Do you practice digital minimalism?

There have been many technological hallmarks over the past twenty years or so, but one that may not spring immediately to mind is the “Like” button. When this click of approval debuted in 2007, on the long-forgotten social feed aggregator FriendFeed, it was only a matter of time before it became a standard feature on every social media platform to come. After all, this simple feature, and the endless notifications it generates, is a great way to collect data on our preferences and behaviors, and to keep users hooked.

It’s no wonder people are finally starting to push back against social media and recognize that these technologies may be doing more harm than good. Indeed, a steady output of research has been opening our eyes to the many negative effects related to social media and smartphones.

In this book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World”, professor Cal Newport conducted his own experiment. 1,600 volunteers followed his guidelines for a month-long technological sabbatical, providing him with valuable feedback. The result of this study is digital minimalism: a way to step back from the onslaught of digital distractions and find a more satisfying and rewarding way of life.

In 2016, New York magazine ran an article by the popular writer Andrew Sullivan. In 7,000 words, the author described how the constant onslaught of news, images and online babble finally “broke” him. There’s a good chance you’re familiar with the symptoms of what Sullivan was writing about – the constant urge to take out your smartphone and check your texts, email or social media feeds, the strange dull sensation of a moment when you’re not using digital media. How did we end up here?

One important thing to realize is that the technology at the center of this problem was never intended to be used in the way it is now. When the first smartphone, the iPhone, debuted in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the device as “the best iPod ever.” It was a cool way for you to make phone calls and also listen to your music. According to Andy Grignon, an Apple engineer on the first iPhone project, Jobs dismissed the idea of the iPhone becoming a platform for third-party apps and gaming.

As for Facebook, it’s well known that in 2004 Facebook was considered a clever novelty – a way to find out more about a friend of a friend – not a major source of news or even a popular time waster. For most college students in 2004, the computer strategy game Snood was far more popular than Facebook.

So, when people first brought iPhones and Facebook into their lives, they weren’t signing up for something they would spend hours every day looking at. This dangerous and addictive side to technology is something that’s crept up on us, thanks to the very intentional work of social media engineers. In a 2017 episode of the HBO talk show Real Time, Bill Maher referred to the “social media tycoons” as being the new big tobacco, selling products designed to be as addictive as possible.

Indeed, much has been written about the tactics used to get and keep our attention, including the way some tech companies take advantage of the natural human desire for social approval. One of the most significant developments took place in 2009 when Facebook introduced the thumbs up button, a variant of FriendFeed’s “like” button. Now, when someone posted something, it became a deeply interactive experience. How many people in my tribe would like what I posted? There was a primal urge to keep checking in and we have become finely attuned to the notification sounds accompanying these responses.

If we hope to protect ourselves against the bright minds of Silicon Valley, eager to exploit our vulnerabilities, we need a strong defense. This is why the author, Cal Newport, proposes a lifestyle he calls digital minimalism.

There are plenty of people recommending quick fixes like simply disabling the notifications on your smartphone, but Newport doesn’t trust these little adjustments to make much difference in the long run. After all, the author of one such article said he disabled the notifications on 112 apps, which begs the question, do you really need that many apps in the first place?

Cue digital minimalism, which is about the time-honored philosophy that better living can come from less. The name is purposefully similar to the minimalist lifestyle promoted by people like author Marie Kondo, who propose only letting things into your life that bring joy. Newport is applying this to the apps and digital media you take in, suggesting that you ask: Does this website, app or service really support what I value in a way that nothing else can?

Digital minimalism takes a further step in asking you to optimize this technology in a way to maximize the value while reducing the cost to your time and energy. So, if Twitter is something that your career clearly benefits from, you can use it wisely by setting purposeful rules around it that allow you to go in, do what needs to be done and get out.

Tyler was one of the 1,600 people that signed up for the author’s experiment with digital minimalism. He’d signed up to a few social media platforms because he valued staying connected to friends, entertainment and networking. But following the principles of digital minimalism, he realized that the benefits of social media were actually small compared to the time it cost him. Tyler closed his social media accounts, and a year later, he’s still thrilled with the change digital minimalism has brought to his life. He’s getting more exercise, reading more books, volunteering and learning to play music. Even with all this, he has more time to spend with his family and feels more focused at work. Tyler knows people who say they can’t quit social media, but at this point, he can’t see any reason to continue using it.

Digital minimalism is based on three principles – clutter is costly, optimization is important and intentionality is satisfying.

The first principle relates to the New Economics famously promoted by Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden. Basically, New Economics includes life costs when calculating what something is really worth. For instance, if you want to buy a car to drive into town instead of walking, Thoreau would remind you that the price you pay for the car isn’t its only cost, it’s also the time, stress and effort it takes to earn this money and to keep the car secure and in working order. In the end, the cost may far exceed the healthy act of walking into town. This same scrutiny should go into every bit of digital media you let into your life. Ask yourself what you are really gaining from it, and what the time and attention costs are. Are you sure you can’t perform the same task in a different way?

The second principle relates to another economic hallmark. That is, the Law of Diminishing Returns, which explains why you can’t just keep adding stuff and expect continued improvements. For example, if you’re manufacturing cars, the first workers you add will increase your output. But you’ll eventually reach a point when the assembly line can’t handle anymore strain. Workers are bumping into each other, and things begin to slow down.

Let’s say, instead of making cars, you want to stay informed about current events. Going from zero to two news sites will be a big improvement. But if you’re cramming a social media feed with dozens of different sources, it’s bound to become a never-ending, incomprehensible distraction. Instead of adding sources, you need to optimize your tools. For example, maybe the Instapaper app would work better than social media. This app allows you to collect interesting pieces throughout the week and read them over the weekend, without any ads!

For the third principle, let’s look at the Amish way of life. People often mistake the Amish for being anti-technology, but in reality, it’s not that simple. The Amish don’t reject technology without testing and questioning it first. Sometimes, as with a state-of-the-art milling machine, they’ll happily use it. However, if it doesn’t support their fundamental values of family and community, it’ll be banned. You should apply the same value-based approach to every tool you use. Does it really benefit and support your values and what you’re trying to do, or are you better off without it?

Digital minimalism is based on three principles – clutter is costly, optimization is important and intentionality is satisfying.

If the principles of digital minimalism sound good, then the way to begin is to undergo thirty days of digital declutter. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t a digital detox period since a detox implies that you’ll return to your regular habits afterward. This period is about stopping what you’ve been doing in order to consider a new way forward.

With this in mind, for thirty days, plan on cutting all non-essential technology from your life. This means anything that you don’t absolutely need to keep working and functioning on a day-to-day basis.

At first, you might feel down when you realize how many addictive habits you’ve developed. But most of the people in Newport’s 1,600-person experiment reported that they soon forgot about their smartphone or whatever app they would reflexively open up. When identifying what is and isn’t essential, don’t confuse convenience for necessity. You may think you’ll irreparably damage a relationship if you quit Facebook. But you might find that without social media you’ll actually strengthen the relationship by calling the person, meeting them and speaking more often.

The other task during this period is to look within and understand what’s really important to you. What are your interests, the things you value in life and enjoy doing outside of the world wide web? This is important because the next step is about finding something that will fill the void created by the absence of social media and new technology.

After these thirty days, a carefully thought-out reintroduction period begins. This involves asking yourself three questions about any technology you’re considering keeping in your life. The first question is: Does this technology support something I deeply value? If so, move on to the second question: Is it the best way to support this value?

Instagram may support the value of staying in touch with faraway relatives, but calling them on Skype every Sunday may be the far more meaningful way to do this. In fact, most people find that social media does not pass this screening process.

But if something does pass the first two questions, it’s time for the final question: How can I use this tool in a way that maximizes its benefit and minimizes the harm it causes? A digital minimalist doesn’t just use or not use something. If they use Twitter, they probably don’t use it on their phone. They use it once or twice a week and only follow meaningful people they couldn’t otherwise connect with.

A very interesting perspective.

Check out my related post: How can you stay ahead of AI?


Interesting reads:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40672036-digital-minimalism

6 comments

  1. ♡ It’s Interesting how Many of Us Complain about Juggling and Others just Get On With Juggling and Enjoy It; so, THOUGHTS!!! EveryOne 🤔 ?

    …♡♡♡…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post. Decluttering from social media is extremely important as is optimizing and deciding on your usage of it. I’ve bought and read Cal Newport’s previous book Deep Work, so I’ll likely do the same with this one too.

    Liked by 1 person

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