As work slows for the holidays, I try to put the year to bed. I sweep out the dust clods in the corners of the closet, pack away the warm weather clothes, hang thicker curtains, and make my tiny estate ready for the colder months. Errant paperwork is filed, folders on my computer are tidied and backed up, and I clean up the drafts folder on my blog. This brief message is one of those stray ideas.
A few months ago when I turned that same attention to my digital toolbox, it occurred to me that a person’s behavior with their tools is an expression of their values. I was buried under countless emails, unread RSS posts, archived Instapaper articles, and a never-ending Twitter stream. I had set untenable expectations, because I believed I should be the sort of person who stayed informed and on top of things. The thing was—I was not staying on top of things. Oh, irony.
I was particularly frustrated by the emails and tweets, because they were out of my control. I suppose no one handles other people’s attention carefully, so one must be vigilent in preserving their own headspace. The tragedy is that cognitive clutter sneaks up on you, no matter how good your intentions. Our tools make it easy to add more things, but there are no regular, established opportunities to clean things out. That’s why I was fascinated when a friend introduced me to the Jubilee year, an ancient Jewish belief that says debts should be cancelled every fiftieth year. The Jubilee offered a clean slate.
I’m not a religious man, but I do think there is deep wisdom in tradition and ritual. The Jubilee offers a way out of oppressive expectations, even if they are our own. This year, I’m practicing a digital jubilee by archiving my inbox, deleting my RSS subscriptions, and unfollowing most everyone on Twitter. These, of course, will fill back up as time passes, but now I have a recurring way to purge. Practices like these have been coined “declaring bankruptcy” by the digital lifestyle blogs, but I think the phrase misrepresents the practice. Cleaning the digital slate is not a practice of giving up. It is one of self-forgiveness.