Digital minimalism 101: How to find focus and calm by becoming a digital minimalist

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at work these days. Between schedules packed with emails, meetings, and catchups and the constant pull of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it feels like we never have time to do anything meaningful.

So when author and computer science professor Cal Newport released Deep Work in early 2016, many saw it as a better way forward. In the book, Cal proposed that in order to do our best work and live a purposeful life, we need to be intentional with how we spend our time. 

And while that advice made sense in 2016 (and still does in many ways), our lives have become busier and messier in the years since. Especially when it comes to our relationship with technology.

Depending on how you use them, email, chat apps, social media, and other tools can be just as productive as they can be distracting. So how do we get the most out of the good parts of technology while protecting ourselves from the bad?

In his new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal attempts to answer this question. By becoming a digital minimalist, we’re able to rebuild our relationship with technology so that it serves us. Not the other way around.

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The minimalist origins of Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism Cover

The word “minimalism” has been thrown around a lot in the past decade. As many of us find ourselves sucked into a lifestyle of “more,” the idea of living happily with less becomes more alluring.

For Cal, his feelings about minimalism started to form in a 2016 blog post where he presented a loose framework on his relationship with technology.

“On the one hand, I’m a computer scientist who studies and improves these tools,” he writes. And as such, he’s optimistic about the role technology can play in our lives.

However, he also explains how he’s critical of a lot of the developments of the Internet Era, including our over-reliance on social media and communication tools.

The challenge, Cal writes, comes in finding a balance. The answer, he proposes, is in digital minimalism.

The modern minimalist movement stems from a desire not just for less stuff. But for more control and intention in how we spend our time and energy.

“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.”

This intention is sorely missed in our modern use of technology. Rather than being purposeful in what gets our attention, we let everything in and assume only the best will stick. But it doesn’t.

As we’ve written in the past, many apps and sites are designed to keep you coming back, even without your realizing it. To be a digital minimalist, you need to be hyper-aware of your relationship with technology.

“To be a digital minimalist, in other words, means you accept the idea that new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve your life, but also recognize that realizing this potential is hard work.”

How technology became so exhausting

Digital Minimalism art

While awareness is important, our full-blown adoption of technology into every aspect of our lives doesn’t always make it easy.

We spend all day staring at screens, read books on Kindles or iPads, and come home to relax by watching a movie or TV. In fact, if you’re anything like most people you:

But, as Cal writes, the problem isn’t just 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.

As Cal writes:

“As many people clarified, the issue was the overall impact of having so many different shiny baubles pulling so insistently at their attention and manipulating their mood.”

It’s no longer solely about your calendar and scheduling. Instead, Cal explains how:

“The urge to check Twitter… becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”

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Why Digital Minimalism isn’t just about giving up your phone or deleting Facebook

No one signed up for a loss of control at the hands of our technology. Yet, digital minimalism isn’t about throwing out all your technology. It’s about reclaiming your control and power over what you do let into your life. And that doesn’t come from simply deleting apps or getting rid of your phone.

As Cal defines it, Digital minimalism is:

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online 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.”

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.

Does this mean deleting your Facebook account or giving up your smartphone? Maybe. But rather than going cold turkey and then assuming your willpower will keep you going strong (it won’t), practicing digital minimalism allows you to choose what you bring into your life.

No one signed up for a loss of control at the hands of modern technology. With digital minimalism, you learn to take back control over your time and your attention. Click To Tweet

More than that, it’s about rediscovering the non-technology-powered activities and behaviors you enjoy doing and supplementing them into your life.

The Digital Declutter: A 30-day plan for building a practice of Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism Clutter

So how do you start practicing digital minimalism in your own life?

Let’s start by breaking down Cal’s definition and pull out the essential elements of a digital minimalist lifestyle.

  • 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. But digital minimalists are happy to miss out on the things they know don’t bring value to their lives.

Developing a digital minimalist mindset isn’t easy. However, in the second part of the book, Cal presents a plan on how to break out of your current technology habits and become a minimalist.

How to do a Digital Declutter

When it comes to changing your relationship with technology, gradually changing your habits won’t work. The pull of the attention economy is too strong. Instead, Cal offers up a different suggestion.

Set aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. (“Optional” meaning anything where their “temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your profession or personal life.” Work email is not optional. Twitter—most likely—is.)

During this break, you’ll explore and rediscover activities and behaviors you find satisfying and meaningful. And after the 30 days are up, you can reintroduce the optional technologies you want to back int your life if you determine the value it brings you and how specifically you can use it to maximize that value.

This isn’t a simple “tech detox” or short break. It’s meant to be a reset for your relationship with technology.

When you do bring optional technologies back into your life, create “operating procedures” around them. These are the rules on how exactly you’ll use them and when. This doesn’t mean you can use everything you did before just in a lesser fashion.

As you re-introduce new technologies into your life, ask if it directly supports something that you deeply value. 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.”

4 tips on maintaining a Digital Minimalist lifestyle

Digital Minimalism Desk

As we’ve written in the past, the hardest part of any productivity strategy is sticking with it. And so it’s unsurprising that a good chunk of the book is focused on practices for maintaining digital minimalism.

Specifically, Cal outlines four ways to rediscover non-digital activities you love that will support your newfound digital autonomy.

  1. Spend Time Alone. So much of technology is designed to keep us connected. But solitude—both physical and mental—is important for thinking clearly. Rather than feeling the FOMO of social media and email, try leaving your phone at home while you go for a walk, journaling, or simply spending more time alone.
  2. Don’t Click Like. Social media and digital communication have become digital versions of fast food. They’re too easy to consume, yet don’t give us what we need to live a healthy, happy life. Instead of buying in, Cal suggests we specifically limit the performative aspect of these tools. Yes, you can use them to stay in touch and connect with loved ones. But don’t click “like” or allow yourself to be always available.
  3. Reclaim Leisure. One of the reasons we lean so heavily on digital technologies is that we’ve lost our hobbies and leisure activities. It’s easier to scroll through your phone than read a book. It’s easier to text than go for a run or paint a picture. By reclaiming our leisure time for analog tasks we can break free from the FOMO of digital technologies.
  4. Join the Attention Resistance. You don’t have to use all the features on your smartphone or be constantly connected to social media. As Cal writes, reducing the number of entry points is an important part of being a digital minimalist. Try deleting social media off your phone. Or, if you can’t do that, treat it like a professional task—something you do as needed and not more.

When it comes to your tech, less can be more

Digital minimalism is a way to clearly define not only 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, more empowered, and more productive.

Instead of a Pavlovian response to buzzes, bings, and notifications, or succumbing to negative habitual check-ins, you become intentional with your use.

Find out more about Digital Minimalism and Cal Newport’s writing on his blog.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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