How to Use Technology to Focus on What Matters the Most
Minimalism Is the Answer to Make Technology Work for You.
Have you ever eaten a meal with someone who couldn’t focus on you because their eyes were glued to their phone? What is the most prolonged period you have gone in the last week without looking at your phone? Do you sleep with your smartphone next to your bed? Can you eat a meal without being interrupted by the addictive ping of a notification? When was the last time you appreciated an experience without documenting it for social media?
As a member of Generation X, I remember the pre-internet and pre-smartphone age. I sent my first email during my junior year of college and didn’t surf the web until I graduated. I remember the first time I saw an iPhone in 2007. A man in the IT department at work was an early adaptor thrilled with his new purchase. I couldn’t understand why on earth I would want to answer emails from such a small screen while on the go.
I’m not a Luddite, a person opposed to new technology or ways of working. Fast forward a few years to when I purchased my first smartphone. Soon I couldn’t imagine not having email, my calendar, and other apps right at my fingertips.
I’ve now owned one of these addictive devices for over a decade. Now I’m back to questioning my relationship with my smartphone and technology in general.
This is why I decided to read Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. The author is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He argues that I can use technology rather than allowing it to use me.
Digital minimalism is all about focus.
I have mixed feelings about technology and social media. On its own, technology is neither a good thing or a bad thing. It all depends on how we use technology in our lives.
Digital minimalism is a philosophy which embraces a less is more approach to help people focus in a noisy world. Cal Newport defines digital minimalism as:
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.”
He outlines three principles of digital minimalism:
Cluttering our time and attention with devices, apps, and services overrides the benefits of each individual item.
Optimize how we use technology first by deciding it supports our values and about how we’ll use it.
Make a commitment to be intentional with how you engage with technology, especially new technologies.
So far, I’m in agreement with the philosophies of digital minimalism. What do I need to do?
How to Kondo your technology with a digital declutter
First, conduct a thirty-day digital declutter. In short, remove technologies and then gradually reintroduce them. Newport claims this will free me from a psychological weight that I don't even realize is holding me down.
Cal Newport outlines the steps of a digital declutter:
Choose the 30 days for your digital declutter.
Create rules. What apps, sites, tools, video games, or streaming video will I ban during this period? What can I use but only in specific instances? (For example, a social media manager will have to use social media for her job but not in personal life.)
Here’s the fun step: explore and rediscover offline activities I enjoy or find meaningful.
After 30 days, with careful deliberation, reintroduce my chosen technologies back into my life. The technology must align with my values. I must use it in a way to serve me best. Plus, I need to create specific rules for when and how I can use it.
Enjoy my new streamlined digital lifestyle.
The process reminds me of an elimination diet testing to see which foods I am allergic too. Full disclosure: I have not done a digital declutter, but am considering doing one.
Practice makes perfect: How to practice digital minimalism.
Below are techniques Cal Newport suggests in the ongoing practice of being a digital minimalist.
Spend time alone and unwired to focus.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote the oft-quoted, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Only with peace, quiet, and solitude could she get her writing done. With work and family responsibilities, it can still be hard for women to find time to spend alone and free from distractions. The “need” to be constantly wired makes time alone with our thoughts even harder.
Use technology to enable conversations and focus during them.
Meeting face to face in person is always best. Newport recommends using technology to help me have more in-person interactions. For example, social media is terrific to arrange a get together with a friend visiting town. Video chats are next best as I can see facial expressions. Phone conversations, where I hear the tone of voice, are next.
Newport suggests saving text-based technologies to arrange meetings, video chats, or phone conversations. Social media, email, and instant messaging work well for logistics. Inspired by academia, he also proposes establishing office hours to make it easier for people to have conversations with you.
Respect other people’s need to focus: Don’t click like ever!
Newport’s suggestion to don’t click like and stop commenting on social media posts surprised me. He backs this suggestion with research that found Facebook’s like button is as addictive as a slot machine. Plus, our likes and comments help Facebook more effectively target ads to us.
He writes, “Instead of seeing these easy clicks as a fun way to nudge a friend, start treating them as poison to your attempts to cultivate a meaningful social life. Put simply, you should stop using them. Don’t click “Like.” Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well. No “so cute or “so cool!" Remain silent. The reason I’m suggesting such a hard stance against these seemingly innocuous interactions is that they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation.” p. 153-154
Regain your focus: Join the attention resistance.
Cal Newport offers specific strategies for using technology, so that doesn’t use me. I took his advice and deleted almost all social media apps from my smartphone. Before, I had Facebook, Messenger, and LinkedIn on my phone. Now, I only have Messenger because that is how my Mom likes to reach me quickly as she doesn’t text. Yes, it does make it more inconvenient to post on Facebook, but that was the point for me. It’s helped me to decrease the mindless surfing of Facebook that sometimes pulled me to my phone.
He also recommends turning devices into single-purpose computers. For example, if I need to write, turn off access to the internet and WiFi.
Focus on leisure instead of mindless technology use.
One of the premises I appreciated in his book is that we regain lots of time once we stop mindless technology use. Newport recommends that we fill that found time with leisure activities. Ideally, ones that involve others in real life or building or making tangible things.
Focus my technology use to help me feel how I want to feel
Reading Digital Minimalism inspired me to pause and reflect on how my use of technology. I asked myself when technology does and does not help me feel how I want to feel.
Here are some reasons I am grateful to have technology in my life:
Technology makes it possible for me to run an online service-based business. This helps me to feel free and creative.
Recently, I participated in a video chat in a family reunion taking place in England from my bedroom in Oregon. This helped me to feel a deep connection.
I'm a directionally-challenged person. GPS systems in my car and on my phone have changed my life and expanded my horizons of places I’m willing to adventure to on my own. This helps me to feel free.
One of my core desired feelings is curious. The internet, with knowledge at my fingertips, helps me to satisfy my curiosity. In fact, I have to be careful not to indulge my curiosity too much.
Writing is the primary way I express my desire to feel creative. I can’t imagine writing longhand anymore. Plus, I love sharing articles I write online.
My technology stop doing list.
When I reflected on my technology use, I discovered several areas of dissatisfaction. This inspired me to create a stop doing lists to help me manage my relationship with all my gadgets. Here are some items from my list:
Don’t allow phones to disturb mealtimes.
Sesame Street produced a public service announcement on this topic, which I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
I admit I went a bit overboard in tracking my life with apps. At first, the data inspired me to make changes. I tracked my sleep and exercise using a Misfit. I created a virtual closet and tracked my outfits with the app Stylebook. I also took lots of photos of events to post on social media.
First, I stopped tracking my steps and sleep over a year ago and haven’t missed it. I’m still exercising and getting enough sleep most nights. Next, I stopped taking so many photos and posting them on social media. I wanted to be present in the moment instead of worrying about capturing images of it. I’m still tracking my outfits, as I enjoy expressing my creativity with a more minimal wardrobe. If I do my digital declutter experiment, I’ll stop doing that too and see how it feels.
Turn off notifications.
I keep my phone on vibrate except in emergency situations. I have turned off all notifications that make noise and many others than could distract me.
Stop checking my email more than 2-3 times a day.
I became less addicted to checking social media, but I still felt pulled to check email many times a day. While working, I would close email whenever possible. But sometimes my priority project involved sending emails, and incoming messages would derail me. Then I discovered Boomerang, which allows me to pause my inbox and not let in any new messages. I’ve only been using it for a few weeks, and I can already tell it is a gamechanger for me.
Put my phone on do not disturb the majority of the time.
I got this suggestion from Digital Minimalism. I don’t keep my phone on do not disturb all the time as Newport suggests, but I do use it much more often. I try to select when I’ll read my texts instead of feeling compelled to respond the moment a text arrives. I also adjust setting so emergency contacts can reach me. Sometimes I even take this a step further and put my phone on airplane mode to disable wifi.
Overall, I recommend Digital Minimalism and the advice given. I have one major criticism of the book. First, Cal Newport is not or has never been on social media. It is hard to understand the addictive natures of social media if you have never experienced it. This fact also makes his argument less empathetic and more academic. He shares many before and after examples of how digital minimalism positively impacts people’s lives, but can’t speak to it personally.
If you’re still curious about managing your relationship with technology, I recommend the following resources.
Related blog posts:
If you are a parent or an educator, I recommend the documentary “Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age,” which was produced by a pediatrician and mother of two teenagers.
Andrew Sullivan’s article “I Used to Be a Human Being” published in New York Magazine on September 2016