Put Down Your Phone: The Millions Interviews Sammy Nickalls

March 21, 2022 | 8 min read

“I look forward to the day that I don’t have to be on Twitter anymore,” I told a friend recently. I imagined a future in which I had achieved some level of professional success at which I no longer needed to monitor social media for opportunities to seize and connections to make. Any young literary aspirant knows what I mean. Many emerging writers and editors feel they have little say in the matter of time spent on social media—on top of actually putting pen to paper, combing through Twitter is just another part of the job.

Sammy Nickalls is experienced in the occupational hazards of social media. She’s written for outlets including Vulture, Teen Vogue, and Vice and previously worked in New York as an editor at Esquire and Adweek. After spending most of her 20s behind a screen, Nickalls decided to shut down all of her social media accounts for six months and emerged from the reset with a new perspective. Now, she proselytizes digital minimalism, a philosophy developed by Georgetown professor of computer science Cal Newport, to the tech-weary masses.

In her new book, Log Off: Self-Help for the Extremely Online, out May 10, Nickalls offers practical advice for those who want to limit their screen time but for whom logging off completely just isn’t an option. Taking cues from Jenny Offill, Jia Tolentino, and Sherry Turkle, Nickalls provides a road map to a more deliberate online existence and a more mindful offline one. She and I spoke about Log Off, literary Twitter, self-discipline, and much more.

The Millions: I want to start off by using myself as a case study that I think will sound familiar to a lot of readers. I’m a writer who by necessity is Very Online. Being online, and specifically on what we might call literary Twitter, feels like a requirement to be a successful writer—to cultivate a presence and a following, to scope out publication opportunities, to network. Some publishers even base book deals off of Twitter followings! How can someone who is actively trying to build a writing career also practice digital minimalism?

Sammy Nickalls: I absolutely can relate to this, and this exact situation is what led me to develop a wildly unhealthy relationship with Twitter in my early-to-mid 20s. I felt like I needed to be online 24/7 to avoid missing the next great opportunity that will launch my career.

Granted, there’s a grain of truth in this. In a flattering light, Twitter is an excellent tool for young creatives to find opportunities from the comfort of their couch. But the Next Big Thing mentality is exactly what platforms like Twitter use to keep their users scrolling. When you boil those vibes down, they have nothing to do with talent, or work ethic, or any of the inspiration one needs to create—they’re based in fear. And for those with the same kind of tendencies toward workaholism, perfectionism, and codependency as me, it’s a slippery slope into a dark, twisty place where you feel like your entire worth depends on faves, or followers, or whether you tweet an opinion on that long stressful article everyone’s talking about. There will be a new long stressful article tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. It’s just not sustainable.

This is exactly why digital minimalism is so important, and even more so for folks who need these platforms for their livelihoods. It’s not about scrubbing yourself off the Internet, as tempting as that may be sometimes. It’s about noticing your Internet stressors, then actively creating and maintaining boundaries around your screen time so that you don’t let these platforms and stressors eclipse your entire life.

TM: If you are a writer who prefers to write on a laptop, you’re going to be on the computer, and probably online, a lot. What is your advice for approaching a writing session—or any online work session—in digitally minimalist way to eliminate distractions?

SN: I love [the debate over] writing on a computer versus writing on paper. I do the latter more than the former these days, but I still think typing is so much more satisfying than writing on paper, because you can get your thoughts down so much faster. And I will never tire of the clickety-clacks!

If you choose to write on a laptop, start by identifying what you like most about writing that way, then shaping your rules around that. Is it the aforementioned clickety-clacks? Consider whether a typewriter would give the same kind of creative satisfaction. (Editor’s note: Freewrite also sells Internet-free, keyboard-equipped writing tools.) If that feels too extreme, or if your writing must be done online due to the nature of your work, I highly recommend trying out different digital minimalism tools and apps that will help you stay focused. I list a bunch in my book, but for this situation in particular, I recommend Freedom, which lets you block any number of distractions. You can block literally every website other than what you’re working on, or you can just block a single platform like Twitter—it’s up to you. When you try to go to the platform or website you blocked, your device will instead display a green screen with a butterfly reminding you to take a deep breath. So, you can either take said deep breath, or you can go, “Dang, foiled again by me.” Both are fairly satisfying.

TM: I deleted Instagram in college because I recognized, to borrow your terminology, that it was my primary “digital stressor.” It felt fundamentally incompatible with my brain, and I could tell it was actively detracting from it. At the same time, when I tell people I no longer have Instagram, they sometimes say things like, “I don’t like it either, but it’s really helpful for keeping up with friends, getting in touch with people, networking, finding inspiration, etc.” How would you respond to this big “but”? When does the risk outweigh the reward?

SN: Firstly, props to you for deleting Instagram. It’s one of my top problem apps too. Secondly, I gotta pull out my favorite version of the Serenity Prayer for this one: Grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that one is me. People might directly or indirectly insist that you’re missing out, but that’s on them. You know your own brain, and you know what feels good to you. Maybe for them, Instagram is helpful for all those things, and that’s great, but there’s no point in trying to change their mind, because odds are they don’t want to change their mind. Personally, I believe that the rewards a) don’t really hold their own upon further scrutiny—for example, is liking your friend’s photo every couple of weeks really “keeping in touch?”—and b) are far, far smaller than the risk.

TM: I’ve recently found my relationship to one social media app, TikTok, changing. It isn’t bringing me as much joy as it used to—now I check it compulsively rather than consciously, and I’ve been seeing more videos lately that I consider to be stressors. Can you talk about how our relationships with certain digital platforms can evolve, how we should monitor them over time, and what sort of steps we should take if we see our relationship changing in a way that’s harmful?

SN: Oof, TikTok is a rough one, I hear you. But yes, it’s all about intentionality—that’s really the core of digital minimalism. It’s not a once-and-done thing, where you set rules for yourself and then never ever break or change those rules until the end of time, because that’s not how doing anything intentionally works, right? You can’t predict the future, so you might not know exactly what you need or don’t need right away. That’s why it’s important to monitor your relationship with platforms and adjust accordingly, over and over again. It’s really a lifelong thing, because you can bet these platforms will adapt to the digital minimalism wave by finding new ways to capture your attention.

Your relationship with platforms will naturally change, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s also okay when you notice your relationship with one platform or another is becoming harmful, because the first step is simply noticing. That itself is hard to do, but hey, you already did it! You get to pat yourself on the back for that, and then you get to make a change, whether that’s deleting that app off your phone or taking a break from the platform to gather your thoughts.

Once it stops feeling scary, it’s actually a bit thrilling every time you get to make a change. It might sound a little cheesy, but it’s like realizing over and over that you actually have the power, you know? And it becomes easier as you learn to tune into your feelings every day, or as often as you can—no need to beat yourself up if you mess it up every now and then, because you’re human. The really wonderful thing about all of this is that you get to make your own rules based on how you feel. It’s not about doing it perfectly—it’s about reclaiming your agency and not letting these platforms control your emotions and behavior. My book has a guide on how to get started, but it’s something that anyone can do with or without a guide, just by paying attention to how you feel when you’re on social media.

TM: The experience of the pandemic emphasized how important it is to stay connected with loved ones when we can’t be with them in person. My closest friends, for one, all live across the country, so I’ve had to be more deliberate about getting in touch, whether it be sending each other stupid tweets or TikToks, or just texting throughout the day. But at the same time, I’m trying to spend as much time away from my phone as possible. How can you balance the priority to stay connected with faraway loved ones while still maintaining healthy digital boundaries?

SN: I think this is exactly the reason why people are rethinking the way they use their phones, or at least one of the big ones. There’s so much more pressure to be “on” during a pandemic, because the alternative can feel like abandoning your relationships.

I live in Pennsylvania, about six hours away from my best friend in Massachusetts, and we used to message each other on Facebook constantly. For a long time, even before the pandemic, I used that as an excuse to keep Facebook Messenger on my phone, because otherwise, how would I talk to her? Eventually, I communicated my digital minimalism intentions to her, and we moved the conversation to text so I could delete Facebook from my phone. It was that easy. Sometimes, I’ll tell her that I’m trying to stay off my phone for the weekend, so I might not respond to texts quickly, and she is always deeply supportive. And lately, we’ve been trying to schedule times to video chat. It might still involve a screen but taking time to actually talk face-to-face for a couple hours every few weeks strengthens relationships so much more than a never-ending text conversation, the latter of which tends to keep attention permanently divided because of the nature of texting. That said, my best friend and I still text each other stupid TikToks.

It’s true, though, that some relationships will start to fade away when you practice digital minimalism. That’s okay! Frankly, they probably weren’t strong relationships to begin with, and that’s also okay. I think social media gives us the idea that we’re supposed to have countless close friends, but relationships take time. Literally, how would we find the time for that? And are all our relationships really as close as we think, or are platforms trying to force FOMO-fueled friendships to keep us online? I don’t mean to trivialize the idea of Internet friendships, because I have met some truly wonderful people online. But if you communicate your intentions to them, and you’re meant to stay close to them, the universe will find a way.

TM: It feels like in just the past few years a lot more thinkers like you and Jenny Odell and Cal Newport, both of whom you cite in the book, have sprung up in response to not just how to live in the Internet age but how protect yourself from the Internet age. What other thinkers and ideas surrounding digital life are inspiring you right now?

SN: Lately, I’ve been listening to Tara Brach almost daily. I often start my day with one of her meditations, and I find that a lot of her teachings line up perfectly with digital minimalism, even if they’re not directly about digital life.

Growing up, I experienced what I’ve come to think of as a lasagna of trauma—layers, baby—that instilled a deep-seated fear of my own emotions and internal life. Throughout my teens and 20s, I buzzed around like a hummingbird on cocaine, trying to find the job or the person or the shiny flashy thing that would finally make me feel whole. I eventually became quite physically ill from the stress of functioning like this, and I had to sort of let everything in my life come toppling down so I could start rebuilding it with stronger foundations. Tara Brach has been indispensable in helping me learn how to overcome the fear of my own internal life so that I can use my emotions as a guide instead of running away from them. I believe this is one of the most important elements of digital minimalism. If you don’t know how you feel, how can you know what you need?

is the editor of The Millions.