digital minimalism

#001 a reader, vs. a storyteller | my journey towards digital minimalism.

I’ve never been much of a reader, I’m far more invested in my own story to read someone else’s. I met someone recently, an aspiring author, a reader. He asked me what my favourite book was; I couldn’t answer. I’d have probably named some kind of self-help book or business for women type bullsh*t, but he’d already professed his hatred for non-fiction and it was our second date, so I was playing cool. He said we all need fantasy for our own imagination. I have a wild imagination as it is, and consider reading fiction a form of escapism. I practice this occasionally, by watching Love Island, or spinning Seahaven’s Reverie Lagoon, a record written for that purpose, apparently.

Otherwise, I don’t tend to crave escapism too much. I think feeling the need to escape generally signifies a lack of fulfilment. I guess that’s initially why I quit everything to move out of my hometown last summer. Now, I’m back, and people ask me if I’m happy to be home. I never quite know how to answer.

People think I miss the bagels, the thrift stores, the dive bars; the rush of adrenaline from watching yellow cabs fly past busy intersections, the moments of clarity from riding the subway with a steady stream of emo/pop/indie bangers in my ears + a cold brew in my hand, and the 24/7 access to pretty much anything you could possibly need or want within a five mile radius.

That isn’t it, though. There’s only so much you can miss the commodities that come with being a New Yorker. I visited the city on two or three occasions after saying goodbye to my life there, and it welcomed me back with open arms, as if I’d never left. It’s hard to miss a city that will never miss you back. A city that moves too fast to pay attention to each individual who walks its beloved streets. A city that swallows you whole, and with enough time, spits you out an entirely new person, whether you like it or not.

I became a storyteller the day I moved to New York City. Or maybe I always was, but that’s when I found the story I want to tell, the story of my life. It’s cliché, but completely valid, to feel as if my life only truly began when I moved there. So yeah, maybe I do miss being able to walk two blocks for an 11pm slice - when the munchies hit - but most of all, I just miss my life.

I had a life before that, sure. I grew up in a small village outside the now buzzing city of Leeds, UK. Between school, family gatherings and the other minor responsibilities we have pre-adulthood, I hung out at the skate park, partied in conservatories, gardens, basements, went to music festivals, and worked a mix of jobs. I begun a career that kinda made sense, travelled a bunch and fell in love with someone who in the end, should’ve stayed a friend. I didn’t realise at the time, but there was something that just held me back from ever really fitting in. I had a life, but never the one I wanted. That life began June 6th 2019 - my first day at Sideways.

Sideways are a Manhattan-based digital agency, a small-team, high-impact type. They barely knew enough about me when they sponsored me to engage in a three-month cultural exchange, flew me out from rainy England, aged 21, to work for them in a rather ambiguous Content Creation Internship. Apparently, my work spoke for itself.

Shortly after signing all the paperwork and awaiting the visa appointment, by some strike of luck, one of the clients was traveling in the UK and in need of a fashion-inspired photoshoot for a guide book. Founder of Stay Boutique, a community that connects and celebrates the boutique and hospitality industries, Ariela, called me by Whatsapp to arrange our photoshoot and I remember being so shook by her enthusiastic, overtly American tone of voice. Only weeks later, I was in walking into my new office, met with a whole team with that same high pitched, highly enthusiastic tone with the funky intonation that, by the end of my year in the States, I was habitually using myself to talk into my Instagram Story camera, the platform that soon became the outlet for my storytelling.

As Ariela took the train up to Leeds and my team crawled into the Ford Fiesta, I knew that the products of this photoshoot would appear in a six page spread of a magazine, for which the conference and official release of this coincided with my first day at the office. Yet as I strolled up 8th Ave with my Creative Director, overwhelmed by the sights, lights and smells of Midtown Manhattan, I was completely unaware that as I walked into the huge venue, right by Times Square, my photos would also be on the cover, on all the posters, and on all the name-tags of the attendees. From meeting the people who would become life-long friends, to sipping celebration cocktails downtown, that day remains one of the best days of my whole life. I keep the magazine, my name-tag, and the Gucci scarf I won at that conference by my bed, to remind me of my worth, my talents, and of the highs that come with achieving everything I dreamt about as an anxty teen, trapped in the town I have now recently returned to.

Over the past few weeks, I’d open my Instagram app, in attempt to create some kind of story, and be met with constant reminders of all those things I miss. Not the pizza, the big buildings nor the art museums, but the person I became, and could so freely be, whilst surrounded by all those things. I miss turning to Zoe, my Social Strategist and desk neighbour, around 12:50 and asking what we are doing for lunch. I miss experimenting with my fashion sense, and enjoying documenting that on the gram. I miss the 3pm hurdles around the kitchen to eat Oreos and discuss our latest Tinder matches, dates and fails before heading into a conference call. I miss repeatedly joking about starting a podcast about those counter conversations, but never getting around to it, because I was already as creatively fulfilled as could be. I miss being able to sleep at night because I’d accomplished enough during the day. I miss feeling like every single day brought a new lesson, a new story, and a new level of professional progression and personal growth.

So although that second date has not yet lead to a third, and I have a lot more space in my more slow-paced life to engage in activities outside of work, it has lead me to do some rethinking about where reading can come into that. I took my date’s advice, and tried fiction, with a novel entitled Coming Home that my grandma brought me one evening with my bedtime Horlicks. I didn’t even last a chapter before deciding to revisit something I attempted during my last existential crisis. See, watching my NYC life go on without me, through the lens of the Instagram stories I became accustomed to curating myself - paired with Mercury’s Retrograde and its consequential effect on my creative output - became difficult for me. Instagram went being from a tool I once used for my storytelling, to just another pointless activity I used to distract myself from openly facing the vast shift in pace my life has seen since moving out of my Brooklyn apartment, and into the upstairs of my grandparents’ quaint bungalow. Instead, I put down Mamma’s novel, deleted all my social media apps, and picked up Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.

Newport recommends a 30-day break from the optional digital tools that have become distracting, like any meaningless habit, in order to re-evaluate, explore and rediscover satisfying activities, professional goals and meaningful behaviors. By wiping the slate clean, we are then able to uncover how these tools provide beneficial use, and reintroduce them into our life in a way that maximises their value in satisfying those needs.

Just over a week into my digital detox, I feel more alive than ever. I’ve properly reconnected with my hometown, hung out with childhood friends, and developed a better relationship than ever with my new roommates, Mamma and Grandad. I’m working out about four times a week, volunteering at my local Brownies pack again, and I’m gaining a whole lot more value from my daily sunset walks than some 500+ story views. I’m reading, writing and even painting again, at a weekly art class with my other grandparents. To satisfy any craves to scroll, I’m using LinkedIn, and rebuilding my UK-based network. My smartphone’s battery lasts so long, since its only real use right now is to email clients on the go, occasionally upload to Depop, message my friends and family, and use GoogleMaps and Spotify on the drive over to their place, or someplace. I’m present with my friends who are here, instead of engaging virtually with those who are not, and I’m enjoying all the things I love doing for what they are, not for the content opportunities they provide.

Already, I know that Instagram does serve a useful purpose in my life, it is a place for me to share my stories to the world, but not how I have done before. Consistently editing and sharing short, somewhat disposable snippets, and following other people’s stories is no longer productive for me, it distracts me from working on the authentic, long-form content that means so much more to me, and holds much more value in my professional progression, as a Social Media Content Creator. Content like this piece, or the series of IGTV movies I’ve begun to draft for my return to the gram. For now though, I’m thoroughly enjoying my break, and the new level of maturity it brings.

I was so nearly swept away by the bubble of New York City, of Digital Content Creation and by this idea that I deserve more than small town blues. Over that year in the US, I was never homesick, I so happy to be away, in a place where I finally felt accepted, understood and appreciated for wanting so much more from life than some overrated university education and a husband. Now, I’m proactively turning those blues into a new-found appreciation for this slow-paced summer, and what it allows me to accomplish, for the place where I grew up, the humble attitude it routed within me, and the amazing people here that I am lucky to have in my life, once again.

Within a year or two, having finally completed my degree (something I have altered, put off, and almost quit completely, but I am slowly beginning to see more value in, by attending my peers’ graduations and revisiting academic practices) and hopefully gained some abs from all these 7am Body Pump classes, I’ll mostly likely return to my fast-paced, high-energy, work-orientated life. However, this time, I think I’ll miss home a little more. I’ll miss tea breaks, my grandma’s cooking and the sound of rain falling onto my attic window. I’ll miss my walks on Harthill, driving around to Billy’s place to laugh or moan, and feeling at peace by knowing that, though I am not learning quite as much, nor quite as quickly, I am still learning. Instead of hating a system that requires me to have a degree, resenting a town that never did anything wrong, and misunderstanding people that simply don’t want what I want, I am grateful for the year I will spend here, and with digital minimalism, the importance, influence and value it will bring, not only to my story-telling abilities, but to my story.

—LRJ