Minimising digital footprint and reducing distractions has been a topic I am interested in for a while now. In that backdrop, I recently came across a book which resonated with me, Digital Minimalism, from Cal Newport.

What is digital minimalism?

Cal Newport defines digital minimalism as follows1,

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

Why aim for digital minimalism?

Maintaining an always on online presence can be huge energy drain, not necessarily physically, but mentally. From personal experience, even passively consuming reddit and Hacker News2 is definitely a big time drain, which I try to be more conscious about these days.

Personal strategies

Being topical

Reddit and hacker news have been few of the main sources for technical news for me. But these days I try to limit the time spent on those web sites by following some of the strategies outlined below.

Being topical - limit browsing to a select number of to topics I’m interested in at a particular time. These days it is mostly subreddits on Rust, Linux, Haskell and a few other niche topics like Emacs. I actively try to limit to subreddits with high signal-to-noise ratio, which rules out most of the sporting subreddits, some of which I used to follow closely!

Reading books

Allocating more of the leisure time to reading books. These days I like to have a couple of books reading at the same time on different topics so that there is more choice to switch within books instead of going back to something like reddit for amusement.

Unlike with link aggregation services, it is easier to stay focused on a book even on an electronic device like Kindle because you are essentially limited.

Limiting tools

There were many services and tools which I used to use in the past but which I have given up in the name of simplicity. This varied from note taking apps such as Evernote to goal tracking tools such as Trello3 and Beeminder4. All of them are very useful tools, but I have found simpler alternatives which I do not have to stay connected to use as their replacement5.

Problem with using too many tools is that you spend too much time on housekeeping these tools than actually getting things done! At least this has been my personal experience.

I’m sure with better integration into one’s lifestyle habits most of these tools could be a net positive.

Limiting social media

Since I have never been much of a social media user, not regularly using popular social sites has not been a problem for me. Even though I still keep a facebook account, these days it is mostly as the last point of contact than actually to keep up to date with relatives, friends and acquaintances.

Less distracting phone usage

I find phone to be quite distracting as well and thus try to minimise its usage as much as possible as well. For example, at work times I tend to keep the phone in the backpack at most times to not even have it at arms length to check for notifications. This is a conscious choice to have the possibility of even missing a call once in a while!

Also using a flip phone cover makes it a bit more difficult to see notifications since I have to open the cover to see the screen.

Downsides of my choices

Not keeping up to date on social networks definitely has downsides. Sometimes I find that I’m years behind when it comes to updates from people. All of a sudden you find that one of your best friends (who’s in a different country) even has a kid now! This can be a serendipitous discovery. Also when you meet them in person you can be actually interested in them in real life because most of the things are new to you since you last met them.

I’m pretty sure there’s a better middle ground than the position I tend to exercise. For example, having a dedicated time period to check those platforms once in a while, would be better than complete cut off in many ways.

As Cal Newport discusses in the book, individual solutions are going to be invariably personal. What works for me is not necessarily going to work for you, and as outlined above, some of my practical strategies might sound silly and draconian to you.

The point is that digital tools are just tools - some means to an end. The means of achieving control is not that important as much as the end goal (which could be anything!). Thus, it really does not matter all that much how you use them as long as you manage to find the balance between productivity and value from the tools which works for you. It helps to be flexible, adaptive and also honest when it comes to technology.

I think, the book, Digital Minimalism, manages to get that idea across pretty well. The book talks about finding a balance without preaching the author’s point of view. The solutions offered are not groundbreaking, but at the same time I think it is a worthy topic to explore further; thus a recommended read.

  1. Cal Newport, Digital Minimallism, pp. 35 ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

  3. Trello is a really good project management tool which I can highly recommend. ↩︎

  4. Beeminder for quantified self practitioners, Beeminder can be an indispensable tool. ↩︎

  5. Emacs org-mode ↩︎