Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Digital Minimalism

Like everyone else present online, it seems, I've spent the last six months or so digging into digital minimalism, a philosophy further popularized in the last few months by Cal Newport and his newest book.

While some people have looked to digital minimalism as an escape from privacy violations and the "evils" of social media, Newport's approach is applicable to more people: few, if any, intentionally set out to have their time and energy stolen by social media. Instead, most people "fell" into it; social media companies engineered their products to be addicting, and few people mindfully thought through how their usage affected their life until they looked up and realized they needed a break.

Newport 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. He recommends starting with a 30 day "digital declutter," a break from the "optional technologies" in your life. This looks different for everyone (some people choose to get rid of video games and Netflix and others might not), but Newport believes it's necessary to be able to step back and objectively view the tech in your life to see where it's supporting your true interests and where it's hindering or hiding them.

Newport's main point is that your tech use should only serve an assistive role in your life; it's not that you shouldn't ever use it, but that it shouldn't rule your life or be your main source of leisure. To that end, he outlined four broad ideas to help personal tech use get back on track:

Don't Click "Like"
Casual connections (likes and comments on social media posts, conversations via text rather than call or in-person, etc) shouldn't take the place of real conversations and relationships.

Reclaim Leisure
If your goal is to escape the addictive pull of your phone or laptop, it's not enough to set time limits for yourself; you have to fill your time with something better. Spending your time doing "high quality" activities you enjoy may naturally decrease your interest in spending all your free time refreshing Twitter. Newport suggests activities like fixing/building something every week, joining in a group activity (running club, rec sports team, art classes, etc), and following a leisure plan (reading a certain number of books per month, building a specific object, mastering a song on an instrument, etc).

Join the "Attention Resistance"
Give your full attention to whatever you're doing. Actively turn away from social media and other ways of wasting time online: delete social media apps from your phone and only check them on a desktop a few times a week, turn your device into a single-use computer (turn off wifi when writing, block social media during work, etc), and embrace slow media (don't follow breaking news but read up once facts are clear, read longform articles and books, don't skim).

Dumb Down Your Smart Phone
You could approach this in a number of ways. For me, it started with deleting games and unused apps on my phone, then the Facebook and Twitter apps, and eventually all but 20 apps I use on a regular basis that serve a purpose (banking, metro/bus tracker, Evernote, etc). I don't have a TV binging problem so I left the Netflix and Amazon Video apps on my phone for my daily bus ride home (the only time I watch TV), but for others these may be worth getting rid of. It all comes down to what you're likely to waste time doing.

In the modern over-sharing, over-connected world, it's all too easy to feel like moments that pass undocumented don't mean anything. Newport and others like him argue that in order to live a life full of growing skills and connections and good quality leisure, we must leave technology in a supportive, secondary role and push against the convenient tendency to use social media and other technologies to fill our thoughts and free time.

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