How to Take Back Control of Your Work (& Life) With Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism

Modern technology is extraordinary.

After all, without the advancements that have been made over the last 50 years, you wouldn’t be reading this post!

This is exactly why, when asked what has brought the biggest improvements to our lives, four-in-ten Americans said “technology”.

But we’ve reached a critical juncture.

There’s so much technology now. I would dare to say there’s even too many apps, pieces of software, and gadgets we’re using.

From different teams in an organization all using varying project management software, to spreading important information that really should be hosted in one place across a multitude of platforms, using too much software in the workplace can make things incredibly confusing. Not to mention overwhelming.

In reality, we could all do with a digital declutter, using only the essential applications, and ensure we’re utilizing those applications (such as Process Street!) intelligently.

This, in a nutshell, is digital minimalism – and it’s what I’ll deep dive into during the following sections:

Ready to take back control of your work and life with digital minimalism, feel less like a robot, and even find a little zen along the way?

Let’s go.

What is digital minimalism?

What is digital minimalism?

Digital minimalism applies the philosophy of minimalism (owning only what’s important, using remaining objects in smart ways, and being able to do more) to technology. This means using only the digital tools, products, and business software that are truly useful and discarding the rest.

Why?

Because digital media usage increased by 40% since 2013, we spend as much as 12 hours a day in front of digital products (at home – let alone at work), and the average person spends over 3 hours a day with their eyes glued to their mobiles.

This is making us less productive. Distracted. Overwhelmed. Uninterested.

It takes our focus away from what matters.

Cal Newport – a computer science professor who’s written lauded texts on self and career-improvement (more on Newport later) – is something of an authority on digital minimalism.

He defines digital minimalism as:

“Digital minimalism is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life.”Cal Newport, On Digital Minimalism

Simply put, digital minimalism is the philosophy and process of reevaluating our relationships and interactions with technology, so we can be the best versions of ourselves.

To understand digital minimalism better, let’s take a step back and acknowledge the importance of minimalism.

Digital minimalism: What is minimalism?

The modern movement for minimalist living was started by a duo dubbed as The Minimalists.

The Minimalists
(Source)

Individually known as Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, the pair found they were happier, more fulfilled, and far more productive when they weren’t surrounded by or used unnecessary things, and could live their lives more intentionally. Like millennial prophets, they built a blog, wrote books, and even created a documentary to get the word out about minimalism.

From a definition standpoint, they define minimalism as the following:

“Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with owning material possessions. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions [what to own and use] more consciously, more deliberately.”The Minimalists, What Is Minimalism?

Minimalism, then, is looking at your entire lifestyle and everything you own, while digital minimalism focuses on how you interact, use, and live with technology.

Now, you may have already been conscious and careful about what apps you use, how, and why, but perhaps you never attributed the term digital minimalism to that philosophy and/or process. As mentioned earlier, Cal Newport was the guy who really defined digital minimalism and brought it to the fore.

But who, exactly, is Cal Newport? Why is he the authority on digital minimalism? And how do you know that following his suggestions will actually result in a positive ending?

It’s time to find out.

The authority on digital minimalism: Cal Newport

Cal Newport
(Source)

Cal Newport isn’t some random guy sprouting mumbo-jumbo. He’s got an impressive CV and history to back him up.

Born in 1982, Cal Newport studied an undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College before completing his Ph.D. in computer science at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2009. Shortly after completing his Ph.D., he then became an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

Suffice to say, his academic credentials are fairly impressive.

But it’s what he did while studying that launched him as a guru for contemporary self-improvement.

In 2007, while still working towards his Ph.D., Newport founded a blog called Study Hacks. Newport described Study Hacks as the go-to resource for learning “how to perform productive, valuable and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age”. (I was an avid visitor myself as a student!)

He then began penning insightful books for the same crowd who read Study Hacks – students. First came How to Win at College (2005), then How to Become a Straight-A Student (2006), and also How to Be a High School Superstar (2010).

By the mid-2010s, Newport expanded the audience he was writing for, discussing how the modern-day workforce can work more intelligently.

Now, you may have come across the concept of Deep Work before (if not, check out the video below!), which is a method for achieving great work in a focused, undistracted state. It was Newport who first wrote about Deep Work on the Stuck Hacks blog, and expanded on the concept in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World in 2016.

After the phenomenal success of Newport’s book on Deep Work (it was positively reviewed by publications such as The Economist, The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal, to name a few), he continued writing on the intersection of technology, lifestyle, and personal productivity, but this time with a deeper focus on how we use technology.

Specifically, in 2019, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World was published. Stemming from his blog post On Digital Minimalism, which went live back in 2016, the book examines the pitfalls of our relationship with technology and how, ultimately, most of us aren’t using technology in the best way possible!

Now, Newport wouldn’t be flogging something he doesn’t believe in.

Digital minimalism has helped Newport to better his life tremendously – both at home and in the office – as he explains in this paragraph:

“Digital minimalism, for example, has helped me better understand some of the decisions I’ve made in my own online life (such as my embrace of blogging and rejection of major social media platforms), while at the same time challenging me with areas where I could be leveraging new technologies to even better support some of my core principles. In other words, like any productive philosophy, it gives me both clarity and homework.”Cal Newport, On Digital Minimalism

Though, digital minimalism hasn’t only helped Newport to use technology with intent and purpose.

It’s helped people all across the world.

Myself included.

The benefits of being a digital minimalist

Benefits of being a digital minimalist

I’ve been interested in minimalism for a while now. And by a while, I mean for years.

Let me divulge.

It all started when I stumbled across /r/Minimalism – a subreddit for those wanting to know more about minimalism. At the time I was freelancing, and was preparing to travel across America and Australia as a digital nomad.

After I packed the physical basics (clothes for different climates, bug repellent, my laptop, etc) I knew that my phone and laptop weren’t in similar organized, sorted states.

In fact, they were the digital equivalents of garbage bins:

  • Years-old irrelevant documents on my desktop meant I could hardly see my desktop background.
  • Apps that weren’t opened – let alone updated – since god-knows-when were gathering e-dust.
  • Multiple pieces of software that all did the same thing bloated my Apps folder.
  • A mountain of unread emails dating back nearly decades amassed in my inbox.

It was all a mess. 😷

I scoured the subreddit to learn more about minimalism, and how I could incorporate some of the principles to the technology which I spent, let’s face it, the majority of my time using.

I then uncovered the (aforementioned) Minimalists, and shortly thereafter, (the also aforementioned) Cal Newport and his take on digital minimalism.

Reader, it was a revelation.

After reading every published word I could on minimalism and digital minimalism, I reevaluated the technology I used, how I used it, what for, and why. Plus, I decluttered the crap as I double-downed on the essential apps and software that allowed me to do my job effectively and efficiently.

Basically, I Marie Kondo’d my digital world.

The benefits of following the digital minimalism philosophy and process are pretty astounding, too. It’s great for:

  • Becoming less distracted. 👀
  • Joshua Fields Millburn said, “Scrolling is the new smoking.” In a lot of ways, he’s right. Before I had my own digital clear out, I had every social media app going. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, you name it – and all with push notifications enabled. After downsizing my questionably long list of social media apps and disabled notifications, I found myself mindlessly scrolling less. I didn’t instantly click on a social media notification whenever it popped up. There were no more thoughts of “I’ll just check Facebook for 5 minutes (ahem, 15 minutes)…” And most importantly, it meant I could dedicate more of my focus to doing stellar work.

  • Not feeling as overwhelmed. 🤯
  • You know how right after cleaning a room, you look around and breathe a sigh of relief after realizing how much more calm, peaceful, and tranquil the space is? The same thing happens after a digital declutter. No matter whether if it’s tackling that backlog of unread emails the size of a digital Everest or decluttering your hard drive, your feelings of being overwhelmed will go right in the trashcan, too.

  • Being more productive. 💪
  • The ironic thing with digital minimalism is that, instead of not getting work done as quickly, the opposite happens: You become far more productive. For instance, instead of having and using Canva, Pixlr X, Photoshop, GIMP, or even the iOS Preview app to edit photos, downsizing to only one app means you’ll become proficient with the app in question. You’ll get tasks done quicker than ever before. Digital minimalism is the holy grail of productivity!

  • Learning the difference between essential tech and filler tech. 💻
  • As I said at the beginning of this article: Modern technology is extraordinary. It enables amazing things to happen. But it wouldn’t be right to say that all technology is good – neither is all of it necessary. But by being mindful of the technology you use or want to use, what you need it for, and whether it’ll become a core component of your workflows, you can stop unneeded tech from bloating your computer, tablet, phone, or watch.

  • Using technology with intention (and to their full capabilities). 🤖
  • Once you’ve figured out what’s essential – maybe it’s business process management software such as Process Street – you can then truly make use of that product’s full capabilities. For instance, rather than using Process Street at a basic level because you’re spreading yourself thin with a plethora of related apps, you can become a pro at Process Street, and supercharge checklists for your recurring tasks with features such as stop tasks, task permissions, approvals, and even automations with the help of Zapier. This is only one example where using technology with intention can enable you to work harder, better, faster, stronger – all without working like a robot and remaining human!

An impressive list of benefits, right?

If this is the part where you’re wondering “How, exactly, do I become a digital minimalist myself? What steps do I need to take? What’s the process?”, then worry not.

I’ve got you covered.

How to become a digital minimalist yourself

Become a digital minimalist
(Source)

Becoming a digital minimalist isn’t about throwing out your iPhone XS for a Nokia 3310, or substituting your laptop for a wad of pen or paper.

It’s about recognizing what is distracting you or is of no use and then making the appropriate choices.

Ergo: You don’t have to become some sort of cave-dwelling tech avoider to live a happy, productive life. (After all, tech can be undoubtedly helpful!)

Being a digital minimalist is half to do with being mindful and aware, while the other half is about following several best practices and actions to flip the switch and take control of your digital technology, rather than it controlling you.

First up, let’s tackle the mindfulness part of the equation.

How to become a digital minimalist: Mindfulness

To be mindful is to be aware. Present. Truly conscious.

It’s taking stock of the digital products, tools, apps, and pieces of software you use on the daily, and asking yourself questions such as:

  • What purpose does this digital product or tool have?
  • Is it helping me do my best work possible, or is it hindering me?
  • Is my relationship with it healthy?
  • Is there a more intuitive tool I could use instead?

By being mindful – asking yourself questions that you may not necessarily be easy or enjoyable to answer – you’re one step closer to using technology with intentionality.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the words “intention”, “intentional”, and “intentionality” have cropped up numerous times so far in this post.

That’s because one of Newport’s 3 key principles of digital minimalism is “intentionality is satisfying”.

To expand, he says:

“Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies.”Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Mindfulness is, indeed, a “general commitment”.

That’s because it’s a practice that should be sustained. Constantly. Continually.

Sure, you can be mindful of how you use tech and digital tools once a year, but like any effective process, it needs to be repeated regularly to achieve serious results.

Similarly, Newport’s two other principles of digital minimalism – “optimization is important” and “clutter is costly” – are processes, too.

Let’s dig a little deeper into optimization.

How to become a digital minimalist: Optimization

Mindfulness is the natural predecessor of optimization.

Once you’ve figured out which digital tools, apps, and pieces of software undeniably help your workflows and which distract you from knocking it out of the park, you can begin optimizing the remaining tools in your digital toolbox.

This means taking your usage of those digital tools to new, unprecedented heights!

Now, how you optimize your usage of a digital tool will differ on the tool in question. From Photoshop to Process Street, Microsoft Word to Magento, the list is endless.

But to help optimize how you use digital tools, you’ll want to think about how they figure into your workflows and processes.

Daunting? Confusing?

It needn’t be.

It’s actually pretty simple.

Check out our post Business Process Optimization: What, How, Why? (Free Templates) to help you become a digital minimalist who optimizes like a pro.

How to become a digital minimalist: Decluttering

Newport’s third principle for digital minimalism is that “clutter is costly”.

“Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.”Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

The word “costly” here is multifaceted.

Not only is it financially costly to waste money on digital tech and tools that simply aren’t being used or are hindrances, but it’s costly in other ways, too.

It’s mentally costly. Emotionally costly. Even physically costly.

That’s why Newport – like all other digital minimalists – advocates for digital decluttering.

It’s a (repeated) process that removes the junk out of your life. And because it’s such an important step for budding and maestro digital minimalists alike, the digital decluttering deserves a separate section.

Best practices for the digital declutter process

Digital declutter
(Source)

Just as living in a messy, dirty apartment isn’t good for your wellbeing, neither is existing with tech and digital tools that bring negativity – or aren’t useful at all.

But what can be decluttered? And where should you start without losing your head?

Here’s a list of areas any wannabe digital minimalist should try tackling:

  • Your computer’s desktop. 🖥
  • Your computer’s files. 📁
  • The apps on your computer. 🤖
  • Your phone’s home screen. 📱
  • Your phone’s apps. 📲
  • Your tablet’s/watch’s home screen. ⌚️
  • Your tablet’s/watch’s apps.⌚️
  • Your email inbox. ✉️
  • Your notifications. 🔕
  • The physical gadgets around you. 👀

If the first area – “your computer’s desktop” – caught your interest, you’re in luck.

Dan Silvestre, who’s at the helm of the productivity hacking community OneProductivity, has a brilliant (and easy-to-follow) 6-step process for decluttering your computer’s desktop.

Taken from his post Digital Minimalism: How to Simplify Your Online Life, following these steps is the perfect way to dip your toes into digital minimalism.

  1. “Clean Up the Desktop: remove all the files and programs from your desktop. Use Spotlight to open them instead.
  2. Choose a Clean Wallpaper: it might seem trivial, but your wallpaper can have an impact on your productivity. Pick a photo that won’t distract you but rather help you focus. I like Simple Desktops.
  3. Auto-Hide the Dock: you can set it up in the Dock preferences.
  4. Uninstall Programs: go through your apps and delete everything that you don’t use.
  5. Install Updates: after clearing your unused apps, check for updates on the ones left and actually install them.
  6. Work in Full-Screen Mode: most programs offer full-screen mode, a perfect way to block out distractions.”

Dan Silvestre, Digital Minimalism: How to Simplify Your Online Life

If you’re interested in taking the next step in your digital minimalism journey, Silvestre has another useful decluttering process – this time for cleaning up your files.

As somebody who used to have files and folders all over the place (I admit it; I was something of an e-hoarder…) I can vouch for how useful – no, freeing – decluttering files can be.

  1. Delete: first up is deleting all the files you don’t need.
  2. Upload to the Cloud: now split your files into two categories: the ones you use regularly and the ones you don’t. For the later, upload them to the cloud. The major contenders are photos and old files you don’t need.
  3. Make Content Searchable: choose easy to remember names for your folders and files so you can always find anything quickly using search.
  4. Fewer Folders: search is so powerful now that filling becomes a thing of the past. Use fewer but bigger folders. I have “Work”, “Personal”, and “Fun” and then just search inside each one of them for what I need.
  5. Clear to Neutral: at the end of the day, close all your tabs and programs, delete or move all the files from Downloads, empty the trash, and shut off your computer. By clearing to neutral you’re helping “future you” get started.
  6. Access, Don’t Own: ownership can be stressful. Instead, take advantage of the access economy by streaming video and music.”

Dan Silvestre, Digital Minimalism: How to Simplify Your Online Life

The wondrous thing about digital decluttering is you can undergo the decluttering process in various ways. You can tackle one area after another every month, or one area each week, another the next, etc.

Ergo: It’s completely up to you.

What’s important to remember, however, (and not to sound like a broken record here) is that the only way for digital decluttering to be an effective part of a newfound digital minimalist lifestyle is for it to be repeated.

As Silvestre quite rightly says in the final paragraph of his post:

“Digital minimalism is a process: it’s not something that you do, it’s something that you are.

Therefore, you need to become a better gatekeeper of what you allow in your digital life. Constantly purge anything that doesn’t add value to your life.

Above all, remember: you are a person, not a product.

Act like one.”Dan Silvestre, Digital Minimalism: How to Simplify Your Online Life

Becoming a pro digital minimalist: Tools to help you with digital decluttering

I know what you’re thinking.

“Why are you advocating for using other tech if I’m supposed to be decluttering?!”

Remember: Not all technology takes control away from you. Some assist you in gaining it back.

To help you be at the helm of your work and life once again, check out the useful list of apps below. These will make sure you’re not distracted, that you don’t add unneeded complexity to your life and tech, and that you’re being the best digital minimalist you can be!

  • Coach.me. 👨‍💻
  • Coach.me is a habit tracker. This plays into the mindfulness part of digital minimalism, helping you to keep aware – but not over-aware – of your digital habits.

  • SelfControl & WasteNoTime. ⏱
  • The internet is easy to get lost in. Plus, on a Monday morning, it’s far more appealing to look at cat memes instead of writing those work reports. That’s why app and website blockers like SelfControl and WasteNoTime have been created – so you aren’t pulled into the cute, cat-y abyss and remain productive.

  • Apple’s in-built file manager for Mac. 🍎
  • If you’re a Mac user (there are over 100 million active Mac users, after all), then you don’t even need to hunt for an app or piece of software to help you declutter. Simply click on the Apple icon in the top-left hand corner of the top toolbar, and press “About This Mac”. Then, navigate to the “Storage” tab. Click “Manage”. This will bring up a tab with intelligent recommendations on how to optimize storage, store files in iCloud, and reduce general clutter. Super easy. Super useful.

  • Process Street. 🚀
  • With Process Street, you can document workflows, business processes, and procedures as checklists. This means you can create a cloud-based, repeatable checklist for your monthly or weekly decluttering process! Oh, and it’s free to sign up, too.

Out of all the above options to choose from, Process Street is the most versatile – and useful – for budding digital minimalists.

Not heard of Process Street and how it’s the complete opposite of an unnecessary, unneeded digital tool?

Do I have a treat for you…

Use Process Street – your all-in-one BPM solution

Process Street is superpowered checklists.

Our nifty BPM software allows teams everywhere to document their most important processes as cloud-based templates.

Then, whenever a process needs to be followed, teammates can launch the appropriate checklists to ensure they’re doing the best job possible – all while keeping human error at bay!

Check out the video below to gain a little more understanding of how beneficial Process Street is, and how you can create a process for everything.

For digital minimalists, Process Street can be used in a whole host of ways.

Specifically, you’re able to:

  • Create digital minimalist checklists (decluttering checklists, review checklists, goal-planning checklists). 📝
  • Get tasks done quickly and easily, so you can spend less time looking at a screen, and more time in the real world. 😎
  • Automate recurring tasks and connect with other apps via Zapier which, again, saves a ton of time. Every. Single. Day. 🦾
  • Collaborate on processes easily with workmates without using separate or conflicting digital tools. 👌
  • In fact, you can completely replace the multiple apps and programs you use with our all-in-one BPM solution instead! 🚀

The benefits don’t end there, either.

Remember when I mentioned how optimization is a big part of digital minimalism? And that the whole purpose of it is to double-down on great software so we can live and work as the best versions of ourselves?

With Process Street, you can optimize your workflows exponentially.

Our incredible features – such as stop tasks, task permissions, task assignments, role assignments, conditional logic, and approvals – means whatever process it is you’re working on is both dramatically optimized and streamlined.

Watch the video underneath to learn about some of our state-of-the-art features in greater detail.

Simply put, Process Street is an incredible checklist app that won’t hinder your work or life – only bolster it.

It’s also worth noting again that Process Street is entirely cloud-based, meaning there’ll be no added clutter to your shiny, like-new desktop and/or hard drive!

Additional resources for staying organized, focused, and productive

At Process Street, we’re dedicated to helping our readership smash any goals they have in mind.

If you’re primarily interested in digital minimalism as a means to stay organized, focused, and productive, then we have some stellar resources (from our business blog) for you to jump into so you can be exactly that – organized, focused, and productive.

First, check out these templates.

Click here to get the KonMari checklist.

Next up is a lengthy list of our super-informative blog posts, tailor-written for those looking to up their output, organization, and focus to new levels:

There you have it. 👏

You’ve learned what digital minimalism is, how to become a digital minimalist, and even been given some trips, tricks, and resources to get you on your journey to living a better life – both online and offline!

Are you a digital minimalist? Are there any bits of advice you’d like to share with the Process Street community? If so, write them down in the comment section below! 💡

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Thom James Carter

Thom is a junior content writer at Process Street. He has previously worked in copywriting and content creation for multiple start-ups and SMBs. He’s interested in technology, culture, homebrewing, and hiking up the hills and mountains near his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.


2 Comments

Thom: Your post comes handy, as I am developing my own version of digital minimalism (digital essential), based on the B.N.P (blog, newsletter, podcast) toolbox. I am also the co-host of a podcast called, Pen Meets Paper, there we talk about using analog tools, e.g., fountain pens, in a digital world.

I think I need to use a checklist for my content creation. I want to go through the process of creating content for my blogs, podcasts, newsletter, and then have a distribution plan for the different online satellites, e.g., Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn.

Best Premises,

Martin

Hi there Martin!

Fantastic stuff – I’m really glad you’ve found this post on digital minimalism useful.

I’ve just looked up the Pen Meets Paper podcast and I’ll definitely give it a listen later today. Cheers for the recommendation. (I’m also glad you have both an English and a Swedish version of it, as my Swedish isn’t quite up to scratch! 🇸🇪)


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