Dan Hannigan

My month-long focus on digital decluttering


2022 was a rough start for me. Six days into the new year, I wound up at the ER due to chest pain, heart palpitations, and racing thoughts that I couldn't calm down. I knew I was likely okay, but chest pain isn't something I've experienced before, so I thought it best to head into the ER. After multiple EKGs and a blood test, the doctor concluded it was probably just stress and maybe too much caffeine. I scheduled an appointment with my primary care physician the next day and went in for another checkup. After another series of tests, he concluded that I had a generalized anxiety disorder. We built up a care plan, and I hopped into therapy. My intake test said I was experiencing severe anxiety, stress, and depression levels.

What source of stress and anxiety was putting me in this spot? After months of therapy, we concluded that I might be spending too much time working. I didn't think I was. My work-life balance with Cisco has been fantastic, but that's when my therapist clarified: Denver Devs, the community I run, is _work_. And it would take up most of my hours outside of paid work. I'm a stubborn type, so I kept pushing through and working on myself - exercising, meditating, doing breathing exercises, and eating better. However, I was still plugged into Denver Devs, and my admin team felt the brunt. I'd wade into our private channels and spew line after line of what ultimately amounted to me just showing how damn burnt out I was.

July rolls around, and after some more pitfalls around health and life, I decided it's time to check out for a bit, so I let the community know I'm taking August off. The support I received in that move was touching, and immediately I felt stress melt away. So on August 1st, I deleted Discord from my phone and computers. At this time, I also decided to take a break from Twitter, which I'd spend most of my day scrolling through mindlessly as code was built or I was stuck on a problem. So the next day I woke up giddy and took the time to sit outside in the morning and, for once, not check Discord or Twitter immediately.

But I still felt the nagging in my head to check something... news, feed readers, mail, and so on. So I'd pop open my phone and take in the home page filled with apps, muscle memory would take over, and I'd get to tapping. It wasn't long into the technology sabbatical that I realized: I wasn't really enjoying my time on the internet. So I took it a step further and began the great cleanup of my digital life.

I got to work by taking cues from the countless books and articles that push this kind of technological disconnect. I unsubscribed from useless email lists and newsletters. Relentlessly purged my RSS feeds. Deleted my news & Reddit apps. Set up screen time limits on my various devices and cleaned up my phone home screen to be something I enjoyed looking at.

A month in, and how am I doing? Well, I learned I like to play Solitare a lot - and had to put an hour daily cap on that. Outside of that, as you might expect, my mind feels quieter. I spend most mornings, sometimes as early as 6:40am to around 8:40am, sitting outside, sipping coffee, and not looking at my phone. I've become such a regular at it that in passing, a neighbor said, "I've seen you on your patio in the mornings. That looks relaxing."

My work days are happier for it, too. I don't spend time flicking back and forth between distractions. RescueTime reports that I have fewer than 4 context switches in a given hour, which is much better than the 80 plus I had before. I also reduced the physical aspect of my workspace significantly, but I'll save that for another blog.

Outside work, with friends, or with my significant other, I'm not compelled to check everything. One unexpected side-effect, too, is that I don't feel like spending much time in video games, which is a regular pastime of mine. I'm still figuring out the why on that one. Maybe my mind doesn't need the escapism they provided me.
Much of what I'm saying shouldn't come as a surprise. There are books and articles aplenty out there about the benefits of disconnecting. I'm happy I finally took the time and discipline to do it.

I'm writing this article a few days before my break ends, and I'd be lying if the anxiety wasn't bubbling back up a little. So what's it going to be like when I get back? Do I hop on to all the apps I got rid of and ride that dopamine wave of notifications and new content? I'd rather not, so I've got a plan.

I'll set office hours for Denver Devs, checking in on the Discord no more than an hour a day spread throughout the day. Of course, if I'm working on something code related to Denver Devs, I'll timebox that a bit too, but honestly, that work is something I enjoy, so I don't see the harm. Outside of Discord, I'm going to set up limits on Twitter. My RSS feed is now just a handful of sources, and I'll keep it that way. I don't think I'll go back to my News apps or Reddit - those places I don't miss checking.

I'm excited and anxious to see how long I can keep my willpower up and where it takes me. I have missed feeling connected to others. Discord chats and tweets were my main lifeline to other people outside of work and the occasional text message. Still, I need to remember that my goal is to foster positive connections - not constant ones.

I don't have as much chest pain anymore, and I'd like to keep it that way.