Zach Thanasilangkul
Oct 27 · 3 min read

Embarking on Cal Newport’s “Digital Declutter”

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

How many of us discovered Cal Newport because we were procrastinating on our homework or wanted to become a top performer at our jobs?

For me, it was both.

As a first-generation college student, I knew I wanted to do well in school but had no idea how. And as a writer trying to build a successful freelancing base, honing my craft and learning to run a business seemed to be the key to commanding higher rates, working fewer hours, and doing work I enjoyed.

Cal’s helped me a lot, it turns out. On some level, his knowledge and passion for excellence and self-improvement has helped me live a more meaningful, fulfilling life.

That’s why I was so excited to finally read his newest book, Digital Minimalism. I had heard about the so-called “Digital Declutter” that gained attention from the New York Times, but I hadn’t made the time to dig any deeper. The book sat on my shelf for months.

Fast forward to October and I’ve got a million half-finished projects (including a master’s degree thesis), a serious relationship with a wonderful girl, and all I can seem to do is stare at my phone.

Checking Instagram “for events,” reading random astrophysics op-eds “for learning,” constantly monitoring email “for work”…

It all felt important, but really, they were just low-level substitutes that distracted me from moving forward on what I really wanted to be accomplishing.

So, I took a leisurely Saturday morning to read through the book, take a walk, sit down with myself, and plan out my own “digital declutter.”

Here goes.

If the challenge is successful and my results are as Cal say they will be, then I should be able to find time to focus more on my writing.

Maybe I’ll even write about how all this is going.


Before signing off, I want to share three preliminary results of the Digital Declutter that have already happened — before it’s even officially begun.

(1)

After closing the book and my laptop (and deleting a few mobile apps for beginner’s luck), I walked to the market to get lunch and eventually head over to a coffee shop to write.

I have the worst sense of direction, so I decided that I would look them up beforehand and write them down instead of relying on my phone’s GPS.

So I did, put the phone on “Do Not Disturb,” and threw it in my backpack. Bear in mind that the walk from my house takes less than 15 minutes and requires one right turn on 27th Street.

Despite all this, I hadn’t walked a full 2 blocks before reaching into my pocket to grab the phone that wasn’t there anymore. I panicked, nearly stopping and reaching into my backpack in the fear that I was going the wrong way.

“Wait. This is stupid,” I thought to myself. And so I kept on walking.

(2)

Waiting in line for lunch is also usually an excuse for “productivity.” I tend to practice Russian vocabulary flashcards using the Anki app when I’m standing around, but today I opted to leave it and simply look around the food hall.

The first thing I noticed was that everyone was watching me — or I was scared they were, at least. While I generally enjoy being on stage, what I feared was that they were watching me be alone. And who wants to see that?

No one probably cares, in reality, but I still kept a lookout for fellow lone-travelers. Was I the only one here alone in this crowded room?

Of course I wasn’t, and I couldn’t believe that I would even care, let alone be worried, about something like that.

(3)

I’m normally pretty good at going up to random strangers and making conversation with them (weird, I know), especially if they’re lone travelers, but this time I couldn’t even think of it. I didn’t want the basis of our connection to be a shared loneliness. Who wants to confront loneliness with someone they’ve never met?

Probably a lot of us, to be honest.

And now I understand one potential uptake of embarking on a Digital Declutter — loneliness.

Going “unplugged” doesn’t mean that everyone around you isn’t still hyper-connected. They seem to be doing fine with all of their media and devices. So then the question becomes…

Why can’t you?

Zach Thanasilangkul
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