In a world where people are getting ever-increasingly anxious, it’s quite evident that this worrying trend has coincided with the rise of new technology such as smartphones, social media, and streaming websites. In the last decade, it’s more common to text than call, you’re more likely to look for dates online than in person, and for a time it was more fashionable to poke someone on Facebook than speak with them in-person. Snapchat streaks provide a faux-closeness to your friends, while posting and watching Instagram stories has replaced checking-in with loved ones.
Noticing this, professor and author Cal Newport wrote the book Digital Minimalism, where he proposes that people can live better lives with less technology. In an environment where the most valuable commodity is our attention, it is us that are becoming the product for social media companies, while businesses looking for ad-space are now the customers. By becoming a digital minimalist, Newport claims we can rediscover the pleasures of the offline world and lead a better quality life overall.
Digital minimalism isn’t all about getting rid of technology completely, it’s more about making sure that you are using the technology instead of the other way round. It’s easy to become addicted to likes, notifications, and scrolling through feeds. In Digital Minimalism, smartphones are described as handheld slot machines. Our wonderful modern phones allow us to access countless sources of information and functions, but we must make sure they’re there for a specific purpose instead of a low-quality way to relieve boredom. How many times have you checked your phone for the weather, only to find yourself replying to messages or reading notifications, only to remember ten minutes later that you still don’t know whether it’ll rain later or not? The average person checks their smartphone around 100 times per day. You can probably only count on one hand the amount of times you do it intentionally as opposed to habitually.
The use of our smartphones are a prime example of the law of diminishing returns. Our phones serves us well only when we use them with relative infrequency. The more we use our phones, the more that the benefits of connectivity and access to information begin to wane. They start to become disadvantages as we begin to shy away from real-world interaction.
So it’s time to break the pattern and reclaim our leisure time for meaningful, offline pursuits. So how do we do it? Newport suggests that we take a 30-day digital declutter. That is, a month-long period where we cull optional technologies. This includes social media, streaming, junk-news websites, videogames – basically any technology that doesn’t adversely affect your personal or professional life. For some people, going cold-turkey on certain technologies may clash with important values, so in that case rules and restrictions can be made to cater for them. Once the 30-day period finishes, we can then reintroduce and redesign the way that we use technology as a supporting actor to our lives, instead of being front and center.
After reading Digital Minimalism, I have already made a few changes. I have started wearing a watch and have bought an alarm clock for my bedroom. This means I no longer need my phone to check the time, and I can now put my phone downstairs when I’m sleeping. This prevents me from waking up and immediately checking my notifications and replying to messages. If this method starts to fail, I might even go as far as putting my phone in my car overnight. I have banned myself from using my phone in bed – this has instantly meant that I go to bed earlier and fall asleep faster. I’m only allowing myself to charge my phone once a day, and with the battery being three years old, I will need to ration my phone use. I’ve uninstalled social media apps, news apps, and streaming apps. I’ll now have to use my phone browser or my laptop if I feel the need to use any aforementioned services. I’m only allowed to stream films or TV if I’m doing it with someone (however I will allow myself to watch live sport). And instead of texting someone I will now try to call them first before replying by text.
The amount of free time generated from putting our smartphones down will allow us to reconnect with a more old-fashioned, wholesome type of leisure: Playing board games, sports, reading books, taking walks, having real conversations. Instead of working out to a YouTube video, maybe it’s time to join a social fitness class like yoga or CrossFit. You might decide to call to check in with friends in the evenings instead of mindlessly scrolling social media to feel connected. Maybe you’ll even arrange to meet up in-person. Newport even suggests learning a craft, putting skills to use to create valuable things in the physical world – playing an instrument, learning how to weld, or putting together flat-pack furniture.
Newport also offers a few tips for when we do use our phones. Treating text messaging more like emails where we put aside a specific time of day to read and reply to text messages. If your friends or family need you urgently they will call you. Newport also writes that a good way to get around the anxiety people may feel when they think of calling us (and instead preferring to text), is letting contacts know you have conversation office hours – for example, that you are 100% available for regular catch-ups between 5-6pm Monday-Friday as that’s when you’re travelling home from work and would only be listening to music or a podcast otherwise.
In a time where optimization is the new obsession, is the key to slow down a little and embrace digital minimalism?