Trying the digital declutter from Cal Newport’s bestselling book, _Digital Minimalism_

Many of us find ourselves in “digital overload” these days (with social media, instant messaging, texting, emails, calls, to name but a few media that intrude on our daily lives). In his latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Penguin, 2019),  American academic Cal Newport (whose breakout book, Deep Work, I reviewed in 2018),  describes and suggests a “digital declutter.” 

This week I’m excited to share a guest blog posting from my colleague, freelance journalist and entrepreneur,  Ashleigh Mattern (please see her bio at the bottom of this posting). This posting describes Ashleigh’s own experience of digital decluttering after she read Newport’s latest book.

Her posting starts here . . . .

 Most people don’t take the time to be mindful of the technology they use or how they use it, and before I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I would have included myself in those ranks.

This book is a worthwhile read for just about anyone with a smartphone. Cal Newport delves into the psychological impacts of the technology that surrounds us, tackling the topic with a clear and engaging voice.

Digital declutter

Digital Minimalism centres around the idea of trying a “digital declutter,” and as soon as I started reading this book, I started the process of removing optional technologies from my life.

“Optional” is a key word here — Newport recognizes that these technologies have so invaded our lives that some of them are no longer entirely optional, particularly those that are required for us to complete our work.

As the owner of a website design and online marketing company, there is quite a bit of technology that I was unable to completely remove.

This digital declutter is not prescriptive. There’s no step-by-step guide that you follow. Instead, he discusses the ideas and then encourages you to make your own rules.

I took some time to think about which technologies in my life I considered to be optional or required, I made a list of digital declutter rules for myself.

Ashleigh’s personal digital declutter rules:

• No iPad unless playing games with someone else or using for research or recipes.
• Leave your phone at home whenever feasible.
• Don’t bring your phone out when with other people.
• Leave your phone away from you and check it at regular intervals.
• Apply the Minimalist Technology Screen to any apps you add.
• Don’t post on social media, comment on posts, or like posts.
• No audiobooks or other audio entertainment when walking or biking or running.

Your list of declutter rules would likely look entirely different from mine because they’d be suited to your life.

The most obvious technology to ban was the iPad. It’s an optional technology that I sometimes worry I overuse. How to manage my cell phone was harder because I use it for work. I deleted as many apps as I could, including health tracking apps, and I turned it on silent.

I also limited the times I could listen to audio, whether that be podcasts or audiobooks or radio. Newport argues if you’re always plugging your ears with information, then you’re never giving yourself time to think.

TV wasn’t as much of an issue for me, though I understand how it could be challenging for some people. Despite being less worried about the amount of time I spend on the television, I did make a rule that I could only watch TV or movies or play video games if I were with someone else.

In general, Newport argues that many of these technologies rob you of your own idle mind space, which is integral to both mental health and, surprisingly, our social lives. He says when people let their minds wander, they spend much of that time thinking of their interactions with other people, and running those imaginary scenarios helps us understand the people around us better.

The benefits

The declutter was pretty uncomfortable for the first few days. I had to change all my habits. I had to remind myself that it was only for one month. It was tempting to fall back on old habits, especially because I didn’t always have new habits in place yet.

But only a few days in, I began to see benefits.

More time to do what I enjoy

First and foremost, I felt like I had more time when I wasn’t wasting so much of it mindlessly scrolling through social media.

Newport suggests finding a new hobby to fill that time, preferably a physical one that produces something tangible like woodworking. He argues your downtime doesn’t need to spent idly. In fact, he argues your hobbies should be at least somewhat demanding; to challenge you.

My choice wasn’t on his list of suggestions, but I made my new hobby cooking. I enjoy cooking but I always found myself making rushed meals because there was never enough time. Now I had more time to do something I enjoy.

Less stress

Giving myself more time to think helped me feel less stressed out. While I’m walking or biking or running now, I use that time to work out problems or to practice mindful meditation.

Social media has also been a source of stress for me, stemming from comparing my life to others or wondering why a post didn’t get much attention (or too much of the wrong kind of attention). Disconnecting was an immediate relief.

Newport explains how social media is designed to work like a slot machine, and only after stepping away from it could I see how true that was.

Being more present

I’m more present when I’m out with friends or at a business meeting because I’m not constantly checking my cellphone. If I really feel the need to check it, I go away, like I’m smoking a cigarette (the analogy to an addiction is apt).

Instead of thinking about how I could turn an experience into a social media post, I’m simply enjoying my time. If I’m inspired to take a photo for the beauty or enjoyment in the moment, I do, but my mind isn’t constantly spinning on crafting a story for social feeds.

Better relationships

Social media is a particular problem for many people, and Newport argues that’s because our ape brains can’t differentiate between the digital connections on the screens and the far higher quality connections we make in person. When you cut social media from your life, you will lose many low-quality connections, but Newport argues you’ll strengthen the ones that really matter.

During the digital declutter, I could no longer like or comment on the posts of one of my best friends, which encouraged me to connect with her in real life — a much higher quality connection.

Additionally, because I wasn’t allowed to comment on posts, I instead sent a personal message when someone tagged me in a post, which opened up a conversation that led to a contract for our business.

Technology screen

Newport suggests that after the digital declutter, you apply a “screen” to any technology you add back into your life.

That screen should (paraphrased in my own words):
1. Serve something you deeply value.
2. Be the best way to use tech to serve this value.
3. Have a “standard operating procedure” that specifies when and how you use it.

For me, applying the screen meant writing this all out for each of the technologies in my life but you could just as easily simply spend some time thinking about these issues if that works for you.

I discovered the iPad wasn’t really the problem — scrolling through social media was, though, as was spending an entire evening playing mobile games. So, I’ve stopped scrolling through social media entirely, but I decided to play mobile games for an hour at the end of the day isn’t really a problem.

I’ve stopped posting on social media as well, though I’m still using groups and messages to help me connect with people in person.

It felt odd at first to be on the outside of such a huge phenomenon but I adjusted. It’s not the end of the world to not be on social media. Of course, many people have already realized this, but when you’re in the thick of it, that can be hard to see — and that’s exactly what the social media platforms want.

The result

Not all of the rules from the digital declutter stuck — I felt unsafe leaving the house without my cellphone, and I was never able to break the habit of having my phone beside me at all times — but most of the rules have turned into habits.

Being more mindful of how I use technology has been a huge benefit to me. I used to scroll and scroll on social media, e-commerce, Netflix, and news sites; mindlessly consuming — usually for a short period but sometimes for hours at a time. I plugged my ears with audiobooks and podcasts whenever I had the chance, never giving myself a break from the deluge of information.

It wasn’t until I cut these things from my life that I realized they were a problem.

Newport doesn’t suggest you cut these technologies from your life entirely; these days, that would be nearly impossible. But simply by being more mindful of how I use them, I feel as though I’ve improved the quality of my life.


Ashleigh Mattern is the co-owner of Vireo Creative,  a web design and marketing firm; and the co-owner of Play Sask Sports, an adult rec sports league. She also works part-time at CBC as a journalist and copy-editor, and as an associate producer on “Saskatoon Morning.”

And now it’s your turn: Will you consider digitally decluttering  your life? Please weigh in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.