Some Thoughts on Digital Minimalism




The fact that I couldn’t hear my son (he wanted a glass of water) wasn’t because I was engrossed in my phone. I wasn’t even holding my phone.

I couldn’t hear him because I was replaying a loop in my brain of something I’d seen on my phone earlier, from social media.

And that’s the point.

The attention economy is getting really good at, well, keeping my attention. Even when I’m not immersed in it. Do I really want to miss my kids’ childhoods (or let them go thirsty) in exchange for the constant hum in my brain of other people’s lives? It feels like getting mini holiday newsletters every single day, but also getting them from strangers who are a lot more interesting than your great uncle in Idaho.

Thankfully, I recently read Cal Newport’s book called Digital Minimalism. I recommend you read it for yourself if any of my pain points resonate. I started implementing many of his suggestions a couple of months ago. This blog post is a chance to share with you some of the book’s main ideas while also solidifying them in my mind.

First of all, let me ask you something: What do you value?

It’s not always obvious or easy to answer. I ask because the thing I like most about the philosophy of digital minimalism is that it’s based on your values and what you care about. That’s different for everyone. The book isn’t about quitting social media and buying a flip phone.

Instead, it’s about bringing back intention for how you use tech in your life. Using tech to support your values rather than dominate your mind. If you’re like me, you’ve downloaded a bunch of apps on your phone haphazardly in the moment, and now they seem to run your life. You find yourself grabbing your back pocket every five minutes. You’re checking your “likes” while waiting for the light to turn green. In conversation, you look down at your phone a lot and have a hard time concentrating on what your friend is saying (which hopefully is not how you’re a great listener).

For the sake of making this as simple as possible, I’m going to break down my biggest takeaways from Digital Minimalism into three actionable steps as they relate to smartphones, since that is the piece of technology I wrestle with most in my life. These are steps I highly recommend based on the difference they’ve made in my own life: more bandwidth, less irritability, less FOMO, less “grass is greener on the other side,” less comparison syndrome, more presence with friends and family, more focus during work.

STEP 1: Figure out your core values.

This is the most important step. If you’re not sure what your values are, try remembering moments when you’re most upset or emotional. The opposite of what caused this reaction is likely a value. For example, I get really angry when my sons disrespect each other and especially disrespect their mom. I get worked up and often overreact. Why? Because the opposite of disrespect is respect. Respecting and treating people with decency, especially people I love, is a strong value for me.

Are you hurt because a friend just canceled on you for the umpteenth time? Perhaps loyalty or honoring your word is a value.

Write down your values, and if you need help, think of the last time you were hurt, afraid, angry. It will help you zero in on what you care about most.

STEP 2: Initiate a 30-day digital declutter.

Pick a 30-day window of time. During that time, delete all optional apps and sites from your phone. Definitely all social media. And, yes, Netflix, Hulu, MAX, etc. Why? You’re going to learn how to be bored again. It will hurt at first, but soon you will rediscover things you used to love and things you’ve been meaning to do more of. Taking walks, reading, hanging out with friends. You’re going to lose the habit of checking your phone all the time for a hit of dopamine. You’ll stop caring whether anyone has liked or commented on your latest photo.

STEP 3: Bring back apps based on your values.

After 30 days, you can now redownload apps based on your values and how the apps will support them. I highly recommend that you keep social media off your phone. If a value of yours is creativity and you get inspired by looking at certain Instagram accounts, use your desktop to log in at certain set times during the week. In other words, schedule it like a TV show that only airs at certain times. Log in for a set time, then log out. That way you’re not constantly checking your phone to see if Jenny or Tim liked that post you mentioned them in, or if anyone’s followed you since five minutes ago.

I’ve only touched the surface of what Digital Minimalism is. Plus, based on what I’ve written here, I know you probably have all kinds of questions like, “What if I use social media for work? What if somebody DMs me? Can I have mail on my phone? Isn’t this going to turn me into an old curmudgeon?”

So, with that said, I recommend the next steps:

  1. Buy and read the book Digital Minimalism.
  2. Apply the principles based on your situation.
  3. Reach out if you want to geek out!

Love, Aaron