Digital Minimalism for Beginners: A 30-Day Challenge

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the social media, email, news, blogs, notifications and other tech in your life, a digital minimalism challenge is a powerful way to lower your stress and simplify your life.

At its core, digital minimalism simply means trying to be more mindful of how we use technology in our life so that it helps us to live according to our values rather than distracting us from them.

Unfortunately, though digital minimalism sounds appealing, personal technology and digital content are so pervasive in our lives that it can be hard to know how exactly to get started.

Digital Minimalism for Beginners is a 30-day challenge to help gently ease you into digital minimalism.

Rather than committing on the spot to make drastic and permanent changes to the way technology works in your life, why not experiment with some of these changes temporarily?

If it’s a complete disaster, it’s only 30 days. But, more than likely, these 30 days will give you permission to really experience and feel what it’s like to live with less tech.

Created for people who are completely new to digital minimalism, it’s all about helping you to simplify your digital life so you can focus on what matters most in your real life.

Let’s get started!

Guidelines

A few things to keep in mind about the challenge:

  1. Understand that none of the suggestions here should be blindly and rigidly applied. Do what makes sense for your life.
  2. That being said, the more consistently and fully you can adhere to the recommendations, the more you can expect to get out of the challenge. So if at all possible, try to implement all five of the recommended ideas (see below) for a full 30 days.
  3. If you slip up from time to time, try to avoid beating yourself about it and know that the challenge will still be useful.
  4. Social accountability can be helpful. If you’re up for it, consider telling a close friend or spouse about the challenge as a way to incentivise yourself to stick with it.

With that said, let’s move on to the actual recommendations.

5 Ideas to Ease You Into Digital Minimalism

What follows are 5 ideas for living a more digitally minimal lifestyle. Remember that these ideas are a set of experiments, not life-long requirements. The idea is to try them out temporarily and see what happens. If you don’t like them after 30 days, you can go right back to the way things were.

1. Consume the news on paper only.

digital minimalism beginners challenge 1 Nick Wignall

I think most people would agree that it’s important to be well-informed about the state of the world, our country, and our local communities. Which means, of course, consuming the news.

And while I have no beef with the news, per se, I think the way we consume it may not be in our best interest. Specifically, I’d argue that most people’s experience of the news is both far less informative and far more stressful than they imagine, in large part because of its increasingly digital nature.

So, here’s the experiment:

Pick one or two sources of high-quality news and commit to reading them in analog form at a fixed time once a week.

Rather than having a bunch of low-quality “news” blaring at us continuously in the form of deliberately provocative TV shows, intrusive smartphone notifications, and shallow social media posts, carve out an hour every Sunday afternoon and read The Economist front to back (or The Wall Street Journal, or some other source of high-quality news and information).

In the short term, this is a significantly more difficult task. But in the long run, I suspect you’ll end up feeling both better informed and far less stressed out as a result of prioritizing quality news.

But remember, the once a week bit is important. If you really think about it, it’s extremely rare that being up-to-date with the news on an hourly or even daily basis is critical to your well being or civic duty.

What’s more, a lot of low-quality news is the result of rushed, hot-take journalism that comes from trying to be first. Waiting a few days for the emotional dust to settle around an issue—and more facts to trickle in—will almost always lead to higher quality information.

2. Limit email to twice per day.

digital minimalism beginners challenge 2 Nick Wignall

For the modern knowledge worker, there’s no bigger productivity black hole than email.

I remember days in a previous job where I would sit down first thing in the morning, open up my email, and “wake up” hours later wondering where my day had gone.

I spent so much time putting out tiny email fires and responding to every little request and question someone wanted to throw my way, that the really important work always got pushed back or delayed, usually to a part of the day when I had less energy and creativity.

And beyond the loss of genuine productivity, I didn’t feel good after hours in my email. I always felt frantic, edgy, and a little harried.

Not good.

So here’s the guideline for becoming more of a digital minimalist in regard to email:

Only check and respond to email during two specific times of day.

I recommend mid-day and right before leaving work.

There are two big benefits to this:

  1. Aligning your most important work with your best energy. Instead of wasting your best time of day and energy (which is the mornings for most people) on the least important work (responding to email), you align your best energy with your most important work and leave secondary work for secondary energy levels.
  2. For most of us, being in our inbox is inherently stressful. Even if it may very briefly feel good to see that you got a bunch of new messages, the overall experience tends to be one of stress and anxiety for most of us. By limiting the amount of time we spend in our inboxes, and by only entering them intentionally rather than habitually, we can dramatically improve how we feel.

Of course, everyone had different constraints on their life and work, so adapt this guideline as necessary. Maybe you need to check 3 times a day, or maybe it’s critical to your work that you check first thing in the morning.

That’s okay.

What’s important is that there are some limits on when and for how long you do email and that you do it with intentionality rather than automaticity.

3. Take the app out of social media.

digital minimalism beginners challenge 3

Criticizing social media (while still using it) has become so common as to be almost cliche, so I won’t get into all the reasons why we need to be more thoughtful about social media.

Instead, I’ll focus on one specific thing everyone can do that will drastically change your experience with social media, and in my experience, for the better.

Remove all your social media apps from your phone.

I know this seems drastic, but’s here’s the catch: You can still use social media. But by eliminating the apps, you’re intentionally making it harder on yourself.

This has one really important consequence: It makes social media use intentional rather than habitual.

The ability to mindlessly check Instagram or Facebook at the slightest hint of boredom or frustration throughout your day is so habitual because it’s incredibly easy. Our phones are always on us and the apps on those phones are super easy and rewarding to use.

But now, imagine what your relationship with social media would be like if you could only check it by opening a web browser and logging in with your username and password?

By intentionally adding a small layer of friction into your social media routines, it makes it easier to use social media because you really want to rather than out of mere habit or boredom.

4. Reimagine your evening routine.

digital minimalism beginners challenge 4

In general, digital technology is so seductive because of two core characteristics:

  1. It’s easy to access.
  2. It’s instantaneously rewarding.

Watching Netflix or TV in the evenings is the perfect example of this.

It’s been a long, stressful day, and the fact that thousands of entertaining shows are just a couple clicks away makes it almost impossible to choose to do anything else with your evening.

But is automatically watching TV/Netflix really the best or even most relaxing way to spend our evenings? When you think back on your life at a ripe old age, are you going to be glad that you spent 10+ hours every week watching TV in the evenings?

If you’re at all dissatisfied with an overly fixed TV/Netflix-based evening routine, here’s a great little digital minimalism experiment to try:

Confine TV and video watching to a single “Movie Night” each week.

By only allowing yourself one night a week for watching TV and movies, you’re effectively forcing yourself to get more creative with your evenings.

Here are a few examples of creative, and ultimately more satisfying, alternative evening activities from clients I’ve worked with:

  • Yoga
  • Board games
  • Catch-up phone calls with old friends
  • Writing fiction
  • Scrapbooking
  • Learning to play guitar
  • Sketching/painting
  • Baking and/or cooking
  • Genealogy
  • Knitting or crochet
  • Meditation or prayer
  • Journaling
  • Taking an online course

5. Commute quietly.

digital minimalism beginners challenge 5

When was the last time you drove in your car with no auditory stimuli at all—no music, no podcasts, no phone calls, no talk radio? Just you and your thoughts, alone together in the car?

If you’re like most people, it’s probably been awhile. In fact, driving without any form of mental distraction or entertainment may be so routine, that the idea of going more than a few minutes without it makes you uncomfortable, anxious even…

One of the most pernicious effects of our constant access to digital technology is that it makes us intolerant of quiet and stillness.

Because we’re used to a constant stream of stimulation, we have a harder and harder time being still and silent.

But times of quietude are important:

  • Creative insights, for example, typically require periods of calm and quiet in addition to stimulation and connectivity.
  • Personal reflection and self-awareness often rely on prolonged periods of quiet and stillness.
  • Even on a purely physiological level, it’s difficult for our bodies to return to a truly calm and relaxed state if we’re constantly exposed to some stimulation and activity.

So here’s the challenge:

Commit to silent commutes to and from work.

If you typically drive to work, allow yourself quiet time at the beginning and end of your work day to think creatively, reflect on your values and aspirations, or simply be calm.

If you take public transportation, it’s unlikely to be quiet, but it’s still a chance to pay attention to and be aware of a slice of life that you may have been completely tuned out from if you always have headphones in.

In either case, an important but often overlooked benefit of digital minimalism is that it gives us the opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and our own thoughts, rather than the state of hyper-connectedness to other people’s thoughts that’s so easily enabled by all our tech and gadgets.

Wrapping Up

Here’s a brief recap of what we’ve discussed:

  • Digital minimalism means reconsidering our use of personal technology in our lives to make sure that it helps us move toward our highest values rather than distracting from them.
  • The best way to get started with digital minimalism is to get a “taste” for what life with less tech is really like.
  • More extreme versions of digital minimalism (start using a “dumb phone,” delete all your social media, etc) can be intimidating.
  • This Digital Minimalism for Beginners challenge offers 5 ideas for experimenting with digital minimalism a bit more gently.
  • If you successfully implement these five (or even a few of them) for a full month, you’ll have a much better idea for the real benefits of digital minimalism in your life.

2 Comments

Katy Braziel January 4, 2019

Thank you for this concise article, Dr. Wignall. A propos of reading paper sources of news: It is interesting to me that the purchase of paper books is up this year; e-book purchases are down. I remember reading The Gutenberg Elegies about 15 years ago and mourning the fading of paper book culture. But it seems actual books will survive to be read another day.

Nick Wignall January 4, 2019

Thanks, Katy! And I sure hope so! I think one of the reasons these digital minimalism challenges are so helpful is that they help people get in touch experientially with something that’s always been there but is often masked by our hyper-digital world—a real joy and connection with the natural world. Gonna have to check out The Gutenberg Elegies… 🙂

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