How to embrace digital minimalism

Edisana Stephen 25 January 2022

With a never-ending stream of apps and new social media sites, it can be easy to lose control of your digital life. Here's how to declutter

We are often so enticed by the promises of modern digital life that we fail to notice its dangers. It's that feeling of losing control that we get a dozen times a day, from when we tune out a discussion with our phones to when we lose our capacity to appreciate a private moment without feeling compelled to document it for a virtual audience.

It's not about utility; it's about independence. I believe we need a full-fledged technology use philosophy based on our core values, that provides clear answers to the questions of which tools to use and how to use them, as well as the ability to confidently ignore everything else because dismissing these tools as useless and unimportant would be incorrect.

In my first attempt to get control over my technology use, I turned off my phone's notifications and configured it to vibrate rather than ring. Soon after, despite the fact that my device was set to mute, the act of continually checking for notifications became a habit, and I eventually realised I had created a new problem.

I knew then that using only tips and tactics to permanently reform your digital life is difficult. The difficulty is that tiny changes are insufficient to address our major concerns about new technologies. To regain control, we must go beyond modifications and reconstruct our relationship with technology from the ground up, based on our deeply held values.

We should go past the notification settings on our devices or apps and consider the more essential topic of why we use so many apps in the first place. What all of us who are struggling with these challenges need is a technology usage philosophy, something that addresses from the ground up which digital tools we allow into our lives, why, and under what conditions.

Cal Newport, who is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, defines Digital Minimalism as a "philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else."

To do so, however, we cannot passively allow the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel. Instead, we must take steps to extract the positive aspects of these technologies while sidestepping the negative aspects.

Newport, in his book writes this about digital minimalists, "If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it. Even when a new technology promises to support something the minimalist values, it must still pass a stricter test: Is this the best way to use technology to support this value? If the answer is no, the minimalist will set to work trying to optimize the tech, or search out a better option."

Digital minimalists transform technology from a source of distraction into instruments to support a life well lived by working backwards from their inner values to their technology choices. They break the spell that has caused so many people to feel as though they are losing control of their screens by doing so. He then goes on to explain the fundamentals of digital minimalism:

Principle #1: Clutter is costly

"Digital minimalists recognise that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation," Newport writes.

Principle #2: Optimisation is important

"Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step," he explains. "To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology."

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying

"Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies." adding that this, "is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners."

Minimalism's basic concept, that less is more, is not new. On becoming a digital minimalist, rather than a drastic shift, I recommend something that takes place over a short period of time and is carried out with enough conviction that the results are likely to remain. It is what Newport shares as the digital declutter process. It works like this:

1. Put aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life

Optional technologies are those that you can live without for 30 days without harming or seriously disrupting your career or personal life. Rather than turning off your important business email, this means cutting out your daily Instagram posts or aimless Facebook surfing. Access to the technologies you’ll be left with will require certain “operation procedures”. This may involve limiting your Instagram usage to your commute and prohibiting your phone from being used at the dinner table. Newport recommends writing them down and posting them somewhere you'll see them frequently.

2. During this 30-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful

Newport admits this can be tough as you’ll be keeping up with the above rule for 30 further days.

Though unpleasant, this detox stage is hugely important in helping you to "make smarter decisions when you reintroduce some of these optional technologies to your life” and allows you rediscover what’s important to you. To succeed at this, you will have to cultivate high quality alternatives to the easy distraction optional technologies provide. Take this as an opportunity to tackle that pile of books on your bedside table or sign up to that fitness class you’ve been thinking about trying.

3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

When your 30-day time is up, the final phase is to reintroduce technology into your life. "The idea of the final phase is to start from scratch and only allow technology back into your life that meets your rigorous minimalist requirements," Newport explains.

"Whether or not this procedure sparks lasting change in your life will be determined by the care you take here." Reintroduced technology should complement, not replace, your values and goals.

This lifestyle experiment, much like decluttering your home, provides a digital reset by removing distracting tools and compulsive habits that may have accumulated haphazardly over time and replacing them with a much more intentional set of behaviors, optimized in true minimalist fashion to support rather than subvert your values.

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