smart phone along with e-reader, flipflops, hat, bag, camera, sunglasses, bottled water to represent digital minimalism

You travel to the tropics and arrive at your beachfront lodging. Tired, you take a 20-minute nap. You awaken and decide to go out into the hot sun. All your stuff is laid out before you, as in this photo. Which of these items do you reach for first—before touching any of the other items?

Don’t think about it too much. Just look at the photo, pretend the stuff is yours, and envision reaching for one of your things. What do you grab?

If you grabbed your phone—so you could check whether you’d gotten any texts, emails, or social media notifications during the past 20 minutes—you may, according to Cal Newport in his most recent book, suffer from a particularly subtle, invidious, pervasive, and modern addiction.

Three years ago, Newport brought us the book Deep Work, which elucidates truths about the human brain, as regards getting things done. As it turns out, to be maximally productive, we need periods of deep work—that is, sustained concentration on difficult tasks—but also breaks from deep work. Trouble comes when people’s schedules become unbalanced one way or the other. For most people, the scales tip toward too much time doing mindless things like Internet surfing, and not enough time in sustained concentration.

In his newest book, Newport examines the causes behind why so many people have difficulty carving out time for deep work. Unsurprisingly, he identifies digital devices, their applications and apps, and how we incorporate them into our days as key culprits. Also unsurprisingly, he uncovers evidence that large, web-based corporations that profit off people’s time (through advertising revenue) actively strive to foster addiction among their users. Newport then recommends remedies for us hapless addicts (and I def include myself in that category!).

The 2019 book is called Digital Minimalism. In its opening pages, Newport defines the term digital minimalism:

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

FOMO is not permitted in Newport’s philosophical world! To cure readers of its pull, he recommends taking a one-month hiatus from all nonessential digital use. Only then, he says, can one break the compulsive habit and gain enough perspective to make rational decisions on how to reincorporate nonessential digital activities into one’s daily life.

And so, I took the month-long journey. I did not use social media for the month of February, with some exceptions for essential activities. For example, I manage the social media accounts for the company I work for; naturally, I continued to perform this paid work. There were also instances in which I needed to log in to the sites to access information or communicate with people whom I could not conveniently contact another way. In addition, I deleted some of my most tempting phone apps and used only my laptop to access those sites. I also turned off, or restricted by time of day, my phone notifications. And I used an app blocker to prevent me from accessing certain apps at certain times of day.

I wish I could say that taking this journey cured me. I still struggle to control my urge to check, check, check, all day long. I am still experimenting with different phone settings and personal codes of conduct, in an attempt to hold on to the biggest benefits of owning a smart phone, while also avoiding disruption to more important life activities. However, even though digital minimalism is still, for me, an unrealized goal, I have seen big improvements in my quality of life. I do have more time in my day when I’m not being constantly sucked into the digital app vortex. I do feel better able to concentrate on deep work tasks. And the next time I take an actual journey, maybe—just maybe!—I’ll reach for the flip-flops first.

Have you taken any minimalist journeys lately?

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