“Digital Minimalism”?… Yes, not a combination of words you would find in the dictionaries of your local library. But, before I get into this new agey concept, let’s first unpack the original movement of Minimalism.
According to Joshua and Ryan (also known as, The Minimalists) the movement can be described as follows:
“Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: Health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution”
Despite the gaining popularity of the movement, the term is often misunderstood. Minimalism is not a set of rules that you live by. It is a certain mindset you adopt. A mindset that you can use as a tool to cut unnecessary things out of your life and fine-tune your focus on what you really want.
These can be the classic physical possessions of course, but also the activities that you say yes to, the relationships that you invest time in and even the series you watch on Netflix.
Minimalism gained some real exposure to the larger public in the 1990s, when a popular minimalism book by Janet Luhrs went viral in North America (The Simple Living Guide). The movement started to get some real worldwide coverage though from 2006 onward when bloggers started to get into the minimalist game.
Fast forward to 2019 – Entire YouTube channels and podcasts are dedicated to the minimalist lifestyle, like Matt D’Avella, The Minimalists and Break the Twitch. I’ve even watched a minimalist documentary on Netflix.
But make no mistake, this mindset is not some new way of thinking that was only recently discovered and adopted. Around the fourth century BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus already phrased a very similar lifestyle philosophy:
“What is necessary for happiness, bodily comfort, and life itself should be maintained at minimal cost, while all things beyond what is necessary for these should either be tempered by moderation or completely avoided.”
Like much of the wisdom generated by the ancient Greek philosophers, the basic principles of their ideas are still relevant in our modern world. Technology might have changed our physical environment in unimaginable ways, but human psychological nature remains the same.
A Philosophy Repackaged
Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has repackaged the words of Epicurus so it can be applied to our digitizing society. Cal defines the term in his book Digital Minimalism as follows:
“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.”
Cal is all about optimizing the personal relationship with digital communication technologies. In his book, he describes that new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve our lives. However, it must also be recognized that realizing this potential requires hard work! After all, digital (social media) tools like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have engineered their services to be as addictive as possible.
These social media platforms are professionals in hijacking our attention – by many considered today’s most valuable resource in our information-flooded world.
How did they get so good?
Believe it or not, by studying the design and effectiveness of casino slot machines. The social media giants looked at the feature that makes slot machines addictive and applied these tactics to their apps. And they have done so successfully. The average person spends two hours on social media every day, which sums up to a total of 5 years and 4 months over a lifetime…Yeah, damn.
Therefore, it’s worth thinking about how much social media platforms really add to our happiness and well-being. Or better yet, it’s worth experimenting with removing social media from our lives and observe the effects. A YouTube channel called Yes Theory already performed this experiment – A 30-day social media fast. Watch and learn the results…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convince you to stop using social media completely – Although Cal Newport is rooting for this radical approach in his TED Talk. I just think it is important to be more aware of how we use these platforms. To see how it affects our personal lives so that we can have a more healthy relationship with this digital technology, and adjust it if necessary.
- YouTube can be a time-wasting click-bait black hole, but it can also be a source of educational information.
- Facebook can make you an infinite scrolling puppet, but it can also be a platform that allows you to connect to new interesting people.
- Instagram can be a constant supplier of FOMO, but it can also be shared photo album full of interesting memories.
- WhatsApp can undermine your ability to focus, but it can also be an effective tool for managing your social life.
- Twitter can be a place to find what Trump had for breakfast, but it can also be a platform for finding and spreading great ideas instantly on a global scale.
The bottom line is that digital minimalism is not a rejection of digital technology – like social media – but a careful strategy for how digital tools and services can add value to our lives. It requires work to analyze our behavior and relationship with these tools and to figure out how to best leverage them on behalf of our personal well-being.
Like Minimalism, Digital Minimalism is a mindset that you can use as a tool to cut unnecessary (digital) things out of your life and fine-tune your focus on what you really want and need.
To be clear, it is not about being productive, effective and practical 24 hours a day. We all need a healthy dose of distraction and unproductive entertainment. However, I do think it is important to minimize them to a healthy dose, which is, of course, different for every person.
My advice: adopt a more pro-active attitude towards calibrating your digital environment in a way that works best for you.
I like to compare it to the food diet of a person. You can have a burger, pizza or fries once in a while. Just don’t overdo it. Escalation will undermine your hard-earned summer body.
People are (or should be) increasingly concerned with the negative effects of digital distraction and social media on our lives. In my opinion, Digital Minimalism is an essential 21st-century mindset and skill.
Thanks for reading!