Is It Time to Overhaul Your Relationship with Technology?

Editor’s Note: This is part I of a series on Digital Minimalism in 2020.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he called it the “best iPod ever,” and said it would be a “very cool way” to make calls and listen to music. Little did he know that it would be the catalyst to a future technology tsunami of social networks, apps, and gaming platforms that would come to own our collective attention span.

But here we are. We daily enter an algorithm ecosystem that has little to do with our initial desire to connect with friends and have a little fun. We’ve gone from fumbling to find our flip phones to checking our phones 96 times a day —that’s once every 10 minutes, according to recent research

We’re getting it

However, with more time and knowledge behind us, parents and consumers are starting to get it.

We now know that companies deliberately engineer our favorite digital destinations to get us hooked. With every “like,” emoji, comment, and share, companies have figured out how to tap into our core human motivators of sensation, anticipation, which keeps our dopamine levels amped the same way tobacco, gambling, or overeating might do. 

This evolution of marketing and economics has hit us all hard and fast. But as Maya Angelou famously said, when we know better, we can do better. Stepping into 2020 may be the best time to rethink — and totally reconstruct — our relationship with technology.

Digital Detox vs. Digital Minimalism

We’ve talked a lot about digital detox strategies, which, no doubt, have helped us reduce screen time and unplug more. However, there’s a new approach called digital minimalism that may offer a more long-term, sustainable solution to our tech-life balance.

The difference in approaches is this: A detox implies you will stop for a brief period and then resume activities. Digital minimalism is stopping old habits permanently and reconstructing a new way forward.

Digital minimalism encourages us to take a long, hard, honest look at our relationship with technology, be open to overhauling our ideology, and adopt a “less is more” approach.

Author Cal Newport examines the concept in his book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and is based on three principles: a) clutter is costly b) optimization is important c) intentionality is satisfying. 

According to Newport, digital minimalism allows us to rebuild our relationship with technology so that it serves us — not the other way around. Here’s the nugget: When you can clearly define and understand your values, you can make better, more confident decisions about what technology you use and when.

Three core principles

• Scrutinize value. Digital clutter is costly. Therefore, it’s critical to examine every piece of technology you allow into your life and weigh it against what it costs you in time, stress, and energy.

Ask yourself: 

What am I genuinely gaining from the time I am spending on this site?
What is being here costing me in terms of money and attention?
What emotions rise (positive, negative) when I’m using this app/site?
Can I perform the same task differently?

• Optimize resources. You don’t have to throw out all your technology to be a digital minimalist. Instead, optimization is determining what digital sources bring you the most value. For example, you may habitually scroll six news sources each day when you only gain value from two. You may have six active social networks you frequent out of obligation or habit when only one actually offers you value and genuine connection.

Ask yourself:

What app/site is the most accurate and valuable to me?
What app/site feed my emotions, goals, and relationships in a positive, healthy way?
What app/site helps me personally to work more efficiently?

• Align tech with values. The third principle of intentionality is inspired by the Amish way of life and encourages holding every technology decision up against your fundamental values. For instance, if spending time on a specific app doesn’t support your priorities of family and personal health, then that fun, albeit misaligned app does not make the cut. 

Ask yourself:

Does this activity benefit and support my values and what I’m trying to do in my life?
Am I better off without this online activity?

Getting started

  • 30-days of less. For 30 days, cut out all non-essential technology from your life. Use only what is essential to your income and health. 
  • Reflect on values. Reflect on the things that are truly important to you and your family. Think about what activities bring you joy and which specific people interest you. If you decide that creating art or volunteering are your central values, ask yourself, “Does this technology support my value of creating art and volunteering?”
  • Increase solitude. Researchers have found a connection between lack of solitude and the increase in depression and anxiety among digital natives (iGen) they call isolation depravation. Solitude allows us to process, reflect, and problem solve. Little by little, begin to increase your time for personal reflection. 

While it’s easy to demonize the growing presence and power of technology (smartphones and social media specifically) in family life, it’s also added amazing value and isn’t going anywhere soon. So we do what we can do, which is to stop and examine the way we use technology daily and the amount of control we give it over our time, hearts, and minds. 

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