Digital Minimalism: How to Cut Down Screen Time and Use Tech With Intention
It’s about time I faced the truth: I currently spend most of my life in front of a screen. Here’s how I’m planning to change that.
I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but here it goes.
This week alone, I’ve spent over 80 hours staring at screens. I’ve picked up my phone 600 times. And that’s just weekdays, leaving me two whole days to add to the sum total.
80 hours is the equivalent of two full-time jobs. It’s the equivalent of two return journeys between Ireland and Australia. It’s the equivalent of forty movies watched back-to-back.
80 hours is a lot of time to be spending in front of a screen, by any standard.
And yes, I run a business that operates solely online. Yes, I need social media to find clients and generate my income. But I would be lying if I said all 80 of those hours were spent productively — or even intentionally, for that matter.
A quarter of my screen time comes from Instagram. Sure, some of this time is useful. I love connecting with like-minded people, chatting with friends, and sharing photos, tips and thoughts.
But could I honestly admit that I didn’t spend the majority of those 20 hours mindlessly scrolling and pretending it counted as entertainment? Definitely not.
Another problem is that I’m addicted to background noise: videos and podcasts fill the gaps between activities, leaving no room for my own thoughts. It’s extreme: I even pick out YouTube videos to watch while I do my evening skincare.
Over time, I’ve built a life that happens almost exclusively on screens. My life, my work, my hobbies and entertainment are all online. I rarely make time to truly unplug. Somewhere along the way, I stopped asking myself why I’m using all these technologies in the first place.
One thing is clear: my relationship with technology has to change.
And if you’re in the same boat, hopefully this post gives you a few ideas to implement in your own life.
If you have a screen time problem like me, know that it’s not entirely your fault.
Whether we like it or not, almost part of our digital experience is designed to keep us scrolling, watching and browsing.
As an article in the Business Insider describes it, our “attention is currency” — the more time we spend on social media platforms, streaming services and even search engines, the more advertising revenue flows into the pockets of tech companies.
Our devices are designed to keep us hooked, using behavioural psychology as a revenue stream.
I’m not being a technophobe here. We don’t get hooked because using technology is bad. Quite the opposite — we get hooked because of how great it can be.
Every time the internet solves a problem, answers a question, informs us about an important cause, brings us closer to people, or simply entertains us, we see its value, and crave more.
Using technology is not the problem. In today’s world, there is no point in pretending we can live without tech.
The problem, for me at least, is when it starts spiralling out of control. It’s about all the times I pick up my phone without even thinking. It’s about realising how much time has passed me by while I’ve been scrolling. That’s when I feel an overwhelming need to reduce my screen time and reassess my use of tech.
Cal Newport describes it best in his (fantastic) book, Digital Minimalism:
Our current relationship with the technologies of our hyper-connected world is unsustainable … We cannot passively allow the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel. We must instead take steps to extract the good from these technologies while sidestepping what’s bad. … It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy. Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
The good news is, there are many ways to take back control.
Once we admit that there is a problem with the way we consume, it’s time to start searching for solutions.
In this post, I’ll talk about three different approaches that help to limit screen time and curate technology use to best suit our individual needs.
Setting a series of boundaries to bring more awareness to your use of technology and social media.
Organising and curating your digital presence, apps and devices in a way that maximises the positives and minimises the negatives.
You can try out one of the approaches, or jump all-in and try all three. The digital declutter is the most extreme of the three, but the most effective solution in the long-term.
As for me, I’m still mustering up the courage to take 30 days to completely re-evaluate my relationship with technology, but I’m slowly implementing the other two options into my life.
So, what is digital minimalism, anyway?
I’ve stumbled upon a few versions of digital minimalism over the years, but the meaning of the phrase didn’t really hit home until I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
I think it’s only fair that I leave the definition to the expert himself:
Digital Minimalism 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. Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism
In a nutshell, digital minimalism is not about cutting technology out of your life. It’s about using the very best parts of technology (the ones that make your life better) and getting rid of, or minimising, all the other negative parts.
It’s about using technology as a tool to make your life better, happier, and authentically yours. Instead of a quick fix, digital minimalism is about a complete lifestyle change. This way, you can build a digital presence that fits your life, instead of the other way around.
If digital minimalism sounds right up your alley, you’ll probably like option one (the digital declutter).
Before you begin your digital minimalism journey, be crystal clear on your reasons why.
In life and in business, I’m a big believer in the power of why.
Whenever you make a big life change or set out to achieve a goal, knowing your ‘why’ is the driving force that will keep you moving forward.
That’s why it’s essential to take some time to understand the motivation behind your choice to reduce your use of technology.
Not only will it help you stick to your decision when temptation strikes, but it will also help you tie your decision to your identity. That means you’ll start seeing technology as a tool that helps you live in alignment with your values.
And let’s face it, there’s a special kind of satisfaction in sticking to your convictions.
There are a few questions you should ask yourself if you’re thinking of reducing your screen time and curating your social media use.
digital minimalism journal prompts:
What do you love most about social media and the internet? Which online activities and interactions bring you the most joy?
What do you dislike the most about social media? When does it make you feel down or kickstart comparison mode?
What ‘bad’ digital habits have you gotten used to? For example, do you want to stop scrolling first thing in the morning, or streaming Netflix late into the night?
How do these ‘bad’ habits affect your life in a negative way?
Write down your current weekly screen time. What feelings rise to the surface when you think about this number?
What are the things you wish you had more time for in your offline life? Would you like to spend more time with your family and friends, learn a new hobby, read more books? List as many as you can.
Why would your life be better if you used social media and the internet in a more positive way?
Writing the answers to these questions will help you narrow down your reasons for minimising your online presence.
Whenever you need a little reminder on your digital minimalism journey, look back over these reasons to remind yourself why you started, and why you want to keep going.
If you’re curious, here are my 5 reasons for digital minimalism:
Reducing my use of social media would allow me to spend more time with my own thoughts. It would allow me to filter out excessive inputs from other people and the media, and develop my own voice.
The way I currently use technology makes me feel overwhelmed. It means that my life feels noisy and out of control. I want to have greater autonomy over my time and reduce the outside noise.
I am currently using social media to substitute real-life conversations. Instead of relying on surface-level connections that often leave me in comparison mode, I want to use more of my time for genuine conversations with friends and family.
The pace of the social media newsfeed has diminished my attention span. Reducing my consumption of digital media will help me focus on my work, become a better listener, and give my full attention to the task at hand.
The time I spend scrolling could be better used to fuel my hobbies and passions. I could use it to work on meaningful projects, such as writing, reading and growing my business.
Reflecting on this list makes me feel inspired to cut down on my screen time, and take steps towards digital minimalism.
Now that we both know our why, let’s get into the three strategies.
1. 30-Day Digital Declutter
If you truly want to re-evaluate your entire relationship with technology, a quick fix is not going to cut it. Lasting results come from big, bold changes that transform your tech habits.
Anyone who’s ever tried to break a bad habit will know that it’s easier said than done. Unless you’re steel-willed and self-disciplined, it’s hard to stick with a habit change and not cave to temptation.
Our habits are deeply rooted in years of behaviours and social cues. And when it comes to our digital habits, these are so ingrained within our society and our social interactions that any changes demand inconvenient, uncomfortable action.
And yet, ripping off the Band-Aid might be the only thing that works in the long-term.
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport proposes a 30-day Digital Declutter as a way to “reestablish control, … move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.”
The digital declutter is a “rapid transformation” that breaks digital habits, good and bad. It starts as a detox — a complete removal of any non-mandatory technologies from your life for 30 days. This might include social media, streaming services, news outlets and online shopping. Anything that isn’t completely necessary to your work or family life, gets the toss.
In the meantime, you gain 30 days to “rediscover what’s important to you and what you enjoy outside the world of the always-on, shiny digital.” You rediscover your hobbies and experiment with new offline activities that feel fulfilling.
Once the 30 days are up, you can (slowly!) start reintroducing technology into your life, based on your reflections on the month. The point is to only reintroduce the specific uses of technology that bring true value to your life.
Why the digital declutter works
It breaks your bad habits. After a week or two, you won’t feel the urge to scroll late into the night.
It helps you see the benefits of a more minimal digital presence. With more time on your hands, you can clearly see everything you’ve been missing out on in your offline life.
It gives you time to re-evaluate the tools you really need. And after the declutter is done, you can re-introduce your favourite parts of technology and use them in an optimised, more mindful way.
One of my favourite examples from the Digital Minimalism book was of a man who wanted to change the way he consumed the news. He spent hours each week consuming news messages from dozens of sources and a hectic Twitter feed. It made him feel stressed, overwhelmed and agitated.
During his 30-day digital detox, this man cut all forms of news out of his life. Doing this made him realise that while he still wanted to be informed, he didn’t need to consume news all the time.
So instead of going back to his Twitter feed, he decided to set aside an afternoon every weekend to visit a local coffee shop and read a curated selection of news stories from the week.
That way, he built a new, positive habit that allowed him to stay up to speed with the news while minimising its negative impact.
I’d love to know — would you consider a 30-day digital declutter? I’m certainly thinking about it after seeing my 80-hour screen time, but I’m not feeling quite brave enough yet.
Something as life-changing as a month without tech requires full conviction to work. So if you’re 100% determined to re-evaluate your relationship with social media and the online world, it’s the best way to do it.
2. Setting Boundaries for Screen Time and Social Media
If a 30-day digital declutter is a little drastic for you right now, you can still reform your daily relationship with tech by setting some phone boundaries.
When I started over on Instagram last year, I was determined to create a healthier relationship with social media — one that didn’t take away from my wellbeing.
Most of the journey has been overwhelmingly positive, and for a while I really was reminded of all the positive aspects of social media — the connections, the social validation, the ability to share things you love with people who care.
But ever since I started my business and found myself with a whole new social presence on my hands, I’ve started noticing some old habits popping up.
For the first time in years, I felt pressured to post daily, and guilty whenever I didn’t. I started comparing my content to other people and looking sideways instead of focusing on my true vision. I also started scrolling mindlessly for the sake of ‘engagement,’ instead of actually connecting with the content I was consuming.
Simply switching off is not an option. Social media is where I connect with potential clients, share useful information with my audience, and build my reputation as a copywriter.
Instead, I’ve decided to set some boundaries so that I can use social media more intentionally, and without all the side effects.
A few digital boundaries I’m setting (and you can, too!)
I’m setting a daily limit on my most used app: Instagram. You can do this in the settings, under ‘Your Activity.’ Having a limit will remind me to stop scrolling mindlessly, and truly engage in my designated time.
I’m trying out post scheduling for my business account. That way, I can batch-create my content when I’m in a deep focus zone, and not feel stressed about posting when I don’t feel like it.
I’m switching off all my notifications (except totally necessary ones). They tend to scatter my focus, and divert my attention away from the tasks at hand.
Some other boundaries you can try implementing:
Put your phone in a drawer or in another room during work hours. This is great for those of us who struggle with productivity while working from home.
Set a designated time in your calendar for checking emails and DMs. Only read and respond to messages during this time.
Use the ‘do not disturb’ feature on your phone during work hours, or family time.
Close all the tabs on your laptop when you finish work. That way you can start with a clean slate every day.
Delete distracting social media apps from your phone, and only allow yourself to use the desktop versions.
Take designated social media detox days — often.
While these methods may not be as effective as a total 30-day declutter, they can still make a noticeable difference in your digital habits.
And while you’re making your digital promises, why not also organise and optimise your apps and devices to reduce temptations?
3. Organising Your Devices for Better Digital Habits
Last month, I got a new phone.
I had long forgotten how clean and empty a phone can be. There were no notifications, no tempting apps, no distractions except the camera I’d bought it for in the first place.
And best of all, I had no real desire to use it. I would pick it up for 2 minutes at a time, do what I had set out to do, and put it back down again.
Flicking back and forth between my old phone and my new phone, I almost didn’t want to make the switch. I put it off for weeks, because the thought of cluttering up my new device with years of files, apps and general baggage seemed preposterous. But it had to be done, and the second I switched over, my phone addiction started back up again.
This led me to thinking that there is a right and a wrong way to organise our devices if we want to use them intentionally and reduce the noise.
While organising your apps and devices may be a time investment at first, but it pays off when you realise that your tech finally supports your needs.
I’ve put together a checklist of all the things you can organise on your phone and laptop to make your online experience more simple and less noisy.
You don’t need to do it all at once. Simply pick the points that resonate with you, set some time aside, and start making small changes.
Checklist: organise your devices and streamline your online presence
Make a list of all your apps, and then do a serious Marie Kondo job on them. Be ruthless here. The average smartphone has between 60 and 90 apps installed. There’s no way we regularly use all those apps. Many of them perform the same function, so why do we bother keeping them? I recommend having a clear reason why you use every single app that you keep. All the rest can go — and if you need something specific one day, you can always download it again.
Back up all your necessary photos and files to cloud storage. I actually back everything up on a hard drive as well, but cloud storage is the safest. Clearing your files on both your phone and your laptop can be a lengthy process, but it’s 100% worth it. For me, the places that get clogged the quickest are usually downloads folders, screenshots and WhatsApp photos.
Set limits on your phone use. If you have an iPhone, pay attention to the screen time. If you have an Android, you can easily download an app that tracks your screen time and app usage for you. You can sometimes set limits on specific apps as well — for example, Instagram allows you to set a timed daily reminder.
Organise your files. That goes for your phone files, desktop and Google Drive. I recently saw a tip about file organisation that blew my mind: everything is easily searchable now. Back in the day, my laptop was organised into a million folders, and I couldn’t find anything anyway. These days, I stick to a handful of important folders and make sure that files have searchable names. The fewer folders, the better.
Switch off all app notifications, except the ones you absolutely need. Not only does this greatly reduce your anxiety about responding to every message and comment straight away, but it also means that you’ll show up intentionally when you do check them.
Unsubscribe from all marketing emails that don’t bring value. I don’t know about you, but an inbox full of unopened emails stresses me out to no end. Unless you’re getting valuable info, entertainment or regular discounts for your favourite products, what’s the point in constant emails? You’ll probably save yourself some money on impulse buys, too.
Clean up your home screen. I know, we’re all obsessed with iOS 14 and its widget customisation options. While I’m not going as far as creating a whole aesthetic for my home screen or playing around with icons, organising your apps into logical folders can make things feel cleaner and less overwhelming. As for your desktop, using stacks and minimal folders can make the world of a difference when you first log in. I also love to spruce things up every month with a fresh background from The Everygirl.
Curate your social media feed and remove spam followers. This takes time, but unfollowing people who don’t align with your values or make you feel less than is worth it for your overall happiness with social media. You might also want to check out your Facebook friend list — who knows how many random strangers are still on there?
Delete old texts. Especially all the conversations with your double-factor authentication deets! They’re hardly riveting information to keep on hand.
Close all the tabs. My mom always has about 90 tabs open on her phone browser. It makes me stress-sweat just thinking about it. But at the same time, I hardly ever have less than 10 tabs open on my laptop. Closing them all feels good, and I’ve made it a habit to do it every night before bed, so that I can wake up to a clean slate.
To sum things up…
Digital minimalism is all about building a long-term approach to technology, social media and your digital footprint so that you can use technology in the most efficient, positive way.
You can take all of the good things you love about technology, and avoid the negatives. What’s not to love?
In this blog post, I’ve talked about three approaches to cutting down your screen time and making sure that your use of technology is as intentional as possible.
Which option are you going to try? Are you brave enough to try a 30-day digital declutter, or is a less cluttered homescreen and inbox enough for now?
I would love to know more about the boundaries you set yourself on social media. Do you stick to any particular rules? Let me know in the comments below!