• Daniel Kephart

Digital Minimalism: A Five-Minute Guide

Untether yourself from distraction.

I have a friend (I know, quite an achievement) who works as a Christian missionary in Mexico. When he's made it back to the States, I've had the privilege of working with him during the summer a couple of times. Time and time again, I would hear our coworkers say the same thing about my friend, "when you talk with him, it's like he's looking at who you really are." They make that remark with a tone approaching awe, and I have to confess I feel exactly the same way after those interactions.


My friend is a master of the art of being present. That doesn't mean he's always in a good mood or always has his life under control - I think he would insist that neither of those are true. What it does mean, however, is that wherever my friend finds himself, he allows himself to experience that situation in its completeness.


For a long time, I thought that kind of attitude was out of my reach. I assumed I simply lacked the personality traits that could root me in the moment. Some people, I told myself, just have busy brains that jump from one thing to the next. Over the past year, however, I began realizing that simply isn't true--not for me, anyway. I was never diagnosed with Attention-Hyper-Deficit-Disorder (ADHD) and never used to struggle as a child paying attention to things I found interesting. This realization sparked my interest. What caused my lapse in focus?


Since you've clicked on this article, you can probably guess that many of my problems stemmed from digital overload. Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear that I haven't taken any truly "radical" steps to address that. I haven't moved to the woods and become a hermit, or purchased The Light Phone. If you can manage that, good for you. For most of us, though, answering emails are a necessity, discarding all social media isn't practical, and YouTube is where we find half our conversation starters.


"Hey, Jim, did you see that video where they constructed a medieval trebuchet entirely out of Ritz crackers?"


Does that video exist? Not yet. Give it a week.


What I have done is carried over many of the principles that inform my minimalism to my digital life. Some of these I figured out on my own. Others were recommended to me by people much, much wiser. Some were easy. Others were difficult. All of them, though, helped me reclaim my relationship to my time and surroundings. Slowly, I am becoming more present again. I am learning to experience each situation in its fullness.


The first step in my journey began with deleting the YouTube app on my phone. That change should've been one of the easy ones, but it wasn't. In fact, I redownloaded the app two or three times before I finally broke the chain for good. It wasn't just the mindlessness of so-called "dumb" YouTube videos that made it hard to get away. I also often found myself craving to look up answers to problems I was faced with on YouTube. Getting rid of the app was difficult because it meant I no longer had how-to guides at the tip of my fingers for every question or problem.


One of my professors likes to say that our culture simply isn't comfortable with admitting we don't know things anymore. That, in many ways, was why I struggled to get rid of YouTube. As long as that app is in your pocket, there's almost nothing you have to admit to being ignorant about. Just watch a quick video, and suddenly you can pretend you've learned all about the problem.


Which led me to the second and far more daunting task I had to confront: Deleting my phone's internet browser.


I know what you're thinking.


I can't do that! I need my browser! I Google things all the time at work!


Maybe that's true. But most of us work at least in part with computers these days, and if we really need to use our browser for work, we're far better off doing it on our laptop. Our phone's browser usually isn't much of a problem solver, then, so much as an easy way out. Our phone, unlike our actual surroundings, will almost never really challenge us. We can tell it to go anywhere in the World Wide Web and it obeys. The phone browser is the ultimate anti-location. With that browser, no matter where you are, you don't need to actually be there.


Funnily enough, once I got rid of my browser, I didn't really miss it. It was an unexpected relief to be able to admit my own ignorance. Previously, any problem I encountered seemed to push me to summon the collected intelligence of the internet to my assistance. I needed to know exactly how much salt to use. I needed to know exactly when James Polk was born. I needed to know exactly when the movie I was watching had been released. All of these false necessities hounded me continually. Once I deleted my phone's browser, however, I realized that these were not really important issues. Anything I did need to know (if I wanted to look up a new recipe, for example) could still be done on my computer. The urgency, however, was gone.


After those two major changes, I slowly began purging my phone of unneeded distractions. Email was relegated to my laptop. Facebook also migrated to my PC. I switched off almost all of my notifications. Hosts of time-management apps disappeared as I realized gleefully that I didn't need time now that my smartphone wasn't devouring my time all day. The more I trimmed down what was on my phone, the more I rediscovered that sense of delight I'd felt when I got my first smartphone. I no longer feel haunted the the anxiety that my phone will begin to beep with unread emails right as I drift off to sleep.


Now, my phone is just another fun, helpful tool.


To wrap things up, here are some of the things that are still on my phone:


Duolingo

I'm vying for a top spot on my group's Italian-language leaderboards right now. I used to struggle to do a lesson each day. Now I do five or six consistently, usually before starting work in the morning.


Virtual Banking

Here's one of those things that it really is important to keep an eye on. Again, though, no notifications here. It's just a reference tool.


Snapchat

After college, I hardly ever used Snapchat. Now, I'm rediscovering what a fun way it can be to communicate. It's video call feature makes a great substitute for Facetime if you're an Android user.


Kindle/Audible

Between my actual Kindle and my phone app, I'm reading now more than ever. As an English and History double-major in college, I thought I'd "burnt out" when it came to reading. Turns out, that just isn't true. I simply needed to free myself from some distractions.


Discord

These days, I use Discord for an awful lot. I've attended academic conferences that have used the app for networking, played games with friends, and even connected with some of my hometown friends during the pandemic.


Headspace

There are all kinds of approaches to meditation, ranging from Hindu to New Age to Jewish. I like that Headspace provides a simple, helpful way to practice meditation without buying into a slick brand of spiritualism. The app's "Morning Wakeup" video each day helps me to get out of bed with a clear head, and I genuinely look forward to each new video.


Spotify

I'm a music junkie, and sooner or later I'll probably have to think about cutting down on this one a bit--I listen far too much to music I'm not even sure I'm enjoying. For now, though, this one stays. For now.


Digital minimalism, like material minimalism, isn't about getting rid of things. Rather, it's about freeing oneself of the chaotic and overloaded digital environment most of us are living in.


So go ahead. Give it a try.

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