Stop Letting Life Overwhelm You and Start Achieving Your Dreams by Becoming a Digital Minimalist

Why becoming a digital minimalist can make you more productive than you’ve ever been before.

Megan Holstein
Nov 21 · 10 min read
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Licensed from Adobe Stock

“Minimalism isn’t about removing things you love. It’s about removing the things that distract you from the things you love.”

— Joshua Becker, Becoming Minimalist

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like such a profound change. So what, now I have fewer files on my computer desktop? What’s the big deal? Some people run two businesses at a time and make $700,000 a year with emails and file systems that look like their grandma imported all the family photos onto their desktop several dozen times.

I know some people run their lives like that. I’ve seen it happen. But like people who try to live their lives while seventy-five pounds overweight and dangerously hypertensive, people who try to be productive with a digitally overstuffed environment are making it harder on themselves.

Digital minimalism is a cure for this digital overwhelm. Instead of having to fight through a digital environment that ties you down and holds you back, digital minimalism frees up your time and mental energy for you to use on the things you love.

Cal Newport, the father of digital minimalism, 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.”

Why Digital Minimalists are Crazy Productive

Digital minimalists are far more productive than the rest of us for a number of reasons. Those reasons include…

Digital minimalists have more time

In America, people spend an average of 5.4 hours on their phone every day. Globally, people use social media an average of 2 and a half hours per day. A portion of millennials, around 13%, use their phone over 12 hours a day.

Compare that to full-time work. Americans are expected to work 40-hour workweeks. And according to that statistic, the average American spends 37 hours per week on their phone. Assuming you use your phone less than half the time you’re working, that’s nearly 18 hours a week you spend just using your phone — using your phone is it’s own part-time job. No wonder people complain about being busy.

Digital minimalists spend a fraction of that time on their phones. As a result, they have a lot more time in their day.

Consider my day. I only use my phone an average of 2 hours and 9 minutes per day — and most of that is spent “watching” YouTube videos to help me fall asleep.

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Screenshots of my Screen Time tracker from my iPhone

As for my computer, I only use it an average of 4 hours a day. Nearly all of it is spent working.

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Screenshot of my Rescuetime Dashboard

Instead of spending 37 hours a week using my phone, I spend 14. Instead of spending 2 hours a day using my computer for leisure, I spend less than 2 hours a week using it for leisure. I have a lot more free time than people who aren’t digital minimalists. Nearly 20 hours more.

People often ask me how I have the time to go to the gym 3 days a week, read 100 books a year, go to doctor’s appointments 3 times a week, run a writing business, and have a thriving social life. Digital minimalism is how.

Digital minimalists aren’t swayed by advertisements

Nearly all free online services, from social media to mobile games, are supported by advertisements. In exchange for using the service for free, the user (you) agrees to watch advertisements.

This arrangement seems innocuous at first, but is very dangerous for our mental health. Even advertisements we consciously dismiss are remembered by our subconscious and make us more likely to buy that product later on. This is thanks to the mere-exposure effect, a cognitive bias that makes us more likely to enjoy something (or in this case, want to enjoy it) merely because we’ve been exposed to it.

It would be one thing if it were just the mere-exposure effect at work, but it’s not. These online platforms only make money when you see advertisements (advertisers pay them per view or per click), so the goal of these companies is to maximize the amount of time you spend looking at ads. They do this by using clever tricks to keep you online. Clever tricks like:

  • Infinite Scroll: Infinite scroll technology (being able to keep scrolling forever on Instagram, Tik Tok, or other platforms) triggers a primal part of our mind to keep looking for more. Humans tend not to feel satisfied until we have “completed” something, and infinite scroll keeps us trying to complete a task forever.
  • Event-Based Notifications: Software engineers design platforms so they automatically send you a notification when you are most likely to get sucked in. These notifications are triggered by time of day, location, or even just the amount of time it’s been since you last used the software. These notifications suck you in and keep you there.
  • Social Pressure: Whenever a friend is using the platform or popular creators “make posts” or “go live,” these platforms automatically let you know and invite you to hop online too. These invitations are not just kind invitations to join in on the fun, but invitations for you to give your valuable attention to them.

All of this together creates what has been called an “attention economy” — an economy that functions by convincing you to give your attention to platforms in exchange for software, enabling those platforms to sell your attention to advertisers.

What happens to you, of course, is an afterthought for these companies. If focusing all your attention on inflammatory political content makes you stressed and anxious, that’s not their concern. If it makes you feel bad about yourself, that’s not their concern either.

We’re starting to become aware that being the victim of an attention economy is terrible for your mental health. All that attention you’re giving platforms and advertisers is attention you’re not giving to friends, family, loved ones, work, and your own health.

“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”

— Bill Maher

Digital minimalists spend less money

As we’ve become increasingly aware of during the pandemic, much of our spending is driven by our enjoyment of online shopping. But online environments drive more spending than we think.

For instance, did you know that while most people can accurately guess the amount of time they spent online shopping, they cannot accurately guess the amount of money they spent. Studies show people routinely spend twice as much online as they think they did. When you consider that 77% of online window shoppers end up making an impulse purchase, it’s not hard to imagine how.

Online shopping is only becoming more powerful. Online shopping was predicted to comprise 54% of all sales in 2021… and that was before a pandemic shut down half the world. No doubt that gave online shopping a huge growth spurt.

But because digital minimalists spend less time online, and spend it more mindfully, they aren’t making these impulse purchases. They keep their money in their pocket, where they can use it as a savings fund or as a way to invest in their next small business or adventure.

How You Can Become a Digital Minimalist Now

Becoming a digital minimalist is easy. Unlike decluttering your house, which can be an effort that takes days, weeks, or months, it’s often very easy to become a digital minimalist in just a few days.

Set up time trackers for your digital devices

You can’t make a plan for how to spend time on your digital devices if you don’t know how you spend time on your digital devices. So the first thing you need to do is get a sense for how you spend time on them. The best way to do that is to install time trackers. Here are links to screen time tracking software:

Once those are set up, they need to be left running for a day or two to collect some data.

Pick priorities for your digital time

Before you can get started minimizing your digital life, you have to decide which digital activity is meaningful and which is a waste of time.

The first step to doing this is deciding what your priorities are in your entire life, not just on the computer. What we do on our devices is merely an extension of what we do with our lives in general. To know what you want your device use to look like, you need to know what you want your life to look like.

Pull out a piece of paper and write the five most important priorities for your life right now. Here are some examples:

  • Losing weight/getting in shape
  • Spending more time with loved ones
  • Educating myself on a new subject
  • Starting a side business online
  • Learning a new hobby

There are no right answers here. Whatever’s important to you is important to you, whether that’s “spending more time volunteering” or just “spending more time playing video games.”

You may want to write a lot of things down, but trying to take on too much is what got you to a place where you need to declutter, so limit yourself to only five.

Turn off your notifications

One of the most addicting parts of your phone is your phone’s notifications. They’re engineered to grab your attention and not let go. The best way to combat this is to not see them in the first place.

Turning off notifications doesn’t mean you don’t get to use those apps. It just means those apps don’t have permission to interrupt you while you are trying to live your life.

My rule of thumb is that you should turn off any notifications except those that come from a real human personally trying to contact you personally. So after you turn off all your notifications, you should only be getting…

  1. Texts, phone calls, or direct messages
  2. Social media posts in which you are tagged
  3. Phone system notifications

That’s it. Examples of the kinds of notifications you shouldn’t be getting include…

  • Any single-player game notifications.
  • Any Facebook notification that isn’t someone telling you something. This includes ‘happening near you,’ ‘your friend liked this page,’ and ‘your friend posted a commend on your other friend’s status.’ If the notification doesn’t have your name, get rid of it.
  • Notifications for Snapchat stories. If you want to check your friend’s stories, you can, but your phone doesn’t get to interrupt you to tell you about it.
  • Any notifications which tell you someone is going online
  • Any notifications which invite you to “go online”
  • Any notifications that tell you “it’s been a while since…”

You should also turn off your email notifications. Email is designed for personal messages which aren’t urgent. Most people get a lot of emails every day — don’t give these emails permission to interrupt you.

How to turn off notifications:

There are two ways: at the app level and at the system level.

Start at the app level. To do this, open the app you want to turn off notifications for. Go to their settings, and find the section called “notifications.” Turn off all the notifications that don’t directly mention you, as described above.

Here are some links on how to do this for common apps:

If there are no app-level notification preferences (as there won’t be for some apps), go to the system level and turn notifications off there. Here are some help articles on how to do this for iOS and Android:

This guide only scratches the surface of digital minimalism. Like anything else, digital minimalism is less of a one-time commitment and more of an ongoing journey. If you are interested in learning more about digital minimalism, you can start with reading Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism and other articles by digital minimalists here on Medium. But even if your education about minimalism still ends here, you’re far more prepared to be productive and achieve your dreams than you were before.

Want to Break Your Phone Addiction?

If you use your phone way too much and you know it, my free email course Break Your Phone Addiction In 7 Days will help you stop once and for all.

Sign up for Break Your Phone Addiction in 7 Days now!

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