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Digital Minimalism: The Ultimate Guide

Technology promised us a utopia. 

Social media platforms to keep you connected. Apps to organize your life, entertain your senses, and keep you in the know. Email clients to maintain clean and tidy inboxes. Streaming services to watch or listen to whatever you want whenever you want (for a nominal fee, of course). 

Smartphones, tablets, and wearable tech ensure we’re digitally plugged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In theory, it sounds great. A constant stream of valuable information, or something like that. In reality, it can be overwhelming and exhausting to live a constantly connected life. 

But how do you unplug? How do you take back your life from the digital revolution and control your use of digital technology instead of allowing it to control you?

You commit yourself to digital minimalism.

People standing all on their phones
Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

What is Digital Minimalism?

The concept of digital minimalism comes from the well-known book by author Cal Newport called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

The book and the ideas it contains are meant as a response to the ever-encroaching digital technologies that are trying to dominate our every waking moment. 

Newport defines digital minimalism as follows:

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. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise and optimizing your use of the tools that matter can significantly improve your life.

Digital minimalism is not so much about unplugging from all technology, but about plugging into the technology that matters most in your life. And doing so wisely, following a plan set by you.

Digital minimalism is not a set of hacks to help you focus. It’s a way of life. 

A little girl using a toy camera
Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash

Why is Digital Minimalism Important?

Do you really need to get philosophical about your use of digital technologies? Do Facebook and Reddit and Fortnite really need to be the object of your scrutiny?

Actually, yes. Remember, almost all these technologies are intentionally designed to consume your attention and keep you coming back again and again. They want as much of your life as possible. 

While deep-rooted soul-searching probably isn’t necessary, evaluating how you connect with and use your tech is important.

And here’s the thing: adopting a strategy of digital minimalism doesn’t simply clean up your digital life. It also can do wonders for your life in general. 

Consider for a moment the digital population of the United States:

  • 299 million active internet users
  • 270 million active mobile internet users
  • 240 million active social media users
  • 233 million active mobile social media users

A few more numbers show just how connected we are to our tech:

  • An average user checks their mobile device up to 63 times a day
  • In the U.S., we spend nearly five and a half hours per day on our mobile phones
  • Social media consumes almost two and a half hours of global online time per day

The younger the generation, the higher the usage:

  • Baby boomers spend five hours on their phone per day
  • Millennials use 48 minutes of each day just to text
  • 13% of millennials spend more than 12 hours buried in their phones each day

Honestly, the stats are endless, and they all tell the same story. We spend the majority of each day detached from the physical world and connected to one that’s digital.

The results can prove devastating.

Aside from the addictive nature of constantly looking at our phone and seeking a hit from viewing social media or answering email, technology removes us further from positive physical relationships.

It also negatively impacts our health.

Sustained social media use is shown to increase anxiety and cause depression. The inability to break free from constant tech use reduces our ability to think critically or creatively, puts us at risk of obesity, and creates sleep issues.

Too much time spent online may also replace the valuable physical bonds with family and friends with less fulfilling and “empty” online relationships. Instances where a like or retweet serves as our only source of positive interaction.

As Newport notes in his book:

You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia. Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.

It’s why digital minimalism is so important. 

Again, it’s not about disconnecting. 

It’s about wisely using the tech that’s most important to you. It’s using that tech in a smart, efficient, and effective manner. Using it to serve your needs better and enrich your life, instead of letting tech dictate your habits and social interactions.

5 Simple Steps To Digital Minimalism

The good news is that embracing digital minimalism isn’t a necessarily difficult task. If you’re like most people, you want to be smarter about using technology. 

You want to be happy and healthier and not a slave of that little digital box you hold in your hand.

It does, however, require commitment and discipline on your part to ensure new habits take hold. Tough choices are part of the process. You have to decide which digital outlets will serve your actual needs and which ones you should scrap for a better life.

There are five steps to digital minimalism.

Dad kissing his baby son
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Step #1: Determine your core values 

Your personal values often dictate your digital values. 

Often, those who don’t use social media much place more importance on calling their loved ones over the phone (and not just texting them). They also make time to see friends and acquaintances in person whenever possible versus brief, less substantive online interactions.

Digital minimalism starts with figuring out what’s most important to you personally and whether your digital activities reflect those priorities.

Does being active on Facebook help solidify your real-world relationships? Or only serve as an avenue to avoid, replace, or even harm them?

Does Instagram or Pinterest help fulfill you creatively? Or only induce envy of what others have or do?

Asking and answering these questions will allow you to identify the things you value most,  personally, professionally, and digitally. The exercise provides insights into how you use your digital outlets now. It helps you see which ones offer meaning and fulfillment, and which ones are empty time-wasters. 

It also ensures you understand what ways you might want to improve that usage in the future to garner the most meaning and value out of your digital lifestyle.

Analog activities - girl reading on a couch
Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

Step #2: Take a 30-day break from all unnecessary technology

Okay, this one might be tough but it’s essential if you want clarity on which tech really matters to you. 

Evaluate your current digital lifestyle and take a 30-day sabbatical from those things that have no meaningful impact on your livelihood or how you manage your day-to-day life. 

For example, you’ll definitely want to keep answering work emails and tracking your daily runs with your health tracking app. The first is necessary and the second helps you maintain a healthy body. 

But if watching Netflix or checking Facebook regularly has no bearing on your job or general health, cut them from your routine for 30 days.

The short-term, cold turkey approach reinforces which tools you actually need to carry about your daily routines. Sure, you might miss checking Facebook every hour, but you don’t need to.

Such a dramatic step also enforces new habits more quickly, which is an essential factor in achieving digital minimalism.

Man scrolling through Twitter in front of his computer
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Step #3: Monitor your behavior and try new things instead of tech

The next step in digital minimalism is fairly straightforward. 

Take note of when you feel the itch to use the tech you’ve put on hold. When do you want to grab your phone to check social media? Or gravitate from checking your work email to surfing the web?

When at home, note times when you reach for the remote or tablet to scroll through the endless offerings on Netflix or Hulu. Pay attention to those times you instinctively grab your phone to play an app-based game.

Instead of giving in to your tech urges, replace them with other activities that carry higher intrinsic value. 

Read a book. Take a walk or ride your bike. Exercise or do yoga. Start painting, model building, or quilting. Find something to fix, and fix it. Join a group or club. Meet friends for lunch or dinner. Call your mother (don’t just shoot her text). 

Even taking a nap or sitting quietly alone with your thoughts can significantly impact your life more than pondering the next Facebook post.

Replacing unhealthy tech habits with other, more valuable activities can help you fight the urge to mindlessly grab your phone. 

Feet up on a coffee table while watching Netflix
Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

Step #4: Decide which tech you want back in your life

Once your 30-day tech sabbatical is over, reevaluate how you feel about the technologies you gave up. For every app or platform you avoided, ask:

  • Does it align with the core values you determined earlier?
  • Does it provide meaning or add value to your life in a meaningful way?

If the tech both aligns with your core value and provides meaningful fulfillment, then consider if you’re getting the most from it or using it in a way the best supports your values.

For example, with Facebook, you might transition from checking it for 10 minutes every hour to checking once per day for 15 minutes.

If you want to keep Netflix in your life but change the way you use it, you could transition from watching it every night to having a single Netflix-night each week.

Carry out the exercise with every app, platform, or website you took the 30-day break from.

Step #5: Block out everything else

For those apps, platforms,  and other digital tools that don’t pass the value test, go ahead and block those from your daily routine. 

If there’s no value to you being on Facebook, you shouldn’t be there. If Netflix only provides hours of scrolling live previews with little to no actual movie or TV show watching, why waste time on it?

Digital minimalism is about discovering the technologies that are meaningful additions to your life – and blocking out everything else.

Use Freedom to block the apps and platforms that you want to completely stay away from. You can also use it to create set windows of time when you can access a particular app or site, like if you only want to be able to access Facebook from 3:45 – 4:00 PM each day. 

Creating A Digital Minimalism Lifestyle

A critical factor in adopting and adhering to digital minimalism is developing a holistic lifestyle that supports your commitment. 

Here are some simple ways you can create a lifestyle of digital minimalism. 

Embrace boredom

Social media has caused us to buy into the idea that boredom is bad. This is not true. 

It’s perfectly okay to be bored. In fact, you should welcome it when it happens. When you’re bored, your mind can wander. When your mind wanders, you often stumble onto good ideas that you never would otherwise. Boredom also gives your mind rest and peace and recharges it, readying it to take on your next great task.

Boredom is the enemy of digital distraction. That’s why it’s so important.

Embrace solitude - person in kayak
Photo by Kimon Maritz on Unsplash

Embrace solitude

Being alone with your thoughts can feel scary for many individuals. It’s why so many ultimately turn to social platforms to replace that sense of being alone. 

However, embracing solitude allows you to clear your mind. Instead of allowing it to drift onto less valuable, less meaningful distractions, practice keeping it in the moment.

If you’ve never taken a walk without a smartphone or quietly looked out a window to gaze upon the rain, you might be surprised at the peaceful clarity that comes with solitude. 

Woman rock climbing
Photo by Rahadiansyah on Unsplash

Embrace analog leisure

Just like you did during your 30-day detox, begin a new habit of embracing analog leisure. The sort of activities that don’t require an internet connection.

Whether that’s reading a book, playing sports, or meeting a friend for coffee, find non-digital activities that enrich and fulfill you. 

Take time to engage in activities that require your time and presence directly and not passively as social media does.

Resist mindless distraction

Digital minimalism is all about avoiding the easy distraction of technology. About not letting a quick check of Facebook melt into an hour-long scroll, or a five-minute session on a random app turn into a two-hour gaming session.

Take ruthless action to eliminate the distractions that suck you in so easily. Remove irresistible apps from your phone. Cancel subscriptions that provide little to no value in your life (taking back your time and money).

If the actual removal or elimination is a step too far, schedule using it like you would a meeting at work. Give it five or ten minutes of your attention once a day and nothing more.

Do deep work

Cal Newport also wrote Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In it, he notes:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Don’t shy away from challenges that engage your mind, test your spirit, and move you to think and act beyond your comfort zone. Doing deep work helps you achieve far greater things than scrolling through Facebook ever could.

iMac sitting on white surface - minimalist
Photo by T. Q. on Unsplash

Less Is More

Digital minimalism isn’t about eliminating technology from your life. It’s about discovering which technologies are most relevant to you, and when applied correctly, provide you value.

Once you understand how technology influences you, you’re in a better position to take control of technology in all aspects of your life instead of that tech controlling you.

Less technology, more real life.