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Digital declutter

Well before pandemic-forced quarantines, much of my time was spent in voluntary self-seclusion. How? By staring at my phone or tablet instead of making real connections with people.

The wake-up call for change came with the compulsory isolation of lockdown.

As we enter the next phase of whatever it is our lives are to become after the pandemic, there is the opportunity to answer our wake-up calls. As the old adage suggests, never let a serious crisis go to waste. If we too easily accepted bad habits as inevitable in a year of lockdown, it may be time to ditch that negative thinking. On the other hand, if we purposefully chose to use our year for good perhaps we can work to consolidate and build upon personal gains.

Cal Newport‘s 2019 book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World was recommended by a friend and former colleague, and it immediately resonated with work I’d been doing during 2020 to address the love/hate relationship with my smartphone. It was time to make permanent the digital declutter I’d struggled to adopt throughout the year.

When Newport begins by quoting the commentator Andrew Sullivan’s 2016 essay for New York magazine titled “I Used to Be a Human Being,” I instinctively understood the premise about surviving an endless bombardment of news and gossip and images.

Like Newport, I was not overly engaged with many of the best-known social media platforms, having deleted my Facebook account in 2013. Yet, there was still a feeling of being overwhelmed by the perceived need to keep up with the news, to grow enraged at the latest atrocity, to see what hundreds of business “friends” on LinkedIn were doing at the moment, and to text and email and “like” and post emojis as a way to stay “connected” while feeling increasingly drained and unsatisfied.

It was exhausting.

What I was missing with my scattershot approach is what Newport calls a full fledged “philosophy of technology use,” rooted in deep personal values. Today’s technology mixes harm with benefits in a way that sucks one into overuse and manipulated addiction unless you step back and consider “what tools you should use and how you should use them.” Equally important, says Newport, such an approach “enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”

Newport covers ground that others have explored, especially around the manipulation used by technology companies to capture our attention and drive clicks. But beyond a thoughtful summary of the lopsided arms race with the giants of technology, the real value in Newport’s book is a clear pathway towards digital minimalism, which he defines as

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

He suggests three principles underpinning digital minimalism:

  • Clutter is costly;
  • Optimization is important; and
  • Intentionality is satisfying.

Newport’s path is one I’ve taken over the past month to enact my personal digital decluttering:

  • Take a break from optional technologies for 30 days;
  • During the break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors you find satisfying; and
  • At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies, starting from a blank slate and recognizing what value each serves in your life.

There are a number of practices Newport calls upon to get through the declutter process, and I especially appreciated his use of a National Trust historic site, President Lincoln’s Cottage to illustrate the value of solitude. As the poet Wendell Berry has said, “We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness.” It takes solitude to focus.

In my personal month of digital decluttering, I removed the apps from my smartphone and tablet that beckoned to me when I was bored. I took off my Fitbit with its incessant buzzes to remind me to get up and move. The weather and Google maps remain on my phone, but if I find myself checking the temperature more than once a day, it serves as a reminder of how dependent I have become upon my devices. Thankfully, the weather seldom changes and I quickly lose interest.

Then there was the consideration of the places where I tended to reflexively reach for my smartphone. It has been hard at times, but I’ve generally followed the conscious decision to act in a different manner when I find myself in those places.

We still have home delivery of the Washington Post and New York Times. Rather than read them online which was my default, I’ve put aside my tablet at breakfast and work my way through one or both papers on a daily basis. Who knew the Post still had the comics? I’ve also become a fan of the obituaries, to read about lives well lived. Neither one showed up regularly in my algorithm-developed list of online stories, probably because they didn’t provoke outrage and drive clicks.

And I’ve done the unthinkable by leaving my smartphone at home. Newport writes about why this is so difficult, and yet why it is necessary to cut the imaginary cord that ties us to this tool. I’ve walked out with my phone still attached to its charger and the world didn’t end.

Most importantly, I’ve focused on what I truly value. My time reading has increased, as has the time spent with my guitars. I have been able to focus on professional and personal writing projects. Conversations have extended beyond just the dining room table. My phone has been used — get this — as a phone much more frequently. Rather than dealing with something via email, I’ve taken to suggesting a phone call. As a result, I’ve talked with friends and colleagues I haven’t seen in years. My actions around technology have also freed me to focus on a couple of projects that are especially meaningful at this point in my life.

Digital Minimalism has helped me begin the process to perform a personal reset following the pandemic. And that timing seems just right.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


  1. DJB says

    My friend and former colleague Merrill Hoopengardner recommended this book to me. After she read the post, she wrote the following:

    “Love it! I read Digital Minimalism first as a library book and just bought a hard copy of it so I can study it further. While I was at it, I also bought Deep Work which I hope to read soon. And I can’t recommend A World Without Email enough these days. I apparently need to be a Cal Newport groupie. Actually, I *really* want to figure out how to apply his principles in our community development work”

  2. DJB says

    Another friend and former colleague wrote in response to this post:

    “I loved Digital Minimalism, Unsubscribe, and Indistractible all which I read just before the pandemic and could feel myself adapting the tips to become less tied to my devices. Then COVID happened and I’m only now getting back on track with trying to be more intentional about my digital life. Thanks for this important reminder, DJB! (and glad to know I’m in good company!)”

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