Woman with sticker on her phone saying digital detox

How to have a digital declutter

Being forced to socially isolate for the health and safety of ourselves and the people around us is tough enough, but with many of us filling this void in time with an unhealthy obsession with rolling news, views, hearsay and scaremongering on social media, now would be the perfect time to attempt a 30-day technology detox.

Not everything has to go – we need to know what’s happening in the world, carry on with work and stay in touch with loved ones -but do we need every app that we have become so addicted to?

Digital Minimalism - Cal Newport

Cal Newport, who has been described as the ‘Marie Kondo of technology’, believes that 30 days is all we need to wean ourselves off our digital devices.

In this  exclusive extract from his new book Digital Minimalism : Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, he talks us through an experiment he ran using 1,600 volunteers, to see how they coped with stepping away from technology for a 30 Day Digital Detox.

The first step is defining your technology rules, the next step is to follow these rules for thirty days.

You’ll likely find life without optional technologies challenging at first. Your mind has developed certain expectations about distractions and entertainment, and these expectations will be disrupted when you remove optional technologies from your daily experience. This disruption can feel unpleasant.

Many of the participants in my mass declutter experiment, however, reported that these feelings of discomfort faded after a week or two. Brooke described this experience as follows:

“The first few days were surprisingly hard. My addictive habits were revealed in striking clarity. Moments of waiting in line, moments between activities, moments of boredom, moments I ached to check in on my favourite people, moments I wanted an escape, moments I just wanted to ‘look something up,’ moments I just needed some diversion: I’d reach for my phone and then remember that everything was gone.”

Like several other parents who participated in my experiment, Tarald invested his newfound time and attention in his family. He was unhappy with how distracted he was when spending time with his sons. He told me about how, on the playground, when they would come seeking recognition for something they figured out and were proud of, he wouldn’t notice, as his attention was on his phone.

“I started thinking about how many of these small victories I miss out on because I feel this ridiculous need to check the news for the umpteenth time,” he told me. During his declutter he rediscovered the satisfaction of spending real time with his boys instead of just spending time near them with his eyes on the screen.

Three friends sat around the table all on their phones

An interesting experience shared by some participants was that they eagerly returned to their optional technologies only to learn they had lost their taste for them. Here, for example, is how Kate described this experience to me:

“The day the declutter was over, I raced back to Facebook, to my old blogs, to Discord, gleeful and ready to dive back in—and then, after about thirty minutes of aimless browsing, I kind of looked up and thought . . . why am I doing this? This is . . . boring? This isn’t bringing me any kind of happiness. It took a declutter for me to notice that these technologies aren’t actually adding anything to my life.”

She hasn’t used those services since.

Several participants discovered that eliminating the point- and-click relationship maintenance enabled by social media requires that you introduce alternative systems for connecting with your friends. A digital advertiser named Ilona, for example, set up a regular schedule for calling and texting her friends — which supported her most serious relationships at the cost of some of the more lightweight touches many have come to expect.

“In the end, I just accepted the fact that I would miss some events in their lives, but that this was worthwhile for the mental energy it would save me to not be on social media.” 

A woman scrolling through Instagram

Other participants settled on unusual operating procedures during the reintroduction process. Abby, a Londoner who works in the travel industry, removed the web browser from her phone—a nontrivial hack.

“I figured I didn’t need to know the answer to everything instantly,” she told me. She then bought an old-fashioned notebook to jot down ideas when she’s bored on the tube.

Caleb set a curfew for his phone: he can’t use it between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., while a computer engineer named Ron gives himself a quota of only two websites he’s allowed to regularly check—a big improvement over the forty or more sites he used to cycle through.

Rebecca transformed her daily experience by buying a watch. This might sound trivial to older readers, but to a nineteen- year-old like Rebecca, this was an intentional act. “I estimate that around 75 percent of the time I got sucked down a rabbit hole of un-productivity was due to me checking my phone for the time.”

The Digital Declutter Process

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviours that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

A number of people ended up aborting this process before the full thirty days were done. Interestingly, most of these early exits had little to do with insufficient willpower—this was an audience who was self-selected based on their drive to improve.

More common were subtle mistakes in implementation – technology restriction rules that were either too vague or too strict. Another mistake was not planning what to replace these technologies with during the declutter period— leading to anxiety and boredom.

Those who treated this experiment purely as a detox, where the goal was to simply take a break from their digital life before returning to business as usual, also struggled. A temporary detox is a much weaker resolution than trying to permanently change your life, and therefore much easier for your mind to subvert when the going gets tough.

Step Number 1: Define your technology rules

During the thirty days of your digital declutter, you’re supposed to take a break from “optional technologies” in your life. The first step of the declutter process, therefore, is to define which technologies fall into this “optional” category.

When I say technology in this context, I mean the general class of things we’ve been calling “new technologies” which include apps, websites, and related digital tools that are delivered through a computer screen or a mobile phone and are meant to either entertain, inform, or connect you. Text messaging, Instagram, and Reddit are examples of the types of technologies you need to evaluate when preparing for your digital declutter; your microwave, radio, or electric toothbrush are not.

Woman reading a text message

Once you’ve identified the class of technologies that are relevant, you must then decide which of them are sufficiently “optional” that you can take a break from them for the full thirty days of the declutter process. My general heuristic is the following: consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.

This standard exempts most professional technologies from being deemed optional. If you stop checking your work email, for example, this would harm your career—so you can’t use me as an excuse to shut down your inbox for a month.

Don’t, however, confuse “convenient” with “critical.” More importantly, the inconvenience might prove useful. Losing lightweight contact with your friends might help clarify which of these friendships were real in the first place, and strengthen your relationships with those who remain.

Step Number 2: take a thirty-day break

Good luck!

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