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What is “digital minimalism”? Why is it important to understand? And how does one even become a “digital minimalist”?
Cal Newport wrote a book discussing these questions—and more. Cal is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and Digital Minimalism is his newest book (as of 2019). He’s also the author of Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
He split Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World into two parts:
It’s simple, really. What do we need to know about it, and what can we do to practice it?
Ever wonder why you feel worse after spending an hour scrolling through Instagram or Facebook? Or why you feel angrier after getting into a Twitter argument that you won? Or even that sick feeling in your stomach when you realize you picked up the phone to check your email five times in the last ten minutes?
Smartphones, social media, news sites—things Newport calls “optional technologies”—are all vying for our attention.
We live in a world dominated by the attention economy. Companies design products and services intended to keep your attention for as long as possible.
In Digital Minimalism, Newport suggests nothing that’s really “new”, but instead a system that’s well-packaged and easily understood.
“Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves.”—Cal Newport
Do a Digital Declutter
Newport recommends a few things, such as doing a 30-day digital detox and re-evaluating how optional digital technologies fit into our lives.
I’ve got a list of all the technologies and digital inputs I use, and culling it of all the “optional” ones that don’t support my full-time job, my coaching practice, my podcast, or staying in contact with my husband. Naturally, I’ll keep all my diabetes-related tech since that, you know, keeps me alive.
Newport gives this definition:
“My general heuristic is the following: consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.”
For the things that you can’t completely get rid of, put limitations in place.
Need email for work? Fine, keep email. But only check it two or three times a day. Use similar rules for your other non-optional technologies that you still want to get a handle on. You can read more about social media boundaries in this post.
With a list, now you’ve got the rules for the 30-day detox: what you can’t interact with, and what you can—and their limitations.
After the 30-day detox, Newport instructs you to reintroduce technology back into your life, but not as it was before. It’s important to read this section of the book and keep it in mind because the last thing you want to do is go back to your old digital habits.
The point is to get free from the attention hooks, not willingly take the bait.
Newport discusses four practices to adopt in your life that help put distance between you and the digital bait. A lot of this boils down to mindfulness and paying attention to what we spend our attention on.
Newport discusses these four practices in depth:
- Spend Time Alone
- Don’t Click “Like”
- Reclaim Leisure
- Join the Attention Resistance
My favorite of these is spending time alone. Paired with the digital detox, I think this one has the most power behind it.
My simple way to take care of the “don’t click ‘like’” practice is to use the “News Feed Eradicator for Facebook” plugin on Chrome, which does exactly what it sounds like.
The other method I’m using is to enable a blocking session with the Freedom app—which cuts me off from distracting websites and apps like Facebook and Fanfiction during pre-defined periods.
What’s the Verdict?
I liked the depth and breadth of research that Newport put into this book. He gives the compelling history behind why we’re so attached to our phones, and examples of some of the 1,500+ people who responded to his call for Digital Detox volunteers.
I’ve tried to unglue myself from my phone for what feels like years, with middling success. I’ve used the Forest App (which I still love), but it doesn’t meet all my needs.
Again, none of what Cal Newport talks about is new, but he lays it out in a way that resonates with those people fed up with social media and other “screen things” eating up all their time.
If you know that you’re spending too much time glued to your screens, this book is for you. I did a Digital Detox during June 2019. As a society, we need to stop spending so much of our valuable and precious time scrolling through things designed to change our brains.
Are you fed up with the “roll and scroll”? Have you tried to do a digital detox, but failed? Share your story in the comments below! This book might just be the solution you’ve been looking for.