Do a cost-benefit analysis of your technology usage

If an unaligned entity invests billions of dollars into an application which you use, where they benefit from wasting your time, and you haven’t at least done a cost-benefit analysis so that your usage minimizes your costs and maximizes your benefits—You are probably getting fucked over.

Mistake: Motivatedly avoiding thinking about the issue

Last summer, my friend Kurt Brown told me about Digital Minimalism. The modern world is mired in attention-sucking apps which compete to waste as much of your time as possible. The book’s remedy: stepping back from non-essential internet usage, so that you can evaluate what really matters to you. After a month has come and gone, you add back in those digital activities which are worth it to you.

Unfortunately, this is the part of the story where we all cringe at my past behavior. I gave Kurt some excuses, demurring from his implicit recommendation that I read the book. I asked more questions, but so that I could learn more about what he’d been up to. I wasn’t going to actually do it. I think it sounded monastic and uncomfortable and I’m not one of those people who needs it, I already have lots of locks on my devices.

And locks I had. I restricted my iPhone with a password only known by a friend, so that I was unable to access eg Reddit without wiping my device, or asking my friend for the code. My phone was in black and white to minimize how appealing it would be, I had an outdated model to make using my phone less enjoyable. I didn’t have notifications for anything but phone calls. I still wasted several hours a day on my phone, although I was always (motivatedly) surprised by this. I thought I was spending at least 70% of my phone-time productively, by reading LessWrong and Wikipedia, or engaging in work communication. In this scenario, I didn’t want to upend my life for a month in order to save less than an hour a day (even though it still would have been worth it in the long run).

This school year, I’ve had problems focusing and relaxing. I tried exercise, different medication, but nothing hit the spot. I wasn’t reading textbooks like I wanted to, my attention was fractured, I often felt behind my schedule. I was still doing my job and making progress—just not as much as I wanted.

Could this have anything to do with my attention problems?

This spring, I read a LessWrong post which mentioned Digital Minimalism. Luckily, this triggered my “if several reasonably smart EAs swear by the benefits of X, investigate X” trigger-action plan.

Digital Minimalism

I listened to the first half of the book on Audible in one night. As I wrote above:

If an unaligned entity invests billions of dollars into an application which you use, where they benefit from wasting your time, and you haven’t at least done a cost-benefit analysis so that your usage minimizes your costs and maximizes your benefits—You are probably getting fucked over.[1]

I was immediately convinced that this thesis is correct, and resolved to start my month-long “digital declutter” the next day.

Time costs

Consider why you originally bought a cell phone. It was probably to call people, to text people, to take photos, to get GPS navigation. Would you have bought it if you foresaw how you would feel an urge to check it even during a dinner with a friend you hadn’t seen in a long time? Would you have bought it if you knew you would take impatiently take it out of your pocket dozens of times a day, staring at it 2+ hours daily?

The point isn’t “phone bad, never use phone, quit now.” My phone provides me with enormous benefits. The point is where was the cost-benefit analysis, what tf has happened to us?!

Notice the middle stat: one third of daily waking hours. I am disgusted that some people try to make this number go up further. From AppAnnie.

Readers of this forum are probably better about their usage. Let’s be (too) generous and cut that to a mere two hours wasted daily on your phone, and 0 hours wasted on your other devices. That’s only one eighth of your waking year, or 1.5 waking months each year.

Attentional costs

But lost time doesn’t capture everything sucked away by your apps, by your email tics, by YouTube, by Reddit, by Slack, by Discord, by everything else which is after you. Digital Minimalism asked:

When was the last time you were bored and in silence?

I remember lazy summer childhoods, staring at the ceiling after I ran out of video game time. At my 2018 CFAR workshop, my phone dipped in a stream for several minutes and short-circuited. I was actually glad. I felt free. How strange, to feel free from a device I purchased! Perhaps I should have noticed the warning sign.

Since then, engagement has been a pocket-grasp away. I’d leave my phone in another room to work, only to find my way back half an hour later. Even now, I look down at my phone on my desk, and I feel it. I feel it calling to me from far away, whispering to me, urging me to check Slack or my email—just one more time.

These compulsions kill deep work in the cradle. My attention was fractured and strewn. I would anxiously procrastinate by flitting through tabs: Discord. Slack. LessWrong. Gmail. Even when I cleared time to think, I would periodically check my phone.

Implementing the declutter

At this point, you might be thinking “OK, but I can’t roam the mountains of Nepal for a month. I have work to do and that requires staying in touch with people.” Sure. The point of this post is not “no phone.” The point of this post is to build a digital life purposefully and carefully, because you reflectively endorse each component. The point of this post is to get people to do any cost-benefit analysis at all of the way they spend 1/​8th–1/​3rd of their waking hours.

My estimate of the daily costs and benefits for a better-than-average Facebook user (considering Messenger to be distinct from Facebook). In appendix 2, I detail how I extract all of these benefits for 40 minutes a month, instead of 40 minutes a day—a 30x improvement!

The declutter goes as follows:

  1. Identify the minimal set of digital affordances required to do your job and the other necessities of life (e.g. paying bills).

  2. Cut out everything else for one month.

The point is that these apps which are out to get you—they’re very good at what they do. It’s not enough to turn off notifications and enable app timers. Digital Minimalism argues (and I mostly agree) that you have to get out of the pond entirely and catch a breather. After the declutter, you can soberly analyze the costs and benefits of each digital activity you add back in.

My declutter rules

I went by a whitelist[2] in order to ensure there wasn’t a way to weasel around the rules. Here’s what I let myself do:

  • Phone

    • Voice & video calls

    • GPS

    • Audible

    • Uber/​Lyft

    • Authenticators/​alarms/​other boring utilities

    • Roam/​note-taking

  • iPad

    • Note-taking

    • Reading

    • Drawing

  • Computer

    • Anything offline (except music or video games)

    • Textbooks and Wikipedia and arxiv/​google scholar

    • Overleaf for writing papers

    • Amazon and Upwork (for managing contracted-out labor)

    • Zoom for weekly meetings

    • Anki and Roam

    • Check email at noon on Mondays and Thursdays

      • I told people to call me if it was important. I didn’t get any calls.

      • I later let myself send emails without looking at my inbox. I recommend Inbox When Ready, which hides your inbox by default and prevents you from being attention-sniped.

    • Groceries /​ other mundane things

      • No Wealthfront—no reason for me to see how my portfolio is doing.

That’s it. No music (see appendix), no messaging, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Slack, no Discord, no anxious email checking, no Youtube, no nothing. I even bought a cheap watch so that I wouldn’t have to check my phone for the time. If I needed an exception, I’d first write a note explaining what I did, to be read by my girlfriend, Emma, who started her declutter soon after.

Why did I choose these rules? I won’t get unhealthily sucked into any of these activities. They all make me stronger. They let me do my work.

The world was not going to end because I stopped reading the news for a month—I understand there’s a war still going on in Ukraine, but that’s about all I know, and I’m not worse off for it. I resolved that if I wanted to build models of that part of the world, I’d do that on purpose. I won’t doomscroll through hyper-optimized interfaces designed to scam me out of my attention and make me anxious. I said to myself, my life is worth more to me than that.


But TurnTrout, my job needs email /​ [other special reason why this doesn’t work for me].

I concede that my rules are probably not best for your situation. But have you thought about the issue for five minutes? Could you ask your boss if you can check email once a day and otherwise take phone calls? Maybe you don’t restrict email, but stop looking at websites like Reddit or Hacker News or Marginal Revolution or Facebook or Twitter? Are there other creative solutions waiting to be uncovered? Have you tried?

If your team uses Slack for asynchronous communication, once- or twice-daily checks should be fine. If you use it for synchronous communication, perhaps establish a daily “office hour” when you’ll be on Slack, or even coordinate with your team to establish a daily “Slack hour” where people are expected to be online. Or something else. The point is to establish the main benefits you reap from each digital affordance, and then find a plan which minimizes the costs you pay for those benefits.

I’m already good about my internet usage.

This might be true! I know exactly one person for whom I’m quite confident this is true (Andrew Critch), and maybe there are more among my friends whom I don’t know about. This might be you if you already use services based on their costs and benefits, often using websites in unintended ways (like blocking all recommendations on YouTube via the Unhook add-on [Chrome, Firefox]), and spending far less time than average (eg only checking email very infrequently).

I’d still bet against it. I would have said I was good about my internet usage, and it was true—in a relative sense. I think people (motivatedly) underestimate how much time they waste, perhaps because it can feel bad and embarrassing to admit the problem.

But how will I stay in touch with people? I’m already lonely.

Excellent question! Reallocate low-quality social time to high-quality social time. Instead of checking if some half-friends liked your FB status, call up a buddy and grab a beer, or go to a meetup, or join a club.

Benefits of the declutter

February 22nd: The First Day. I went running, and got back to the house 10 minutes earlier than usual. Huh.

I called my parents and went on a leisurely walk. Even so, I got my morning routine done 60 minutes ahead of schedule. I read half of a book on ordinary differential equations while lounging in my sunlit room. I did some deep thinking for an hour, safe from my phone’s dopaminergic temptation. I switched contexts and read about electrostatics. Still hours ahead of schedule.

The day yawned and stretched. I wondered if it would ever end. (It did.)

February 23rd: The Second Day. From my journal:

It’s so relaxing not using my phone, and yet I can still feel my anxiety pulling me to my digital affairs.

Did my LW post get lots of upvotes? Are people criticizing me? Did I win a prize in the contest? Am I missing something on the EliezerFic server? I even thought about some identity-politics tweet I saw last week, on my run this morning… why is that garbage in my head? Good riddance.

And so unrolled the next day, and the next. Time laid itself out before me. With my reclaimed time, I went on walks, I read The Character of Physical Law, I read ~three physics textbooks, I tripled my daily Anki workload to 1.5 hours, and I still had time left over.

Life became leisurely. I wrote letters to my girlfriends—some of them were in French. I even had time to write poems. I talked to them more often than before, with nightly phone calls. I also called my family most mornings. I still had time left over.

Instead of trolling through Discord, I called some labmates at Oregon State and started a weekly dinner. If anything, I felt less lonely than before, when I had the world at my fingertips. I called people when I wanted to talk to them. I still had time left over.

I listened to a Stephen King book when I couldn’t sleep—I found it reassuring to worry about fortifying a grocery store against eldritch horrors, instead of worrying about fortifying our planet against artificial intelligence. I listened to Dune with Emma, clocking 21 hours over 2.5 weeks. I went on walks with her, and to a hot tub, and I still had time left over.

I did notice potential withdrawal symptoms (alarming!), mostly via increased baseline anxiety. Other explanations include “defending my dissertation & moving soon”, so I’m not sure if it was from the declutter.

Even assuming this month gave me unusually large benefits, I wouldn’t ever, ever go back. So when the declutter ended, I wasn’t clamoring to check the highest-karma Reddit posts from last month. I still feel the urge, but I resent Reddit now that I see what it takes away from me. That makes it easier to stay away.


This short post may not be convincing enough to try out such a substantial life modification. I’m not asking that you do a declutter right away. I’m recommending that you read the first half of Digital Minimalism, or listen on Audible (cost: a few hours and $14).

Let me sweeten the deal with a costly signal. If I’ve met you in real life, and you consume the first half of the book and find it unconvincing /​ try the declutter and it wasn’t at all worth trying in hindsight, message me on LessWrong and I’ll pay you $30.[3]

I think many, many people are shooting themselves in the foot, so I will be blunt. Please stop shooting yourself in the foot. Please do a cost-benefit analysis. I think many people have serious, serious problems with their internet usage. I did. You might. If so, you are leaving a lot of your life on the table.

Thanks to Meg Tong, Josh Turner, and Kurt Brown for feedback on this post.

Appendix 1: Declutter advice

Here’s my main tip to add to the book: Have well-defined exception handling which you never ever ever have to deviate from. When I read about how other people navigated the declutter, their main failure modes looked like “my dog died and I got really stressed and gave in” or “a work emergency came up and I bent my rules and then broke my rules fragrantly.”

Plan for these events. Plan for feeling withdrawal symptoms. Plan for it seeming so so important that you check your email right now. Plan for emergencies. Plan a way to handle surprising exceptions to your rules. Make the exception handling so good that you never have a legitimate reason to deviate from it.

My procedure was “If I need to use a forbidden functionality, then I have to write what I did down on a slip of paper and leave it on my girlfriend’s desk ASAP.” This worked because Emma would understand legitimate exceptions, but would look askance at me if I started flooding her desk with “and then I checked Reddit” notes. It’s easier to hold promises to other people, than promises to yourself.

Appendix 2: My post-declutter rules

  • I only listen to music when:

    • Only listening to the music, to fully soak it in

    • Exercising

    • Reasoning on this point:

      • I think music generally makes me subtly dumber but feel cooler while I’m listening to it, so I listen to it a lot.

      • Music imposes its own form on my thoughts. My thinking and mood becomes governed by the song which happens to be playing, and less by the substance of my own thoughts. I don’t want my reasoning to hinge on “will Spotify shuffle to Attack on Titan or Coldplay next?”.

      • See also Gwern’s stub.

      • I do have Google Home, and often play nature sounds.

  • I only check LessWrong /​ Discord /​ Slack /​ Messenger /​ my text messages each Sunday at noon.

    • I write blogposts before then, and I won’t check their reception until the next week (I used to nervously refresh).

    • I’ve also adblocked the karma elements of the website, because I worry too much about them.

  • As I currently see it, I’m only logging in to the newsfeed part of Facebook two more times: To share this blog post, and after I receive my PhD.

    • After that, I’ll check its event page weekly, while blocking the notifications /​ other clutter FB tries to throw at me. This should take less than 10 minutes each week.

    • Here’s how to use FB more peacefully:

      • Install FBPurity; you can save time by importing my settings here.

      • Use UBlock Origin to get rid of the rest; here is my element blocking list for Facebook.

        • (I also hide the chat sidebar on the main page, which is a FB option)

    • I could also check a favorite page once a week (with the chat and comment elements blocked), if I need more memes in my bloodstream.

    • In combination with a monthly Messenger checkin, I’ve extracted my main benefits from Facebook, at a cost of at most 50 minutes each month, instead of 50 minutes each day!

      • Again, I don’t recommend doing small fixes like “just hide some FB elements.” These fixes don’t work for most people. This advice is aimed at post-declutter usage, which unfolds from your informed cost-benefit analysis.

Here’s what my FB news feed looks like now. 😌
  • For news, I purchased a digital+print subscription to The Economist. Once a month, I can choose to read the four issues for an hour or two.

    • I don’t need to read more than that. I can read about candidates before an election, and there isn’t much else that’s decision-relevant. If eg AI dynamics heat up and geopolitical understanding becomes more important, I’ll tackle that deliberately.

    • Looking back at my life, I see how often I’ve been hijacked by news websites. It makes me sick.

    • UPDATE: No longer recommend The Economist. Their cancellation process is scummy, recommend avoiding the defectors.

  • I’m basically not going to text anymore. I used to check it so, so often.

    • This was hard at first. One of my partners strongly prefers texting, and I liked texting her, and missed her a lot. With additional thought, we discovered that she really just wanted to asynchronously send me updates on how her day was going. I said she could text me as much as she wanted—but I’d read them during our next phone call.

  • I can watch movies and play video games if I’ve planned it out at least a few hours in advance.

  • I can check Reddit for specific question/​answer threads.

  • I can check Twitter if I plan the session out in detail one day in advance.

    • Twitter is toxic for me, even though I originally made an account to promote an alignment paper and only subscribed to AI/​math accounts.

  • My phone will still be in black and white and warm color temperature, to make it even less engaging compared to the rest of my world.

  • I never ever use my phone on the toilet. Ever. This has served me well and seems like a pure win.

  1. ^

    This is only a sufficient condition; the app need not be the child of a billion-dollar company. For example, I oft ragebaited myself about the culture war via Marginal Revolution and Hacker News. I even tend to get anxious about LessWrong usage, and I know that the team deliberately refrained from attention-hacks like red notifications.

    Even while using my Notion to edit this post and supervise research, I saw a red “5 notifications” marker, which gave me an overwhelming urge to see what the notifications are. With great effort, I ignored the impulse, and deleted the element with my adblocker.

  2. ^

    I just now picked up my phone and stared at it blankly. One month later. Yuck.

  3. ^

    Limit $300 total.