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Digital Minimalism: Why Your Happiness Demands It

reythedev profile image Rey van den Berg Originally published at fromthemountain.co.za Updated on ・13 min read

Table of Contents

1. Introduction to Minimalism

2. What is Minimalism?

3. What is Digital Minimalism?

4. 7 Core Principles of Digital Minimalism

5. Am I a Victim of Digital Mindlessness?

6. How Can I Become More Digitally Minimal?

7. The Harms of an Unchecked Digital Life

8. Summary

1. Introduction to Minimalism

Digital minimalism is a topic that is "all-that-rage" right now.

Type "What is Digital Minimalism" into your web browser search bar and you'll be greeted with an absolute plethora of articles ranging from full "how-to" guides to quick 2-minute "best tips" posts.

There is no doubt that the concept and practice of digital minimalism has gone from being the brain-child of yoga-practicing hipsters to a popular practice where one attempts to intentionally remove digital 'clutter' for a 'better' life.

By reading on, you will peek into the practice of digital minimalism, scientifically-backed dangers of digital mind*lessness, the life-altering effects of digital mindful*ness (minimalism), identify whether you could benefit from this approach and, finally, how to actually become more digitally minimal.

First Off, Let's Get Personal

Each morning, I open my eyes and tell myself that I should probably not check my phone first thing in the morning. Such pure intentions...

I then proceed to check my phone, blaming my uncontrolled impulses on my dopamine addiction, straight after an intentional thought aimed in the opposite direction.

I then get out of bed, make some hot lemon water, come back to bed and practice mindfulness via my favourite meditation app.

Immediately after, I jump up, mindlessly grab breakfast and plonk myself in front of my computer screen where I spend the next 8 hours.

Those 8 hours will only be interrupted by brief excursions to the kitchen, toilet, and the outdoors often accompanied by my phone and the 48 bookmarked very-important-must-read-if-I-want-to-be-a-better-human-and-developer articles.

Essentially, I spend most of my time in front of a screen writing code and trying (but failing) to avoid social media (not because I don't love cat videos) but because I know how addictive it all is. As you can tell, I'm not here to brag...

What I'm trying to say is, if there is anyone who could benefit from the practice of digital minimalism, it's me.

And so I write this for you and me both. Let's jump in, shall we?

2. What is Minimalism?

The whole concept can be boiled down into just 3 words:

Less is More

I'm going to keep this explanation short for the sake of your total reading time (less is more right?) so that you can go back to doom-scrolling, Twitter, or, if you're feeling super conscientious, your work station (bonus points if you're already reading this at your work-station instead of working - you're not fooling anyone, Steve!)

Rambling aside, minimalism is really just that - the concept of aspiring for 'less' which, in practice, should result in 'more'.

The tangible value of 'less' and 'more' really just depends on your context.

The First Minimalist Liked Black Squares

The current trending form of minimalism is certainly not the first time the concept of 'minimalism' was brought to the attention of the world.

Back in 1913, a painter by the name of Kasimir Malevich painted a black square on a white background explaining: "...trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.".

The man was a minimalist!

Well, his art was (it was called Suprematism though).

While I don't know anything about his personal finances during his creative years, it is said that he 'died in poverty and oblivion' thanks to the decisions of Soviet politicians against modern art. Yikes. Turns out the man was a minimalist in practice too, but probably not by choice.

Contemporary Minimalism

Today we have vocal advocates for minimalism (unimpeded by communist ideologies) like Joshua Becker, Cal Newport, and Joshua Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus who stand for a message that I can totally agree with! In essence, this is their "Why" and "How":

Momentary Aside: Some of these guys have built careers (being paid to be a minimalist can be called a career now, you know) around teaching people the what, the why, and, on the all-important HOW of minimalism. I'm of the inclination that you don't need to spend any money to become a good minimalist (this is becoming quite meta...) and to this end I propose you prepend your minimalism adventures with a look into becoming mindful. I've written a short article on some habits that we can adopt in becoming more mindful which will definitely help you in your digital minimalism journey.

Why would anyone want to become a minimalist?

To provide more room for the things that matter by removing anything that distracts us from living with intentionality and freedom.

How do people actually become minimalists?

If I were to give you the minimal solution to becoming a minimalist, it would be this: Identify items, practices, even beliefs, that are detracting from your life and simply remove them.

Again, look into mindfulness before you cast judgement on your percolator. It will save you the embarrassment of realizing your life revolves around caffeine and that you are nothing without it. The same applies to everything else, don't remove things that genuinely bring you pleasure - what would be the point of that? We're not trying to become Mormons over here.

By the way, if you are looking into becoming a Mormon, check out their official explanation as to why they don't drink tea or coffee. Make of that what you will but I for one will always keep a cup of coffee between me and that religion.

I digress...

What if you don't know what brings you genuine pleasure in life? Well, it might be simpler to approach the practice from a different angle - one of a process of elimination.

Since I'm a deluded digital addict (or at least pretending to be for the sake of this article... I am a little though), I want to tackle this process of becoming minimal from a digital perspective.

3. What is Digital Minimalism?

It's minimalism but digital. I know right?

Ok but seriously, it's pretty much the same idea as general minimalism: Identify 'things', whether that be something like newsletter subscriptions, Youtube channels, or doomscrolling; remove those 'things', and BOOM! You now have a life freer of distracting clutter allowing you more room for the things that matter.

For a more nerdy-wordy answer, look no further than this quote from computer science professor, Cal Newport:

Digital minimalism is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life.

Confused? Read my explanation again. Want to show off to your friends that you understand the justification for digital minimalism? Well, you now have a very quotable quote to quote when anyone questions you. Thanks, Prof. Cal!

4. Core Principles of Digital Minimalism

Tomfoolery aside, significant value can be garnered from inspecting Cal's core principles of digital minimalism which I've summarized for your viewing pleasure:

1. Missing out is not negative

Digital maximalists often justify their behaviour by telling you about all of the things they would miss out on if they weren't constantly clicking and 'apping' away.

By labeling every avoided activity as an opportunity lost, they will forever be in a state of catch up. The more sensible alternative is to measure the value gained from activities that you do embrace and then look to maximize the positive value/return from that activity.

2. Less can be more

By extension, applying the basics of the Pareto Principle, we can achieve more by doing less and focusing more on high quality content.

3. Start from first principles

You'll be swimming in a stormy sea of irrelevant online time if you accept a website or app just because it offers some value. Rather, identify the foundational principles that you hope to build a good life on, and go from there. Once identified, you can ask yourself, "Will this app/website add significant value to something I find to be significantly important to my life?"

4. Digital clutter is stressful

Incessant clicking and scrolling generates a background hum of anxiety. Drastically reducing the number of things you do in your digital life can by itself have a significant calming effect.

5. Attention is scarce and fragile

You have a finite amount of attention to expend each day. Large attention conglomerates like Facebook and Twitter thrive from getting as much of your attention each day as possible. How you expend your attention determines your quality of happiness.

6. Be wary of tools that solve a problem that didn't exist before the tool

GPS solved a problem that existed for a long time before it came along ("How do I get where I want to go?"), as did Google ("How do I find this piece of information I need right now?"). Snapchat, by contrast, did not. Be wary and thoughtful before using tools in this latter category as they may exist to mainly create addictive new behaviours that drive ad sales.

7. Activity trumps passivity

Some of the most fulfilling online activities, are those that involve creating things as opposed to simply consuming. Maybe try to seek those out instead of trawling clickbait. Write that poem, code that function - it may read terribly but it's a creative outlet and it may just be what you should be focusing on a little more.

Now that we know what digital minimalism is on a bit of a deeper level, let's get into the process of eliminating the things that are detracting from our sense of digital minimalism.

"But how do I know if I'll even benefit from the process?What if I don't actually need to go through a digital minimalism 'cleanse'?"

Fair point. There's no sense in preaching to the converted so check this out to be sure 👇

5. Am I a Victim of Digital Mindlessness?

Use the points below as a guide to whether you might want to look into digital minimalism:

  • You think that physical exercise is important for your health and happiness but often find yourself binging on another Netflix show instead of going for a run or hitting the gym.
  • You value long-term friendships but rarely reach out to call them, instead you find yourself spending way too much time on random (but totally justified, right?..) Youtube videos.
  • You think it's important to "be present and engaged" during meals but find yourself glancing at your phone every few minutes instead of being fully engaged with the meal and people around you.
  • You think procrastination is bad but sometimes you get lost (mindlessly) scrolling down the infinite stream that is social feeds and blog posts instead of working on your latest passion project.

You see what I'm getting at, right? We know better. We always know better. But somehow we still fall prey to bad habits. If you identified with even one of the above points, then maybe your life will become a little less cluttered, a little more purposeful, if you sought to become mindful and practice digital minimalism. Even if it makes your life 5% more engaged and meaningful, it's a win in our continual quest to be "happier" and more "at ease".

6. How Can I Become More Digitally Minimal?

So, what can you do practically to take back a little more control of your life where your brain is less reactive to a notification popping up on your smartphone

Here are some small actionable things to try out in your digital minimalism experiment:

  1. The next time you're about to have a meal with someone, leave your phone in another room.
  2. When you have some time to relax, try to catch yourself while reaching for your phone or PC. Observe the action.
  3. Before you go to sleep at night, put your phone outside your bedroom door.
  4. Set aside 2 hours during the weekend where you don't use your phone at all. After some time, set a whole morning orafternoon aside where you don't use any screen technology at all.
  5. Delete your social media apps from your phone, only allowing yourself to check them on your PC. If you don't have a PC,delete them anyways and limit yourself to your phone's web browser.
  6. For every "like" on social media, leave an actual response that isn't robotic. Try to be as genuine as you can.
  7. Next time you're driving or walking to a new place, try to use the road signs instead of your phone's maps app.

Again, these are not meant to make your life difficult or unpleasant. They're a means to clarifying which pieces of technology are genuinely valuable and which are not. In other words, you're practicing digital minimalism!

7. The Harms of an Unchecked Digital Life

Aside: The sources for the stats below are from well-respected journals such as Nature, Journal of Communication, Journal of Consumer Research, American Economic Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Science Direct, Society for Research in Child Development; respected authors, and other sources deemed worthy and true by the Center for Humane Technology.

1. Attention and Cognition

Technology's attention economy are is taken a toll on our ability to think, to focus, to solve problems, and to be present.

75% of screen content is viewed for less than 1 minute.

1 hour per day is the amount of time Americans spend dealing with distractions. That's 5 full weeks a year just spent on getting back into focus!

40 seconds is the typical time we can focus while working on computers before our attention is broken.

2. Physical and Mental Health

Research is showing an ever-increasing range of adverse effects which technology (and it's misguided use) is having on our happiness, our self image, and our overall mental health.

The greater your level of Facebook addiction, the lower your brain volume.

1 month away from Facebook leads to a significant improvement in emotional well-being.

The more time you spend on Instagram, the more likely you are to suffer eating disorders.

The number of "Likes" on a celebrity Instagram account can significantly change how you see yourself.

3. Social Relationships

The true purpose of social networks is to connect us but it can leave many feeling socially isolated by distracting us from connecting with those directly in front of us.

50% of parents reported that mobile devices typically interrupted the time they spent with their children 3 or more times each day.

50% of Americans report that their partner is often distracted by their devices while trying to talk to them.

Those who take photos to share on social media experienced less enjoyment and less engagement with the scene than those taking photos for their own pleasure.

Preschoolers who use screen-based media for more than 1 hour each day have been shown to have less development in the parts of the brain involved in language and literacy

The level of electronic media use before bedtime is significantly correlated with depression in adolescence.

High depressive symptoms for 13 - 18 year old girls rose by 65% between 2010 and 2015 after nearly 2 decades in decline.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources but my hope, in summarizing them and providing references to the original research, is that it will propel your own understanding of the real dangers of being digitally mindless. Use these resources to equip yourself and educate those around you.

Digital minimalism might not be everyone's cup of tea but it sure is a taste everyone should start getting used to for the sake of our humanity.

A special thanks to the amazing humans at the Center for Humane Technology for the awesome work they're doing in bringing these stats to life! And thanks to James Tucker for pointing them out to me during one of our discussions on mindfulness.

8. Summary

Minimalism as a whole is meant to make our lives more enjoyable and rewarding, not dull and boring. The same applies to digital minimalism.

Ol' Prof. Newport puts it wisely:

... a simple, carefully curated, minimalist digital life is not a rejection of technology or a reactionary act of skepticism; it is, by contrast, an embrace of the immense value these new tools can offer…if we’re willing to do the hard work of figuring out how to best leverage them on behalf of the things we truly care about.

If you can identify parts of your digital routine that are introducing anxiety or other suffering (see links below), and effectively cut them out, you will be someone with less suffering. It's simple.

The difficult part for most people is identifying things that cause them suffering in the first place.

For this, I highly recommend looking into mindfulness (a.k.a. vipassana meditation). I've written a short article about the benefits of mindfulness and other good habits which may interest you.

Once you've identified the root cause of your suffering (however negligible it may seem), justifying it's removal and witnessing the benefits become easier. You really don't need to spend thousands of dollars to go on a 'cleansing' retreat to understand what is creating digital clutter in your life and how to fix it.

Prioritize the practice of mindfulness and the rest will follow.

Thanks for taking some of your time and spending it on this article. I hope you gained something of value from it.

If you think this article could be beneficial to others around you, feel free to share it directly with your friends. If you're a mindful user of Twitter or Facebook 😉, you're welcome to share the article. If this article resonated with you and you'd like to continue the conversation, find me on Twitter or email me directly at rey@fromthemountain.co.za.

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