Right now minimalism is all the rage. Which means you’ve likely come across a variety of minimalist-based tips and tricks on websites and podcasts—and possibly everywhere you look. When something becomes this trendy, it can quickly become meaningless, just another swiftly passing fad.
But minimalism is everywhere for good reason.
Minimalism encourages us to cut out the clutter and excess in our lives, which gives us more time (and energy and attention) to spend on the things that truly matter to us. It gives us freedom, because we aren’t buried under needless possessions or needless tasks or societal expectations or crushing debt. That is, we have the freedom to pause, to make deliberate, thoughtful choices, and to live our lives in ways that feel true and good to us.
We can find this powerful freedom in becoming a digital minimalist, too—which is something everyone can benefit from.
When you think of your phone, and other devices, do you feel free? Or do you feel enslaved to the various screens in your life?
This might seem like a dramatic word to use, but consider how you use technology for a minute: Do you bring your phone with you everywhere you go, as though it were simply part of you? Do you find yourself scrolling social media, checking email or opening different apps on your phone without even realizing that you’re doing it? How much time do you spend on your phone or tablet or computer a day? Do you let yourself get bored or take a break or wait in line, or do you fill those gaps with scrolling, swiping and tapping? Does your phone distract you when you’re trying to do other things?
In his eye-opening, insight-filled, suggestion-packed book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, author and computer science professor Cal Newport, Ph.D, defines digital minimalism as: “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 encourages readers to do a month-long digital declutter by taking a break from all optional technologies in your life. During this time, he also suggests exploring and rediscovering the activities and actions that you find satisfying and meaningful. This is especially critical because we tend to view the idea of spending less time on our screens as a punishment, as depriving ourselves of something massively enjoyable and entertaining.
However, spending less time with our screens is actually an opportunity. It is an opportunity to be curious, to create, to reconnect to what (and who) we love; it is an opportunity to reconnect to ourselves.
After the month-long declutter is over, the final step is to reintroduce some technology back into your life, “starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value,” Newport writes.
In other words, the point is to make technology work for you.
Newport also notes that the goal of this declutter isn’t just to give yourself a break from technology. It’s to “spark a permanent transformation of your digital life.” Instead of technology being the main part of your life—the thing that’s always with you (literally) and demands your undivided attention—it becomes “only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.”
In December 2017 Newport asked his mailing list for volunteers who’d be willing to try his digital declutter in January and give him updates. Over 1600 people signed up.
During the declutter, one participant read almost nine books. Another participant read three books, organized her closet, scheduled dinner dates with friends, and had more face-to-face conversations with her brother. A third participant started journaling and reading before bed every night, along with listening to records on a record player, which he found to be a much richer experience than streaming music.
Participants who are parents found themselves interacting more intentionally with their children. They also found themselves with more time for their own activities. One mom started engaging in different creative pursuits, which inspired her to create a blog to share her work and connect with other artists. Another mom returned to playing the piano and started relearning how to sew. She told Newport: “Stepping away for thirty-one days provided clarity I didn’t know I was missing…As I stand here now from the outside looking in, I see there is so much more the world has to offer!”
This point is especially powerful because one of the biggest reasons so many of us cling to our devices, and can’t stop scrolling, is that we don’t have anything meaningful to replace them with.
As Newport writes, “The most successful digital minimalists, therefore, tend to start their conversion by renovating what they do with their free time—cultivating high-quality leisure before culling the worst of their digital habits. In fact, many minimalists will describe a phenomenon in which digital habits that they previously felt to be essential to their daily schedule suddenly seemed frivolous once they became more intentional about what they did with their time. When the void is filled, you no longer need distractions to help you avoid it.”
It’s exciting and interesting to see what activities end up resonating with you. Maybe you decide to join a book club or soccer league. Maybe you read poetry and start writing your own. Maybe you create a calming evening routine. Maybe you learn to play the violin or paint or bake or sew or crochet.
Newport includes several key quotes from Gary Rogowska’s book Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction: “People have the need to put their hands on tools and to make things. We need this in order to feel whole.”
When letting technology back into your life, it’s critical to be very selective and intentional. Newport notes that the technology “must serve something you deeply value” (versus simply offering some kind of benefit, as most technologies do). It also must be the best way to serve this value, and have specific parameters around when and how you use it.
For example, according to Newport, digital minimalists wouldn’t say, “I use Facebook because it helps my social life.” Instead, they’d get super specific: “I check Facebook each Saturday on my computer to see what my close friends and family are up to; I don’t have the app on my phone; I culled my list of friends down to just meaningful relationships.”
Before the declutter, one participant subscribed to dozens of email newsletters and compulsively checked breaking news sites. After, he realized that wasn’t the best way to meet his need to be informed. Now he checks one website, AllSides.com, once a day. Another participant now listens to a news roundup podcast every morning.
Some participants scaled back on checking their social media accounts to once a week. Others completely stopped using them. One woman set up a schedule for calling and texting her friends. She told Newport: “In the end, I just accepted the fact that I would miss some events in their lives, but that this was worthwhile for the mental energy it would save me to not be on social media.”
The minimalist movement, including Newport’s digital minimalism, invites us to do something incredibly important: to question whether something is truly essential to us, instead of automatically consuming something because everyone else is consuming it. It invites us to examine, experiment and delve deeper. It invites us to look at our possessions, analog and digital, as tools that support us, instead of enslave us.
And it encourages us to delete and declutter anything that isn’t adding to our lives, anything that isn’t contributing to helping us feel whole. And that is quite meaningful.