A Better Approach to Our Relationship With Tech
When it comes to the myriad ways technology has altered our personal and professional lives, we tend to hear only all-or-nothing opinions. Tech is either the miracle of our time, building a better world and improving our lives immeasurably, or an ever-spreading disease, infiltrating our daily existences and wreaking havoc on our interpersonal relationships. The trust, as ever, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Nuanced opinions about tech can be hard to come by, but in his recent book, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” Cal Newport manages to offer measured opinions and actionable advice about how to navigate our tech-centric world.
What is digital minimalism
Many people would tell you the response to the endless crawl of apps and updates that clutter our desktops and smartphones is to disconnect entirely. While this is a romantic idea in premise, it’s simply not practical, desirable, or even possible in practice. Our jobs, and modern society at large, function with the help of countless technological innovations and are inextricably linked to them. In other words, disconnecting is only a viable option to the select few with the means to do so. Certainly, employees can’t walk into their boss’s office and inform them they’ll no longer be using Slack or email because they’ve decided to buy a typewriter.
Thankfully, Newport’s theory of digital minimalism has no such design for you. “Digital minimalism definitively does not reject the innovations of the internet age,” he writes, “but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools.” Most of us add digital clutter to our lives without even really thinking twice about it. We get our news from algorithmically-generated platforms and we have the same services on all of our devices, an ecosystem of platforms that never travels more than a few feet away from us at all times.
To counteract this perpetual accumulation, Newport suggests we act with more intentionality with regards to the ways we interact with the digital world. He defines digital minimalism 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.
The operative principle here is your agency over the tech you interact with. Under digital minimalism, none of the tech you interact with is superfluous and none of your use of it is compulsory. You choose what tech you use, it adds a demonstrable benefit to your life, and you ignore the rest.
Minimalism in business
Digital minimalism, unlike an exclusively back-to-analog approach, is compatible with the modern workplace. It’s important we find ways to still create human connection in real life, but stepping away from the technology and making time for interaction to create stronger relationships. I come from the world of accounting and finance, where tech innovation is a fact of life. Nobody working in accounting or finance can afford to completely divorce themselves from modern communication channels of computational services. It would be extremely misguided to do so, and it’s the same for most professions. However, I’m willing to bet you engage with at least a handful of secondary platforms and services that don’t add any meaningful value to your role.
A great way to apply digital minimalism in the workplace is to make a list of the software you use on a daily basis. Once you’ve finished your list, try to cross off anything that isn’t absolutely vital to your job. Odds are you’ll end up slashing at least one of the social media platforms - Facebook, Instagram, and others - which account for a major part of our always-on culture. Simply cutting out social media and YouTube at work can improve your focus and increase your interaction with those around you.
A wider minimalism
“My advice to gain the upper hand in this struggle is to demobilize the digital stream,” writes Newport in an article for the New York Times about decreasing digital dependency. In the article, he advises limiting social media to desktop rather than letting them follow you around on your phone. He also recommends seeking out analog activities and events to replace the easy gratification available online. In order to eliminate habits that hold us back, we need to replace them with better ones. “Like sleep and exercise, this analog cure seems to have few downsides, and its benefits compound,” Newport says.
Can we all throw our phones in the dumpster and go back to a tech-free existence? Of course not, but we can all be more mindful about the ways we log on. To get started, get up and ask your co-worker to take a walk, rather than conversing over IM, and solve the business needs as you get some fresh air!