What’s Digital Minimalism All About? 7 Main Concepts

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If your digital life makes you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or simply unfocused, you’re far from alone. And it might be a sign that it’s time for a digital decluttering.

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It’s easy to fall into the habit of adding another website, another app, or a new device to your routine, one at a time. We use digital media and devices for work, interpersonal communication, entertainment, and everything else. There’s no corner of our daily lives that digital media can’t reach. So it’s no surprise when all that digital media adds up to an overwhelming amount of information. 

Even if you think you’re pretty good at limiting screen time, you might be surprised by how much media you take in every day. Digital minimalism is about recognizing how technology controls your time and attention and takes back that control. 

What’s the Digital Minimalism Book by Cal Newport?

If you’re ready to take on the challenge of digital minimalism, you might start with the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

Dr. Cal Newport is the author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. He’s written five other books and 60 peer-reviewed articles, which have been cited more than 3,500 times.  

His book, Digital Minimalism, is all about taking back control of your focus and attention when it’s been monopolized by digital media. It addresses social media, as well as videos, podcasts, and other content. 

Many readers have compared Digital Minimalism’s concepts to the Marie Kondo method of decluttering. Marie Kondo instructs readers to toss out or give away any items that don’t “spark joy,” from clothing to furniture. Cal Newport’s advice follows a similar logic, advising readers to delete digital tools that don’t add any value to their lives. 

Digital minimalism, according to Cal Newport, isn’t about going “cold-turkey” from every aspect of social and digital media. Instead, it’s about choosing which of those digital tools you let into your life. More importantly, it’s about discovering non-technological activities that you enjoy and finding time for solitude. 

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7 Main Tenets of Digital Minimalism

According to author Cal Newport, digital minimalism is: 

“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.”

So what does that mean? Below are the core tenets of digital minimalism to help break that statement down. 

1. Breaking out of the attention economy

Before embarking on the journey towards digital minimalism, it’s essential to understand the “attention economy” of digital media. 

Digital media operates and thrives on FOMO: the fear of missing out. When you engage with a service or technology even a little, your attention is continuously pulled back because you don’t want to miss anything. 

That’s why Newport doesn’t recommend a gradual change in digital media habits. He suggests an all-in-one digital declutter. 

2. Taking a 30-day break from optional technology

Instead of gradually decreasing your use of digital media, Newport suggests a one-month detox period. For a full 30 days, you take a break from any and all optional technologies and rediscover what it’s like to live in the non-digital world. 

“Optional” in this case refers to any technologies and mediums that aren’t absolutely necessary for the operation of your professional or personal life. 

For example, most social media is optional, as are streaming services. Your work email, on the other hand, probably isn’t optional. Likewise, you’ll probably need access to your cell phone to stay in contact with loved ones and friends (via voice call or to arrange an in-person meeting). 

Unlike other “tech detoxes,” this 30-day period isn’t meant as a one-and-done retreat from digital media. It’s a way to reevaluate and reset your relationship with technology. 

3. Rediscovering leisure, values, and hobbies. 

A key part of digital minimalism is checking in with what you value most and comparing those values with your daily activities. When you clearly understand your values, you can make better-informed decisions about using technology and dedicating your time. 

During your 30-day break period, you’ll rediscover analog activities and that you find meaningful and satisfying. They may be hobbies that have fallen by the wayside, or they might be activities you never discovered in the first place. 

In the world of digital minimalism, these hobbies are considered “high-quality leisure activities,” whereas scrolling through social media or watching Netflix would be considered a “low-value leisure activity.” 

4. Engaging in person

Just as there’s “low-quality leisure” and “high-quality leisure,” there’s also “low-quality engagement” and “high-quality engagement.” Social media, and even texting or emailing, is considered low-quality engagement. We often use it in place of real-life, human interaction, but it doesn’t fulfill the same social needs. 

As you unplug for 30 days and return to using some digital communication methods, remember that it’s important to engage in person, too. Spend time with family and friends, or just talk over the phone if that’s all you can do. It’s essential to have real human contact that’s not obstructed by a chat box or emojis.

5. Practicing solitude

If you’re like most people, you spend most of the day engaged with some type of digital media. 

From the moment you wake up, you might listen to a podcast during your morning run. You might watch the news or a YouTube video as you get ready to work, listen to the radio in the car, and open up your email when you sit down at your desk. At home, you might play a game on your phone while watching some Netflix before bed. 

With so much digital media in our lives, it’s easy to go an entire day without a moment to ourselves. Cal Newport describes this as “solitude deprivation” and explains that it’s a significant cause of anxiety, especially amongst younger generations. 

“Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.” - Cal Newport

That’s why one of the most critical parts of digital minimalism is re-establishing time for solitude, where it’s just you and your thoughts. 

You could sit and quietly draw on a notepad, write down your thoughts with pen and paper, or simply take a long walk without your phone or earbuds. What’s important is to allow yourself time with yourself and only yourself. 

6. Returning with intention

After your 30-day break from optional digital media, you can begin to add things back in slowly. But it’s important to do so with intention and clarity about your goals and values. 

You should also set a plan or rules for engaging with each thing you add back in. For example, if you’re allowing Facebook back in, you could set a rule like, “I will only use Facebook for 30 minutes each day, and I will only use it to chat with friends and family. I won’t ‘like’ any posts or engage in comments.” 

Before you reinstall an app, re-charge a device, or re-visit a forum, ask yourself if it meets these requirements: 

  • This serves something I deeply value. 
  • This is the best way I can do this activity, and there’s no better alternative. 
  • I have a plan on how and when to use this tool.

7. Managing your digital legacy

An additional benefit of digital minimalism is the control it gives you over your digital legacy

For physical belongings, you might declutter, sell off unwanted furniture, and make a bulk donation to your local secondhand store. You might even go a step further and practice Swedish death cleaning. Decluttering and minimalism can help limit the sheer amount of stuff your family has to deal with when you’re gone. 

But how you manage the digital footprint, you’ll leave behind when you’re gone? Your online presence continues to exist after you die. By minimizing your digital life while you’re still alive, you can better grasp what information and data you have out there. And that can make it easier for you and your family to manage your digital afterlife

Balancing the Pros and Cons of a Digital Life

Technology and digital media aren’t inherently good or bad. They’re tools we can use to meet our goals and honor our values. But when we start to focus on the digital media itself, we can quickly lose sight of those values and intentions. 

Practicing digital minimalism is a way to rediscover what you love in life and reclaim your engagement with others and yourself. It lets you continue to use technology to support your values rather than allowing technology to use you. 


Sources:

  1. Newport, Cal. “Digital Addiction Getting You Down? Try an Analog Cure.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/smarter-living/digital-addiction-getting-you-down-try-an-analog-cure.html
  2. Newport, Cal. “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” https://www.calnewport.com/books/digital-minimalism/

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