Taking Inventory of Your Digital Life
A holistic look at how technology integrates into your lifestyle and what problems it solves for you.
Hi! I'm Denys, and this Digital Hygiene. Here, I try to make sense of how digital tools integrate into our lives and offer my opinion on organizing them
There are two types of people…
I'll start by acknowledging that some people are happy with technology in their life. Occasionally they get frustrated when things don't work as expected; still, they don't invest extra effort to experiment with their workflows - and that's cool. Some people, however, feel like they have an unhealthy relationship with technology. They may feel like they compulsively use technology, tools slows them down, or they simply get annoyed. They experiment with things until they find a solution they are happy with. This article - and publication as a whole - might be helpful for people who experiment. In this article, I'll talk more about puzzle which connects different aspects of our digital life: needs and problems we have, hardware and software tools we use to solve problems, and habits we develop. In each section, you'll see questions you can ask yourself to reflect on your use of technology. Ideally, questions and examples will inspire you to reflect on your “digital life”: needs, hardware, software, habits and, most importantly, the value you get.
Needs and Problems
Technology is most effective when it solves a real problem for you; for example, talk to family abroad (problem) via video call (technology). Sometimes new and shiny tools create a marginal improvement, e.g., adding a filter on top of your video. By choosing technology with a problem in mind, you'll find a solution with a true value. Additional bells and whistles make us pay "attention tax" since we get distracted from the true value.
Technology helps me address needs in three main areas of life:
Personal: connect, meet, get entertained.
Educational: discover, read, watch.
Professional: analyze, write, present.
While it's tempting to use a combination of tools to solve one problem, I encourage you to be critical about how much technology you use. Here is a simple example with a calendar: I use one calendar service to manage all my commitments, work meetings and occasional lectures. A single calendar helps me see all events in one place and minimizes the risk of meeting conflict. Most importantly, it solves my problem of balancing time between personal life, work and education. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I can look at the schedule and see why I am busy. To help you think about your needs and problems, start with these questions:
What are the typical activities you do daily/weekly/monthly?
How do you make money? What are your interests?
How do you learn? What do you do for fun?
Next, map your needs with hardware tools. If you have multiple devices to solve the same problem, can you use only one? The basic set of devices that seems to address needs for most people:
Device for work = laptop.
Device for personal needs = tablet.
Device for access to digital essentials on the go = phone.
Each new device in our workflow increases the potential to lose information, adds a maintenance burden, and creates an extra expense for us. Your devices are the reflection of your lifestyle. For example, I don't record music; thus, I don't need specific audio hardware. If music is your interest, you have a clear need to own additional devices. In contrast, if you buy a speaker but never use it, there is little to no value from it. I once purchased Nintendo Switch. After the novelty effect faded away, I realized I am not that big of a gamer. Occasionally, I use the iPad to play games, but Nintendo would continue to collecting dust. I wasn't intentional with a device and didn't match it with an actual need for entertainment I had.
Use these questions to reflect on what hardware you use:
What devices do you own? How often do you use them?
What problem does each device solve for you?
We can now add software on top of the hardware layer. Let's take my daily work routine as an example. It is basic, and over the years, I observed that I face similar problems every day:
Capture thoughts, task requests, relevant information for later use.
Schedule time-specific commitments.
Safely store results of my work with easy access.
Multiple apps exist to address these needs. Note-taking alone seems to be a never-ending story of yet another revolutionary app. However, I’d argue that you need to focus on two things when matching software with a need.
1 - find the tool that focuses on your workflow. For example, if you have only text notes without formatting and sharing, it doesn’t make sense to use a service with photo attachments and team collaboration. While it’s tempting to go for a feature-full option, I'd argue you'll be better off with a simpler version. A developer will highlight features in the interface, which means the features you use may be hidden behind additional menus. Moreover, the performance of the app will likely degrade as more features get added. You'll pay “simplicity and productivity tax” for things you don’t need.
2 - rely on a single app (and ideally established product). By using one app for similar needs, you’ll spend less time migrating your notes, ideas or other information across apps (that’s pointless activity anyway). You’ll also have all related files in one place, which means you’ll likely find them faster. And last but not least, using long-lived and established apps reduces the risk of finding a new app or migrating your information if the tool you’re using ceases to exist.
Here are the questions to consider what software you have for your needs:
What apps do you use?
How does each app help you with a problem you outlined above?
Do you have multiple apps solving the same problem? Is it effective?
The best solutions are often the simplest. I am a big believer in digital minimalism (if you read until this point, you have probably noticed this 😅). Thus I like to use the least number of tools cause I don't want to have my information scatted around multiple services and apps. I try to find a tool that will solve numerous problems for me, e.g., migrating all the files to Google Suite to also use online Spreadsheets and Slides while storing all of my files there. I try to optimize around my own needs and don't fall for the new shiny tools.
Habits help you with organizing information and keeping your workflows simple. For example, I rely on the Notes app and a single note called “Daily” to capture thoughts. As I go throughout my day, I usually add, delete or edit information in there. I never have to open another note, let alone another app. At the end of the day/week, I clear the note: time appointments go into the calendar, decisions are added to Google Docs.
These are the questions to reflect on your habits:
Do you feel like you have control over the digital tools you use?
Can you easily find the information you're looking for?
Do you have to invest a lot of time into managing technology?
Time well spent
The idea of time well spent is actively promoted by the Center for Human Technology. They talk a lot about algorithms used to optimize engagement, but more importantly they promote a healthy relationship with technology. Taking inventory of your digital life can help you see where you spend a lot of your time and where you compulsively use things or get overwhelmed. I hope this article will help you reflect on your own needs and remove unnecessary digital tools.
Stay tuned for more updates as we'll dive into the nuances of each part of our digital life! If you found value in this publication and know other people who might also find it helpful - please share. And reach out with any feedback @KulykDO.