“How do you simplify your digital life?” is quickly becoming the question of our generation. Between packed calendars, overflowing inboxes, and the constant pull of social media and news (and Netflix) it can feel like how you spend your time online isn’t really up to you.
But what if there was a way to use your technology without feeling used by it? The answer is Digital minimalism.
Coined by author and computer science professor Cal Newport in his book of the same name, digital minimalism is a philosophy of technology use based on the understanding that our relationship with our apps, tools, and phones is nuanced and deserves more intention than we give it.
The problem–as Cal sees it– is that email and chat can be both stressful and productive.
Facebook can be both distracting and empowering.
Our phones are equally annoying interruptions and powerful tools for navigating the world.
How you use your apps and tools can bring you value or be a frustrating distraction. And finding a balance between the negative and positive aspects of technology is a delicate balancing act that digital minimalism tries to solve.
The basics of digital minimalism
The concept of “minimalism” has become more and more popular over the past few decades.
As many of us find ourselves sucked into a lifestyle of overconsumption and “more,” the idea of living happily with less becomes more alluring.
However, minimalism–in all its forms–isn’t just about reducing how much “stuff” you have but being intentional about why you have what you do and how you can use it in the best way possible.
As Cal explains:
“Minimalists tend to spend much less money and own many fewer things than their peers. They also tend to be much more intentional and often quite radical in shaping their lives around things that matter to them.”
Digital minimalism, in the same way, isn’t just about deleting Facebook or learning a better way to clear out your inbox. It’s about intentionally shaping your digital life around your values so you can feel good about the apps and tools you use on a daily basis.
However, this is harder than it sounds.
The problem isn’t just the sheer usage of technology. It’s in how digital technologies lump together the good with the bad like some omnibus bill.
Few of us are willing to give up the good technology does (getting around via Google Maps, seeing family photos on Instagram, etc . . .) in return for reducing the harm. Yet constantly policing your apps and your own behaviors can only lead to one thing: exhaustion.
According to our own research, we found that on average, you’re likely to:
- Check email and chat every six minutes or less
- Use 56+ apps and tools a day and switch between them more than 300 times
- Spend up to 4.5 hours on your phone
- Multitask for at least 40% of our day
It’s hard to imagine a worse situation for deep thinking, focus, and even mental health.
The more we accept a life full of attention-sucking apps, devices, and tools, the less time and energy we have for the kind of deep thinking that leads to big ideas, real creativity, and satisfaction.
Instead, digital minimalism presents a different view of technology–one where you focus your time on “a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
On the surface, the core elements of digital minimalism are simple:
First, there’s choice and intention. You’re still using technology, but only what you want and only in ways that connect to your values.
Then, there’s optimizing the tools you use. What you allow into your life needs to work for you. This means separating the good from the bad.
Finally, there’s accepting you won’t be everywhere all the time. Tech companies survive on FOMO–the fear of missing out. But digital minimalists are happy to miss out on the things they know don’t bring value to their lives.
However, this can be a strange process if you’ve never really thought about how you use technology. But as you’ll see, the results are worth it: less stress, more focus, and a better, more fulfilling life.
The digital declutter: A 30-day plan for building a practice of digital minimalism
Developing a digital minimalist mindset isn’t easy. However, in his book, Cal provides a powerful tool in a 30-day plan to kickstart your minimalist lifestyle.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Define your core values (and how technology helps and hurts them)
Digital minimalism relies on a deeper understanding of your values. This is what you’ll be judging the value of each digital tool against.
So ask yourself: What is it that’s important to you? What do you want to achieve from how you spend your time?
Values can be things like authenticity or creativity or even compassion and friendship. These are intentionally large and somewhat vague. However, they’re powerful lenses to look at your technology through.
What part of using Facebook connects with your sense of authenticity? Does being on Twitter or in numerous Slack channels make you feel compassionate?
When you clearly understand your values and how they influence your philosophy of technology use, you can make informed and confident decisions about what to use and when. You become able to prioritize long-term meaning over short-term satisfaction.
(If you need help, author James Clear has a great list of core values you can use as inspiration.)
Step 2: Drop all “optional” technologies for 30 days
Instead of immediately trying to judge whether the tools you use connect to your values, Cal suggests the opposite:
Set aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from all optional technologies in your life.
“Optional,” in this case, means any tool or app where their “temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your profession or personal life.”
Make a list of apps, tools, and services (like Netflix, gaming, etc . . .) that are effectively ‘banned’ for the next 30 days. Work email is not optional. Twitter—most likely—is. Write these down and put them somewhere you’ll be able to see them every day.
The reason for such a drastic change is because the pull of the attention economy has simply become too strong. Trying to gradually change your habits won’t work. Instead, you need the experience of a full break before you can make unbiased decisions about what to let back into your life.
Step 3: Track your “technology triggers” and explore other activities
During the 30 days of your “declutter” you have two goals:
Pay special attention to when you feel the pull of technology. When do you find yourself reaching for your phone? Do you procrastinate on work tasks or sending emails by checking Twitter? Often our technology usage masks some other underlying issue.
Explore “higher quality” activities to fill the void of time. A major part of this declutter is actively trying out other activities in place of technology. Fill the space by reading books or going for walks with friends or working on a hobby you’ve neglected or just daydreaming.
As Cal explains, by the end of the declutter you want to discover “the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life–one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.”
Step 4: Create “operating procedures” for the tools you let back in
After your break is done, you’re allowed to reintroduce optional technologies back into your life under two conditions.
First, for each tool, app, or device, ask:
“Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value?”
It doesn’t matter if the tool or app provides some value. It must be intrinsically linked to one of your core values.
For example, you might decide that reading hot takes on Twitter is just a distraction, while chatting with old friends from your hometown over Instagram deeply connects to your value of friendship.
This brings us to the second point. Once an app or tool has made it through the first pass, ask:
“Is this technology set up in the best way to support this value?”
To pass this test, Cal suggests creating operating procedures–clear rules for when and how you use each of the optional technologies you let back in.
For example, you wouldn’t just say “I use Instagram because it helps me feel connected to my friends.” Instead, you would make a more detailed rule such as:
“I check Instagram once a day after working days and limit my usage to just 20 minutes. I’ve reduced my list of friends down to just the most meaningful ones I want to keep up with.”
Every new tool you bring in must also pass these tests.
Step 5: Actively ignore the rest
With your list of allowed tools and apps, clear operating procedures, and high-quality activities to fill your time, you shouldn’t be too stressed about keeping up with Facebook or checking the news every 30 minutes.
But being a digital minimalist is an ongoing process.
As Cal explains:
“The fact that [a piece of technology] offers some value is irrelevant–the digital minimalist deploys technology to serve the things they find most important in their life, and is happy missing out on everything else.”
5 best practices for maintaining a digital minimalist lifestyle for the long-term
As we’ve written in the past, the hardest part of any productivity strategy is sticking with it for the long-term. The same goes for maintaining your new practice of digital minimalism.
The key to staying away from attention-sucking technologies is to fill that time with other, more meaningful activities. Yet this isn’t always easy if you’ve spent years scrolling, tapping, and swiping away.
To help you rebuild your curiosity in non-technologically driven pastimes, Cal outlines a number of ways to support your newfound digital autonomy:
- Spend time alone. Solitude—both physical and mental—is important for thinking clearly. Rather than feeling the FOMO of social media, try leaving your phone at home while you go for a walk.
- Don’t click like. Social media and digital communication have become digital versions of fast food–easy to consume yet with little nutritional value. To combat this, Cal suggests you specifically limit the performative aspect of these tools. Yes, you can stay in touch and connect with loved ones. But don’t click ‘like’ or allow yourself to be always available.
- Reclaim leisure. One of the reasons we lean so heavily on digital technologies is that we’ve lost our hobbies. It’s easier to scroll through your phone than read a book. Try reclaiming leisure time for analog tasks you enjoy.
- Join the Attention Resistance. You don’t have to use all the features on your phone or be constantly connected to social media. As Cal writes, digital minimalists give themselves less ‘entry points’ to distraction. Try deleting social media off your phone. Or treat it like a professional task—something you do as needed and not more.
- Imagine you have to pay for every click, swipe, or tap. If you can’t give your time and attention the value it deserves, then give it a monetary value. Ask how your behavior would change if every swipe on Instagram, click of a clickbait-y infographic, or scroll of your Twitter feed costs $1.
Digital minimalism is a way to not only clearly define what technologies you let into your life but how you use them.
Once you understand your true values you can build your technology use around them. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, you become more intentional, empowered, and productive.