The Concept of Digital Minimalism

Written by Alejandro Neufeld

We live in a digital age. Our social, political, and professional selves increasingly rely on technology and the Internet. This is by no means a negative thing, as technology has made us more connected globally than ever before. Information about an event is shared within seconds of the event occurring. Technology is only becoming more innovative, as Apple recently developed an augmented reality headset that “seamlessly blends digital content with your physical space”(Apple Vision Pro: Guided Tour). But there is a flip side to all of this advancement.

Because we are more connected than ever, we are also less likely to humanize those we interact with online. This has led to a firestorm of online vitriol and hate. People have no qualms with resorting to personal attacks on each other just because they have different opinions about a given topic. Social media has become such a cesspool of negativity and emotional immaturity that some wonder if the whole thing is just a grand experiment by our governing bodies to see how easily they can get us to turn on each other. But I digress; theories such as these play into the narratives that keep people scrolling through TikTok and Instagram for hours on end, picking fights with each other. Enter a new strategy for traversing the web: digital minimalism. 

What is Digital Minimalism?

Digital Minimalism is a term popularized by author Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life In a Noisy World (2020). The book is around 300 pages long, so for those who are currently swamped with upcoming exams and assignments, it is not really viable to add another cognitive task to an ever-mounting pile of work. But allow me to succinctly sum up Newport’s main ideas and other viewpoints about Digital Minimalism. Newport defines digital minimalism as a process by which individuals determine which digital activities provide value to their lives. (Newport 10) Essentially, Newport encourages us to use technology only when it is necessary and to focus our attention on one task at a time. This serial way of doing digital tasks will reduce ‘quiet quitting’, a post-pandemic term that refers to people putting in the bare minimum effort at work, doing only what is absolutely necessary to remain employed. Honestly, I understand why people think this way. The current economy is awful. Many people with university degrees are struggling to pay their bills and buy groceries. (That is, those who can even find work in this job market.) It makes one apathetic and prone to doom-scrolling on whatever app catches your eye that day. This is the foundation for the crux of Newport’s claims. Restricting screen time can combat the burnout many young professionals and students are experiencing. But how does digital minimalism work?

How Does Digital Minimalism Work?

Digital minimalism sounds like a cutting-edge philosophy built for the 21st century, but in reality, it is actually pretty simple.

There are 3 key processes that make up the digital minimalist’s ideology. To define said processes, we turn to Ben Lutkevitch, a senior writer for TechTarget:

1. Define technology rules and values. Behaviour changes that support something positive are sustainable. Changes that support negative behaviours are not sustainable. A person should decide what they want out of technology based on what they value. Some example values include convenience, accountability, community, security and power. Deciding to abstain from technology without a positive reward will not work.

2. Take a digital decluttering period. People should only retain technology that would cause harm if removed. This allows time for self-reflection and to answer the question, “What technology do I want to bring back?”

3. Reintroduce technology to your daily routine staying mindful of the progress made during your digital decluttering period. This step should be the final amalgamation of digital minimalist ideas in your life. But do not completely abandon technology, as in a digital world it is inescapable and not using it at least a little bit will not lead to a productive life. Digital minimalism does not seek to demonize technology and purge it in some new-age Luddite revolution. Minimalism does not equal mass extinction of digital resources. Just like everything else in our lives, we should aim to find some sort of balance between our digital and physical lives.” (Lutkevitch Digital Minimalism Explained)

Each of the steps above is straightforward and simple. Yet, they are hard to follow through with. Interesting how the things that are supposed to be easy in life often end up being the most time-consuming and boring. Take the first step. Defining what we want out of technology can be hard because many of us have become so accustomed to it that we are not even aware when we use it anymore. But if we pause and really examine our day-to-day activities, many of us find that we do not need technology as much as we think we do. I recently experienced this feeling when I sat down and added up how much I pay for streaming services every month compared to the amount of time I spend using those streaming services. Long story short, I realized that I have about 3 streaming subscriptions too many, and I only stick to one service when I want to watch something. Another notable aspect of this first step is that it is reliant on intrinsic motivation to modify behaviour. Just like anything else, we have to want to do it for ourselves in order for it to be successful. 

The second step, digital decluttering, is where we can begin to develop a strategy for how much of our time we need to be spending online. Perhaps this means you only use your phone for calls, messages, and maybe half an hour to an hour of social media per day. Your laptop may only be needed for taking notes and completing assignments, and the TV should be off unless you have free time and do not already have other plans for your free time. Of course, this is just one strategy: people are all different, and their digital lives are all different as well. As long as you are only using technology for essential tasks, this step will be successful. Some people go extreme in this step to the point where they turn off every device in their house and keep them off for days or weeks, but that might be taking digital minimalism too far. (Especially for a university student!)

Lutkevitch’s third step is notable because it clarifies that digital minimalism is not meant to demonize technology, rather; it is intended to help people not get burned out and apathetic about life and to recognize that we do not always need a phone or laptop or video games to be fulfilled. Once we have digitally decluttered and formulated a plan for using technology efficiently and productively, we can implement digital minimalism into our lives. Maybe this means you take little breaks throughout the workday(if your job is reliant on you being online for long periods)  and grab a coffee or snack, bang out some push-ups, or take a lap around the workplace/home and let your mind wander. Sometimes, just sitting in silence can put you into perspective and motivate you to be productive for the rest of the day. I really like Lutkevitch’s idea of engaging with technology in a thoughtful way, many of us just passively use technology to take up time, but with digital minimalism, every keystroke, swipe, and sequence is meaningful to the user. In a field that is stereotypically cold and lifeless, digital minimalism puts the person back in control of technology, not the other way around. 

Conclusion: Benefits and Drawbacks

Digital minimalism is relatively new and has not yet been expertly studied, but Lutkevitch lists some of the benefits of the ideology. He claims that digital minimalism can lead to more space, a better work-life balance, better focus, and lower costs. These are all general benefits that can be attributed to many different factors; remember that correlation does not equal causation. I would like to believe that digital minimalism can reduce costs; this one makes the most sense to me, as cutting out some streaming services and other unnecessary online subscriptions seems like a great way to balance a monthly budget and increase savings. For those who do not always have Wi-Fi, data plans for phones can be a nightmare, especially when you run out of Gigs and have to buy more, so cutting back on phone time could definitely lower costs as well. Lutkevitch does comment on drawbacks such as the fear of missing out on online activities/news updates and tech dependency. This is the most viable one to me because it is true that to access services and make payments, many of us need technology, and more and more institutions and businesses are going paperless, so completely cutting out technology is not a smart idea. 

Ultimately, it is up to you whether or not digital minimalism has merit or not. I believe that imbalance in life is the killer of productivity and fulfillment, so trying to find a good balance between online interaction and in-person interaction makes a heap of sense to me. For those who need technology for work, I hope that digital minimalism can help prevent quiet quitting and burnout. We are still young and have the prime of our lives coming up, now is not the time to be apathetic and unmotivated. Now is the time to take back our lives and make every day count. 

Works Cited

Apple. “Apple Vision Pro.” Apple, 2023, www.apple.com/apple-vision-pro/.

‌Cal Newport. Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology. London, Penguin Business, 2020. 

Lutkevich, Ben. “Digital Minimalism Explained: Everything You Need to Know.” WhatIs.com, 6 Feb. 2023, www.techtarget.com/whatis/feature/Digital-minimalism-explained-Everything-you-need-to-know

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