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If you’re anything like me (and I hope that you’re not in regards to this matter), you have struggled with concentration at one or another point in your life.
The older I get, the more I have been bothered by how easily we (and more specifically, I) fall from a state of creative flow to totally distracted by something that pops up on my screen. And I think that is because in adulthood, you realize the limits of your time, how your ambitions and responsibilities and even physiological necessities are crammed into some measle twenty-four hours a day. With this realization comes the need for being picky with what you choose to accept in your life.
This was the “quarter-life crisis” that, at the beginning of this year, led me to the decision that I would take my lack of focus no more. And ever since then, I have been experimenting and documenting different methods that aim at making myself a more focused and centered individual.
Out of all the practices I have experimented with, Digital Minimalism has been the one that I found to have the most significant impact, so let’s talk a bit about this somewhat counterintuitive approach to technology.
The meaning of Digital Minimalism
I first discovered Digital Minimalism when I read the book with the same title by Computer Science Professor Cal Newport. He defines it as:
“(…)a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that was intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that indeed matter, can significantly improve your life.”
There are a couple of things that I would like to emphasize about this definition. First, notice the use of the word intentionality.
This means accepting that just because you enjoy something, it does not mean it is good for you in the long run. Moreover, it is about objectively looking at an app, social media platform, game, or even device and asking yourself:
- What is the opportunity cost of using this?
- What value do I take out of it?
- Does it align/help me achieve my long-term goals and ambitions?
After reading about this, I took a good look at my relationship with my phone through this lens. Was I addicted to my phone? I don’t think so. Was it the first thing I would pick up and look at when I woke up? Yep…
So without thinking twice about it, I would start my days by being bombarded with advertisements on youtube, unimportant emails, and by comparing my life to the people I followed on social media. Not a particularly intentional way of starting a hopefully fulfilled and productive day.
This leads me to the second thing I would like to point out about Cal’s definition – digital noise. The way some technology has seemed to gain the authority to interrupt our thoughts, conversations, and work by buzzing, beeping, or drawing our attention in some form.
This race for our attention is what drives the modern attention economy. A perspective where user attention is viewed as a scarce resource that most big tech companies are competing for, due to its profitability.
There is an excellent analogy by Tristan Harris, where he explains how, for instance, we, as social media users, are not the clients of these platforms. We do not pay to use Instagram. If we do not pay to use a service, how can we be the clients? The answer is we are not. The clients are the advertisers who pay to have their ads shown on such platforms, making the time we spend looking at screens (our attention) the real product. Is this aligned with our well-being – being reduced to a transactional commodity by a big-tech company? Probably not, and that is why Digital Minimalism is slowly becoming a mainstream philosophy.
It is not about a desire to go back to a time past where these technologies did not exist. First, because that is not happening, and secondly, being objective also means recognizing that these technologies also have some fantastic perks. Never before have we been able to connect with people far away with a couple of clicks or access all information in the world with a simple search query.
No, digital minimalism, like many other things in life, is about optimizing what is good while reducing what is bad. Most of all, it is about having the discipline and empathy to distinguish the two. So in the next section, I want to share some tips and tools that have helped me in this journey.
Tips and tricks for a mindful relationship with our gadgets
Ratio Android Launcher by Blloc
If you are an android user, I would definitely recommend this Android Launcher. When you install Ratio, your home screen is transformed into a user-centered, black and white hub for your most essential apps. In addition, its minimalistic and conscious UI helps users break their phone addiction, making phones more of a tool and less of a slot machine.
“Just Focus” Chrome Extension
I am kind of a sucker for quotes. I think there is a lot of power in short sentences pondered by great minds. Just look at Shia Labeouf’s “Just do it!”. Powerful stuff indeed.
“Just Focus” is a Chrome Extension that allows you to specify websites that are distracting you and, when activated, every time you type and try to access these URL’s you are received with a purple screen and a random famous inspirational quote. It also tracks and tells you how long it’s been activated, so it is kind of fun to see how long you can go without turning it off to check Facebook.
Unfollow people on Social Media
When I first started doing this, I would get a great FOMO rush every time I pressed the Unfollow button on Instagram. However, I quickly realized that most people and pages I followed weren’t really adding any value to my life, and soon my “following” count would be cut in half. What I found pleasantly surprising is that now when I go on my weekly Instagram peaks (which I do on my laptop to avoid having it installed on my phone), I get to the “There is no more new content” notification quite fast and after that, my motivation to keep scrolling drops significantly.
Turn off notifications for all non-essentials
I still vaguely remember when phones’ main functions were making calls and sending messages. A good (and pretty obvious) way to have a better relationship with your phone while remaining accessible is to just turn off every beep unrelated to a call or a message. I even have the message notifications turned off during my working hours, and people that talk to me regularly, quickly realized that, to get in contact with me, most of the time, it is best to just give me a call.
There are many other tips and tricks to live a more intentional life with technology, but the intent of this post is just to give you an introduction to an obvious yet critical issue of our time. Of course, everyone is different and leads lives with distinct necessities, so things that work for me might not work well for you. However, there is no right or wrong way to go about digital minimalism as long as we know ourselves and the technologies that surround us well enough to make informed decisions on how much is too much.