What is Digital Minimalism? - Public Goods

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What is Digital Minimalism?

Minimalism is the practice of removing physical items from our lives and homes that do not add value or beauty, and digital minimalism is the act of removing any aspects of our online activities that do not add high value and, ultimately, make us happier.

black flip cell phone

In a technology-driven world, where the idea of digital minimalism can seem to be a radical notion, there are a couple of questions you might ask:

  1. How can you minimize your digital life when we need it for so much in day-to-day living?
  2. Why would you even want to?

Cal Newport, author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller, “Digital Minimalism,” believes digital minimalism is not only possible but actually necessary, especially for people whose passions or careers require them to be creative and innovative. He argues that in our reliance on technology and the daily influx of shallow communications online, we lose the ability to think deeply and innovatively.

Devices of Mass Distraction

If you have ever found yourself mindlessly scrolling through your phone when faced with any amount of time waiting in line at the grocery store or in the waiting room of the dentist’s office — or even at a red light — you aren’t alone. According to Psychology Today, nomophobia, fear of being without your smartphone, affects 40% of the American population. That figure means nearly half the population never sets their phone down for very long.

But you probably don’t need a study to tell you that. Looking around any crowded public place, you will find most people engaged with their smartphones.

In March of this year, the Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury even announced that he would begin implementing “cell phone breaks” during team meetings because “they’re itching to get to those things.” He said he would let the players break for their phones every 20 or 30 minutes which, according to him, is about the amount of time he has before the players begin to lose interest.

“You start to see kind of hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix,” Kingsbury said.
But Newport claims there is a significant loss if we continue to use our devices any time we are left alone with our own thoughts. While it might begin benignly enough as a way to fill a little bit of time, eventually “all this tapping and swiping has a way of shifting from an occasional distraction to a default behavior.”

He approached this topic in his book, “Deep Work,” in which he asserts that “the ability to concentrate without distraction on a demanding task (deep work) is becoming more rare at the same time that it’s becoming more valuable in the knowledge sector.” That means as innovation and creativity are rising in value, our abilities to be creative and innovative are declining. Our ability to think deeply is stunted by repeated interruptions and distractions.

More often than not, he argues in “Digital Minimalism,” we invite these distractions into our lives. Newport explains that “the services delivered through your devices have become so alluring and addictive that they can significantly erode the quality of your life and your sense of autonomy.” So while it feels like our numerous apps are helpful and adding value, it seems that they are actually detracting value from our lives.

In a seeming paradox, people who are constantly connected feel tired and busy, but also like they’re not getting much done. In one of Newport’s case studies, the subject admitted his reasons for adopting a digitally minimal life: “I would just rotate between Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube for hours. I was never even looking for anything in particular.” Another one said, “I was constantly on my phone: checking, scrolling, tweeting, liking. It’s like I couldn’t stop.”

Newport’s solution is, of course, to become a digital minimalist. This solution might sound like living off the grid in the woods somewhere, but, as a computer scientist, that is not what he advocates at all.

Instead he admits the benefits of technology. He believes, however, that we should radically reduce the time we spend online. That way we only focus on a small number of activities that provide technological benefits and are chosen because they support our deeply held values.

Digital Detox and Downtime

In becoming a digital minimalist, the first step, Newport teaches, is to experience a digital detox. He advises readers to take a total break from optional technology and social media for 30 days as a prelude to simplifying your digital life. Though we often feel we can quit any time we want, he explains that, for anyone who picks up their phone to avoid waiting times or alone time, it is not going to be easy.

With readily available distraction devices, many people have stopped being alone with their thoughts. He says that when you begin the detox you may realize “you’re suddenly left with a whole mess of ‘silence,’ just you and your feelings, and an uneasy sense of not knowing what to do next.”

It will feel like a form of detox as you learn how to adapt to the changes. Newport writes, “Most people report that after a week or so of some mild withdrawal symptoms, they’re surprised by how little they miss the features of services like Twitter or Instagram. The real problem — and this surprised me — is figuring out how to deal with all the free time.”

Newport suggests hands-on hobbies as a way to fill the newfound extra time, but people also use this time to develop real-life relationships and reconnections, as well as accomplishing goals. Many of the case study subjects reported a reduction in anxiety and stress, coupled with an improved mood.

“At first, I was super stressed but then an amazing thing happened: I felt great,” one said. “Relaxed, calm, it’s like I could think clearly. My brain felt less crowded. It’s like someone went in and swept out the cobwebs.”

A Digital Life of Intention

After the initial 30-day detox, the next step in becoming a digital minimalist is to add back only the parts that add high value to your life. As Newport puts it, “As a reminder, digital minimalism isn’t about minimizing technology for the sake of minimizing technology — which would be a weird philosophy for a computer scientist like myself to promote. It’s instead about putting tools to work on behalf of the things you value most, and then ignoring the distractions that don’t clear this high bar.”

Put into Practice

Here are some popular steps digital minimalists take in their practice that you might want to try for yourself:

  • Make your mobile phone much less mobile by leaving it plugged into an outlet
  • Replace your smartphone with a flip phone or “light phone
  • Configure the parental controls on your computer to limit the amount of time you can browse personal email and distracting websites
  • Delete social media altogether
  • Use apps to manage the amount of time you spend on social media or distracting sites
  • Add blocking software to your computer to deter idle web surfing.

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