Becoming a digital minimalist

A while back, I listened to a Tropical MBA podcast episode where Dan Andrews interviewed Cal Newport about “Digital Minimalism.” This is the topic of his new book, which I haven’t yet read, but the discussion hit home.

They talk about being constantly “connected” is bad for us. If you’re like me, you’ve known this for a long time, but maybe haven’t done anything real about it.

Usually these discussions focus on social media, but it’s more than that.

Another big one for me is trying to fill every available second with something… like podcasts. If I’m going for a walk or driving, I have to be listening to a podcast or audiobook. There’s even people advising that this is a good thing. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve said something like this several times.

To try to improve in this area I’ve decided to:

  • Take a break from podcasts and business books
  • Reduce social media use and
  • *gasp*… go places without my phone

So far, it’s been nice.  

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This article outlines my plan for disconnecting a bit more… without deleting all my apps and podcasts. Because you know… I like being realistic.

Cutting social media use

Forever I’ve been convincing myself that I need social media for business. It definitely contributes in many ways like relationships, getting feedback from people and generating actual business.

Stepping back and taking a real look at it, the benefits are outweighed by the mental energy it consumes. And it’s not just time wasted. Social, at least for me, results in:

  • Comparison with other people. Not even real people… just what they project
  • Seeing posts and comments that draw out negative emotions
  • Loads of time spent for minimal gain
  • Less head space to focus on other things

During the podcast, Cal Newport mentioned that many people media professionals use social media in a completely different way than the rest of us. They use scheduling tools or specialized interfaces for posting from a computer. They’re not scrolling on a phone.

That was the inspiration for how I’ll be using social media going forward.

In short: Social media will be limited to certain times, and from a computer.

This is basically the same as I treat email. It has a time slot each day and gets used in a specific way. Get in, do what you need to do, and get out.

For me that means:

  • Checking notifications for anything that needs action*
  • Interacting with people in my Facebook group
  • Interacting with certain Facebook groups in a special time block once a week

That’s it.

* This assumes notifications are set up to only get important stuff. You might need to unfollow groups and block certain things do get this right. E.g. I’ve blocked event notifications from serial event creators

Cutting podcast time

Like social media, I’ve been convincing myself that I need podcasts as well… by telling myself I learn so much from them.

That’s true in a way. In the past I’ve learned a lot from podcasts and made real changes to our business. But lately I feel like I’m just listening for the sake of it.

It’s at a point where it feels like I’m going to miss out on something if I don’t listen to an episode.

Podcast FOMO.

So I’m taking a break for a while.

You might be thinking that it’s ironic that a podcast episode triggered me to take a break from podcasts, especially given that I also host a podcast.

I’m aware of that. I have no good retort.

Except that I’m not cutting them completely. The plan is to start gradually re-introducing the podcasts that:

  • Have a topic I really care about
  • Have an awesome guest
  • Are for entertainment
  • Get recommended by friends

OR I can listen to them in time I’ve dedicated to learning.

The desired result here is that if I’m going for a walk, at the gym or driving, this time will no longer be filled with podcasts. This time will be used to let my mind wander and find solutions to things, instead of just trying to cram more stuff into my brain.

Ditching the phone

The ultimate in not being connected is leaving your phone at home.

I’m not saying you should do this all the time. But the default should not be to take your phone everywhere.

There are plenty of situations you really just don’t need it:

  • Getting a coffee
  • Going out for dinner
  • Walking/running
  • Gym
  • Shopping

I get that you might need your phone for some of these. Like tracking gym progress in a Google sheet or using digital shopping lists. In these instances I’ve been switching to airplane mode.

When you’re at home, go ahead and leave your phone in the office or bedroom while you’re making dinner, Netflixing or whatever. As long as it’s away from you to help resist the urge to pick it up.

A note for service businesses: If you have clients that want to contact you, you could set time windows that they’re allowed to call you in. Better yet, require them to book in a time for a phone call or send an email instead. Yes, you’re allowed to do that. You set the rules for your own business.

Other thoughts

Breaking habits aint easy.

Being connected all the time has become an ingrained habit for most of us. In the past I’ve found myself reaching for my phone to check Facebook while something is loading during a video game. How nuts is that?

Even after finishing the first draft for this post, I went to reach for my phone, before pulling my hand back. I’ve found myself doing that exact same movement probably a hundred times over the last week.

That makes an even better case for putting the phone in another room when you’re not using it. Break that temptation.

Using substitutions is another way to make this stick. So find something you can do instead of social media.

It could be something like getting up and moving around, drinking some water, patting the dog, looking out the window for a minute or any other mindful activity.

If you find yourself reaching for your phone (or maybe you’ve even got as far as opening Facebook and scrolling), as soon as you realise, drop the phone and go do that other thing.

That’s what I’m doing anyway.

Following rules

There will be times where the rules can be broken. We’re all grown ups here and can make adult decisions. If you need to jump on Facebook to check for a response to something that can’t wait until your designated time, go for it. Just have a little discipline and don’t let that devolve into old habits.

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James Rose

James is the co-founder of Content Snare - a software platform that helps professionals collect content & files from clients.

Once an automation engineer, his new priority is to help business owners regain their lives, be more productive and get more done in less time.

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