel that Cal’s suggestion on how to do this is the right suggestion?

Tolentino: Yeah. So the one thing that I didn’t do [from Newport’s book was] try to replace phone time with enriching real-life activities … because I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t want to give up my phone in the interest of being more productive, more holistically whatever. I wanted that dread, and I wanted that wonder, and I wanted to feel bored. I wanted to feel unstimulated and see what my mind did in its absence. I wanted to just lay on my couch and stare at the wall for 30 minutes and not fill my brain with a continual stream of new information. That’s the thing that really broke me.

Newport: It’s incredibly uncomfortable to feel bored. One of the theories behind boredom is that this is what drives us to get over our basic instinct to conserve energy, which all animals have. You want to conserve energy because if you run out, you die, or the predator gets you. So I’ve been interested in this notion that boredom is really important, but if you subvert the boredom drive by having this glowing rectangle that can immediately get rid of the boredom in the moment, just like when you subvert the hunger drive by going towards the most palatable junk food, it causes these sort of maladapted-type issues. This is one of the things I like about this declutter period: It forces you to get back in touch with boredom. Where does it drive you? When you no longer have the option of vanquishing the boredom with a quick tap on a screen and you have to get up and do something, what seems to satisfy it?

Tolentino: What I was trying to do with this 30 days … the thing that I needed to do … was to no longer think of my phone as something that would supply me with on-demand anything.
When I worked as an editor, I’d be looking at Twitter all day for stories to assign, and at the end of the day I would have to go and read poetry in a corner by myself to focus my attention again. My attention span would be just totally ruined. But I think [what] the 30-day thing really did for me was it was just a logic of productivity thing.

Duhigg: What do you mean?

Tolentino: It illuminated how much I had been formed by it, how much I had absorbed it into my bones that I needed to be producing and doing something productive every minute of the day. That I should always be sucking up information with the idea that maybe it could be useful later on. Again, that’s not so far off from the way that I want to live, but there was something about feeling my selfhood be more out of reach of monetization by corporations than it normally is.

If the 30-day declutter sounds too radical, do it for short periods of each day to retrain yourself to experience solitude.

Newport: Get in the habit of doing one or two things every day without your phone. It doesn’t even have to be that long, if you’re going to walk down to the Walgreens because you need to pick something up and come back, or you drive to a store and you leave the phone in the glove compartment to go do your shopping. That’s the short-term hack, but what it gives you in your life is at least 10 to 20 minutes of time alone with your own thoughts and your environment on a regular basis. Even that small change can have a significant improvement to this background hum of anxiety.

What seems to work is this notion of working backwards from what’s important, choosing your tech to support those things, and then—this is the key twist—putting in place those rules around the tech use to get the benefits while sidestepping the cost. But the key notion is if the tech you’re using is intentional and there’s rules around it, that tends to give people this sense of autonomy back, and that seems to cure a lot of the unease.

Tolentino: I have Freedom [a distraction-blocking app] on right now. I can’t look at social media from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m.—before I go to sleep and right when I wake up. That’s when I try to read books the most, and I’ve stopped really wanting to look at social media then. I feel a little irritated, but then mostly good. The parts of me that still feel under sway to these mechanisms, I’ve gotten it as good as I can get it. It’s going to be like this until we somehow find some way to dismantle the fundamental profit model of the internet.

I am strapped to the internet for hours and hours a day, 75 percent out of requirement, 25 percent out of fun. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I think the real problem is the lack of regulation on Silicon Valley itself. It’s like the real problem is that American leisure time is spread out into micro-installments. The real problem is what’s happening in labor. I think decluttering works, but it’s a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.

Newport: I tend to be much more optimistic. This moment, [this] 30-year period of a drive towards faster communication, more ubiquitous, pervasive communication, especially in the knowledge work sphere, is more emergent and arbitrary than we give credit to. It represents a sort of inefficient deployment of cognitive resources, and even market forces themselves are probably going to push us, as this economy sector grows, towards a place in which we actually spend much less time communicating. So I actually think we’re reaching sort of peak frenetic communication in the workplace, and that this is going to get better. If 20 years from now we’re sending Slack messages every five seconds, I’ll be surprised. This is good news for everyone, but Jia, her job really is going to make it almost impossible to squash that other 25 percent. But for a lot of other people, you can go much farther.

Tolentino: I would love it if in 20 years that generation is not my age and sending messages on their phone for work every five seconds, but having seen how the internet changed in my coming of age, it’s hard for me to imagine. But I love the idea that it could be like that, and I take that optimism to heart. Maybe it’ll sink in.

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