Cal Newport is a best-selling author and computer science professor at Georgetown who has coined the phrase “digital minimalism” as a way to intentionally evaluate the costs and benefits to the way we use technology.
If you’re interested in taking on minimalism or simplicity in the way you use technology, there’s still the question of how to get there. What do you actually change about your behavior to become a “digital minimalist”?
Newport’s recent book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, discusses the problem of our relationship to technology and suggests the “digital declutter” as a useful practice.
The digital declutter is a 30-day period when you eliminate all unnecessary technology from your life — anything that can be eliminated for a month that won’t cause serious harm. Removing email completely would probably endanger your job, so that would be ill-advised. Eliminating FaceTime when communicating with an overseas spouse could harm your marriage, so that might not be a good idea, either. On the other hand, though, keeping Facebook so you know about the next birthday pub crawl definitely wouldn’t pass as “necessary.” According to Newport, you need time away from these technologies in order to reset, so to speak — the distance will give you a fresh perspective so that you can make a free and wise decision about the role of technology in your life at the end of the 30 days.
Since Newport is a well-known blogger with thousands of readers, he was able to recruit more than 1,600 people to join him in doing a digital declutter. This provided him with access to hundreds of stories about the experience, many of which he includes in his book. As it turns out, although most people found it difficult to walk through the first few days denuded of their social media platforms and iPhone apps, it didn’t take long for the urge to be “always connected” to pass.
It isn’t just the break from technology that matters, though. Newport is adamant about the need to replace time previously spent on these technologies with new hobbies and activities that bring you joy. In other words, if you cut out Netflix or eliminate access to social media, you have to figure out beforehand what you’ll be doing instead. Perhaps you’ll read a book every evening. Or maybe you’ll spend weeknights making a new dinner dish. In the declutter, you aren’t simply eliminating technology from your life, but creating space in to rediscover new ways of living that bring you joy.
Finally, after the 30 days, you are then tasked with intentionally considering what — if anything — you are going to reintroduce back into your life and how. This is why Newport calls it a “declutter” as opposed to “detox” — you aren’t simply re-adopting all of your previous technologies. Rather, with a clean slate, you can now consider what is worth re-adopting and what isn’t based on the things that add real value to your life.
Many who did the declutter no longer felt the need to re-adopt certain social media platforms and apps. Others did re-adopt certain digital technologies, but with new parameters (such as only checking online news sites once a day, or only being able to access Facebook on a computer as opposed to a mobile device).
What makes Newport such a wise cultural counselor is that he understands a fundamental truth about humanity: technology should exist as a gift to serve us, and not the other way around. As I read his book, I couldn’t help but think about how many hours I’ve lost to certain digital technologies because of my lack of intentional use. Why do I feel the need to check my iPhone at every traffic stop? Do I really need to maintain weak relationships online at the expense of in-person time with close friends and family? If I’m being honest, do social media platforms or apps actually make my life better?
Newport encourages us to deeply consider questions like these. We may indeed find that our lives are more meaningful with the aid of certain technologies, but coming to that realization through disciplined and intentional reflection is very different than half-heartedly using those technologies because we vaguely believe they make life more “convenient” or “easier.”
Adopting a digital declutter in an effort to grow in digital minimalism is a needed salve for our time. It’s a practice that can help us use technology in more intentional and, ultimately, life-giving way.