Thanks to Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying and undisputed queen of organisation, decluttering our homes and wardrobes had never been so popular – that was until the pandemic hit. We had the double whammy of managing the stresses of modern life while barely being able to leave our homes, meaning that spring cleaning, working from home and living with clutter became a part of our day-to-day. But as we rethink our physical clutter during the pandemic, the boundaries between work and home and our ability to disconnect from our digital clutter has become harder than ever.
Just as Kondo suggests organising our physical spaces to achieve calm, in Digital Minimalism: On Living Better With Less Technology, Cal Newport argues that we can do the same for our digital spaces. Newport's "digital minimalists" have learned how to have a meaningful, mindful and balanced relationship with technology – using it to "support" personal goals, rather than letting it "use" them.
Digital minimalism, he explains, is a "philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else."
Newport – who is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University – draws on a wide range of case studies within the book, considering the behaviours of everyone from Amish farmers to Silicon Valley programmers. From this he introduces the principles of digital minimalism:
Principle #1: Clutter is costly
"Digital minimalists recognise that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation," Newport writes.
Principle #2: Optimisation is important
"Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step," he explains. "To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology."
Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying
"Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies," Newport says, adding that this "is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners."
So how do I become a digital minimalist?
Not a fan of "quick-fix tales" and "clever life hack[s]", Newport developed digital minimalism as a thoughtful method for living with technology. "The problem is that small changes are not enough to solve our big issues with new technologies," he explains in the book's second chapter. "The underlying behaviours we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture, and […] they’re backed by powerful psychological forces that empower our base instincts. To re-establish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation."
Newport suggests setting aside a period of time for rapid transformation. He calls this "the digital declutter process". "Much like decluttering your house," he explains, "this lifestyle experiment provides a reset for your digital life by clearing away distracting tools and compulsive habits that may have accumulated haphazardly over time and replacing them with a much more intentional set of behaviours, optimised, in proper minimalist fashion, to support your values instead of subverting them."
"In my experience, gradually changing your habits one at a time doesn’t work well — the engineered attraction of the attention economy, combined with the friction of convenience, will diminish your inertia until you backslide toward where you started."
How to declutter your digital life
Step one: "Put aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life."
The first step of the digital declutter process is to define which technologies fall into this "optional" category. Newport defines "technologies" as "apps, websites, and related digital tools that are delivered through a computer screen or a mobile phone and are meant to either entertain, inform, or connect you." Optional technologies are those that you can go without for 30 days without "harm[ing] or significantly disrupt[ing] the daily operation of your professional or personal life". This means cutting out your daily Instagram updates or mindless Facebook scrolling, rather than shutting down your vital work email.
At the end of this 30-day decluttering period, you're left with a list of optional technologies that require specific "operating procedures": "How and when you use a particular technology, allowing you to maintain some critical uses without having to default to unrestricted access." This could include timing your Instagram usage to your commute and banning your phone at the dinner table. Newport suggests writing these down and putting them somewhere you’ll see them every day.
Step two: "During this 30-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviours that you find satisfying and meaningful."
Once your "operating procedures" have been established, the next step in your digital decluttering is to follow these rules for 30 further days. Newport admits this can be tough. "You’ll likely find life without optional technologies challenging at first. Your mind has developed certain expectations about distractions and entertainment, and these expectations will be disrupted when you remove optional technologies from your daily experience."
Though unpleasant, this detox stage is hugely important in helping you to "make smarter decisions […] when you reintroduce some of these optional technologies to your life."
Another important factor of stage two is that it allows you to rediscover what's important to you. "Figuring this out before you begin reintroducing technology at the end of this declutter process is crucial," Newport clarifies. "You're more likely to succeed in reducing the role of digital tools in your life if you cultivate high-quality alternatives to the easy distraction they provide." Take this as an opportunity to tackle that pile of books on your bedside table or sign up to that fitness class you’ve been thinking about trying.
Step three: "At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximise this value."
Once your 30-day period has come to an end, the last step of digital decluttering is to bring technologies back into your life. "The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards," Newport explains. "It’s the care you take here that will determine whether this process sparks lasting change in your life." Reintroduced technology should support your values and aspirations, not overpower them. Maybe you've found Twitter updates distracting at work, but Pinterest offers great visual inspiration? Now, thanks to the digital decluttering process you know to mute Twitter during your nine-to-five and keep signed in to Pinterest when creativity strikes.
Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology by Cal Newport is out now, published by Penguin Business, £14.99.