a practical guide to digital minimalism

a practical guide to digital minimalism

When my little brother died 7 years ago, I became an internet addict. In the midst of overwhelming grief and the resulting anxiety disorder I developed, I mindlessly poured through blog after blog and scraped at the bottomless pit of social media. Even though by that time my material surroundings were definitively minimal, I couldn’t treat my online life the same way.

I spent an entire 2 years staring at a screen. I still took hikes, I still cooked, and I still read a bit. But for the most part, the web was my life. If you’ve ever experienced a sudden and tragic grief- one that freezes time and spits you out in a plastic reality where the sun still shines but something is terribly wrong- then you understand. Some people become isolated. Some people do heroin. Some people drink their souls into oblivion. I surfed the web.

But like with all things time seeped in and watered down my sorrow, and I began to need distractions less and less. Well, let’s be honest: it was that and a small dose of an anti-depressant. There came a point when I could face real life again and use the internet as the tool it was designed to be, but I’ve never forgotten how real a screen addiction is.

Not long after that I remember listening to a TED talk by Cal Newport. It was about quitting social media and digital minimalism in general and I fell head over heels in love with his message. Because of my own experience, his words resonated with me on a visceral level. I had already untangled myself from the worst of my addiction, but I still was using social media everyday. While I stayed on social media for a few years after, that was the beginning of my slow journey to cutting ties with Facebook and Instagram and my interest in designing my online life to mirror my physical one.

I say slow journey because these Internet giants know just how to tangle us up in their sticky web. It’s hard as rocks to break away. I told myself I needed to keep up with certain friends and Facebook was the only way I could do that. I told myself I needed to keep up with world events. I told myself a little bit every day was just fine. The problem is that a little bit is hard to stick with. A little scrolling turns into a lot of scrolling, and a little news turns into checking in multiple times a day.

But I’ve stuck with it, and am proud to say that I’ve successfully permanently deleted both my Facebook and Instagram accounts, and it feels wonderful. It was hard to do, but not hard to live with. I’ve had zero regrets. I still check news sites way too much, but I’m working on that. I have a goal of checking in once a week, and even that might be too much.

I do this for me, but now that R’s around I do it more for her. I don’t want her watching screens, and I don’t want her to be aware of politics or anxiety-inducing news stories. I want her to be a kid for as long as possible before taking on the burdens of the world.

And then there’s the way that the Internet is shaping our minds. I’ve heard that we have attention spans similar to that of a goldfish- what is that, like 9 seconds?? It makes me think about something I read in Proust and the Squid recently where the author says:

“Reading is neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.

This unique aspect of reading has begun troubling me considerably as I consider the Google universe of my children. Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear simultaneously?

In other words, when seemingly complete visual information is given almost simultaneously, as it is in many digital presentations, is there either sufficient time or sufficient motivation to process the more inferentially, analytically, and critically? Is the act of reading dramatically different in such contexts?”

It seems that yes, the Internet is changing the way we interpret and comprehend information. And I know that humans evolve, but this can’t possibly be a good thing. Good thing we have free will so can do something about it. Let’s just add this to yet another reason to embrace digital minimalism.

As I write this I’m struck with just how many problems arise from our use of the internet, and I haven’t even touched on the comparison trap or the statistics that show a rise in depression after using social media or that it steals precious time away from those we love.

I could go on and on, but what’s the point? It’s pretty clear that only good things will come from minimizing our online lives. I almost feel that it's more important to be a digital minimalist than a material one. Actually, that’s exactly how I feel.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How much time do you you spend on the internet?

  • What are you actually getting out of social media? 

  • Do you often feel guilty with the time you spend on it? 

  • How do you feel during and after using it? 

  • Do you feel like you can honestly and openly express yourself? 

  • Are you ok with you child using social media in the same way when she’s older? 

  • What are you afraid of happening if you completely delete your whole social presence? 

  • Do you think that news sources are giving an accurate representation of the world?

  • What do you feel would happen if you didn’t know what was going on politically?

  • How easy would it be to take a news fast?

  • How easy would it be to take a total internet fast for a week?

Some helpful tips:

  • Good blogs and websites add a lot to my life, and I’ll never quit reading them. But to minimize mindless surfing and wasted time, I aggregate all my favorites in Feedly, check it a couple times a week, and only click through when I see something I really want to read.

  • I interact with the blogs I love by leaving comments. This might sound like it has nothing to do with digital minimalism, but it does in the sense that by commenting I am directly interacting with the humans behind the blog rather than just consuming the content. It’s relationship-building rather than one-sided gratification.

  • Narrow news sources down to a few genuine, trustworthy sources.

  • Try and do something with the despair, anger, and frustration you feel when you hear the news. This is one of the big problems with how we consume world events: we’re one little person facing a world of injustice and sometimes it’s too much to handle. One way to soothe this is to take some sort of action: call your representatives or congressmen, respond to comments, write a letter to the editor, donate to a charity….just don’t be a bottle-neck of stuck emotions.

  • Eckhart Tolle gives some great advice: Take action, work towards what you want, but let go of any outcome attached to your actions. This is incredibly hard to do, but I think it’s the only way to true peace.

By now, if you’re convinced like I am that digital minimalism is important, then I hope you’ll start taking some little steps in that directions. Take it slow like I have. Nothing that sticks happens overnight. And when you’re ready to take the plunge and delete your Facebook and Instagram accounts, you can easily download all your photos under settings on each platform. They at least make that part easy.

So let me know how this feels to you. Maybe you’re already a digital minimalist. Maybe you’ve never even been on social media. Maybe you’re a Facebook addict and you can’t imagine a life without it. Where ever you land on the spectrum, tell me in the comments below and let’s talk about it :)

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