Digital Minimalism: Break Your Technology Addiction and Master Your Tech Use
Do you find it hard to step out without your phone, even if it’s to take a walk nearby?
Are you constantly checking for notifications, even though you’re not expecting an important message?
Is much of your free time spent onscreen, even when there are offline activities you enjoy more?
News feeds, social media, and other forms of digital information and entertainment are all around us. They are part of our daily lives. Technology allows us to communicate online without being in the same physical space.
Digital technology has its benefits and is not all bad. I, for one, post YouTube videos to share ideas and insights on designing a productive, meaningful life. I also watch a lot of how-to and product review videos on YouTube.
But tech-overuse and tech addiction cause problems, too. They get us into comparison traps, drain our energy, take up mental bandwidth, and distract us from our highest priorities.
When you get bored, frustrated or hit a mental block on a project, you’re more prone to digital distractions. You scroll through news feeds instead of write your first sentence or start a new paragraph. Even though it’s mostly toxic junk that doesn’t enhance your wellbeing, support your goals, or deepen your understanding of the world, you scroll through anyway.
Doomscrolling or swiping through sensational news is hard to escape. Unlike with a physical newspaper or magazine, online information never ends. It goes on and on, with 24/7 updates. And even good content can lead to techno-exhaustion and information overwhelm when there’s too much of it.
In the book Indistractable, author Nir Eyal says distraction is the opposite of traction. Imagine a line that represents the actions you take every day. On the left side of the continuum is distraction - negative actions that move us away from what we really want. On the right side is traction - positive actions that move us toward what we really want.
For a long time, we’ve had distractions, whether from TV, the telephone, comic books and the radio.
Nir writes, “Today’s distractions, however, feel different. The amount of information available, the speed at which it can be disseminated, and the ubiquity of access to new content on our devices has made for a trifecta of distraction. If it’s a distraction you seek, it’s easier than ever to find.”
No matter how much we learn from books, we’re often more drawn to our mobile devices. Reading a book requires higher levels of focus and attention than reading articles online. Even when you fully intend to read a book, having your smart phone by your side is a distraction waiting to happen. You pick up your phone, turn it on, click, swipe, tap.
Social media and online search platforms are designed to hook us. The Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, reveals how the technology that connects us also controls, manipulates, polarizes, distracts, monetizes and divides us. In the film, tech experts warn us about their own creations.
Here’s a quote from Tristin Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of Centre for Humane Technologies.
“If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there waiting patiently. If something is not a tool it’s demanding things from you. It’s seducing you. It’s manipulating you. It wants things from you. And we’ve moved away from having a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-based tech environment. Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals and its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”
Justin Rosenstein, former engineer at Facebook and Google and co-founder of Asana, says, “I’ve uninstalled a ton of apps from my phone that I felt were wasting my time. All the social media apps, all the news apps, and I’ve turned off notifications on anything that was vibrating my leg with information that wasn’t timely and important to me right now. It’s for the same reason that I don’t keep cookies in my pocket.”
So, how can you break your technology addiction and use your digital devices more purposefully and mindfully? How can you make sure your tech is just a tool to support what you value most?
This is episode 54, Digital Minimalism: Break Your Technology Addiction and Master Your Tech Use
Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.
A digital detox or social media detox does little to curb our online consumption. While it’s an extended break from your digital device, it doesn’t stop you from returning to old habits.
Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, says what we need instead is a philosophy on how we use tech.
He defines digital minimalism as “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 things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
What can you do to become a digital minimalist?
The first thing is to complete the digital declutter process.
Step 1 is to define your technology rules. First decide which apps, sites and tools are optional. This includes streaming videos and video games. Optional means you will not create harm or major problems in your personal or professional life by stepping away from them.
Step 2 is to take a 30-day break from the optional apps, sites and tools. You decide what’s banned and what’s allowed with moderation and limits.
If you’re reading a book, you focus on just that. This could be a physical, printed book or an ebook on your Kindle. You don’t keep your phone next to you for it to draw away your attention. With no digital device, you’re less likely to jump from one thing to the next. You build deep concentration and get into the flow state even if it’s just for 25 minutes at a time.
In the declutter process, you define the standard operating procedures on when and how you use the tech.
For example, you can decide to watch comedy sketches by Key & Peele on YouTube during your 5-to 15-minute coffee break. Maybe you do this only on your phone or tablet in your kitchen or the breakroom, and never on the computer in your office where you work. You’re not mindlessly scrolling through random content or vlogs just to pass the time. Because you’re intentional about what you consume, you get more value from being online.
You add friction to reduce the urge to check your tech. Although website or app blockers like Focus and Freedom can help, I personally do not use them. Rather, I use time blocking to determine the location, time, and context in which I do certain tasks.
When I find myself giving in to digital distractions, I just think about my priorities list. I then revert back to the time-blocked task. You can do Internet browsing at another time, like when your focus and energy levels are low, and a Key & Peele comedy sketch would give you a boost.
Keep only essential apps on the home screen of your smart phone, like for your clock, calendar, maps, text and phone. Remove distracting apps like your web browser and social media. You can add them back after the 30-day break is over, if it turns out you really need them for a vital purpose.
Practice going without your phone, even if it’s for brief periods in the day. Leave your phone behind when you’re running errands and going places in your neighborhood.
You don’t need the map app and you’ll be fine with missing calls or text messages for an hour or two.
Leave your phone in another room when you’re working on a high-focus project. It’s more tempting to keep checking your phone when it’s in your line of sight or next to you.
You can pick up your phone again at the right time in the right context and for the right purpose.
During the tech break, you gather intel on which apps are actually essential and support what you value.
Cal Newport recommends you do this for 30 days. But if that’s too long for you, even 1 to 7 days could be enough to notice your tech habits and define some tech rules.
Step 3 in the digital declutter process is to reintroduce technology. And ask yourself 3 questions: Does this technology directly support a big goal or something I deeply value? Is this technology the best way to support the goal or value? How will I use this technology to maximize its value and minimize its harms?
Look for ways to replace your high-tech digital devices with low-tech tools, whether digital, analog or hybrid.
An e-ink tablet like Remarkable 2 allows you to take digital notes without the online distractions. I use it for mind mapping and preparing notes for podcast episodes and YouTube videos.
To avoid paper clutter and one-time paper usage, you could try reusable notebooks like the Rocket Book. You can write notes and brainstorm ideas and erase them once you’re done processing them. There’s a Rocketbook app to scan your notes and ideas if you want to keep them.
The technology not only has to provide some benefit, but also be the best way to provide a much-desired benefit. It also has to be limited with an operating procedure in when and how you use it.
The digital declutter process is just one thing.
The second thing is to practice solitude. Newport writes we have a Solitude Deprivation problem. This is, “A state in which you spend close to zero time with your thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
The start of the day is an ideal time to enjoy solitude. Use your morning routine and rituals to quiet your mind and process your own thoughts. Avoid digital consumption and online entertainment right after you wake up.
Instead of the alarm on your smart phone use an analog alarm clock. That way you can get up out of bed without being tempted to scroll first thing.
Here are some offline morning activities you could do. Make your bed. Drink water. Journal or review your plan for the day. Make eggs and sit down to eat mindfully. Notice the color, taste and texture of what you eat.
A morning tea ritual is a great way to be mindful and avoid overstimulation. Savor your tea time as you boil the water, pour the hot water in a cup, place the strainer over the cup, put the loose leaves in the strainer, brew the tea leaves, and drink your tea. Or maybe having a cup of coffee is more your cup of tea.
As the day progresses, and you’re in an afternoon slump, you could clean and tidy up with intention. Take a pause and reflect on your day, whether it’s a sunny one or a grey one. Observe cherished things in your physical space, whether old or new, perfect or imperfect.
Go outdoors and get some fresh air. Watch the ducks swim in the lake, make ripples, fly and be with where they are.
Explore the sights, landmarks, and attractions. Pay attention to architectural design and structures in your physical environment. Look closely at what’s in front of you and what’s above you. You might observe straight lines, circles, different angles, shapes, textures, colors, symmetry and asymmetry.
Besides digital decluttering and practicing solitude, there’s another thing you can do.
The third thing is to reclaim true leisure. Prioritize creative hobbies, and challenging activity over passive consumption.
Whether you’re a preteen, a teenager, a young adult or an older adult, learn, practice and develop new skills. Keep a growth mindset no matter your age, skill level or natural talent.
Engage in conversation-centric communication. Whether in a face-to-face meeting, video chat or a phone call, the tone of your voice or facial expressions enriches conversation. Go beyond the mere connection that occurs in social media, email, text, and instant messaging.
Or interact with nature, and all its natural sights and sounds. Go for long, solo walks. Notice your environment.
Listen to the birds in the trees singing and chirping. Watch how they sit and perch on the limb of tree. And fly to another.
Becoming a digital minimalist helps you to break your tech addiction and avoid digital distractions and online overwhelm. You don’t indulge in every technology. You appreciate the joy of missing out.
For more on how to focus on your priorities and rest and recharge fully, check out my book, The Incrementalist, available at leanpub.com/incrementalist.
To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to being productive, you may contact me for individual coaching.
If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Thank you for being with me and tune in again on The Incrementalist.
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