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On Digital Minimalism, Loneliness and the Joys of True Connection

Photo by Markus Meier.

Earlier today, I came across a thoughtful essay written by someone just embarking on the digital declutter suggested in my most recent book. Summarizing the first day of his experience, the essay author was surprised by the sense of isolation he felt during his initial foray into public without his phone.

As he writes:

“Waiting in line for lunch is also usually an excuse for ‘productivity.’…but today I opted to leave it and simply look around the food hall. The first thing I noticed was that everyone was watching me — or I was scared they were, at least. While I generally enjoy being on stage, what I feared was that they were watching me be alone. And who wants to see that?”

He concludes: “And now I understand one potential uptake of embarking on a digital declutter — loneliness.”

In a previous post, I wrote about the challenge presented by the boredom that follows a commitment to paring down your online activity. Here, I want to tackle loneliness, as it’s another issue I hear about a lot when talking with those transitioning toward digital minimalism, especially younger people whose social lives have become intertwined with their phones.

As I write in chapter 4 of Digital Minimalism, in moderation, the loneliness felt in these moments of solitude is not necessary deleterious. I quote the following 1972 diary entry from the poet May Sarton:

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. This is what is strange — that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…”

Sarton highlights a crucial point. Loneliness is a strong human drive that not only pushes us toward deep connection, but establishes the background against which true connection pops in vivid importance.

To fill every moment of solitude with a droning hum of twitter timelines and pull-to-refresh swipes reduces the nobility of our social nature. To instead face that moment of aloneness, like our essay writer in the food hall, uncomfortable and self-aware, but then later contrast that to sitting down with someone you care about, and actually, truly talking, is to taste life fully.


Earlier this month, my friend Ryan Holiday’s new book, Stillness is the Key, was released. You probably already know and enjoy Ryan’s work, but in case you don’t, here’s my blurb from the book jacket: “Some authors give advice. Ryan Holiday distills wisdom. This book is a must read for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the frenetic demands of modern life.” If that resonates: check this one out

25 thoughts on “On Digital Minimalism, Loneliness and the Joys of True Connection”

  1. When we are lonely, it means we are painfully aware of the absence of God and others. Yet, as suggested by both yourself and our contemplative writer friend, it is exactly this feeling of loneliness that can drive us to seek out deeper connection.

    I have been spending time in meditation this past year, and I have found this this quiet time of solitude enables me to explore my emotions around my connections with others, deepening my understanding of those relationships.

    On a related note, I yesterday was at large (1000+ employees) presentation. There was time for Q and A, but questions were asked via smart phone app – Slido – then answered on stage by the presenter. Because I don’t use a smart device, I had to ask my question the old fashioned way – actually speaking up in front of everyone (I was the only one).

    I couldn’t help but wonder what this new Q and A style does for building relationships and generating an atmosphere of dialogue in a group setting.

  2. Great point and one I don’t think many realize. We are so separated from the true feelings and purpose of feeling alone (as opposed to lonliness). It’s so foreign that we haven’t a clue as to what to do. Many rush back into the digital shelter after even the slightest feeling of discomfort. It seems that “meh” is better than real positive behavior change.

    As an aside, I’m a bit surprised to see social sharing buttons added to your blog.

  3. I am reading “Lead yourself first” right now. So far, a great book. I am glad that it talks about TM in the very first chapter. Since I started it my life (or better, my perspective towards it) has radically changed.

  4. One problem I’ve encountered as I’ve attempted digital minimalism is not having a way to relax at the end of a long day–for years I have always watched TV before bed. Besides the digital minimalist aspect, I’ve read that the blue light before bed can mess up your sleep cycle, and I definitely have experienced that.
    I know many people like to read to relax, but my job involves tons of reading, so that usually doesn’t feel relaxing for me. Has anyone else struggled with this, and/or found an effective way to relax at the end of a long day?

    • Hi Carrie,

      I’m not sure what kind of work you do, but I’m a scientist, and so my job also involves a ton of reading.

      I still find good fiction utterly engaging and relaxing.

      My favourite genres are an entirely different experience from dry academic prose.

      Don’t mistake the act of reading itself with the content.

    • I agree with Geoff. In addition to relaxing fiction, you may also consider reading comics or graphic novels?

      Aside from reading, here are some additional ideas I’ve brainstormed for relaxing before bed:

      – meditating
      – yin yoga
      – working on a jigsaw puzzle
      – journaling (try more relaxing forms of journaling such as gratitude journaling, stream of thought journaling, etc.)
      – taking up a quiet hobby (examples: knitting, whittling)
      – listening to analog music on a record player (just sit back and close your eyes!)

    • “Has anyone else struggled with this, and/or found an effective way to relax at the end of a long day?”

      I enjoy listening to music and crochet. Crochet doesn’t require a lot of energy (chain 3, double-crochet 3, slip stitch, repeat ad infinitum), but it’s something to keep my hands busy while my mind sorts out the day. Listening to music while I work enhances the experience. I like to use Pandora or YouTube, which I just let run on their own, but I used to do this with CDs or even records. I get to relax, enjoy music, process the day, and in the end I have a blanket or scarf or hat.

  5. Solitude has taken on a new meaning, it seems: The decluttering of obtrusive technology from one’s life. Solitude in Shakespearean times had a completely different meaning, albeit similar symptoms. At times, as our history and geography perhaps illustrate, some state of solitude is required to introduce efficiency into one’s life and, why not, with a contrarian spirit.

  6. Solitude/stillness/tech-free is key.

    “This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers this morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you might find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.” – Joseph Campbell

  7. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. (Henri Nouwen’s book on this distinction was published 40 years ago.) Solitude becomes a spiritual practice, an experience of personal growth, paying attention to emerging thoughts and ideas, free from the distraction of others demanding our time. Loneliness comes from being too focused on myself, and allowing my worth to be determine by how much attention I’m getting from other people.

  8. About Dr. Cal’s works is that I finished reading his book How to win at college, I never wanted it to end. It inspired Me to buy it’s mate How to be a straight A student since I am a college fresher in Medical school at Universty of Rwanda.
    I look forward to equipping myself with all your books. They are lovely

  9. Thank you for your insight and helping me understand the importance of loneliness and solitude. I’ve been trying to use my commute on public transit as an opportunity to embrace solitude and resist checking and swiping on my phone. I hope that more and more people will learn about your digital minimalism philosophy!

  10. This is off topic, but I recently heard an interview you did where you mentioned the high rates of self harm in females from Gen Z and linked it to smart phones and social media. I wonder if you’ve considered the impact of porn on girls and young women in that generation as well?

    Porn is becoming much less taboo and the average age a person watches porn is very young now. Many preteens and teens are getting their sex ed on their phones in the form of internet pornography and are under the impression that porn depicts healthy, normal sex.

    Yet studies on porn have found that most free porn on the internet depicts verbal and physical abuse of women. This has to be affecting the self image of girls/women being raised in this culture and how boys/men are treating them in intimate relationships in profound ways.

  11. Just found this blog and appreciate it very much. I consider myself a digital minimalist and might be a good human research subject for a study on the long-term effects of such a lifestyle. I am a Millennial and have not owned a television or subscribed to any streaming services since before 2009 and barely use social media at all. I’ve found that it gives me a lot more time to focus on important things, and has allowed me the freedom to pursue graduate degrees and a career at the same time.

    This article about loneliness, though, has a really good point. I can resonate with the quote about entering a meal hall or restaurant without a phone and feeling the awkwardness of having nothing on which to focus my attention. The issue is not primarily that people are looking at ME (they’re usually not). The issue is that I don’t know what to look at, because I’ve forgotten how to let the eyes and mind just wander. Is it loneliness, or is it low boredom tolerance? Boredom is a very healthy state of mind to experience in appropriate doses. Either way, whether loneliness or boredom, when we sit through that moment rather than self-medicate with media distractions, we can emerge with a stronger desire to connect or with inspiration and boredom-induced creativity.


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