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Some Thoughts on Transitioning to Digital Minimalism

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A Minimalist Transition

Earlier this week, I posted some thoughts on digital minimalism: the idea that using less technology, but using what you do use better, is the key to cultivating meaning in a noisy world.

I want to pull on this thread some more. One question that seems particularly relevant is the process of shifting into this lifestyle.

It seems to me that there are two major approaches that might work: subtractive and additive

The subtractive approach could also be called the Marie Kondo strategy. You survey each digital tool you regularly use one by one, and ask for each:

Is this significantly supporting a principle I believe to be key to living a good life?

If the answer is “no,” then take a break from that tool. If the answer is “yes,” keep it in your life.

The additive approach, by contrast, is slightly more aggressive but probably more effective. Start by eliminating all optional digital tools from your life for a short period. Thirty days is a good length, but the specifics aren’t crucial.

During this period of digital seclusion, consider the principles you consider key for living a good life, and for each ask:

What use of digital tools might best help me act on this principle in my life?

Once you’ve considered each principle, you’ll be left with a small but well-motivated set of digital tools that each plays a significant role in your life.

A Minimalist Caveat

In both transition approaches mentioned above, there’s a caveat (mentioned in my last post) that I think is crucial: it’s important to distinguish the best from the rest. Don’t settle for a tool that just plausibly supports an important principle in your life, think creatively about what tools (and accompanying behaviors) would best support that principle.

Case Study: Supporting a Desire to Stay Informed About Politics

Let’s explore a case study to illustrate this caveat. Assume that civic life is important to you and accordingly you want to maintain a sophisticated understanding of the various ideas undergirding American politics at the moment.

Obsessively checking a Twitter feed that follows numerous politicos would be better than nothing. But is this the best way to serve this principle? Probably not.

The Internet gives you access to essentially every newspaper and magazine in the country. Most of these publications offer a weekly or daily briefing that sends a digest of the most important stories to your email inbox.

You could subscribe to these email newsletters for a representative set of newspapers and magazines both in the mainstream and sampled from the left and right of the political spectrum, and then have them filter into a special folder in your inbox.

You could then indulge in a weekend ritual where you bring a tablet to a coffee shop and begin sifting through these digests, diving deeper into the articles when the headline catches your attention. You could even do this sifting at home, then print the most attention-catching articles and bring the physical copies somewhere quiet to read.

This latter approach requires more effort than downloading the Twitter application and tapping when bored, but imagine the impact if you were regularly diving into the political thinking of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Mother Jones each week — noticing the fundamental disagreements; building familiarity with the major streams of contemporary ideological thinking, etc.

Conclusion

The two approaches described above for shifting toward minimalism are tentative, and my case study is at best a sketchy thought experiment, but I think they capture something fundamental about digital minimalism: new technologies can massively improve important areas of your life, but you really have to work at it if you want to fully enjoy those benefits.

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