During the middle of quarantine, I read the book How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell; I thought my life was changed forever. The way the author spoke about digital minimalism seemed real, accessible, achievable—I was holed up in my room in the middle of July, bored out of my mind and ready to delete Instagram forever (okay, maybe not forever). It was a popular read in those early months; Odell condemned the myth of the one-stop detox and self-care retreats, opting to “resist the attention economy” instead. Digital minimalism, she espoused, was a way of life instead of a checklist. Go outside and watch birds instead of scrolling through social media! Learn about your local ecosystems instead of streamlining your work routine! The book itself isn’t entirely about the attention economy; there are a lot of winding passages about wide-eyed theory and philosophy, a protest against productivity itself. I swore I would never fall victim to evil algorithms again and dug out my old hiking boots.
Fast forward to September, and I’m hitting my head against my keyboard over yet another 11:59 due date. That “minimalist” lifestyle lasted exactly two months, right up until the beginning of school. In July, I spent around four hours online per day. Yesterday, September 29th, I spent around sixteen hours staring at a screen. Sixteen. Hours. Pretty much every high-school and college student lives, works, and creates entirely online now. Even though my course load is pretty heavy, I would’ve been able to handle it under normal circumstances; now, I spend every waking hour completing tasks. Life for most is now about meeting deadlines and getting on Zoom calls; the mindful essentialism Odell touts in How to Do Nothing is worlds away. And for some reason, there are still YouTubers posting “quarantine minimalism” videos.
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.
You’ve probably seen the citations and read the articles; we retain information better on paper than on a screen. For me, staring at a computer screen creates all-consuming brain fog, partially because of eye fatigue and partially because of listless distraction. Because I never feel like I’m making progress, I’ve lost my sense of purpose—and I’m not alone. “I’ve lost all motivation,” mused one of my classmates on a Zoom call. “There’s just not a point anymore, you know?” With no separation between work and home life, we all feel our edges blurring. (What day is it again?) On top of that, succumbing to digital fatigue feels like the responsible thing to do; leaving the computer means stopping all progress. In a sense, wasting time opening new tabs actually feels more productive than, say, exercising or cleaning. Under normal circumstances, we could count on self-care posts and digital detoxes to give us permission to relax, but the cut-and-dry methods and “long-term” results no longer seem organic or authentic; maybe they never were.
Truthfully, using the pandemic as a chance to find yourself and step away from technology is nice in theory. None of us are the same people we were in March, and some of those quarantine hobbies really did stick. However, like shorter-term digital detoxes, “quar-cations” come from a place of privilege. Those who step away from their computers with ease are academically, emotionally, and financially secure enough to do so. For normal people, technology breaks involve a battle between two equally concerning types of guilt: shame over reforming old digital habits and the anxiety that comes with stepping back. Every time I leave the screen, I let an important deadline pass or put off yet another essay draft. Every time I push forward, I take note of my time spent staring at a blank page or scrolling through Instagram ads. It’s a lose-lose situation, one that can’t be easily overcome by extra sleep or a solid self-care routine. So how do we break this vicious cycle of online fatigue?
Despite its unattainability, How to Do Nothing can still be an excellent guide to stealing little moments for yourself in a post-pandemic world. Taking a second from your school-or-work-induced haze to take a walk or look out your window is absolutely vital to shaking fatigue. Sometimes I have to physically remind myself that there’s a busy, bustling world outside my laptop screen. Working from home now reaffirms the hope that someday soon I will be able to go back out and join the world again. If you find yourself with blinders on, remember that this is not for nothing. Though there’s less tangible proof of success, you’re still making progress. Stepping away from technology for an hour or two is all some of us can manage, and that’s okay. Digital minimalism doesn’t have to be a lifestyle right now; it can be a simple act of survival. Now, more than ever, we must allow our paths of improvement to be non-linear.
By MJ Brown
Illustration by Ashley Setiawan