Digital minimalism

In early 2020 I read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. It completely changed my outlook on tech.

I wouldn’t have picked up the book if it wasn’t for Adam Pearson. He told me that in another of Newport’s books, Deep Work, he recommended:

  1. Quitting social media for 30 days
  2. Not telling anyone
  3. Seeing if anyone noticed

That was enough to make me want to explore it.

I’m writing this for a few reasons. It’s partly a reminder to myself of the benefits of what I’ve been trying. I also hope it’s useful for other people who feel tech takes up too much of their world.

Digital minimalism isn’t about cutting out all tech. It’s about making tech work for you: getting the value you need without it ruling your life.

I’ve seen plenty of people share their experiences of this only to be met with replies like “just don’t use the internet or social media” or “why post it on social media”. These are spectacularly lazy hot takes that completely miss the point: no surprises there, then.

Digital minimalism isn’t about cutting out all tech. It’s about making tech work for you: getting the value you need without it ruling your life.

Getting started

Here are some of the steps I’ve taken. I don’t imagine anyone would tread an identical path, but I hope sharing my experience and the benefits I’ve seen will be of use to someone.

Deleted my Facebook account

I’d been tempted to remove Facebook for a while, but groups and nostalgia kept me around. Taking a social media break gave me the perfect excuse to deactivate my account and see how I’d fare.

When you deactivate your account, Facebook gives you the option to keep Messenger. Initially, I kept Messenger to keep in touch with friends who I mostly spoke to through that.

I found that keeping Messenger was a problem. Even though I’d deleted the Facebook app and stayed logged out, I was tempted to reactivate my account whenever I logged into Messenger.

I’d be surprised if this wasn’t by design.

After a couple of weeks, I set my account to be permanently removed, including Messenger. It’s strange how much I think about Facebook as a company from a privacy angle, but I haven’t thought about using it as an individual in months.

I don’t miss it.

Removed social media apps from my phone

Obviously Facebook went, along with the Messenger app, but I also removed the Twitter and Instagram apps from my phone.

Instagram has remained deleted. I may return to that one day, particularly if Facebook is broken up.

Incidentally, I came across a great tip for getting the full Instagram experience on desktop: “use the developer feature on Safari, switching User Agent to iPhone”.

Notifications

A common recommendation for Digital Minimalists is to turn notifications off. I’d done this much before reading book: if you haven’t already, it’s well-worth it.

Managing Twitter

I took a 30-day social media break from everything but my personal Twitter account. After that, Newport recommends reintroducing tech intentionally.

I didn’t miss much social media, but Twitter was always going to be the difficult one for me. It’s the platform I use and enjoy most, but there’s lots of negative stuff on there. It’s easy to get drawn down increasingly depressing rabbit holes.

Removing the app from my phone completely stopped all Twitter notifications and prevented me accidentally firing up the app. The only way to access it was through a browser.

This did the trick for a bit, but I still saw loads of negativity on desktop and mobile.

To try and tackle this, I’ve gone list-based. The idea is to replace the timeline with lists for a more curated experience.

Twitter doesn’t let users set a list as their default view. This is ok if you’re using an app like Tweetdeck (which is perfect for this), but there’s no equivalent on mobile.

I copied accounts I was following to a list and unfollowed everyone.

Ultimately, I’ve gone all-in on using lists. As it’s not possible to set lists as a default mobile view, I copied accounts I was following to a list and unfollowed everyone.

This seems drastistic, but it’s done a load of good. I’m still following most of the accounts I followed before, but the experience is much more positive so far.

Let’s see how long that lasts.

Podcasts

It’s easy to conflate digital minimalism with reducing social media use. But it’s much broader than that: it’s about redefining your relationship with tech and making tech work for you.

Recently, I subscribed to the Dithering and Stratechery podcasts. Having used Apple Podcasts mainly, I took the opportunity to investigate some other options.

I hadn’t looked into this before: “how different could a podcast player be, really?!” Well, I wish I had. There are lots of subtle differences that add up to a much easier podcast interface.

For example, I’ve been listening to David Dylan Thomas’ excellent Cognitive Bias podcast. These episodes are often short. You want to listen to them in order as the content often references on previous episodes.

Changing the play order in Apple Podcasts is possible, but hidden in some not-particularly-obvious settings. In the new player, Overcast, it’s much clearer: very useful when you discover a new podcast.

This is a small example, but it reinforced to me how subtle app differences can have a big impact on how we interact with tech.

Wrapping up

I’ve recommended Digital Minimalism to lots of people this year. Taking some steps towards digital minimalism has been a massively positive experience for me.

I’d highly recommend the book to anyone who feels they could benefit from resetting their relationship to tech.

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