Why Digital Minimalism?
What I learned from Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism.”
In 2018 Apple introduced a feature called Screen Time. It was designed to provide you with information on how you’re using your time on your iPhone and iPad. Reviewers raved about it, excited about how it would help us all “finally kick that smart phone habit.” Regular users were shocked to see how much time they were spending glued to their screens (the average is over 4 hours per day). But it didn’t take long for the commotion to die down and for people to continue on with their regular patterns of use.
The reality is that there are very few people who want to spend so much time online and the internet is full of tips and tricks for how to reduce phone usage. I’ve tried some of them. Last year I wrote about experimenting with the colors on my phone in an attempt to reduce phone usage. But these different apps and devices have a way of creating addictive behaviors.
In “Digital Minimalism” Cal Newport addresses this issue right at the start. He writes:
But as is becoming increasingly clear to those who have attempted these types of minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape. . .what you need instead is a fully-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.
This then, is what digital minimalism is all about. It’s not about rejecting technology to live a secluded life in the woods. It’s about taking back control. It’s about being intentional with the way we use digital technology so that is supports our deep values and a life well lived instead of “passively allowing the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel.” Our daily experience must be driven by our own values.
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support the things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.
Too often though, instead of being driven by what we value, we’re driven by what we fear. The rise of FOMO (the fear of missing out) in recent years has driven our technology use. Uncomfortable with the thought that we might miss out on something that’s the least bit interesting or valuable, we sign up for every new app, device, or tool that captures our benefit. We believe that any potential for benefit is enough to justify using that technology. In contrast to digital minimalism, Cal Newport terms this a maximalist philosophy.
On the other hand, those who consider themselves digital minimalists aren’t fearful of missing out on small things. The point of basing their technology use on their deep values is to make sure they are not diminishing the large things that they already know for sure make a life good. We too often dismiss the “life cost” of things, the amount of time and attention they require. We must balance both the benefit and the cost. For example, if you have a significant presence on Twitter you will undoubtedly gain the benefit of occasional connections and exposure to some new ideas. Digital minimalism doesn’t ignore that benefit, they simply demand that the cost also be considered – how much time and energy was sacrificed to gain that benefit?
The pace at which digital technology has advanced over the last decade is mind-blowing and I think it caught many of us off-guard. There’s a good chance that when you signed up for Facebook 15 years ago, you were not planning on spending an average of over an hour a day on it. Many of our digital habits have been established by default, by our passive interest in things new and shiny. Between Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat, Netflix, YouTube, online gaming, one-click shopping and dozens, if not hundreds, of others, we have slowly become addicted to our screens. Newport writes that “people don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.”
Digital minimalism is not a call to rage against the media tech giants, it’s a call to be intentional with what you use and how you use it. It’s a call to make technology work for you instead of being a slave to the whims of technology. This is a call to step back, look at what’s important to you and to identify the best way to achieve that. Like so many things in our lives, it all comes down to intentionality. Those screens aren’t going away, and I don’t want them to because I do get lots of benefit from them, but I want to make sure they’re supporting me in my pursuit of a life well-lived.
Make sure to check back next week to see how my first steps into digital minimalism are going.