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Forget FOMO. In Digital Minimalism, It’s All About The Fear Of Burning Out

A more practical answer to short-term detox and permanent plug pulling is gaining momentum among computer scientists, lifestyle experts, and even beauty brands.

Forget FOMO. In Digital Minimalism, It’s All About The Fear Of Burning Out
[Photo: Flickr user Loïc Pénet]

“I was constantly checking my smartphone, that Bermuda Triangle of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram,” says Joshua Fields Millburn, cofounder of website The Minimalists.

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Seven years ago, he, like many of us, was a slave to his devices. He spent hours slumped over a laptop at work and at home, checked his email constantly on his phone, and kept his TV on, the modern-day equivalent of a fireplace lit throughout the winter. “The biggest distractions we face today are often the glowing screens in front of us,” he says. He points out that even some new toasters have Wi-Fi.

So Millburn decided to simplify his life, both physically and digitally. He pared down the mental clutter caused by time spent on tech. By leaving his phone in airplane mode, for example, and only checking it during set intervals, he could identify needless distractions and appreciate the device’s most useful aspects, like communication with loved ones. Quitting cold turkey and going full-on analog was never the goal; digital minimalism was. “Minimalism,” he says, “is about being more deliberate with the tools that we have.”

In 2010, he and his friend Ryan Nicodemus founded The Minimalists site to share Millburn’s digital-downsizing experience and offer tips on how others can reach an orderly state of semi-zen. The site now has nearly 5 million monthly readers, and a podcast with over 3 million downloads monthly.

Advocating for less screen time and more smelling of the proverbial roses isn’t a new concept. But a growing number of bloggers, academics, and entrepreneurs who brand themselves digital minimalists are trying to turn that familiar message into an actual movement. Millburn’s website is devoted to minimalism in all areas of life (including curbing physical clutter at home, à la Marie Kondo’s best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), but he says readers are especially interested in tips on managing their digital lives. The site’s most popular podcast episode dealt with reducing tech dependency without cutting oneself off from the digital dopamine machine altogether.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) findings, 65% of Americans agree that periodically “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox” is important for their mental health. But only 28% of them report actually doing so. A recent Nielsen study found that in 2016, the average American spent 10 hours and 39 minutes a day consuming media on screens. That’s one hour more than in 2015. And a survey for the APA revealed that Americans who constantly checked their phones reported the highest levels of stress. “What these individuals don’t consider is that while technology helps them in many ways, being constantly connected can have a negative impact on both their physical and mental health,” APA associate executive director Lynn Bufka said in a press release.

None of this comes as a surprise. We’ve been reading articles for at least a decade about the need to unplug, and what happens when we don’t. The question now is whether the practical approach of gadget moderation is realistic and appealing enough to catch on en masse. Minimalism has permeated so much of our culture—from fashion to home decor and food. People get a certain satisfaction out of picking the few things that are so perfect they outweigh the need for more. Can we do the same with our approach to tech?

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Fear Of Burning Out

Calvin Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, is a digital minimalist attempting to reposition FOMO.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

The associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University doesn’t use Twitter or Instagram. He doesn’t even have a Facebook account. He never knows about the latest cat video or what your aunt thinks of the Trump administration or which celebrity is in the doghouse for uttering an insensitive comment. “I like missing out,” Newport says. “Less can be more.”

Newport witnessed how social media has “taken over the lives” of those he knows, and he has no regrets about having never been tagged in a photo. He believes that phones and their algorithms are engineered to be “addictive,” inducing chronic check-ins. Instead of fears of missing out, he’d like to see people consider the risks of burning out. FOBO, if you will.

“People feel like they’re losing their autonomy,” he says, citing how daily social media usage amounts to 118 minutes per day per American. “They feel strung out . . . [Checking social media] is feeling somewhat compulsory.”

Digital minimalism is a response to such behavior. It’s a guiding principle meant to help people question which digital communication tools—and behaviors surrounding the tools—add real value to their existence.

“It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life,” he explains on his blog. In November, he wrote a New York Times piece about the drawbacks of social media. It became Instapaper’s most read column for a week.

In his writing, Newton encourages people to be more deliberate in choosing tech for their daily life. He acknowledges that certain apps, such as Waze or Postmates, serve an identifiable purpose, like getting from one’s house to brunch. Others are more murky. To achieve app clarity, Newport suggests making a list of what you most value, be it relationships or your job, and then move backwards and see which tools help you nurture or achieve those things. Does Snapchat significantly enhance your well-being? Will Candy Crush help you get a promotion?

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Newport says he has received hundreds of emails from individuals who say they are attempting to adopt digital minimalism. One reported he cut back from using four computer monitors at once to just one 15-inch laptop screen.

“A lot of people feel very trapped and fed up with having to be on their phones and feel obligated, whereas others feel they have very important uses and get a lot of value out of it,” Newport says. “It’s not about one thing being definitively bad and one thing being definitively good, but these technologies, if you’re not intentional, can take over your life.”

Craig Link, editor of the site Digital Minimalism, experienced firsthand how easily screens can usurp one’s freedom. The British blogger admits he was addicted to his smartphone, TV, and video games. His sedentary lifestyle affected all areas of his life, until a combination of poor health, failing relationships, and disrupted sleep convinced him to make a change.

A self-described “tech enthusiast,” Link launched his website a year ago in an effort to help address the boundary issues he and many others experience with tech. He suggests picking the lowest storage option on a phone contract (it forces you to be mindful of which apps, random photographs, or songs you store) and only subscribing to one or two social media platforms. “Choose something that suits your taste,” he says.

By abiding to such principles, Link says he was able to rebuild his life. Gone are the distractions, the mental fatigue, and general dissatisfaction. “A simple life is not a deprived life, but a life that includes only what is important to you and that which makes you happy,” he says on his site.

Millburn saw a similar impact when he reduced his usage. During peak tech-dependency periods, he recalls being stressed from the moment he woke up. More than 200 work and personal emails would be waiting in his inbox, but only 20% of them were actually important.

“I was letting everyone else dictate my hours,” says Millburn, who now only checks email during set times. “I was able to regain control of my schedule . . . and regain control of my life.” Do that for a long enough time, he says, and you’ll find relief from internal clutter; with less stimulation, you can become more aware of your overall happiness.

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Millburn isn’t the the first to come to this conclusion, but his blog’s message of tempering versus throwing out tech has struck a chord with his readers. The moderation he encourages is infused with an empowering, practical message that some people thought was missing from the doomsday studies and articles they read all too often of how tech is impairing our social skills, body alignment, and rewiring our brains.

Minimize At Home And On The Job

Shannon Vaughn has a different approach to spreading the minimalist gospel: She sells bath salts. In 2014, the former Georgetown medical student founded Pursoma, a beauty company that markets its mineral bath kits as a way to combat tech toxicity. A bath, Vaughn says, is the ultimate off switch for today’s overconnected citizen. It’s one hour of screen-free time. (Assuming, of course, that you don’t take your phone into the bathroom.)

Plenty of companies sell bath salts, but only Vaughn’s brand goes so far as to position its product as an antidote to device-induced stress. These are salts marketed as a way to “revive the body from tech overuse,” according to Pursoma’s website, which also states, “Our systems are intensely weakened from the radiation emitted by laptops, cell phone and fluorescent light exposure.”

Pursoma products contain montmorilonite medicinal clay, a nutrient-packed ingredient that some studies have shown effectively remove body toxins and electronic-based radiation, and lessen joint pain. It was tested by NASA for its ability to replenish calcium depletion in astronauts. Sea salt, meanwhile, is an ingredient recommended to stimulate circulation and relieve muscle cramps.

Pursoma’s bath products are currently available in 200 stores nationwide, including Anthropologie and Goop, and retail for $14-$36.

Vaughn got the idea for the company in medical school, when she suffered debilitating headaches from staring at her phone all day. She wanted to know why, so she went . . . to the Apple Store. Vaughn says that when she explained her symptoms to employees, they told her, “‘We all take melatonin because we can’t sleep at night because we’re on these devices all day.'” It was then that she realized just how big a physiological toll devices take.

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“We certainly are not advocating that you should cut out all your digital devices,” Vaughn says. “I don’t think that works, and I don’t think it’s practical. But it’s good to take time out. Like, say, ‘Every day this week, no one’s going to have their phone at their table,’ or, ‘I’m not going to wake up with my phone; I’ll set an alarm clock.'”

Pursoma’s sales have doubled in the last year, driven primarily by female consumers in their 30s and 40s. One of the brand’s most successful marketing coups was a social media campaign that advocated getting off social media. The #SafeSocial campaign asked fans to photograph non-tech activities, upload the photos, and then turn off their phones. A prize of free salts was awarded to whoever had the best “disconnected” photo. The winner was notified via social media.

At first, Vaughn resisting marketing on social channels, but eventually decided it was the only way to reach the document-everything millennials. She recognizes the irony of it all, but hopes, with #SafeSocial, she can help the pendulum swing the other way: What if we made signing off the cool thing to do?

Instilling such behavior in the youngest users of digital media is difficult. Calvin Newport observes a stark generational split between twentysomething millennials and people over 35. While older generations easily recall a time before social media, before the internet was centralized by a handful of time-suck platforms, the youngest millennials never knew a Facebook-less worldwide web. “They see [social media] as the internet,” Newport says.

Celebrity millennials including Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, and Kendall Jenner have undergone temporary detoxes from social media, but so far, no one in their star-studded peer group has taken up the minimalism cause to potentially influence their millions of impressionable tween and teenage fans. There have been reports of teens cutting back, and this past March, Teen Vogue talked up the trend, referring to detoxing as “going ’90s.” But according to a recent survey by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, kids between ages 8 to 18 average nine hours and 22 minutes of daily screen time—of which seven hours are for recreational use.

Michael Robb, Common Sense Media’s director of research, says digital consumption shows no indication of going down. There is shift in what they’re consuming—a migration from television to smartphones—but according to recent surveys, minimalism has not caught on within any age group. “It seems pretty clear that parents are using as much media as their kids are,” Robb says.

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Likewise, Orianna Fielding, author of Unplugged: The Essential Digital Detox Plan, doesn’t see any significant shift in American behavior in the last five years, but is working hard to bring about incremental changes. Fielding is the founder of The Digital Detox Company, a consulting firm that helps people learn balanced work-life tech habits. Founded in 2014, the group crafts bespoke digital health programs that, as she describes, “integrate mindfulness, psychology, neuroscience, and creativity practices to create an in-house culture of digital wellness” at a variety of companies, from tech startups to creative agencies. She might, for instance, ask executives to imagine that each email sent within the company costs 1¢, in the hope that they cut down on the tsunami of unnecessary messages.

“We’re in favor of micromoments, where you put yourself on airplane mode and give yourself an hour to recharge,” Fielding says. Her goal is to teach people who “panic when not connected to their devices” that the world will keep spinning whether or not they are within arm’s reach of a glowing rectangle. “When you talk about minimalism, it’s much more approachable because you know it’s a reduction, not an annihilation,” she says. “It feels less radical. Its a way of simplifying your digital life so that you have space to be creative and productive.”

Does she foresee a cultural shift in attitudes toward device-dependence? “There is a very underground movement,” she says. She believes in time, whether you call it digital minimalism, “going ’90s,” or just taking a bath, the idea of cutting back will become more appealing to all age groups.

As to how we go about changing our habits, Fielding recommends starting small:

Leave your mobile device in another room when you take a shower. Try to have a tech-free meal with a friend. Try meeting someone without knowing everything they’ve done in the last 24 hours. If you go out for a walk, you don’t have to photograph the tree: Just feel it, experience it, look at it. Try to factor in a few micromoments that aren’t digital in your day and you may just find that the cumulative effects of those bring you more than it takes away. That’s what it’s about.

It might sound scary, but digital minimalists attest that there is life beyond the apps. As Newport says, “As someone who has never used these services, I can tell you: You don’t have to use them. Your life will still go on.”

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