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Cal Newport, author of the "Digital Minimalism," is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. (Photo Cal Newport)

Digital minimalism: save your time and take care of mental health

Fifteen years ago, when the first iPhones hit the market, we didn't imagine how smartphones would change our lives. Both for good and for bad. How do we use new technologies and applications so that they serve us, not the other way around? A summary of the book "Digital Minimalism. Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World" by Professor Cal Newport.

If you think you control how much time you spend on social media and use your smartphone wisely, you are in the minority or simply wrong.

On average, we use smartphones 4 hours and 25 minutes a day, reaching for it 58 times. Teenagers stare at a screen for up to 9 hours daily, spending half of that time on social media.

Whether we use new technologies to our advantage or detriment – including our mental health and quality of life – is up to us. But new technology companies are trying to tie us to innovations like social media or mobile apps. They cleverly use psychological mechanisms and tricks, like building a sense of social acceptance, boosting self-esteem, and introducing engaging gamification elements.

How to live a balanced life in a noisy world, suggests Professor Cal Newport in his bestselling book “Digital Minimalism. Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World“. Findings from an experiment with 1,600 volunteers who underwent a month-long technology “diet” were used by Newport to create guidelines on how to navigate through a flurry of digital distractions and break free from addictive techno-logic.

“We have an unhealthy relationship with some technologies”


According to Newport, social media like Facebook or Instagram can compared to the tobacco industry – their goal is to sell products designed to be addictive, getting us to use them, which in turn drives profits of the big tech. Unfortunately, this is taking a toll on health – the World Health Organization warns of a mental diseases pandemic. In 2019, approximately 970 million individuals worldwide – 1 out of every 8 people – were living with mental disorders.

A symbol of the dark side of technology was Facebook’s introduction of the thumbs-up “I like” button in 2009, which fueled a never-satisfied, even obsessive need to be part of an online community called FOMO (fear of missing out) and missing out on something important.

Defense against unethical technology

Digital minimalism is a philosophy to protect against the tricks of big tech corporations. It’s not enough to turn off notifications on your phone or stop yourself from bringing your phone into the bedroom – these actions don’t solve the problem of compulsive message checking in the long run. It all starts with a fundamental question: Does a website, app, or service really add value to my work or private life? And if so – how to use it?

Digital minimalism assumes that technology can be optimized to maximize its value while reducing time and energy costs. If an app is beneficial to your health because it motivates you to do a workout, for example, use it. If platform X allows you to follow information about new trends, that’s fine too, but it’s worth setting rules for how often and long you scroll down. The greatest caution must be taken with solutions that are used for entertainment. The trap is that we often think that it is, after all, only a few minutes a day, when in fact, scrolling on Facebook, Instagram, and other sites adds up to several hours.

Three rules to remember

Cal Newport anchors his new philosophy of rational use of technology in three theses: clutter is costly, optimization is critical, and intentionality is rewarding.

The first principle refers to the assumptions of the so-called New Economics, according to which the use of each new thing costs us time and energy, which are limited resources. Hence, you must consider whether a new system or application saves or exploits these resources without any added value. Emotional and “breaking news” on a news portal unnecessarily consumes our attention, contributing nothing to professional or personal development. This time can be invested with peace of mind in other activities that are enjoyable or at least useful.

The third rule is selectivity. New technologies are tempting by the very fact that they are new. There are already approx. 9 million different applications that compete fiercely for space on the smartphone, reaching for various tricks to avoid getting bored after a few days. This approach focuses on value-added verification. Does the app or solution bring you closer to achieving your goals?

Digital detox helps to see the problem

To effectively put all three principles into practice, you must first realize your own values and how much time your smartphone is stealing from you.

For this, a digital detox is necessary, allowing you to look at the technologies you use from a fresh, new perspective. It won’t be easy because some apps are addictive, even if we don’t realize it. According to Newport, most of the 1,600 people who joined the experiment began to take a critical look at non-value-added apps after such a break. This process requires the parallel development of healthy habits in place of recovered time.

Success is the habit of verifying the validity of using an innovation by regularly asking yourself three questions: Does this technology support my goals? Is there an alternative spo- way to achieve them? How do I use the tool to maximize benefits and minimize potential harm?

And finally, a simple tip to get started: When leaving the house, try to leave your phone behind. Stop clicking “like” or engaging in emotional discussions on social media (often, it’s a discussion with bots, not humans). Don’t follow the lives of people you don’t interact with in real life. Enable social media time restrictions on your smartphone (apps like Forest, etc.) to regain control of your time.



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