Why Digital Minimalism is Taking Off

Marie Kondo set the bar for decluttering our physical spaces. The trend is moving to the workplace too, as experts urge us to declutter our office spaces. But what about our digital lives? Can a radical shift in philosophy there make us happier and more successful?

Computer scientist Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, believes so, saying there is a heavy cost to the current thinking of “techno-maximalism.”

“The basic idea is that technological innovations can bring value and convenience into your life,” Newport explains in an interview with Clay Skipper in GQ. “So, you assess new technological tools with respect to what value or convenience it can bring into your life. And if you can find one, then the conclusion is, ‘if I can afford it, I should probably have this.’”

The problem, Newport claims, is this approach just looks at the positives: “If there’s something that brings value, you should get it.”

Yet there’s a cost to this kind of thinking, akin to Thoreau’s thinking around economic maximalism.

“[Thoreau] was saying, ‘[Concord famers] have this mindset of, ‘If having this much land makes me this much profit, then having twice as much will make me twice as much profit, so that’s twice as good. You want to get as much land as possible.’”

The problem, Newport explains, is that people don’t look at the cost of owning and working that new land … or that new technology.

“We see these tools, and we have this narrative that, ‘You can do this on Facebook,’ or ‘This new feature on this device means you can do this, which would be convenient.’ What you don’t factor in is, ‘Okay, well what’s the cost in terms of my time attention required to have this device in my life?’ Facebook might have some particular thing that’s valuable, but then you have the average U.S. user spending something like 50 minutes a day on Facebook products. That’s actually a pretty big [amount of life] that you’re now trading in order to get whatever the potential small benefit is.”

The solution is clear to Newport: to maximize the amount of value you feel in your life, put your attention in the small number of things that bring you the biggest rewards.

“99% of the value that people actually derive from Facebook can be acquired in 20 minutes on a Sunday if you can keep yourself from being distracted.”

“When you think about it that way, fear of missing out looks like, just mathematically speaking, a really bad strategy,” he tells Skipper.

“I don’t fear missing out. I fear not giving enough attention to the things that I already know for sure are important,” Newport continues, insisting that 99% of the value that people actually derive from Facebook – new connections, opportunities, etc. – can be acquired in 20 minutes on a Sunday if you can keep yourself from being distracted.

Newport sees a groundswell of support for digital minimalism the last two years, bolstered by negative narratives around politics alongside psychological data on the physical and emotional tolls of time spent in the digital wasteland.

“This is 13-year-olds who are going to the hospital at unprecedented levels,” he notes. “It’s social media. Nothing else fits the timing. This starts right around the time that about 50% of people that age had access to a smartphone. And I think that’s going to significantly change the way we think about use in these technologies.

“It’s just like with smoking, where we started by making it illegal for people under 18. That was the beginning of, ‘Well, wait a second, if it’s so dangerous for them, why am I doing it so much?’”

Newport paints a dire picture of the true costs of techno-maximalism, and offers a 30-day guide to wean yourself … without encountering some of the normal resistance that comes with change.

“I don’t usually have processes like that,” Newport says. “But I thought this was really important, because it was a way for people to actually go through a ritual and come out the other side with a different type of life… This additive of, ‘I’m rebuilding my life better,’ as opposed to, ‘I’m just trying to identify what’s bad,’ does reduce defensiveness.”

If you read one thing this week, read the full interview in GQ. It’s an eye-opening idea.