Why You Should Try Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism | Self Governance Project
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It has been a long day at work. You have a deadline to meet, and your boss has been breathing down your neck. Finally, at 6 pm, you come home and zonk down on the couch, ready to take a break. Then, you look at the time, and it’s suddenly 9 pm. What happened to those last three hours? You only opened Facebook for a bit, caught up on your Instagram stories, and vented your work frustration on Twitter. You may have watched an episode or two of The Office on Netflix, but surely all of that couldn’t have lasted three hours, right?

Does this sound familiar?

I’m sure that many of us can relate to some variation of the story above. Technology, in many ways, has made our lives better. But in other ways, has it really?

It’s no secret that I have recently been openly critical of social media platforms. Many people have suggested that my position is “anti-technology,” but I can assure you that this is not the case. I love technology. However, over the last couple of years, I have started to wonder if the internet and the digital age have really helped us become better human beings or if they have helped exploit vulnerabilities within human behavior.

The Digital Trap

In 2012, I was living in Baltimore, Maryland serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a missionary during that time, we were not allowed to have any kind of smartphone or tablet. As I would learn after returning home, smartphones were becoming increasingly popular, especially among my generation.

I distinctly remember seeing another missionary come home from his mission to his family in the local congregation we attended. He helped us with the work many times and was very engaging. After a few weeks, however, he purchased an iPhone and his attention was constantly with the device. I remember thinking to myself that he looked like a zombie–not really present mentally and would grunt out responses to questions directed to him.

Even though I vowed that I would not fall prey to this kind of digital slave-master, I was wrong. I came home from my mission and immediately my friends and peers said that I needed to get an iPhone. Besides, now, in 2013, everyone could purchase one because there were monthly payment plans!

Troubling Trends

After having been an iPhone user for nearly 6 years, I began to notice several troubling trends.

First, checking my phone became a habit, whether or not I had a legitimate, compelling need to do so. The result of this phone-checking would often end in getting on social media or looking up interesting videos or news to fill my time of “boredom.”

Second, I noticed that my real-world relationships had taken a hit. Rather than engaging in real world conversations with friends and family, these relationships relied on texting and social media likes and comments.

And third, I found that even when I was with others, I would often opt for the digital life in my pocket. Engaging with those around me became secondary to looking for something interesting online. When I became a husband and father, the guilt surrounding this observation would sting.

When I recognized these disturbing patterns, I wanted to put a stop to them. So I deleted all social media apps from off my phone. And for a while that helped. But soon, I figured out ways around my self-imposed restrictions and began feeding my technology driven behavioral addictions with other things.

During my continual search for a more permanent solution, I stumbled upon the answer in a book called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

Digital Minimalism

Digital minimalism, as Newport describes it, is a practical philosophy that describes how we should use technology. Most of us, are ready and willing to adopt all the shiny new services and gadgets that Silicon Valley thinks up. But few of us actually take the time to consider the impact that these new technologies have in our lives.

The problem is not necessarily the technologies themselves. Many of the popular apps and services of the day were conceived with good intentions. However, when trying to make a profitable business, they needed to figure out ways to keep people coming back to serve up ads. Initially, the alert notification on Facebook was blue. When they changed it to red, an alarm color, engagement skyrocketed.

Former Google engineer-turned whistleblower Tristan Harris once compared a smartphone to a “slot machine.” When pressed on why he described it that way he replied, “Well, every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see ‘What did I get?'”

The Principles of Digital Minimalism

Digital minimalists are not anti-technology. On the contrary, the digital minimalist seeks to use technology in such a way that promotes or is congruent with his values. The digital minimalist recognizes that in-person relationships and conversations are superior to digital ones and seeks to leverage technology to better develop real-world interaction.

Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support the things they deeply value–not as sources of value themselves.

Digital Minimalism ~ Cal Newport

As a basic guide, Newport lays out three principles of digital minimalism:

Principle 1: Clutter Is Costly

This is the idea that your time is important and taking time away on too many apps, services, and devices can be costly. The negative costs associated with each additional item can drown out the small benefits that they would provide in isolation. Therefore, Newport suggests that a digital declutter is in order.

Principle 2: Optimization Is Important

Digital minimalists understand that the technologies they use should support the things they value. However, they also think carefully about how they will use each new technology.

Principle 3: Intentionality Is Satisfying

Rather than simply going with the flow when it comes to new technologies, the digital minimalist is very intentional about how he or she engages with them. A sense of satisfaction accompanies this intentional living and self-control.

One of the great things about the digital minimalist philosophy is that it can look very different in practice and can be adapted to the needs or desires of each individual.

Digital Declutter

There are many other insightful and useful on how to make technology best work for you rather than the other way around. Rather than reviewing them here, I’ll let you pick up a copy of the book yourself in case you want to learn more.

One of the most helpful aspects of what Cal Newport suggests is a 30-day digital declutter. The essential idea is that you limit your technology usage to only technologies that are critical to your work.

So for example, as part of my own 30-day digital declutter, I’m restricting myself from social media (except for SGP), TV, YouTube, compulsive web searching, text messaging, and email checking. However, if any of those things are work related, it’s ok.

I’m now a few days in and I can feel that desire to reach for my phone whenever I’m bored. Instead, I have chosen to make conversation with other people, think about problems I need solving in my own life, or *gasp* do nothing.

The Benefits

Although I’m not very far in, the benefits have been immediate and obvious. Every aspect of my life has become more focused and more productive. My relationship with my wife and my child have improved greatly–there’s no longer a technological wedge there. My goal is to substitute my digital connections with more authentic, real-world relationships. This may require more effort, but I believe and have seen that the end results are well worth it.

One of the greatest benefits in the short term and in the long run is the feeling that comes from being in control of your own life, which should be the life-long, ultimate goal for each of us. I am thoroughly convinced that by getting rid of much of the digital noise in our lives, we can find much more intention, purpose, and fulfillment in our lives.

In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau went to the woods near Walden pond to live in nature and be alone. He detailed his experience in his book Walden and made a very important discovery: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

While Thoreau’s idea and the digital minimalist philosophy can seem extreme to some, it may be worthwhile to at least consider and experiment with these ideas, lest we one day wake up from our digitall-induced coma to realize what we’ve truly been missing out on.

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