Digital Minimalism and the Radical Power of Unplugging

On December 5, 2017 I was presented with an interesting opportunity: the chance to undergo a voluntary digital declutter during the month of January. The…

On December 5, 2017 I was presented with an interesting opportunity: the chance to undergo a voluntary digital declutter during the month of January.

The challenge was issued by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University most widely known as the author of Deep Work – a manifesto for bringing more focus into your work and life. Nearly 1,800 of his email subscribers signed on for the experiment in which they’d forgo all use of optional technologies for 30 days. Their individual experiences undergoing a month of techo-deprivation would eventually be included in Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism.

I was not one of the 1,800 who responded.

Disconnecting from the digital world for an extended period of time was certainly appealing. It would mean an end to scrolling through Instagram, refreshing my Twitter timeline, and mindlessly typing "f" into my browser only to find myself still buried in my Facebook newsfeed 15 minutes later.

On their face these activities are entertaining. They can even be informative. Attachment to our devices has come to feel like a necessary reality of living in an ever-connected world. Breaking the cycle feels impossible, particularly as information workers whose careers depend, in large part, on being online.

[app_quote_featured]For many knowledge workers, two things can be true. Maintaining an online presence can be a necessary part of professional growth, while also contributing to burnout and a desire to unplug.[/app_quote_featured]

As someone who works in social media and content creation for a tech company, staying abreast of what’s going on online doesn’t feel optional. I need to stay on top of emerging trends, network with peers, and discover information for learning and inspiration.

Many millennials share this sentiment. In her widely-shared article "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation", Anne Helen Peterson, a BuzzFeed News Reporter, had this to say on the blurred line between personal and professional social media use:

“ media is also the means through which many “knowledge workers” — that is, workers who handle, process, or make meaning of information — market and brand themselves. Journalists use Twitter to learn about other stories, but they also use it to develop a personal brand and following that can be leveraged; people use LinkedIn not just for résumés and networking, but to post articles that attest to their personality (their brand!) as a manager or entrepreneur.”

For many knowledge workers, two things can be true. Maintaining an online presence can be a necessary part of professional growth, while also contributing to burnout and a desire to unplug. On one hand, detaching from the websites and apps that often dominate our time and attention seems positive. It would mean a break from the digital litter that crowds our devices and, more importantly, our minds. On the other hand, eschewing social media altogether comes with professional and personal costs.

Sure, maybe a computer science professor can become a digital hermit without consequences, but a social media manager at a tech company? No way. Like thousands of Newport’s subscribers who saw his message and flirted with the idea, I rationalized my way out of it. However, now that I’ve actually read Newport’s book, I’m starting to think maybe he’s on to something.

Digital Minimalism and its Limits

Newport’s Digital Minimalism is a direct rebuttal to all the reasons we have for being constantly connected, our rationale for opting-in to social media, and the notion that we can’t adjust our online usage.

Your excuse: “I need to stay up to date on what’s happening in my industry. Being on social media allows me to stay connected with what my peers are reading and sharing.”

Newport’s response: “Select trusted sources of leading industry information. Visit and read articles from these sources at a designated time each week.”

Your excuse: “I use Facebook to stay in touch with my family and friends, many of which live in different cities or countries.”

Newport’s response: “Visit or call them at regular intervals instead. True communication trumps passive connection in the form of likes.”

Your excuse: “It’s important as a designer/marketing/software engineer that I network and build a personal brand. How can I connect with peers and build thought leadership offline?”

Newport’s response: “Prioritize in-person events and industry conferences. Assess if social media is the best way to connect with your peers and share your views. If necessary, allow yourself a limited amount of time per week to dedicate to these aims.”

He dissects and analyzes our smartphone attachment and provides compelling arguments for “less can be more” when it comes to our digital tools.

[app_quote_featured]Newport asks us to demote technology from the leading star in our lives to a mere "supporting role".[/app_quote_featured]

Newport's latest book provides a blueprint for embracing a life that's ruled with intentional use of technology rather than mindless consumption of “low-quality digital distractions”. He calls this way of being Digital Minimalism. He urges us to curb our behavioral addiction to apps and social media and provides us with an alternative: only use technology in a way that directly serves your deeply held values.

Newport asks us to demote technology from the leading star in our lives to a mere "supporting role". In doing so, he says, we can enhance our own lives with more leisure and focus rather than enrich the pockets of Silicon Valley with our attention.

His book blends psychology, history, exploratory case studies, and tactical self-help. He details Tristan Harris’ move from tech executive to attention economy whistleblower and Dr. Jean M. Twenge’s controversial work correlating the rise of “iGen” anxiety disorders with ubiquitous smartphone usage. We’re provided with examples of historical figures from Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. who harnessed the power of solitude and quiet to make decisions that changed the course of nations. The case studies of digital detox participants provide a probing look at what is gained when we let go of “distracting tools and compulsive habits” and make a commitment to use technology in a manner that “maximize[s] its value and minimize[s] its harms”.

From ideas on implementing personal office hours to adding analog back into our lives, the book is chock-full of specific strategies on living a more meaningful life through Digital Minimalism.

Some of his arguments are more compelling than others. Advice on taking a more intentional approach to technology is thoughtful and difficult to dismiss, as are the harms that constant social media use can have on our psyches and our focus. However, other suggestions, like letting go of our weak social ties, flies in the face of much of what we know about career advancement and the power of secondary connections as paths to opportunity.

Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now, has spoken at length about this phenomenon. She suggests that “...weak ties give us access to something fresh. They know things and people that we don’t know. Information and opportunity spread farther and faster through weak ties than through close friends because weak ties have fewer overlapping contacts. Weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead.”

Also absent from his analysis is the true value of online connection, in and of itself. While Newport concedes that technology is a valuable tool for discovering and coordinating in-person interaction, by omission he dismisses how fruitful interactions with strangers, online acquaintances, and virtual friends can be.

For many, the internet is a place to find like-minded people far easier (and cost-effectively) than in-person events. Many people know the magic of hearing an opinion voiced online that you thought only you held. Or the feeling of sharing detailed things about your life that you might not in person, whether under the veil of anonymity or in a private group of trusted community members. All without a single face-to-face interaction.

While these oversights are frustrating, they don’t detract from Newport’s valuable message on minimizing our use of optional technologies and establishing operating rules so our attention and focus are directed at aims that satisfy our core values.

During a TEDx talk, Cal Newport argues that failing to maintain a constant online presence is without consequence. Newport has never had a social media account himself, yet has been able to lead a full life:

“It turns out I still have friends, I still know what's going on in the world; as a computer scientist I still collaborate with people all around the world, I'm still regularly exposed serendipitously to interesting ideas, and I rarely describe myself as lacking entertainment options. So I've been OK, but I'd go even farther and say not only I am OK without social media but I think I'm actually better off.”

Digital Minimalism makes the compelling case that he’s not an irregularity: many people – even a social media manager like me – can realistically take on much of the advice he provides in order to live a more balanced and meaningful life. If that sounds like a challenge you want to take on in your own life, here’s where Newport suggests to start:

Do a Digital Declutter

Newport argues that simple resolutions to taper down the time we spend online isn’t enough. Instead, he recommends a 30 day digital declutter suggesting that “to reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch.”

The month-long challenge includes a break from “optional technologies” and an embrace of activities and behaviors that we find meaningful. When the detox is complete, technologies should be introduced intentionally by asking how they support our values and whether they’re the best way to do so. It’s like the Whole 30 diet for your digital life.

In action, a digital declutter involves removing all optional apps from your phone (i.e. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat), not seeking entertainment online (Netflix, YouTube), and no mindless hopping from site to site. It involves forgoing FOMO (fear of missing out) and embracing JOMO (joy of missing out). If your job involves being online, and using technologies isn’t optional, you can still complete a Digital Declutter by removing these technologies after-hours and on weekends.

In the style of Marie Kondo, Newport suggests that decluttering can be a powerful activity:

“Much like decluttering your house, this lifestyle experiment provides a reset for your digital life by clearing away distracting tools and compulsive habits that may have accumulated haphazardly over time and replacing them with a much more intentional set of behaviors, optimized, in proper minimalist fashion, to support your values instead of subverting them.”

Participants described in the book found time to discover new things or rediscover former passions. They describe themselves as becoming better - better parents, better spouses, better artists, and better people.

Embrace Leisure

The book notes that a “nontrivial number of people” ended their digital detoxes early. One reason? They had not replaced the void left by the loss of digital distractions with meaningful activities. Newport’s advice is to choose a “demanding activity”, preferably one that’s hands-on and involves a level of craftsmanship such as painting or carpentry:

“When you use craft to leave the virtual world of the screen and instead begin to work in more complex ways with the physical world around you, you’re living truer to your primal potential. Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate in other (dare I say) less hands-on activities.”

Newport also encourages social leisure activities that have an in-person element. Take your leisure seriously; be intentional about scheduling your activities into your calendar and attaching goals and objectives.

Seek Out Solitude

Smartphones and our constant connectivity have robbed us of “regular time alone with your thoughts”. Newport calls this phenomenon “solitude deprivation”. As a result, you miss out on many of the intrinsic benefits of quiet time: “the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships”. Newport suggests time alone walking as an antidote:

“On a regular basis, go for long walks, preferably somewhere scenic. Take these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone. If you’re wearing headphones, or monitoring a text message chain, or, God forbid, narrating the stroll on Instagram—you’re not really walking, and therefore you’re not going to experience this practice’s greatest benefits.”

Solitude is specific. It doesn’t include activities where we’re taking in external inputs, such as listening to a podcast or even reading. Other forms of solitude include sitting silently with ourselves and keeping a journal.

Dumb Down Your Smartphone

Our phones have a stronger psychological pull than our laptops and computers. An interesting tidbit from the book: In 2017, 80% of Facebook's revenue came from mobile ads. Removing all social media apps from our pocket devices and resolving only to use them on our computers can be a good first step in becoming a digital minimalist:

“...if you’re going to use social media, stay far away from the mobile versions of these services, as these pose a significantly bigger risk to your time and attention.”

Taking away your smartphone capabilities includes deleting all social apps, email, and any other apps that subvert our focus and drain our attention.  For the most addicted among us, Newport proposes eschewing the smartphone altogether and using phones with only simple text and talk capabilities. No wifi, no distraction.

Set Your Default to “Off

The book suggests apps like Freedom and SelfControl that block access to distracting sites by default, allowing us to only use social media in minimal intervals. By limiting our use of these sites we gain back our time and can focus on “high-impact” activities. What does limiting social media look like? Newport suggests that “the vast majority of regular social media users can receive the vast majority of the value these services provide their life in as little as twenty to forty minutes of use per week”.

If your inner technologist shudders, Digital Minimalism isn’t anti-technology by any means. Instead the book encourages us to “extract the good from these technologies while sidestepping what’s bad”. While elements of Digital Minimalism sound extreme, a lot of of Newport’s advice is a common sense approach to maximizing focus while minimizing distraction.

A 30-day digital declutter isn’t in my plans and I won’t follow his guidance on never liking or commenting on anything online, but much of his advice includes practices I’ve already embraced: a minimal number of social apps on my phone, batched online reading time, intentional (non-digital) leisure, and use of a site-blocker. Instagram stays on my phone and I’ve decided, intentionally, that I’m ok with that.

While not every practice Newport suggests will resonate with you, many are small changes that can make a big impact on how much time you spend online. Digital Minimalism presents a persuasive case paired with concrete strategies for minimizing our use of gadgets and apps in order to fully experience life beyond the screen.

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