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How to master digital minimalism

Last updated on
September 24, 2021

Our relationship with tech is one of increasing dissonance. On a daily basis, multiple devices, platforms and apps fracture our attention with their forever-updating newsfeeds, notifications and inboxes. We’ve reached a sort of “peak connectivity”, passively interacting with our tech instead of using it with purpose.

Mentally exhausted, many of us are now yearning for a simpler, more minimalist digital life. While the concept of minimalism isn’t new, “digital minimalism” is relatively avant-garde. It's an approach that seeks to add value to your life by focusing on fewer things – sweeping away digital clutter and noise to make room for the things that really matter.

But is there actually any substance to it? What does it mean to practice digital minimalism? And how, exactly, do you master it?

What is digital minimalism?

Digital minimalism can be loosely interpreted as living intentionally with tech. It’s about altering the way we live to make room – both space and time – for the things we love and the things that matter most: health, relationships, growth, useful contribution. To do that, we have to eliminate everything that distracts us from them.

Cal Newport, the thinker behind the concept of “deep work”, perhaps defines it best:

“Digital minimalism is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life.”

All the money and possessions in the world can’t add value to your life. As Newport argues, value can’t be gained by any addition – instead, you’ll find it through subtraction. There are many things we have in life that are better removed. These can be physical (possessions like clothes or furniture), but they can also be immaterial (like friends, or habits that don’t add much to our lives, or actually have a detrimental effect). Many of us have gone through “clearing out” phases in our lives… but how often do we factor in technology?

Using tech intentionally

We should be just as intentional in how we use tech as we are with other areas of our lives. That’s what digital minimalism is all about. If we’ve decided to commit to a new resolution or kick a harmful habit, why shouldn’t we be just as vigilant with our digital activity?

Maybe you have tried to do a digital clear out before – deleted certain apps from your phone, removed push notifications, or just put your phone on airplane mode for a bit. But digital minimalism isn’t something that you do once and are done with. Digital minimalism is a process: it’s not something you do; it’s something you continually practice.

While decluttering your digital life in one big hit might make you feel better for a day or so nothing really changes; junk and bad digitial habits will quickly accumulate again. In order to become a master of digital minimalism, you need to first become a gatekeeper of what you allow into your life. You can do that by staying alert to how you use your tech. What’s adding value? What isn’t? What can you free yourself from right now?

How to nail digital minimalism

Digital minimalism is super simple, really. It’s just cleaning up your digital life and using what you need in the most efficient way possible. The best ways to simplify your digital life and begin building a healthier relationship with technology are:

Use devices with intention

Most of us would say that using our phones, tablets and laptops is a vital part of life… but we’d probably also admit that we waste huge amounts of time on them too! The trick is to remove anything from your device that isn’t adding value, and instead, double down on what you use on a regular basis. Some useful things you can do here are:

🛑  Cull pointless apps: Remove redundant or pointless apps across your devices, only keeping those that actually provide value.
🔪 Sharpen your tools: Check for updates on the applications you do use and actually install them, so you have have up-to-date versions of the tools you actually need.
💻 Work in full-screen mode: Many of us have multiple tabs open at one time, which distract us from the task in hand with updates and notifications. Almost all programs offer full-screen mode… so use it!
🧠 Know where your digital time goes: Being conscious of how you actually spend time on your devices is essential for becoming more intentional with tech. Try using an automatic time tracker like Timely to show you how much time you actually spend in websites and apps. Neat for helping you identify your biggest offenders!

Manage your distractions

Emails, chat pings, auto-playing videos, inbox updates... your devices are hotbeds of distraction. Many apps directly tap into your psychology, using reward-based tactics to keep you using them for as long as possible. Others create a weird social anxiety to keep checking them regularly (email anyone?). Learning to manage what information you want to receive when is essential for staying in active control of your devices.

✋🏿 Block unproductive websites: when your willpower is low, give yourself a helping hand with an app that blacklists websites that aren’t essential for work. For Mac, use SelfControl; for Windows, Cold Turkey; in Chrome, StayFocusd; in Firefox, LeechBlock.
💡 Manage desktop and home screen notifications: do you really need push notifications for for Slack, Whatsapp, email etc? Decide what you want to let in – and be ruthless.
📱 Manage phone notifications: leave phone calls and text messages as they are, but mute all other non-essential app notifications. Remember to schedule ‘Do Not Disturb’ after working hours, so you can relax and switch off.
📧 Treat email as a to-do: don’t abandon whatever you’re working on when a new email lands. Instead, schedule email time in your calendar like any other task and set boundaries for checking it – like once late morning, once late evening.
❌ Unsubscribe from anything you don’t need: opt out of pointless newsletters, groups, mailing lists and notifications. No one has time for them.
💨 Send fewer emails: not every email needs a response. Use the response templates if you really feel you need to reply.
👋🏽. Cut out low-value websites: stop browsing websites that don’t contribute to your life. Removing an option by default is the quickest way to change behavior. Don’t give yourself the opportunity!

Organize your digital space

Living in the age of information, we tend to accumulate lots of digital junk on our computers –weirdly clinging on to pointless files, or just completely forgetting to manage them. But it quickly adds up, making it incredible difficult to find the stuff we actually need. Regularly spring clean your digital spaces by:

☁️ Uploading to the cloud: Split your files into two categories – ones you use regularly and ones you don’t. For the latter, upload them to the cloud. The major contenders are photos and old files you don’t really need, but also don’t want to throw away.
🧘🏿♀️ Simplify home screens: Pin your most used apps or tools to the bottom of your device docks and toolbars, and file more niche onces for when you need them.
🕵🏻‍♀️ Make content searchable: Choose easy to remember names for your folders and files so you can always find anything quickly using search.
0️⃣ Clear to neutral: At the end of the day, close all your tabs and programs, delete or move all the files from Downloads, empty the trash, and shut off your computer. By clearing to neutral you’re helping “future you” get started. Ending the day knowing how you want to start the next one off will help you get right to work in the morning, without dithering around trying to pick up loose digital threads.

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