Sunday, 25 October 2020

How I put digital minimalism into practice

Digital minimalism, as defined by Cal Newport, entails focusing your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things that you value, while happily missing out on everything else. You’ll find my recent review of his bestselling book “Digital Minimalism” here.

In today’s post I’d like to report back on my endeavours to implement digital minimalism. As a translator I work in front of a screen most of the time (apart from when I’m revising translations with pen and paper), so it is downright impossible for me to become a full-blown digital minimalist. I am pleased to report, though, that I’ve managed to make tweaks to some of my digital habits. 


Digital minimalism is a proven, highly effective approach to
cultivating a more intentional digital lifestyle


We can probably all relate to the electronic busyness and related feelings of being overwhelmed that define our modern lives. My brain certainly can feel very crowded! This isn’t so much of an issue when I’m working on translations, but can happen after work: it usually results from too much tapping, swiping, tweeting, favouriting, liking, sharing or online-commenting. My brain is then all over the place.

Digital minimalism encourages us to reflect on whether the use of a particular technology ultimately is the best way to perform an activity that’s of value to us; if it’s not, it should be replaced by something better. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve realised, for example, that meeting with translator colleagues on Twitter is indeed the best way to meet with them in an everyday context.


Is the use of a particular technology ultimately
the best way to perform an activity that’s of value to us?

Online encounters with colleagues 

In-person encounters would be even better, but have, of course, all taken a virtual format recently and even pre-pandemic had been (relatively) few and far between. I have fond memories of my last pre-pandemic meeting with colleagues, which was the ITI German network’s 2019 convivial Christmas dinner at The White Haus in Farringdon, London. Online encounters with colleagues therefore are one example of online activities that I deeply value, so as a digital minimalist I still hang out on Twitter.

Shunning phone apps

I’m continuing to shun phone apps which almost everyone uses. For example, I don’t use WhatsApp. I already receive a lot of (work and personal) messages, my phone is usually in airplane mode during the day anyway, and even if it wasn’t, I simply wouldn’t be able to keep up with what seems to me a constant stream of WhatsApp messages on other people’s phones. What’s more, I recently even went ahead and uninstalled Twitter from my phone. Now that Twitter as the last social media app has left my phone (if Strava is disregarded), I feel a lot calmer. I just feel I have to draw the line somewhere!


Gone are the days when I would give in to the temptation of
compulsively checking my social media notifications

Twitter breaks 

One behaviour that’s changed since I read “Digital Minimalism” is that I now take (longer) Twitter breaks. Twitter had always been the social media platform I was trying to keep up with, but I no longer attach so much importance to regular engagement with it. I no longer feel I need to “put myself out there” to be visible to my online community constantly. This means that gone are the days when I would often give in to the temptation of compulsively checking my Twitter notifications.


Adopting a digitally minimal life ideally involves developing or rekindling real-life relationships

Phone conversations instead of email 

Adopting a digitally minimal life ideally also involves developing or rekindling real-life relationships, instead of just focusing on virtual ones. As an introvert, I generally feel more comfortable communicating by email rather than by phone, and email (or other forms of written communication) will always be my preferred means of communication. Yet, in line with digital minimalism I now often aim to pick up the phone, rather than send out an email, to make contact in this way instead.

Blocking of websites 

I used to be quite good at not letting myself become distracted too much, but the pandemic and related recent events somehow have changed that. So, to prevent me from accessing news websites (and also certain clothes shopping websites!) while I should be working, I’ve added LeechBlock to my browsers. LeechBlock is a productivity tool that’s designed to block any sites that you choose to add to it. It’s available for Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and other Chromium-based browsers such as Brave, Opera and Vivaldi. 


To prevent me from accessing certain websites while I should be working,
I’ve added LeechBlock to my browsers

Renewed focus on hands-on activities 

Digital minimalism ideally also goes hand in hand with a return to hands-on activities. For example, I’ve never been into cooking, and I have a tendency to neglect hobbies like playing the piano as I feel often more drawn towards activities like reading, writing or computer work. Reading “Digital Minimalism” has reminded me of the benefits of such hands-on activities, and I’ve resolved to focus on them a little more in future.

Using physical books

It seems we can absorb the contents of a physical book way better than any material found online. Plus, the contents of a physical book tend to be more reliable. I therefore no longer aim to rely so heavily on internet content when it comes to checking terminology or background theory for work. Instead, I will now more often pull a physical book from my shelves in order to read relevant content or look up terminology “in analogue mode”.


We can absorb the contents of a physical book
better than any material found online


I will probably never be able to call myself a “true” digital minimalist because as a translator I will always spend a lot of time at screens and online. I have nonetheless managed to cut down, to some degree, on my engagement with technology in certain areas. Generally, I wholeheartedly recommend digital minimalism as an approach to cultivating a more intentional digital lifestyle. It is designed to help us declutter, and regain control of, our digital lives.


Further reading:

For tips on practical steps to reduce your screen time, check out my blog article “8 Proven ways of minimising screen time” of 16 March 2016.