Digital Minimalism Diaries Part 4: Trade My Life for What?

I’ve been “decluttering” my digital life for five weeks. My intention when I began this process was to slowly establish boundaries, efficient practices, and practical strategies to minimize my technology use and make more room for “deep work,” in-person connection, and solitude in my life. I started now so that by the time January arrives I will be more than prepared to effectively participate in an official thirty-day digital declutter as Cal Newport defines in his book Digital Minimalism. The goal: Put enough perspective between myself and the technologies that I use and think are necessary or valuable for a long enough amount of time to determine if I want to keep them in my life, or omit them altogether in the future. Cut everything extraneous out of my life, and only add back in the good, or the stuff that doesn’t make me feel terrible. It’s a Whole 30 practice for your mind.

So what is Cal Newport’s philosophy, and what are the strategies he offers up to assist us on our own technological journey? Very simply put, in his book Digital Minimalism Newport defines his theory as a belief that “less can be more” when it comes to our relationship with digital tools. It’s a “philosophy that prioritizes long-term meaning over short-term satisfaction.” Digital Minimalism shifts our focus when examining value in technological tools from one simple marker: usefulness, to a much more satisfying, albeit complex principle: autonomy. This requires a complete restructuring of how we view technology, and therefore, our relationship to it. Newport explains that “by working backward from [our] deep values to [our] technology choices, digital minimalism transforms these innovation[s] from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived.”

“Digital Minimalism: 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.”

Newport breaks this concept down into “Three Principles.” Principle number one: “Clutter is Costly” examines the role that technology has in cluttering our time and attention ultimately creating an overall negative cost that overshadows the small individual benefits that each bit of technology may offer in isolation. Principle number two: “Optimization is Important” is the idea that once a digital minimalist decides that a certain technology does indeed give them real value, the way that they use that technology in order to optimize it is equally as important to determine. Principle number three: “Intentionality is Satisfying” is the concept that because minimalists are establishing autonomy over their digital choices, this practice becomes meaningful within itself.

I don’t want to get too caught up in the details outlined in the book, because I suggest you read it yourself. The entire thing is full of epiphanies and useful strategies. So I will share with you my favorite philosophies and practices, then give you a short update on how this process is working for me.

The most important idea that I pulled out of Digital Minimalism is the (not new) concept of Henry David Thoreau’s New Economics. In his book Walden, which was published in the year 1854, Thoreau essentially shifts the units that measure value from money to time. “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” I certainly feel that once you begin examining your habits in these terms, you become painfully aware that you are literally paying for each minute of whatever technology you’re using with your life. 

I also found Newport’s strategy for determining whether or not to re-introduce a technology back into my life after the declutter useful. He offers up a set of simple criteria: “Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? Is this technology the best way to support this value? How am I going to use the technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?” A simple set of questions that requires a massive amount of introspection.

I also appreciate Newport’s emphasis on the importance of having a plan for your time in order to facilitate a lifestyle change. This process should not be considered a “detox” that you suffer through, then afterward simply go back to the same lifestyle and habits as before. It’s not a crash diet. During this time of “decluttering” we should be taking the time to remember what we enjoyed before we were tethered to our phones and computers, or for those born after 1995, to figure out what those activities are in the first place. Newport makes many useful suggestions, including: Spend time alone to facilitate solitude, deep work and introspection, reclaim conversation by spending real time with others instead of “clicking like” as a shallow substitution, and reclaim leisure time by finding activities that give you joy, or meaning and value. I found that last idea to be particularly useful because Newport calls for a shift from leisure activities that are merely considered “passive consumption” to activities that “prioritize demanding activity, use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world” and “require real-world structured social interactions.” In summation: activities that give us meaning, and produce real value for ourselves and those close to us.

He then goes on to give real-world examples and suggestions of how to do this. Join a club, a gym, or a group of some sort. Schedule phone calls with loved ones. Remove apps from your phone so that you use it only as a phone. Schedule specific leisure activities. Fill your life with planned and meaningful things so that at the end of your declutter your perspective on what is important enough to trade your life for has likely changed.

I have been slowly implementing more and more of these strategies to assist me in the process of minimizing my technology use for good. I have been journaling all of my screen time, removed all unnecessary apps from my phone, and placed the existing apps into a few specified categories so that I have a clear idea of where my time is going. I have “productivity” which includes my to-do list app, my schedule, my blog, notes, fitness apps, music and podcasts. A folder for work, finance, photography, utilities, and then social media and entertainment. I chose to put music and podcasts into productivity instead of one of the other categories because I’ve determined that they give me significant positive value, whereas social media, netflix, and the Lululemon app do not, but on a scheduled occasion are okay in moderation.

The result of tracking my use for five weeks: I’ve gone from around seven hours a week of social media use to around two without actively limiting myself, or implementing an actual schedule yet. These are just the changes I’ve made naturally after exposing myself to my habits, and realizing that there are better ways to spend my time. Honestly, I expected stepping away from social media to be a struggle, but the opposite literally just happened on it’s own. Instead of focusing on what I’m not doing, I’m putting all my energy into what I am doing: spending scheduled time with friends and family, hosting a book club, exercising, reading more, going on walks, journaling my ideas. With all these fulfilling leisure activities in my life, I honestly don’t miss spending time on “shallow” activities at all. And the anxiety and pressure social media created in my life is diminishing as I begin to recognize that most of social media’s perceived value is literally not real. 

The boundaries I’ve established with my clients (auto text response, less accessibility, quick responses on social media) have all helped to put me at ease because my clients have a very clear understanding of my availability, and know they will be taken care of in a prompt manner. This takes much of the pressure off of me to constantly email or text for work, and I think the majority of my clientele understands and respects these boundaries. 

And I feel free to be. I put my Apple Watch on, and head out the door. No phone, watch set permanently to silent and do not disturb, mirror my phone feature is permanently off. Available for music, podcasts, tracking workouts, and getting ahold of me in emergencies only. The amount of mental space this frees up for me is enormous. The things you notice being out in the world without your phone for entire days is amazing. Knowing that if something happens to me I can still call my husband or hear from him helps curb the little bit of anxiety I used to have about leaving my phone at home. If it’s that important, call me. If you’re not on my favorites list, it can wait.

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