Becoming a digital minimalist: 3 steps to overcome device dependence

WASHINGTON — You’ve Marie Kondo’d your closet and Whole 30’d your diet, but what have you done to clean up your digital habits?

People ages 18 to 34 spend 43 percent of their time consuming media on digital platforms, according to a recent Nielsen report. Some studies have found that Americans check their smartphones, on average, nearly 50 times a day. And while all of that content and connectivity has its benefits, society’s reliance on technology comes at a cost, including an increase in stress and anxiety.

But it turns out, a little digital decluttering can do a lot of good for your overall well-being — and people are taking note.

“There’s definitely a shift going on in our culture … in which people have transitioned from telling self-deprecating jokes about how much they use their phone to actually being uneasy,” said Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.”

“They know that they’re looking at their screen more than is healthy; they know they’re looking at their screen more than is useful. So it’s this feeling of almost losing control over what they’re doing with their life. And that’s why I think this chatter is getting louder and louder of people saying, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

If you are looking to scale back your dependence on digital devices and regain control of your free time, Newport has a few tips — and it starts with a detox of sorts.

Cut the cord, then cut back

Newport suggests spending 30 days away from all apps, social media feeds and on-demand features “so you can get acquainted with what’s important to you.” When the 30-day period is over, rebuild your digital presence from scratch and with intention, focusing on the technologies that are important and of value to you.

“Ultimately, you need to do something that severe, I think, if you’re going to get the advantages,” Newport said.

If a monthlong detox seems too drastic, Newport said there are some things you can do to “warm up” to that point. For example, remove any apps that “make money if you tap on it,” and find analog alternatives to looking at your screen “so when the time comes to reinvent your digital life, you know what to do with your time,” Newport said.

“Ultimately though, I think there’s a ‘rip the Band-Aid off’ moment that has to happen if you’re really going to take back control over your interaction with these technologies.”

Communicate offline

Worried cutting off your online network of 1,000 friends will damage your social life? Newport said digital minimalism has the opposite effect: Moving conversations offline will help to strengthen and build more meaningful relationships.

“If you don’t want to feel lonely, if you want to feel connected, if you want to satisfy our long-evolved and deeply human need for sociality, the main thing that counts is real-world interaction. So the more you can actually sit down and talk to someone in person or on the phone — have a real conversation — the better you’re going to be,” Newport said.

“Close friends, family, community: If you can invest seriously in real conversations, interactions, sacrifice and responsibility for these groups, you are going to be a socially happy, flourishing human being. It doesn’t really matter as much whether or not you said, ‘happy birthday’ to your old high school soccer teammate.”

Solitude leads to success

How many hours a day are you alone with your thoughts — as in, truly alone, without a screen in your face or an ear bud in your ear? Chances are, it’s minimal, and that’s not a good thing. Newport said reserving time for solitude is another way to improve the quality of your leisure time.

“When you introduce more of this back into your life, like used to be common before the advent of wireless internet and smartphones, you become less anxious, you become more self aware, you become more calm, you become more insightful,” he said.

“Just spend more time alone with yourself, with your thoughts. The benefits are surprisingly big.”

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