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Some Thoughts on Transitioning to Digital Minimalism

December 21st, 2016 · 47 comments

A Minimalist Transition

Earlier this week, I posted some thoughts on digital minimalism: the idea that using less technology, but using what you do use better, is the key to cultivating meaning in a noisy world.

I want to pull on this thread some more. One question that seems particularly relevant is the process of shifting into this lifestyle.

It seems to me that there are two major approaches that might work: subtractive and additive

The subtractive approach could also be called the Marie Kondo strategy. You survey each digital tool you regularly use one by one, and ask for each:

Is this significantly supporting a principle I believe to be key to living a good life?

If the answer is “no,” then take a break from that tool. If the answer is “yes,” keep it in your life.

The additive approach, by contrast, is slightly more aggressive but probably more effective. Start by eliminating all optional digital tools from your life for a short period. Thirty days is a good length, but the specifics aren’t crucial.

During this period of digital seclusion, consider the principles you consider key for living a good life, and for each ask:

What use of digital tools might best help me act on this principle in my life?

Once you’ve considered each principle, you’ll be left with a small but well-motivated set of digital tools that each plays a significant role in your life.

A Minimalist Caveat

In both transition approaches mentioned above, there’s a caveat (mentioned in my last post) that I think is crucial: it’s important to distinguish the best from the rest. Don’t settle for a tool that just plausibly supports an important principle in your life, think creatively about what tools (and accompanying behaviors) would best support that principle.

Case Study: Supporting a Desire to Stay Informed About Politics

Let’s explore a case study to illustrate this caveat. Assume that civic life is important to you and accordingly you want to maintain a sophisticated understanding of the various ideas undergirding American politics at the moment.

Obsessively checking a Twitter feed that follows numerous politicos would be better than nothing. But is this the best way to serve this principle? Probably not.

The Internet gives you access to essentially every newspaper and magazine in the country. Most of these publications offer a weekly or daily briefing that sends a digest of the most important stories to your email inbox.

You could subscribe to these email newsletters for a representative set of newspapers and magazines both in the mainstream and sampled from the left and right of the political spectrum, and then have them filter into a special folder in your inbox.

You could then indulge in a weekend ritual where you bring a tablet to a coffee shop and begin sifting through these digests, diving deeper into the articles when the headline catches your attention. You could even do this sifting at home, then print the most attention-catching articles and bring the physical copies somewhere quiet to read.

This latter approach requires more effort than downloading the Twitter application and tapping when bored, but imagine the impact if you were regularly diving into the political thinking of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Mother Jones each week — noticing the fundamental disagreements; building familiarity with the major streams of contemporary ideological thinking, etc.

Conclusion

The two approaches described above for shifting toward minimalism are tentative, and my case study is at best a sketchy thought experiment, but I think they capture something fundamental about digital minimalism: new technologies can massively improve important areas of your life, but you really have to work at it if you want to fully enjoy those benefits.

(Photo by gordonplant)

47 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Transitioning to Digital Minimalism

  1. Hexicle says:

    Love your posts cal

  2. Nenad says:

    You have just thrown out some scientifically unsupported claims that are supposed to make the case. By definition it is just your opinion and no basis for others to accept those claims without proper verification. I would love if you would do some real research on the topic and dump “influential bloggers” as your source of truth. That is if you actually want your actions to be based on reality.

    1. Katie says:

      Scientific support for a lifestyle? BS. It’s a choice, not a theory.

      1. Nenad says:

        Why then base the lifestyle on scientifically testable statements like “Digital clutter is stressful|” and then not prove them? Do you want to live your life based on truth or fiction? I believe you do not even care if all this stuff is true as long as it makes you “feel” good.

        Note that stress is very important subject and can seriously affect your health. It is not “just a lifestyle choice”. You are choosing between good health and illness. This is not something you can take for granted and just believe everything you read on the Net.

        1. TJ says:

          you forget that stress IS subjective, it is how you feel about your current work load. It differs hugely between people with equal workloads.

          1. Nenad says:

            Actually it is exactly my point. Article assumes “Digital clutter is stressful” and provides no data to back it up. How stressful? Which research shows levels of stress, type of stress, length of stress? Is all stress exclusively produced by “Digital clutter”? I do not know but neither does the author of the article because he did not perfom the investigation, making the article worthless

        2. corey lambrecht says:

          If I may say so, you sound a bit stressed. Maybe log off more often?

        3. Tony says:

          NENAD said, “Do you want to live your life based on truth or fiction? I believe you do not even care if all this stuff is true as long as it makes you “feel” good.”

          REPLY: You’ve just made your own “unsupported claim in an attempt to make the case” and “by definition, it is just your opinion and no basis for others to accept those claims without proper verification.”

        4. Raj M says:

          There are some statements that would not need a scientific study to prove it. “Digital clutter is stressful.” Is one such statement. Look around you, ask random people and you’ll have your proof.

          1. Nenad says:

            No, that is not proof. Looking around me I see 150 programmers who are digitally cluttered and are handling it pretty good. That is not how you prove things are true or false.

          2. yar says:

            Nenard
            Some say smoking is bad for your health. And I had worked with over 150 chain smokers and they seems just fine!

        5. Ray says:

          Nenad – in your response to Katie you stated “stress is very important subject and can seriously affect your health.” However, you provide no scientific data to back up this claim. Without providing any research, your statement, in your own words, is “By definition it is just your opinion and no basis for others to accept those claims without proper verification.” You, sir, are simply a noodge.

    2. Pick up ‘Mind Change’ by Greenfield…plenty of science about screen time in the book. http://www.susangreenfield.com/science/screen-technologies/

      Or…spend significant time with 18-22 year old college students – social media is an idol that has few equals, and the results are not what we would consider “good” for society as a whole.

    3. Kraj says:

      The cool thing, Nenad, is that you spending your time reading this article is totally voluntary! Stop reading this unscientific trash! Stop it, I say!

    4. Jeff says:

      this is a blog, not a peer-reviewed science journal.

    5. Mauricio says:

      Dude, take a chill pill and go grab a scientific journal if that’s the only reading that will suit your taste. Of course the text posted here is an opinion. Your disagreement is as ridiculous as if someone would read a journal and whine about the lack of intersubjectivity and personal experience as a writing resource.

      1. Nenad says:

        Is your disagreement with me also ridiculous? And you have missed the point of my comment. I am not arguing writing style or literary quality of blog post. I do not care if it is written in adverbs or long poetic sentences as long as it is true. I don’t believe it is true and that is what I am arguing about.

    6. Lebo says:

      Dear Nenad,

      Scientific research takes time. Experiments take time. You only have 24 hours a day. How much time do you want to dedicate to each aspect of your life?

      Yes, there are merits in a scientific approach. However, do you have the time to experiment and write lab reports for every single aspect of what you say? Of course not!

      The scienfic approach is good and therefore we do as much of it as possible for the areas we deem beneficial. Beyond that, we leave it to gut feeling and common sense. Heck, it is even gut feeling that tells us what to research in the first place. We get a gut feel that this research may uncover something big, and we do it.

      Have you ever had your email inbox cluttered with so many e-mails that you find it hard to find what you want to? The stress from that is the stress from digital clutter. Will you die because of it? No. Similarly, those engineers with digital clutter can still manage it. But nevertheless they would prefer if they can easily find the things that they need.

      There are many claims and assumptions in Cal’s posts. And it’s not just Cal. In every post, there are inherent assumptions that the author may not have proven scientifically. Sure, some people may look at all these unfounded assumptions and criticize the author for not being trustworthy. Fine, don’t follow the author’s advice then. The author wrote the post with the motivation to benefit his readers. If you don’t follow it although you can, it is to your detriment.

  3. Chris says:

    I follow a system similar to your last suggestion for articles that matter to me. They are printed for reading. This serves as a filter (is this worth printing?) and enables archiving. I have a fairly robust filing system (of paper) for topics that matter to me and that I am working on. It prevents the ability to overload that digital tools provide, having an Evernote notebook filled with 1,000s of clips being less useful than a dozen or two really good articles.

    1. Deeae says:

      Me, too.

      We seem to be few.

      Valuing simplicity and order maintains a natural immunity to being seduced or otherwise deceived by masterful thieves offering the chance to create identities, worlds and lives of your own devising, albeit within their coded contexts. Imprisonment spun to represent freedom.

      I have noticed that those with our perspective and persuasion exude a certain calmness that eludes those entranced by digitalism, having no desire to recklessly abandon their familial bloodline (connecting historical and singular identity within family to a private life rich with time stretched out in expanded, slow space) and inborn freedom to join the circus.

      Who knew paper would be so significant an indicator of one’s independence.

      One day it might be deemed not just corporately unacceptable but an actual crime to print. Social responsibility superseding personal and familial responsibility as it perverts then completely corrupts common sense.

  4. Bryan says:

    I have been intrigued by minimalism for some time. My home is uncluttered, and doesn’t add to my stress levels, but I do find that for me digital (and behavioral) minimalism is a more important pursuit. Relevant to this topic, even though I work and have a family like most of us, it is important to me to stay up to date on current events and political news. Although I find amazing content online through a number of excellent newspapers and sites (like Google News), I’ve found that I am too distracted by clickbait and that consuming one interesting article quickly turns into consuming many useless ones. Some time ago I adopted a rule similar to yours here: the only news I can ingest must be audio. This forced me to seek out and study relevant and valuable podcasts, and now I can get the most important news of the day in about 45 minutes, typically while I’m doing a mindless task like commuting or doing dishes. Limiting my news to audio sources no doubt prevents me from hearing about some very important things. But, more importantly, it saves me from many more unimportant things.

  5. Fred says:

    I took up on your suggestion to start ruling out social media that didn’t provide any real value. I went for the additive approach. So far, instagram is gone. I keep Facebook messenger active (very passive though). But I have completely stopped using social media as a way to kill time. No more browsing in the bottomless pit of social media news feeds…

    I would suggest Facebook newsfeed eradicator for anyone who wants to keep Facebook as a messenger tool, but get rid of the distractions.

  6. Bill says:

    Cal – Great post.

    One thing for you to consider in your newspaper / politics example:

    I realize you just a random example just to illustrate the point.

    But query whether a larger but different issue is raised inadvertently by that example. More specifically, is it even value add to read all of that political back and forth? Even if such consumption is done in a very effecient way.

    Just food for thought.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  7. Steve says:

    I do something similar and do use tech to simplify it all. The two products I use are feedly and Instapaper.
    Feedly allows me to subscribe to all the news/blogs I think are meaningful. At the end of each day, I go through my feed and save any article that seems important into Instapaper (with just 1 click).
    Sundays I head out with my tablet and load up Instapaper and read everything I have saved.

  8. Canuck says:

    Cal, don’t the lessons of the Craftsman Approach that you discuss in Deep Work already handle this digital tool use problem even better than either of the two approaches in this post?

  9. De says:

    Best way I have found to keep up with political news is allsides.com. Articles and media sources from across the spectrum are rated by bias, and no fluff.

    1. Vin Marr-Kest says:

      Good site; glad you shared.

  10. Geoff says:

    If you wanted a good name for your additive approach you could call it the “Arch Linux approach” 😉

    1. gauthma says:

      I soooo second this one!!! 😀

  11. Daniel Seita says:

    That’s what I do as well, kind of. Except I only need to use NYTimes and WSJ. Two news sources is plenty for me.

  12. Sol Orwell says:

    Funny you used politics – I used to heavily read up on it, but now I just use http://www.electoral-vote.com (updated once a day) and I’m good.

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  14. Baz says:

    Digital Minimalism is why I still don’t own an iPad. As a MacBook Pro and iPhone user (with various upgrades through the years for both), I can’t reconcile the duplicitous tablet which would (for me) require an external keyboard. Despite the undeniable cool factor associated with the tablet, I find it ‘stressful’ just entertaining the idea of using one for the same functions for which I use the Macbook. Would it bring me joy? Probably, but so does my existing tech.

  15. Joe says:

    Here’s someone who may qualify as a kind of digital minimalist, at least when it comes to email, although his use of Twitter generates headlines.

    http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/donald-trump-technology-luddite-233067

    “While Trump fully embraced Twitter, Instagram and live Facebook videos, he is not a fan of email.

    Trump told Erickson and others that email is a problem because people waste their day on it and it only opens them up to trouble.”

  16. ZHUANG says:

    CAL, I can hardly wait to read your summay about your 2016.

  17. David Moore says:

    I’ve had a free course on doing a ‘Digital Reboot’ now which can be signed up for on my blog homepage.

    I’m always on the lookout for reducing digital noise and clutter.

  18. Malcolm says:

    Great post

    Good outlook in a changing world

  19. gauthma says:

    A bit off-topic, but I think you might enjoy this, by none other than Bertrand Russel:

    «I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony»

    https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/01/21/bertrand-russell-boredom-conquest-of-happiness/

    Here’s to a *boring* 2017! 😉

  20. Adam Glasser says:

    Long Live ‘Digital Minimalism and thank you Cal for a great blog!
    FYI:
    I recently changed Mail settings on my iPhone:
    • It no longer ‘fetches’ emails in the background
    • It no longer allows the server to ‘push’ emails
    • I switched off the sound which notifies me if an email arrives
    • the battery now lasts much longer since constant email background activity is off
    • I get email when I choose – like walking out the front door down to the post box.

  21. Salomon says:

    Your disagreement is as ridiculous as if someone would read a journal and whine about the lack of intersubjectivity and personal experience as a writing resource.

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