Downsizing Your Tech: Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism

We can’t deny that technology has become an integral part of modern life. It’s almost unthinkable that someone would not have a smart-phone or a social media account. How would they function?? While tech has undoubtedly improved our lives in many ways, like anything, it has its downsides too. Most of us have a bit of an addiction to our phones. Anytime we have a free moment, we find ourselves compulsively checking our messages, facebook, instagram, or playing a quick game. This is no accident, as these apps are specifically designed to catch and hold our attention as long as possible. These distractions often take us out of the moment, and cause us to miss out when we could be finding joy in what we’re currently doing. They can interrupt your focus, making your workday longer, and less productive. Finally, they often, counterintuitively, make us feel lonelier. We may engage in hundreds of superficial “connections” each day, through messaging, liking, etc, but it cannot replace the face-to-face interactions that we crave as humans. I recently read the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, in which he explores the paradoxical nature of technology and how we can regain control over our tech use to enhance our lives. I highly recommend it, as it covers this topic in much more nuance than I can here, but I would like to share some of his ideas...

The “Digital Declutter”

Organized desk

Cal Newport proposes that we’re not going to break technology’s hold on us with “quick fixes”, “hacks”, or half-measures, and instead advocates for a full detox. He encourages taking a 30 day break from all *optional* technologies. Obviously it would be extremely difficult to go without a phone, but you can take off some of the apps that are merely distractions or diversions. Or if you’re using an app for work, limit it to that context, and cut it out of your personal time for the month. This can include more than just your phone… think about your time online as well, or time watching movies and shows, or playing video games. The more you can cut out (temporarily), the more information you will get about what is beneficial in your life and what is just wasting time.

Less Tech, More Life 

What I found interesting about this particular detox is Newport’s specific caveat. He doesn’t just want you to cut things out, he wants you to bring joyful and interesting activities INTO your life at the same time. What are the things you actually want to be doing with your time? Nobody has a goal of scrolling through Facebook for 4 hours a day, yet inadvertently that’s what ends up happening. Use this break from technology to spend more time with your loved ones, learn a language, or take up a hobby. By replacing digital time with more purposeful, rewarding pursuits, it will be easier to stick through the detox when it becomes tempting to cheat. Your goal for the month is to reconnect with your values and goals. It is only from this point that you can evaluate what role technology should play in our your life. 

Optimize Your Tech 

At the end of the 30 day detox, you can start to bring technology back into your life, but you must do it in a careful and considered way. Newport wants you to ask of each app or gadget, “Does this support my values?” If not, you may be able to do away with it for good. If it does support your values, go one step further and ask “Is this the BEST way to support my values?” There are ways to use technology to fit your needs while minimizing other distracting or harmful features. For instance, you can turn off your notifications, you can keep your phone on “do not disturb” for most of the time, or you can use facebook just for the events page while avoiding your newsfeed. With a little digging, you can find ways to optimize technology to support your life, rather than being your life. 

Rules to Live (Surf) By

Sometimes tech is a guilty pleasure we like to indulge in, but we would like to use it in a more measured way. It can be helpful to create “rules” for yourself. For instance, I will only watch a movie or show with another person. This keeps me from binging on a series by myself, and has an added social aspect that I enjoy. You can also decide you only want to view certain internet content on specific days of the week or time of the day. There are even apps that will help you do this, such as Freedom

Minimalism, in the digital sense or otherwise, is not about experiencing privation, it’s about being intentional about what we have, use, and how we spend our time. It is about giving up low-quality amusements and distractions in pursuit of our greater goals. When we minimize, we find what nourishes us, and, as Cal Newport says, we “happily miss out on everything else.” 

On the “Tidying Up,” Marie Kondo Phenomenon...

I’m willing to bet that by this time you have heard of Marie Kondo. Whether you were an early reader/adopter of her books, or are just getting into the show “Tidying Up”, there’s no denying that the organization bug has hit… hard! The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was an inspiration for me, and indeed changed my perspective on my possessions, and what I choose to surround myself with. Since everyone is weighing in on the popular show, here are a few takeaways from us here at Abridged:

On “Sparking Joy”-Marie Kondo’s signature question, which she uses as a criteria for whether to keep or discard an item (“Does this spark joy?”) is deceptively simple, and has an almost magical quality. Oftentimes we accumulate objects according to someone else’s criteria: “What furniture do I need to fill up this space?,” “What is trendy right now?,” or “What do my friends and neighbors have in their houses?” Or sometimes we just take gifts or hand-me-downs without much thought about if we really want them or not. Our environment has the power to make us feel a certain way, which is why it is so important to pay attention to our emotional reaction to our things, rather than just a rational assessment. We deserve to be surrounded with items that bring us joy, comfort, and inspiration, so we can live our lives accordingly. This is a very personal, and illuminating process. What qualities spark joy for you? Do bright colors and intricate patterns energize you? Or do you prefer the serenity of clean lines and natural materials? There’s no right or wrong style, just be true to what works for you! That said, perhaps not everything in your house will spark joy (unless you have a novelty plunger that you absolutely love), but it’s a good goal to work towards.

On Thanking Your Possessions-Marie Kondo has a very unique organizing process...One of her quirks is that she likes to kneel down with the family and do a sort of meditation, asking the house to help with their work. She also recommends that when letting go of an item, you thank it for it’s support. This may resonate with some, and sound a little wacky to others, but whichever camp you are in, I think we can agree that having more gratitude and intention in our lives is beneficial.

When we take the time to be grateful for the people and things in our lives, we can find some comfort, a respite from the constant striving to do, have, and be more.

On the “Work” of Organizing-What I appreciate about “Tidying Up” is that it is a more realistic depiction of “home-makeovers” than other reality TV shows. Usually on a home renovation show, the family offers a few suggestions about what they like, and then it’s up to a crew to come in and do all the work, and then present them with a polished product at the end. The families on “Tidying Up” are in the thick of it. It takes long hours and difficult decisions, and they must also learn the skills to maintain that organization after the filming is done. The finished space may not be magazine perfect, with a slew of matching containers, and everything tucked away out of sight, but it is a transformation nonetheless. Much like a weight loss program, or other resolution, tidying up is a process that requires dedication, and does not happen overnight.

On Sharing Responsibility-One of the things I love most about Marie Kondo’s process, is how she compels everyone in the house participate in the project. Oftentimes one member of the household (we all know who this usually is…) feels forced to keep track of everyone’s belongings and schedule, and lays down the standard of how the household functions. This often leads them to feel burned out, while other members in the household may feel helpless or like they are being nagged. When a family (or couple, or roommates) decide on their shared goals together, and put in that work together, they grow closer. Everyone in the family can feel their needs and wants are being met, and they can feel like a responsible, productive member of their family “team.” If you are tackling a project at home, why not invite everyone to join you? You might just be surprised at the results.

On “Professional Organizing”-While we can definitely appreciate what Marie Kondo is doing, our methods here at Abridged are a little different. We prefer to be present during the organizing process, so we can guide you (we want to create a “road map” to your goals), encourage you, and help you make decisions (sometimes it’s a bit more complicated than “Does this spark joy?”). We aim to teach you the skills you need to maintain your organization, and to change your habits for the better. If you’re finding the DIY approach overwhelming, let us help!

Where to begin Organizing when you're overwhelmed

One of the main reasons we hear for why people find it hard to declutter their house is that they just don’t know where to begin! It can definitely seem like an overwhelming chore (for those of you who don’t LOVE organizing as much as Mackenzie and I). Here are 8 tips for figuring out where to start your organizing project.

  1. Think about your organizational end goal

If we’re at the point of exasperation with the state of your whole house, it can be hard to parse out what is MOST frustrating to you. You know you’re stressed out about the mess, but try to think about the WHY behind it. Is your messy bedroom causing tension between you and your spouse? Do you wish you could have nice, relaxing dinners at home, but your dining table is constantly covered in stuff? Have you been putting off inviting people over because your living room is a disaster zone? Honing in on what you want will help you discover the most important place to focus your energy first.

    2. Start with a room that will have the most impact

Many times it is necessary to start by cleaning up the basement/attic/garage/storage area. If you find that you will be relocating many items from the house to that area, it makes sense that you create places to put these things. If this is not your situation, however, you should begin with the space you use most frequently. If you choose a space that you use every day, you can really appreciate the change, and will be more excited to fix up other areas of the house.

   3. Start small

Oftentimes we get overwhelmed because we set our goal too high. You don’t need to organize your entire kitchen in one day. Start by organizing the fridge or pantry. Or even just one drawer. You want to get to that feeling of accomplishment, not hopelessness.

   4. Don’t start by buying more stuff

We’ve all done it... substituted buying things for actually taking action (“I’m totally going to start writing every day… once I have this new leather journal”). We go out and buy a bunch of new storage containers and feel good for having progressed towards our goal, but then a month later the house is still messy and the containers have gone into the garage, unused. Sure, there are times when you just don’t have the right items for the job, but take some time to assess the situation first. Once you dive in, you may find that you are getting rid of a lot of things, or maybe you want to put them in another room entirely. And in many cases, people have storage items already lying around, or have things they can repurpose. Get a sense of what you really need before you drop a ton of money on something you may not need after all.

  5. Make it enjoyable

You may hate organizing, but you can at least make it less terrible! Put on some music or a podcast. Invite your type-A friend over to help (it will make their day, trust me). Give yourself breaks. There’s no need to be a martyr about it!

  8. Make it easier to focus

Set yourself up for success. Make sure you don’t have people (or your phone) around distracting you when you start the process. If you are organizing part of a room, and you keep eyeing other areas, you can even cover up the parts you aren’t working on with a sheet or a room divider.

  7. Give yourself a reward at the end

Sweeten the deal a little bit. Maybe you can watch your favorite show once you’ve tidied up a bit, or you can go out for a special treat. Better yet, have someone else reward you (so you’re not tempted cheat!)

  8. Go easy on yourself

Remember that having a messy or cluttered house is not a character flaw, it’s just a problem to be solved. And you don’t have to turn your house around overnight. Whether you schedule in weekly organizing sessions, or get to it occasionally when you have the time, be proud of yourself for working towards your goal!

Happy Organizing!