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.”