My digital detox wake-up call came a few months ago. Between co-workers delicately suggesting I take some time off and my decision to ditch the glasses via laser eye surgery, I could no longer ignore that it was time to review my relationship with technology.
Until recently, most days started with alarming regularity. I would roll over at dawn (my dog’s preferred breakfast time) and check my phone immediately—kicking off a day and night that would include at least 14 hours of time bouncing between smartphones, tablets, and laptops… plural.
I’m just one of billions of people struggling with the same digitally-controlled routine. So far in 2018, the average time spent on screens worldwide is hovering around 7.7 hours per day. Internet usage in particular has grown more than 209% over the last eight years.
Faced with my team holding me to a week’s vacation, and my new 20/20 eyes begging for a break from backlit screens, I made some major moves to unplug. What I discovered on my journey, however, is that digital minimalism is as much about leaning into the screen time that matters as it is about cutting back on texting while sleeping.
Some Web-Induced Wake Up Calls
We have been interacting with devices long enough to know, fairly scientifically, that too much screen time is a health risk:
- Basing our measures of success and well-being on social media negatively affect our happiness, stress levels, and feelings of self-worth.
- From a physical standpoint, over-indulging on devices can cause ailments like eye strain, text neck, insomnia, and cyber sickness or “digital motion sickness”—and no, that last one is not a joke.
- Increased use of chat and text to communicate is reducing our ability to read emotions and interact empathetically with each other.
- Constant notifications condition us to react to our phones in a compulsive manner, causing constant, low-level anxiety that leads to more of the above physical and emotional distress. Forget FOMO, it’s FOBO—the Fear of Burning Out—that minimalism proponents say should be the real motivator when looking at reasons to reduce unnecessary screen time.
Our digital reality is this: Interacting with screens is no longer a new or novel thing, no matter what the latest release notes are telling us. We’re all going to be staring at some version of backlit rectangles, all-encompassing digital views through VR goggles, AR holographic images and the like, for the rest of our lives. We should approach using technology like a marathon, not a sprint.
So why is it only now occurring to people (including me) that, like so many other things in life, digital moderation is a vital skill to master?
The True Definition Of Digital Minimalism
Taking an active role in managing how and when you interact with your devices starts with understanding what minimalism is all about. At a high level, Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, also known as The Minimalists explain it thusly:
“Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”
Minimalism as a concept is nothing new, observes computer science professor Cal Newport. What’s new about this latest wave of thinking, however, is that minimalist advocates and thought leaders are using technology like blogs, social media, and podcasts, to educate and support the pursuit of minimalism—the very tools that are some of the biggest sources of disorganization, clutter, and overindulgence for people today.
He’s further defined the term digital minimalism:
“Digital minimalism is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”
Digital minimalism isn’t just desktop decluttering, and it’s definitely not about streamlining passwords to a select few across many accounts. As Newport points out, it’s your prerogative to both clear away “low-value digital noise,” and optimize how you use “tools that really matter.”
By approaching screen time within this framework, it’s achievable to both:
- Cut out time spent on unproductive or anxiety-inducing digital mediums, and
- Make time for interactions with technology that bring meaning and value to your life.
That’s right—there’s no need to force yourself to feel major FOMO in order to embrace a minimalist approach to your devices. In fact, a little time spent on decluttering will open up more time to keep connected to those activities, networks, and apps that matter most.
So in short, practicing digital minimalism actually gives you more time to engage in the things you care most about.
Cutting Back On Mental Clutter
The goal behind the following “cut back” strategies is to set boundaries around “online” and “offline” time with consistency so that your access to technology is normalized for both you and those with whom you interact over digital mediums.
- No-tech mornings: This is a strategy I’ve implemented to start each day with a balanced approach to my screen time. Until I sit down at my work laptop, I avoid looking at my phone, picking up my tablet, or turning on the TV. Instead, I go out for a walk with my dog, make breakfast (eating it sans digital distraction), and get ready for the day. This strategy cuts at least one hour of mindless screen time from my schedule, and makes my personal device time at the end of the workday that much more motivating.
- Find fewer apps to do more things: There’s a “software solution” for just about every problem, but managing activities across dozens of apps can slow down your productivity and give you notification overload. Centralizing your personal and work to-do’s, for example, in one place like Trello can keep you focused longer and reduce the number of apps in your routine.
- Batch digital tasks: Bouncing between browser tabs, apps, or work on your computer is called context switching, and it’s a time waster. Schedule time in your calendar to tackle digital tasks, start to finish, in one sitting. Email is great place to start: Reserve a half hour at the beginning and end of your day to review and respond to email. By cutting out all those 5-minute email disruptions in your day, you are able to focus more intently on each task at hand.
- Take control of pings and dings: Diving in the depths of your device settings to make notifications and updates more manual can go a long way towards paring down mindless “checking in.” For example, set email on your phone to “Fetch” so that it will only update when you refresh it. I rely on centralized notifications in the apps I use most, like Trello Home, to make my intake of important updates more efficient. You can also take advantage of your status updates in social media, chat apps, or even your email signature to communicate to people the next time that you’ll be checking for new messages.
There is no end to useful tips and tricks for combating compulsive device distractions (a habit labeled as “the Twitch” by The Minimalists). Some people advise putting your phone in airplane mode when you don’t want to be distracted, or implementing a stopping rule that helps you limit the damage of all those minutes you waste “checking one more thing” on your phone or computer before you sign off for the day. Like Cal Newport, you might even just need some great reasons why quitting something as ubiquitous like social media is, in fact, something that’s possible and valuable:
Pick one or two at a time to try, and make them part of your routine for a week or two before deeming them a successful or failed approach. Habits are hard to break!
Making Time For Tech That Matters
The other side of digital minimalism is about optimizing how we use screen time to bring real value to our lives. Here are some “embrace” strategies that help you treat your technology as a tool that serves to bring value to your life, rather than existing as a needy, noisy screen that demands your constant attention.
- Choose your news: It’s too easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news and articles that are published every day. Consume information carefully by taking the time to curate: pare down email newsletters, build Twitter lists, or customize your News app. What you want to stay informed about is your choice, of course, but content can serve a purpose to keep you focused on your goals, or give you an emotional boost, or help you learn something new and interesting to share at your next cocktail party.
- Be human when possible: Text-based communication is everywhere, but why not take it to video conferencing for your next meeting or casual chat? Research has shown that a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than a request made via email. Video conferencing isn’t just for work, either. Keep in touch with long-distance friends, or try out a video yoga class or book club.
- Don’t just intake… create: Learn the craft behind the mediums that—to borrow a phrase from Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo—bring you joy. Put another way, a tenet of Cal Newport’s approach to digital minimalism is that “activity trumps passivity.” If you like exploring new types of technology, learn to code. If you love to catch up on witty long-form journalism, try blogging. If you enjoy debating ideas with friends, record those conversations and call it a podcast. You’ll feel differently towards your devices when their main purpose is to help you be creative and build new skills.
All of these digital minimalism strategies serve a common purpose: To put you in charge of your screen time, instead of letting it charge through your day with no rhyme or reason. If you love Instagram, prioritize it. If your group chat is causing you anxiety, or work email access on your phone is disrupting your dinner, leave it. Don’t wait to take charge of your screen time until you physically can’t manage it, like me!
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