Digital Minimalism: How To Reduce Distractions and Focus on What Matters

Our modern society has so many digital distractions throughout the course of a regular day. We’re constantly checking our email, notifications, text messages, tweets, social media updates, who replied to or shared your post, the list goes on. The largest most profitable companies in the world are stealing away our attention and we have become the commodity to be advertised to. The data economy is now more valuable than crude oil. Google is valued at $800 billion, Facebook at $500 billion and ExxonMobile at $370 billion. They accomplish this by drawing a big audience and then selling that audience’s attention to advertisers who pitch them their products and services. The more people they attract, like a moth to a flame, and the longer they can keep their attention, the more money they get from advertisers. And the vicious cycle goes on and on. For example, I’ve spent nearly $6,000 in advertising costs over the past 5 years spreading my content to get more eyeballs on my brand in an effort to bring in more customers for my photography business.

Digital minimalism is based on the philosophy that less can be more as a general principle, and that bleeds over into digital technology as well. If checking your social media feed 50 times on a daily basis isn’t serving you and leading to a life of more personal fulfillment, the most rational choice is to take proactive steps to reduce your usage and channel your energies into more productive pursuits. For example, maybe you’re always wanted to learn how to play the guitar but you never seem to have enough time. The reality is there’s always enough time if you make your life goals a priority.

Did you know that the average person spends over 4 hours per day, or a full quarter of their waking hours, on their mobile device? Yes, we’ve all become so addicted to our phones. And they are everywhere! Today about 22 million people in South Africa, which accounts for about one-third of country’s population, use a smartphone even though many in the poorest regions do not have access to basic necessities like clean drinking water! That’s very disconcerting when you take a step back and think about it. What if you were to shift the focus and redirect it into pursuing a hobby you’re passionate about or spending more time with close friends in real life? Research shows that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a skill. If you devote 3 hours per days to any particular skill it would take approximately 9 years to achieve mastery. So, rather than fritter away and waste your hours in an offhand way, to quote a lyric from Pink’s Floyd hit song Time, why not use them to read a book, write a life memoir, learn how to paint, play guitar, or travel the world? The brightest minds in Silicon Valley are constantly thinking up new technologies to steal away our attention from the present moment in order to generate more revenue, increase advertising spend, and maximize their bottom line. We can’t continue giving away our time, attention, creative pursuits, and money to the largest monopolies; Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon.

I already live a very minimalist lifestyle. All my essential belongings fit into one hiking backpack, I’ve cut out most unnecessary living expenses, I no longer own a car (ride my bike and use public transportation), I’m not shackled to a yearly mortgage, pay less than the average person for rent, and have zero credit card debt. I’m not saying this to brag. It’s often quite challenging to get by on this type of lifestyle; not knowing where you’re going to live from one week to the next, but it can also be very liberating. I remember feeling like a massive burden was lifted off of me when I sold all my stuff before leaving for an extended vacation in Costa Rica in 2016. I didn’t need my sofa, large screen TV, cookware, desktop computer, and miscellaneous items in a foreign country. The same goes for digital media. We are constantly being bombarded by messages with clever copywriting to convince us to invest in such and such coaching program to upgrade your life, get more online followers, build a digital empire, and become an influential millionaire so everyone will finally respect you. But, guess what, none of these nice-to-haves will ultimately lead to prolonged happiness and self-enlightenment until you are truly comfortable with yourself just as you, right here and right now. Self-development never ceases.

An estimated 391,000 drivers were injured in distracted driving crashes in 2017. For comparison, there were 39,773 gun deaths in the United States in the same year. I will save the issue of rising rampant gun violence in this country for a future article. It’s obvious that we have become hopelessly addicted to our technology. What are some actionable steps you can take today to reduce your dependence on your “devices off mass distraction”?

1. Remove the distracting apps from your phone.

Did you know that Americans check their phone on average once every 12 minutes – burying their heads on their 80 times a day? A third of those polled would rather give up sex for a week than go without their phone for a day. Wow! I bet you didn’t see that one coming, but it’s backed up by reputable research (see infographic at the bottom). You don’t have to be just another statistic. I finally decided to blast away the big three social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) from my phone while listening to Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport using a convenient app called Blinkist. It’s essentially the Cliff Notes for the millennial generation. You can sign up for a Free 7-Day Trial on their website here or simply download the app on Google Play or Apple Store. I’ve decided to use this app to learn new information or practice a short meditation on Headspace whenever I feel the urge to scroll through my social media feed. This may seem counterintuitive since I’m merely replacing one addiction for another, but I would argue just the opposite since I’m rewiring my unproductive habits into more positive growth-enhancing ones that encourage a transformational shift in mindset. According to Cal Newport, Digital Minimalists are all around us. They’re the calm, happy people who can hold long conversations without furtive glances at their phones. They don’t experience “fear of missing out” (FOMO) because they already know which activities provide them with meaning and satisfaction.

My phone was stolen at a hostel in Santiago, Chile during my adventures in South America for just over a year. I was initially very distraught and immediately began searching for the lost device using the “Find My Android” feature. Unfortunately, my battery died in the meantime so there was no way to recover the Sony Xperia. Over the next few days I felt a growing sense of freedom since I was no longer psychologically and emotionally tethered to my phone. I began to realize that it was a source of anxiety, stress, and time-sucking annoyance. I was able to pay closer attention during conversations with new friends, eat my meals without frequent demands on my attention, take in the third-world surroundings, and navigate my way around the city without relying on the convenience of my GPS. Sometimes getting lost is half the fun and forces you out of your comfort zone. Heaven forbid you may have to ask for directions rom a real life person on the street. ;) Miraculously, I survived for a full 8 months afterward traveling in unfamiliar foreign lands without access to my mobile device! Even more miraculously is that I made it for almost 2 years while barely speaking Spanish! But that’s a long story for another time. My point is, if I can do it, you can too! To quote a famous line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

2. Turn off notifications on your phone.

This one is really pretty self-explanatory. Apple proudly announced in 2013 that 7.4 trillion (with a capital ‘T’) push notifications had been sent through their servers! The solution? Turn them all off. Yes, all of them! You can leave on important phone calls and text messages, if you must. The ultimate goal is to eliminate anything that is not leading to a more focused life. Apple made push a system-wide feature in 2008, and Google did the same soon after. Pretty soon, there was a way for anyone to jump into your phone when they wanted your attention. Since then these tech giants have made it easier to disable notifications. However, it’s still rather time-consuming since you have to go through app-by-app to turn them off. Why is there no feature to disable all of them en-masse? Because that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the multi-billion-dollar monopolies that control your attention. A simple workaround is to simply turn on “Do Not Disturb” mode – calls and notifications will be silenced. Problem solved! Enjoy the sounds of silence, and this soothing song by Simon & Garfunkel. 😊

3. Set app time limits and downtime hours.

A new feature in the latest operating system for iPhones is called Screen Time. As the name implies, it allows you to easily track usage by showing how much time you and your kids use in apps, websites, and more. Simply turn it on in System Settings. From there, you can set time limits in specific app categories; social networking, games, entertainment, creativity, etc. For example, my weekly usage is 36 hours with an average of 6 hours per day on social networking apps! That’s a pretty alarming amount of time to say the least! And what do I have to show for all that time spent checking up on the details of other people’s lives, posting unwitty comments, stroking my own ego, and approval seeking? Not much, sadly. Perhaps your kids are spending so much time playing Candy Crush Saga they complain of seeing candy explosions with their eyes closed… Luckily you can also set downtime hours! It might be a good idea to restrict cell phone usage between routine sleeping hours of 11pm and 9am. Your apps will be locked until the time limit is exceeded. A friendly message with an hour glass is displayed filling the entire screen. The good news is, people who are able to delay gratification are usually more successful in most important life endeavors. A recent study conducted by The National Sleep Foundation found that the blue light emitted by screens on cell phones, computer, tablets, and television restrain the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle, which makes it harder to fall sleep and stay asleep throughout the night. By keeping your mind engaged, technology can trick your brain into thinking that it needs to stay awake. Keeping your phone on the night stand or charging overnight can also cause poor sleep quality due to the buzzing and chimes that go off on a regular basis. It is recommended that you put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode in the bedroom to eliminate temptations to check it. Reserve the bed for three things: sleep, cuddling, and sex. I wear a fitness tracker on my wrist at night to check my sleep quality, hours, and circadian rhythm cycles. It will only vibrate if I get a phone call or the alarm goes off in the morning.

4. Free up your valuable time with productivity tools.

Check this out! You can use apps and browser extensions to restrict access to certain websites during working hours of the day. Let’s say you want to block Facebook and Youtube between the hours of 9-5. According to research, the average salaried worker is only productive a meager two hours and 53 seconds! That’s laughable, but is it entirely surprising? There’s so many other things pulling at our attention these days. The most popular unproductive activities include: reading news websites, checking social media, searching for new jobs, making calls or texting friends, and eating snacks. Thankfully we’re no longer subsistence farmers; we’d be dead by week’s end. In lieu of this information, what are some things you can do to be more productive, continue trading your precious time for money, and hopefully keep your desk job working for the wo(man)? Here’s a few productive apps you can use today:

  • Leech Block: “a Firefox add-on that lets you specify which sites to block and when to block them.”

  • Stay Focused: A Google Chrome extension that “restricts…time you can spend on time-wasting websites. Once your allotted time has been used up, the sites you have blocked will be inaccessible for the rest of the day.”

  • Mac Freedom “…locks you away from the internet on Mac or Windows computers for up to eight hours at a time…”

  • Self Control: “an OS X application which blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and websites for a predetermined period of time.”

The Learning Center, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

My favorite solution to stay focused is a creative app turned game called Forest which allows you to build a tree on your phone whenever you want to focus. If you leave the app to go somewhere else, the tree dies. You can grow a lush forest by staying focused on a task. This will especially appeal to the digital tree-hugging hippies amongst us. 🌳✌

5. Downgrade to a basic burner phone.

This final option isn’t for the non-luddite amongst us. I would rather keep my speedy iPhone 6 and pay a monthly phone bill for the convenience of staying in touch with friends and family. To each their own. The advantage of using a prepaid or burner phone is that they can’t use any of the modern apps we’ve grown so accustomed to. You’re also forced to limit your usage. When you purchase a burner phone, you will use a calling card with a certain number of text or voice minutes. There’s no binding contracts or monthly fees. It’s quite possibly the cheapest version of a cell phone you can rightfully own. When you run out of minutes, simply throw it in the trash along with your disposable phone number. You can read all the Pros vs. Cons of owning a burner phone on the Hushed website. I still enjoy the convenience, ease-of-use, and sense of security afforded by using a modern Android of iPhone device. Even if downgrading to a shit phone isn’t your cup of tea, you can still use some or all of the solutions described above to eliminate your various “devices of mass distraction”.

I sincerely appreciate you for taking time out of your busy day to read this article on Digital Minimalism. Hopefully you now understand the benefits appraised by this growing new movement. I’m going to take these life-enhancing lessons and apply them during my adventures through Southeast Asia as a travel photographer and digital nomad in a few months. I believe “Digital Minimalism” and “Digital Nomadism” can coexist peacefully. I look forward to growing in my mindfulness and meditation practices in beautiful destinations like Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand. You may also be interested in reading my other blog posts:

I highly recommend reading the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, available on Amazon. Coming soon, it will arrive on your doorstep the next day by a flying self-guided drone, which means you don’t even have to get up from the couch or put on pants and you can keep binge-watching Stranger Things on Netflix. I’m going to make it a priority to read the entire book to expound on the condensed summary I received from Blinkist, the reading app for people in a hurry. He also wrote notable productivity books such as Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Both titles are a mouthful as is the laboriously researched content within them. If I can leave you with one parting piece of wisdom, it’s this: “Be the master of your own destiny. Don’t let the big corporations win control over your mind!” Just think of your future wife and kids! See the infographic below. ;)

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