The Definitive Digital Minimalism Guide
Ever feel like you’re drowning in a sea of pings, dings, and rings?
You’re not alone…Our digital lives sometimes feel more like hyperactive squirrels on espresso than valuable tools.
It’s a ‘scroll…scroll…ping…like…retweet’ kind of world out there, and oh boy, it can be exhausting.
But no worries, there’s a lifeboat on the horizon, and its name is digital minimalism.
And in this article, I will provide the lowdown on how to declutter your digital world, swim against the tide of notifications, and surf smoothly into a balanced relationship with technology.
We’ll journey through the ‘why,’ ‘what,’ and ‘how’ of becoming a digital minimalist and staying one.
Because, let’s be real, what good is escaping a high-security prison island if you end up rowing back?
So grab a lifejacket, and let’s paddle our way to a more serene digital island where ‘do not disturb’ isn’t just a setting. It’s a lifestyle…
Digital Clutter, Overconsumption, and Its Impact
In my last article, I discussed more in-depth digital clutter and overconsumption.
And just as a short refresher, I will mention them and their impact shortly again.
So you stay motivated enough to maybe take action on becoming a digital minimalist.
To explain them and their impact, let’s use the analogy of a bustling city.
In this city, we’ve got two issues: digital clutter and digital overconsumption.
What’s the difference, you ask?
Well, let’s go for a stroll down our digital avenues.
First stop, the cluttered district of our digital city, home to the endless piles of files, forgotten apps, and, yes, those thousands of unread emails.
This is digital clutter.
It’s comparable to accumulating trash and litter on city streets.
On the other side of town, we have the buzzing entertainment district, the shopping malls, the newsstands, and the gaming arcades, all open 24/7.
It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it can also be a black hole for your time and attention.
Welcome to digital overconsumption.
It’s not about the trash on the streets; it’s about the bustling, never-ending activity that sometimes feels like it’s taking over your life.
So, now you might be wondering: “How does all this clutter and overconsumption show up in my digital city?”
Let’s take a look at our seven neighborhoods (categories) of clutter:
- Information District: An overwhelming wave of news, social media posts, and articles.
- Communication Lane: The unending flurry of texts, emails, and voicemails.
- Entertainment Alley: Endless catalogs of movies, series, podcasts, games, and music waiting for your attention.
- Social Media Plaza: The whirlwind of notifications, trending topics, and viral videos (making collective narcissism great again).
- App Street: The forgotten apps still lurking on your device, slowing it down.
- Data Boulevard: The accumulated photos, videos, documents, downloads, and generated data cluttering up the works.
But wait, there’s more…On the other side of town, we’ve got our six hotspots of overconsumption:
- Social Media Park: The endless hours spent (doom) scrolling, liking, and sharing.
- Entertainment World: The binge-watching and binge-listening on streaming services.
- Information Highway: The access to more information than you can possibly use.
- Communication Central: Being on-call and responsive 24/7.
- Shopping Mall: Online browsing and buying, even when you don’t need anything.
- Gaming Zone: The all-consuming world of online games.
What’s the Impact of Digital Clutter and Overconsumption?
Let’s hear what the science has to say about it. One thing is almost sure, earlier or later, you will need to deal with the following…
1) Increased Stress and Anxiety: Heavy internet usage is linked to heightened stress, anxiety, and depression.
Digital clutter can exacerbate this issue by making information harder to locate, thus causing frustration.
2) Cognitive Overload: The internet’s endless stream of information can overwhelm our cognitive capacity, impairing focus, memory, and decision-making.
3) Impaired Sleep: Screen blue light can suppress melatonin production, a hormone crucial for sleep regulation.
Exposure to blue light before bedtime can disrupt your sleep cycle, tricking your brain into thinking it’s daytime.
4) Reduced Productivity: Juggling between digital platforms can hinder productivity.
“Multitaskers” (humans are mono taskers, by the way) can be easily distracted and spend significant time managing notifications, emails, and messages.
The overuse of digital devices often results in wasted time.
5) Mental Health Issues: Studies show a correlation between heavy social media use and depression, loneliness, and lower self-esteem.
A self-perpetuating cycle of negative emotions and social media usage can be formed, leading to severe mental health problems.
6) Physical Health Issues: Extended screen time affects sleep and can lead to overweight, obesity, and metabolic risk among children and adolescents.
7) Privacy Concerns: Extensive use of digital platforms increases the risk of privacy breaches.
The more personal information we share online, the more we’re exposed to data misuse.
Do you want to know more about the science behind the seven “impact zones”?
You can find the various sources of scientific studies in my article “From Digital Clutter to 17 Benefits of Digital Minimalism.”
How to Become a Digital Minimalist and Stay One (11 Steps)
From the various categories of digital clutter and overconsumption I discussed earlier stem multiple steps you can take to become a digital minimalist and stay one.
1) Define Your Goals and Priorities for Digital Minimalism
Ask yourself why you want to minimize your digital footprint.
Is it to boost productivity, reduce stress, or reclaim time for other pursuits?
So first, you want to identify the core reasons which will guide your efforts toward digital minimalism.
And then, there is defining your priorities. It means deciding what matters to you and asking yourself, “What do I value most in life?”
Is it connecting with family and friends, being successful in your career, or perhaps developing a new skill or hobby?
These priorities should then drive your digital choices.
Then maybe a recipe app or food blog subscriptions are worth your time.
Are you a fitness freak (like I am)?
Then perhaps the latest fitness tracker or workout app deserves space on your phone.
But that hilarious but time-sucking meme page that keeps you scrolling till 2 am?
Or that mobile game that’s so addictive you skip lunch to play it or even consider placing a catheter so you don’t have to go to the restroom anymore to avoid pausing the game?
They’re just digital clutter if they don’t align with your priorities.
It’s like adding heaps of junk food to your plate – momentarily satisfying but not good for you in the long run.
Now, defining your priorities isn’t a one-time thing.
As you grow and change, your priorities may shift too.
Therefore, it’s essential to regularly check in with yourself, revisit your priorities, and adjust your digital habits accordingly.
2) Audit Your Digital Usage to Become a More Mindful User
Sometimes we can be like kids in a candy store regarding our digital usage…
How so? We want it all – social media, streaming services, games, apps – you name it.
But just like too much candy can give you a stomach ache, or pre-diabetes, more excessive digital consumption can lead to digital fatigue, decreased productivity, and even affect your mental health (see the impact I outlined earlier).
So what do you do? You need to become aware of the problem and to become aware, you can start by auditing your digital usage.
You’re trying to determine where all your time and energy are going.
How much time are you spending online?
Which apps or websites are you using the most?
Are you mindlessly scrolling through social media or learning something new?
About learning something new…you can take this even up a notch and start to analyze the various chat groups you may be in.
Since you are likely in a particular “bubble, “you may realize that nothing new is talked about for months or even longer.
Very often, it’s a “merry-go-round” of complaints in disguise.
And should you do the 21-day complaint-free challenge, you may realize that staying in some groups has resolved itself.
So, with smartphones and computers playing such a huge part in our lives, it’s easy to underestimate your online time.
And those minutes of casual browsing and checking notifications can add up to hours before you even realize it.
And that’s where a digital audit comes in. It’s about taking stock of your digital habits.
Most smartphones have built-in screen time or digital wellbeing features that can provide a detailed usage breakdown.
Third-party apps like RescueTime track how much time you spend on different tasks and give you a detailed report.
Is this about guilt-tripping?
Absolutely not. Again, it’s about becoming aware and understanding your habits to become a more mindful digital user.
Seeing the cold hard numbers can be a bit of a wake-up call, making you think, “Do I really want to spend 3 hours a day on social media?”
By auditing your digital usage, you can identify the digital habits that are taking a toll on your time and energy.
And once you know what they are, you can start making conscious choices to change them.
3) Eliminate Unnecessary Tools and Apps
To eliminate unnecessary tools and apps, you start by going through your devices and listing all the apps and tools you have.
Now you want to ask yourself, “Do I use all of them regularly?”
If the answer is no, consider deleting them.
Remember, it’s not about having a ton of tools at your disposal. It’s about having the right ones that truly add value to your life.
And let’s not forget about those apps we use. Do they actually benefit us?
That game you play out of habit, the social media app that leaves you feeling drained (seeing all the “billionaire eight-year-olds with six packs, smoking cigars and their yates in the background) – do these mostly faked photos of phantasy lives really deserve a place in your real life?
By eliminating unnecessary tools and apps, you free up mental space, decrease distractions, and can focus on what’s truly important.
4) Set Digital Boundaries
If you leave your phone with its default configuration, you are constantly bombarded with notifications, pings, and updates.
It can feel as if you are always on call, always reachable. But you know what? You don’t have to be.
Setting digital boundaries is like building a virtual fence around your personal time and mental space.
It’s about deciding when, where, and how you’re going to use your digital devices.
For instance, you could set a rule to not check emails after 7 pm.
Maybe you decide to keep your bedroom a phone-free zone or turn off notifications during certain hours.
How about a “digital Sabbath” where you take an entire day off from digital devices once a week?
These boundaries can help protect your personal time, reduce stress, and improve focus.
It’s about reclaiming your time and attention from the pull of the digital world to show yourself that you are in control again.
5) Practice Single-Tasking
The concept of doing one thing at a time can sound a bit alien.
Single-tasking is about focusing your energy and attention on one task at a time.
By the way, this is how humans are designed anyhow. Check this article out if you want to dig deeper into that. But read this article to the end first (single-tasking, remember?)
So it’s no more juggling emails, social media, and work simultaneously.
I’m talking about choosing one task and immersing yourself in it.
Research tells us that multitasking can reduce productivity, increase errors and affect brain health (source).
So, by single-tasking, you might find you can complete tasks quicker and produce higher quality work. It also can boost creativity, as studies confirm.
Plus, it can be a lot less stressful.
It’s not always easy to make the switch, but like any habit, practice makes perfect.
Start small, perhaps with an hour of dedicated focus, and gradually build up.
6) Use Physical Tools
Before I get to the so-called “detox” challenge later in this article, here’s a small challenge: take a step back from your digital devices and think about how physical tools could help reduce your reliance on technology.
We’re talking about good old-fashioned notepads, books, board games, or even a manual alarm clock to wake you up instead of your phone.
Think about the task at hand and ask yourself, “Can this be done without a digital tool?”
You’d be surprised at how often the answer is yes.
Using physical tools isn’t just nostalgic. It can also be pretty beneficial.
Reading a physical book, for example, doesn’t expose you to blue light like a digital screen does.
Plus, jotting down notes with a pen can help you remember information better.
So, the next time you reach for your phone or laptop, consider if a physical tool might do the trick. It’s all about finding a balance that works for you.
7) Schedule Regular Digital Detoxes and Sabbaticals
Doing regular digital detoxes and sabbaticals is the next thing you can do.
It’s setting aside a whole day, a weekend, or even a week. You don’t check your emails, social media, or any other digital distractions during this time.
Instead, you spend that time reconnecting with nature, reading a book, meditating, or engaging in activities you love.
When you return to the digital world, these digital breaks give your mind the much-needed space to unwind, rejuvenate, and even improve focus and creativity.
This study confirms that a digital detox can lead to positive changes in mood, improved productivity, better quality sleep, and reduced anxiety.
Plus, they remind you there’s a vibrant, engaging world beyond screens.
The goal isn’t to create an unattainable standard of never using digital devices.
Rather, it’s cultivating a more mindful and balanced relationship with technology.
8) Protect Your Privacy
Every time you surf the web, your data footprint grows.
From your social media posts to the online forms you fill out, these pieces of information can be pieced together to reveal a lot about you.
And more so, if you put artificial intelligence into the picture, that can find behavior patterns easily.
And in the wrong hands, this could lead to identity theft or other privacy breaches.
So how can you strike back?
Simple things like choosing strong, unique passwords and regularly updating them can go a long way in securing your digital life.
You also want to be wary of what information you share online and who you share it with.
Regularly reviewing and updating your privacy settings on different platforms is also a good idea to ensure they align with your comfort levels.
9) Offline Hobbies
Offline hobbies not only provide a much-needed break from technology and the world obsessed with ‘likes’ and ‘shares,’ but also encourage engagement with the physical world and boost your overall wellbeing.
These could be as simple as reading a book, gardening, painting, playing a musical instrument, or practicing yoga.
Engaging in physical activities or crafts can offer a tangible sense of accomplishment, something that can be lacking in our digital pursuits.
This article mentions a study confirming that crafts “can bolster mood, improve self-confidence, and reduce stress overall.”
And then there is, of course, the plentitude of scientific studies about the health benefits of physical activities, which you may read up on here.
Offline hobbies can also foster social connections in a real-world setting.
Think of joining a local book club, a sports team, or a cooking class.
You can enrich your life, foster creativity, and improve your mental and physical health by redirecting some of your free time from the digital to the physical world.
10) Avoid “Tech FOMO”
“Tech FOMO” or “Fear of Missing Out” on technology can lead you to continuously chase the latest digital trends, updates, or gadgets, often at the expense of your time, money, and mental wellbeing.
But you can avoid this. How? Contrary to the marketing hype, you don’t always need the latest iPhone, app, or flashiest gadget to be productive, connected, or fulfilled.
Take a step back and assess whether the new tech adds value to your life or is just creating digital clutter.
So you want to prioritize your needs over your wants and ask yourself: “Does this align with my digital minimalist principles?
Does it serve a necessary purpose in my life? Or is it just another thing to manage and update?”
11) Leverage Technology
Ironically, technology itself can help in your quest to become a digital minimalist.
Embracing digital minimalism doesn’t mean entirely rejecting technology; it’s about using it more effectively and consciously.
Leveraging technology means making it work for you, not against you.
When used correctly, tech tools can boost productivity, simplify tasks, and enhance learning.
Take advantage of tools that streamline your digital life.
Automate tasks where possible, use apps that help you focus and reduce distractions, or use AI assistants for mundane tasks.
However, always ensure these tools align with your priorities and don’t become a source of digital clutter themselves.
You want to use technology to facilitate meaningful connections and deepen relationships.
For instance, opt for video calls instead of text messages.
They’re more personal and engaging.
Finally, continuously educate yourself about the pros and cons of new tech and how to use it responsibly.
This will help you make informed decisions about which tech to adopt and which to discard, keeping you in control of your digital life.
10 Digital Minimalism Rules & Principles Checklist (A Summary)
While digital minimalism is a personal journey, and the specific rules can vary from person to person, some general principles can guide you in establishing your own set of rules:
1) Value Quality Over Quantity
Focus on fewer but more valuable digital interactions.
It’s not about completely disconnecting from technology but using it more intentionally to serve your goals and values.
2) Clarity is Key
Be clear about why you’re using each digital tool or platform. Every app, website, or device you use should serve a clear purpose aligned with your values and priorities.
3) Embrace Solitude
Make time for solitude and focused work. Cultivate the ability to be alone with your thoughts without reaching for a device to fill the silence.
4) Limit Multitasking (Doesn’t Work Anyways)
Despite popular belief, our brains aren’t well-suited to multitasking, especially when it involves digital media (see the earlier studies).
So try to focus on one task or platform at a time.
5) Schedule Screen-Free Time
Set aside regular periods when you disconnect from digital devices entirely. This might be a certain time each day, one day a week, or a week or more per year.
6) Use Tools, Don’t Be Used By Them
Digital tools are there to serve you, not the other way around. So you want to be conscious of how your digital behaviors are shaped by the design of these tools.
7) Establish Digital Boundaries
Create guidelines for when, where, and how to use your digital devices.
For example, no screens in the bedroom or turning off notifications for certain hours of the day.
8) Practice Mindful Consumption
Instead of mindlessly scrolling or surfing, try to consume digital content intentionally. Choose high-quality content that brings you joy, knowledge, or fulfillment.
9) Focus on Real-World Interactions
Prioritize face-to-face social interactions over digital ones. While digital communication has its place, it shouldn’t replace real-world connections.
10) Cull Regularly
Regularly assess and declutter your digital environment.
Delete apps you don’t use, unfollow accounts or leave chat groups that don’t bring you value, and unsubscribe from unnecessary emails or newsletters.
Remember, the idea is not to demonize technology but to use it to align with your life goals and values.
Making the Shift in 30 Days? Challenging the Digital Minimalism Challenge by Cal Newport
In this last section of my longer article, I challenge a bit the 30-day digital minimalism challenge by Cal Newport.
As detailed in his book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” this challenge is a step-by-step method designed to help individuals take control of their digital lives.
Here’s a brief outline of the process:
Take a 30-day break from optional technologies: Newport advises beginning with a 30-day detox period.
During this time, you’ll abstain from all optional technologies in your personal life.
“Optional” means that their absence wouldn’t harm or disrupt the daily operation of your work or personal life.
These could be social media, news apps, or online games. Necessary use of technology for work or vital personal matters is permitted.
Then you also need to define your technology rules.
So during this detox, you should identify which digital tools are valuable and necessary for your work and personal life.
Additionally, you define rules for using these technologies that align with your values and goals.
Next, you explore and engage in offline activities. This is because, during this period, you’ll likely find yourself with extra time.
You want to fill it with activities that align with your values, like spending time with loved ones, reading, or pursuing a hobby.
This part of the process aims to remind you of the joy and value that offline activities can bring to your life.
After the 30 days are over, evaluate each digital tool before you reintroduce it.
Ask yourself whether it’s necessary and valuable and how it impacts your personal and professional life.
When you reintroduce a tool, set specific rules about how and when you’ll use it.
My Critical View on this 30-Day Challenge
While Cal Newport’s 30-day digital minimalism detox offers a structured approach for individuals aiming to declutter their digital lives, there are some debatable points…
The challenge may not account for the vast diversity in people’s professional and personal lives.
What’s deemed as “optional” technology can vary greatly among individuals.
Social media might be crucial for maintaining relationships, networking, or professional responsibilities for some.
It’s Abrupt and Extreme: Suddenly going cold turkey on many forms of digital technology might be too drastic for some people.
A better approach would be a gradual change.
Since it is likely more sustainable and less anxiety-inducing for individuals who heavily rely on digital tools in their daily lives.
Changing habits gradually is also emphasized as a better approach by the author of “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything,” by BJ Fogg.
Potential for Backsliding: After 30 days, there’s a risk that people might revert to their old habits once the digital tools are reintroduced, particularly if the underlying triggers of their overuse (e.g., FOMO, loneliness) aren’t addressed.
It’s like the many “successful” diets that supposedly can work wonders. Well, they don’t, and the jo-jo effect is real.
Not Addressing the Systemic Issue: The detox solely puts the responsibility on the individual without addressing the wider systemic issues like the persuasive design of tech platforms meant to maximize user engagement and time spent on these platforms.
So, overall, I think, to be successful with any type of digital minimalism, you will need to implement a much more individualized and sophisticated habit change strategy, maybe even coupled with some therapy.
The latter depends on the gravity of underlying issues (e.g., depression, etc.).
By now, you may also know how you stay a digital minimalist.
It’s when you succeed in making a truly sustainable habit change that will last. So the key is to get good at that.
To study habit change strategies, besides the book “Tiny Habits”, you may also want to look into the following resources:
- “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg, with the “Habit Loop” (trigger, the habit itself, and the benefit from executing the habit)
- Implementation intentions
- Replacing negative habits with positive ones
- On average, 66 days of consistent practice so the new behavior becomes automatic (so it should be rather a 66-day digital minimalism challenge, I guess)
This article has been reviewed by our editorial team. It has been approved for publication per our editorial policy.