The problem with a lot of “life hacks” and quick fixes is that they don’t set you up for sustainable change. They might prompt you to start a healthy new habit, but once you hit a snag or run into a problem, it’s all too easy to give up and say the fix didn’t stick. This is why digital minimalism has a variety of recommended practices that align with the lifestyle and are proven to have the kind of meaningful and rewarding value that is missing from a lot of digital-based activities. The first recommendation is solitude – a valuable commodity that new technology often takes away.
If you were born before the mid-80s, you probably have clear memories of life before the smartphone. But people born between 1995 and 2012 essentially grew up with smartphones, and now spend an average of nine hours a day on these devices. World-renowned generational researcher Jean Twenge noticed a shocking uptick in psychological health issues with this group, dubbed the “iGen,” with a higher percentage of depression, suicide, eating disorders, homesickness and, above all, anxiety.
Another term for what iGen is suffering from is solitude deprivation, a lack of time away from screens and input from outside sources, which is crucial for processing emotions, reflecting on relationships and what’s important in life, and giving the brain a chance to find some calm clarity.
The silver lining is that solitude is easy to find. It can be experienced in a crowded cafe or subway train, just as long as you’re free to be with your thoughts and your thoughts alone.
So the next time you go out, try leaving your phone at home. If you remember the days before smartphones, you know that this isn’t a dangerous or crazy thing to do. However, if you’re worried about an emergency, you can compromise by putting it in your glove compartment or somewhere where it isn’t readily accessible.
Likewise, long walks are one classic source of solitude, with many of the great thinkers in history extolling its virtues. Thoreau was perhaps its greatest champion, but Arthur Rimbaud, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche also considered walking the inspiration for their best ideas. Of course, this is to be done without earbuds or a screen in sight.
We’ve spent thousands of years developing a brain that has a complex network of neurons for the purpose of processing an intricate social life. It stands to reason that this brain would not be satisfied with emojis and hashtags. It may come as no surprise, then, that according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the more time spent on social media, the more likely you are to feel lonely.
So the next recommended digitally minimalist practice is to stop clicking “like.”
In fact, don’t even leave any of those superficial comments like “so cool” or “love it.” Don’t fool yourself or anyone else into thinking these are meaningful human interactions or a valid alternative to a real conversation because they aren’t. Instead, stay silent and save your comments for the next time you call your friend or meet up with them for the kind of face-to-face conversation that we’re built to find satisfying.
If you’re worried your friends will find this social media silence troubling, just tell them you’re stepping back from these kinds of interactions. And remember, if you visit a friend and bring some food with you, it will mean more than a hundred likes. The reality is that less social media equals a better social life. This is because you’ll be more prone to actually meet and talk to people.
The same goes for texts, messaging and emails as well. An actual phone call is more rewarding to our social needs than any number of emojis. Of course, texts are extremely useful when you’re running late to a meeting or just need a quick confirmation. But when it becomes your standard means of communication, it can raise your level of loneliness.
One Silicon Valley executive has come up with a pretty useful practice that you can start implementing, which is to set regular conversation hours. He tells everyone that any weekday at 5:30 p.m. you can call him and discuss anything. This is an effective way to discourage getting into a lengthy text-based back-and-forth, since he often writes back to say, let’s discuss this – just call any day at 5:30.
This doesn’t just apply to phone calls, either. You can have a standing invitation to be joined at your favorite coffee shop on Saturday mornings at 11 AM, for instance. Whatever you prefer, just promote real conversations, and you’ll be happy you did.
You shouldn’t underestimate the value of quality leisure time. As the legendary philosopher Aristotle pointed out, to live the good life, one must have the downtime needed for deep contemplation, for no other reason than to enjoy the activity itself. As Aristotle expert Kieran Setiya elaborates, activities that provide a “source of inward joy” are vital to a satisfying life.
The author calls these activities high-quality leisure while calling digital distractions such as social media and absent-minded bingeing low-quality leisure. Therefore, one aim of digital minimalism is to make more room for the high-quality while purposefully limiting low-quality time.
In looking at what exactly makes a high-quality activity, the author has found that hobbies requiring strenuous effort are often among the most rewarding. This may sound tiring at first, but as the influential British writer Arthur Bennett once noted, the more effort you put into your leisure activities, the more you’ll be rewarded with satisfaction and even come away feeling energized.
Engaging physically with real, three-dimensional objects is also key, as Gary Rogowski points out in his book Craftsman. As such, poking your finger at a small screen is unlikely to ever be a truly satisfying or rewarding human endeavor. This is why one of the “leisure lessons” of digital minimalism is to engage with the physical world by applying skills and working to create things of value. And for this, technology can be a great aide. With the abundance of YouTube tutorials out there, you can easily spend a rewarding weekend either building your own wooden headboard or learning some basic techniques to become a weekend carpenter.
You could also set leisure-time goals, like learning the guitar parts to five Beatles songs in time for a mini-concert at a friend’s Sunday barbeque in three weeks. Deadlines like this are great for keeping high-quality momentum going. To make sure you don’t succumb to the weekend-killing temptations of low-quality leisure, the best plan isn’t to go cold turkey, but rather to schedule these activities for specific times.
Going cold turkey can easily backfire and result in a relapse of old behavioral patterns, so start by scheduling isolated chunks of low-quality time on evenings and weekends while you give the rest of your free-time over to high-quality activities. Chances are you’ll feel the difference in quality, and the digital distractions will gradually become less of a concern.
With so many people glued to their smartphones and social media accounts, you may think of digital minimalism as an extreme and unusual idea. But the truth is, digital minimalism is just one part of a growing worldwide movement known as the Attention Resistance.
This movement gets its name from the industry that many of today’s major tech businesses are in – the attention economy. Companies like Facebook make their money the same way tabloid newspapers did in the 1800s. They draw a big audience and then sell that audience’s attention to advertisers who pitch them their products and services. The more people they attract, and the longer they can keep their attention, the more money they get from advertisers. These days, getting attention is more valuable than getting oil, with Google valued at $800 billion, Facebook at $500 billion and ExxonMobile at $370 billion.
With this much money at stake, companies in the attention economy are serious about exploiting human vulnerabilities and doing whatever it takes to keep you distracted. This is precisely why people have gotten serious about retaining their autonomy and resisting these tactics. One of the many effective methods used by the Attention Resistance is to dumb down your phone. So, if you see someone with a circa 2000 flip phone, this is likely a member of the Resistance who’s decided to remove themselves from the attention economy.
Another method is to make your computer a single-purpose device, just like the earliest versions of Macs and PCs. You can do this by using popular blocking software like Freedom, which author Zadie Smith thanked by name in the acknowledgments of her 2012 bestseller NW.
Now, some people think it’s heretical to revert your computer to a single-function machine like early versions of Macs and PCs as if you were purposefully making your computer less powerful. But whether you make your computer run programs simultaneously or not has nothing to do with its power. In fact, you could say you’re making it more powerful, since you’ll be more productive while using it as a single-purpose device!
While the bright minds in Silicon Valley may have a lot of resources to gain your attention, with digital minimalism and the tools of a growing resistance, you can maintain your autonomy and stay focused on what really matters.
Digital minimalism is a way of life that attempts to respond to the emerging dangers of today’s digital media landscape. An increasing amount of data is contributing to two realities – that businesses in the attention economy are purposefully making their products addictive and that increased exposure to these products is detrimental to our health. It is only sensible that we reexamine our relationship to these services and our smartphones in general. By following the methods and principles of digital minimalism, we can reclaim our attention and gain an increased sense of satisfaction in life.
So try this out. Delete social media from your phone.
When most people apply the screening process of digital minimalism to any social media platform, they find that the costs outweigh the benefits. But if you have good cause to maintain a presence on social media, it is then recommended that you at least delete the app from your phone and only engage with it through a web browser. Not having constant access to social media will already noticeably improve your life. By putting in this small amount of extra effort, many people either realize that social media was not beneficial at all, or they become optimal users who spend as little time as they need, thereby gaining more time for high-quality pursuits.
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