I’m Making the Shift to Digital Minimalism

Seeking intention, solitude, and meaningful connection via Cal Newport’s “Digital Declutter”

a peaceful drive through Southern Tennessee

Two (ish?) years ago, I began my journey into minimalism, after reading Goodbye, things by Fumio Sasaki. I’d just graduated college and moved across the country with only the essentials, so the philosophy of living with less stuff was not hard to adopt.

Since then, I’ve held the tenets of minimalism —quality over quantity, thoughtful consumption, simple pleasures — near and dear. They drive my everyday decisions without causing me distress, because I’ve spent years of reflection and practice letting them sink in. And it’s still a journey in-progress.

But there’s a major flaw in my practice:

I reserve most of my minimalist rigor for the tangible world, but I spend a lot (if not most) of my day inside the alternate reality that is the internet. Especially during this COVID-19 pandemic, when interacting freely with base reality is unadvisable. Am I really a minimalist, then?

Time to find out.

Learning by Letting Go 🙈

With tangible minimalism I had a head start, since I barely owned anything when I first studied the philosophy. This time, I’m weighed down by more than a decade of built-up online baggage and smartphone habits — social media, messaging, streaming, news, and so on.

For a while, I’ve been trying little life-hacks to limit my attraction to my phone. I deleted my Instagram; I turned off notifications for most apps; I switched to a tiny iPhone 6S to deter my large hands. I started using Instagram again, but only my finsta this time. I put my phone on silent, do not disturb, on a shelf, off…

But the feeling of attachment to this “other world” has persisted against these efforts. After all, my laptop is always within reach, and I can’t hide from my phone forever — it has its uses.

The real issue is that connected technology is so intertwined with my life that trying to untangle the mess from the inside will never work.

I realized this while listening to Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism. He proposes that the only way to truly reexamine one’s relationship to modern technology is to yank the plug on the nonessentials, then voluntarily come back to them, with intention and coordination with one’s core values.

This process of starting with a blank(ish) slate, then incorporating into my life only the things that clearly bring me deep joy or utility is exactly what I did for tangible minimalism, so the theory makes a lot of sense to me.

For the month of February, I plan to put that theory to test.

My Declutter Rules 📋

This whole thing would fall apart if I didn’t set guidelines for myself, and that’s exactly what Cal recommends. Since I’ve been pseudo-minimalizing my digital life over the course of the last year, I’m not going to be extremely rigid with my rules. Instead, I’ll focus on key areas to abstain, and put flexible limits on the others.

Social Media: No Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, or Snapchat usage. (I don’t use Facebook and I’m deleting it next month).

Messaging: No messaging notifications or unread-bubbles. Limit to sharing information; avoid conversing via text. (Video or voice calls highly encouraged!)

News/Articles: No reading articles on my phone. | ALLOWED: Medium articles from my subscription feed; Wired magazine (issues only). If I have FOMO about an important news story, I can read full articles on my laptop.

YouTube: No watching videos on my phone. | ALLOWED: Watching content from my subscription feed.

Shows/Movies: No watching on my phone. No scrolling HBO just to find something to watch. No binging. | ALLOWED: 1 episode or movie per day, restricted to items on my watchlist (which is very minimal already).

Podcasts: No news or current events podcasts. | ALLOWED: Educational, stories, and music mixes.

Music: No mindlessly searching for music to fill the silence. ALLOWED: Intentionally listening to albums and playlists.

Games: ALLOWED: Playing chess online, but turn app notifications off; playing story-based console or computer games.

Device usage: No using my phone in the bathroom🚽. No using my phone as a distraction in social situations. No screens while eating, unless video-chatting. | ALLOWED: Listening to audio if I’m eating alone.

NOTE: If I need to use any of the above technologies to research something I’m writing or creating, if it makes sense for in-person social situations, or in case of emergency, I can. I’ll also still use Medium to publish my thoughts.

What I’m Hoping For 🤔

Even with guidelines, I know I have the power to outsmart myself, somehow convincing myself to stop two weeks in because I am already wise and minimal enough 😆.

That’s why I’m primarily approaching this as a learning opportunity. I am much more inclined to permanently change my behavior if I believe doing so is some great adventure into my psyche, or a foray into one of infinitely many valid ways to live a human life.

So, here’s what I’m hoping to get out of this experiment:

  • To use apps & smart devices less compulsively, and with more intent
  • To align my digital reality with my real-world values
  • To reduce the time spent staring into a screen
  • To connect more meaningfully with people
  • To be more engaged and productive in my work
  • To better understand my own mind, free of unconsented stimulation

what’s next ⏭

Well, time to take the plunge. I’ll keep an open mind, always reflecting. I’ll stay vigilant for the 28 days of February, pushing through the hard parts and finding unexpected joys from a digitally minimal life.

And importantly, as Cal Newport mentions in his book: This is not a detox.

If done properly, I will not rush back to my old ways after this month, but instead, I will carefully reintegrate the technologies, with the benefit of clarity provided by the decluttering.

Some things will go, some will stay and undergo dutiful minimalist scrutiny. No matter what, I’ll gain some valuable insight — which, of course, I’ll share with you later.

This should be fun 😋.

I used to build code, now I build fictional worlds ✍🏾. | My favorite word is ‘paracosm’.

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