From digital minimalism to deep work

Are you an adherent of Marie Kondo? A keen lover of decluttering? Does an empty work surface bring you incomprehensible joy? Then maybe it’s time to apply these principles to your technological life.

Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology was released early last year by Computer Science professor, Cal Newport. Greatly condensed, the premise of the book is that we would all benefit from a more balanced and mindful relationship with our technology. Using it to support us in reaching our personal goals, instead of being controlled or distracted by our tech.

Rather than prescribing quick fixes, for Cal Newport the best method to achieve this rebalance is to go 30 days “cold turkey” on optional technologies. These include apps, websites or technologies that entertain, inform or connect us. Think social media accounts, news or gaming apps, even text messages or Netflix. However, these optional technologies should not harm “the daily operation of your professional or personal life”. This is not an excuse to turn off the work email!

Cal Newport believes that at least 30 days are necessary in order to have time to reflect on what truly brings value to our lives. Some of us may even struggle with how to fill this “blank time”. According to a 2018 study, millennials spend on average 2.5 hours a day on social media. 

30 days with no optional technologies affords us a chance to rediscover the activities that bring us joy or fulfilment such as reading, crafts or sports. It also gives our brains the opportunity to get more habituated to sitting with boredom or other uncomfortable thoughts. Usually, we would turn to our phone and its perfectly curated content for distraction.

But do not fear, you don’t need to get rid of this optional tech forever. After the 30-day period of digital declutter you can reintroduce the apps or websites that you now know to bring value to your life. Other forms of optional tech could be reintroduced but in a more mindful way. Examples include muting Twitter during work hours or keeping the URL for a particular Facebook group handy so that you don’t need to pass through the distracting newsfeed.

In conversation on the podcast Note to Self, Cal Newport also addressed the idea of our need to be “constantly accessible” in modern society. We’ve come to expect near instant replies from companies or individuals. And while I sometimes feel irritated if a business I’ve contacted does not reply within 24 hours, I also know that unanswered Whatsapps or emails in my own inbox leave me feeling stressed. 

According to Cal Newport, our brains have trouble differentiating between what’s truly important and what’s not. Furthermore, in the era of constant emails and Slack notifications we’re unable to focus with intent, to be creative, to dream up new solutions. Instead, we’re often stuck in a quick, “trouble-shooting” mentality. For Newport, this leads to the loss of what he terms “deep work”.

Deep work is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” Cal Newport believes that this skill set is becoming increasingly rare in modern society and will soon become prized in the workplace. He also relates how some companies are enforcing “disconnected days” where staff members are exempt from contact except in case of emergency.

So, should we be unplugging the modem? If the kids complain, tell them they’ll thank you once they hit the job market!

With a run time of around 30 minutes, take a listen to this podcast to learn more about Cal Newport’s minimalist approach to technology, with debate on how easily it can really be incorporated into modern life.

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