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“It’s Like I Couldn’t Stop”: A Digital Minimalism Case Study

August 4th, 2019 · 26 comments
A scene from the undisclosed North Country location where I’ve been living a minimalist life dedicated to writing, parenting loud boys, and dreading the administrative demands of the upcoming fall semester.

It’s hard to believe that it has already been six months since Digital Minimalism was released. (If you’re interested in browsing some of the interviews and press about the book, I’ve been doing my best to update my media page with some highlights.)

One of the nice things about having had some time pass since publication is that I’m starting to receive case studies from readers who have been experimenting with ideas from the book long enough to report results. I thought it might be useful to occasionally share some of these stories, especially for those who are still deciding whether or not to take the plunge with this philosophy.

I’ll start today with the saga of a reader I’ll call Jane…

As Jane explained to me, she was first exposed to a culture of constant connectivity when she took a job in politics in 2006, an era when Blackberrys ruled the political universe.

“I remember having a boss yell at me once because I went to the bathroom and didn’t answer my phone,” she told me. “No joke, I was told I should have left my Blackberry with the front desk for someone to answer.”

When social media apps and iPhones came along, Jane was well positioned to dive deep into that well of distraction, with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram becoming her primary vices.

“I was constantly on my phone: checking, scrolling, tweeting, liking,” she said. “It’s like I couldn’t stop.”

The cost of this behavior went beyond simply the distraction, or the rudeness of checking the phone when with other people (“I couldn’t control it!”). As Jane explained, there was also an emotional and psychological toll:

“I felt exhausted and burned out. Instagram and FB made me feel like shit. Seeing everyone’s picture-perfect lives was stressful. I knew it was BS but still tried to keep up…[I] felt like I was my overseeing my own personal PR.”

Earlier this year, Jane read Digital Minimalism. The ideas intrigued her, but she was skeptical she could go through with the suggested changes: “[I] didn’t think I could actually do it.”

Then, as Jane puts it, “fate stepped in”: she left her iPhone in an Uber and it took her a week to get it back. She was forced against her will to temporarily experience life without a constant digital companion.

“At first, I was super stressed but then an amazing thing happened: I felt great,” she said. “Relaxed, calm, it’s like I could think clearly. My brain felt less crowded. It’s like someone went in and swept out the cobwebs.”

When the phone returned, she decided to give digital minimalism a serious try. Though this practice looks different for everyone who adopts it, in Jane’s case, it meant that she deleted Twitter, Facebook and Instagram altogether. She also added blocking software on her computer to deter idle web surfing.

“I can’t say enough about how much becoming a digital minimalist has changed my life,” she reports.

Specifically, Jane found that dumbing down her phone “freed up SO much time,” she now listens to podcasts and “reads a ton.”

The emotional improvements have also been big. “Not knowing what every single loose connection is doing on Instagram is amazing,” she said. “That’s what I’ve realized: I don’t need to get [daily] updates about people who aren’t actually in my day-to-day life.”

As a reminder, digital minimalism isn’t about minimizing technology for the sake of minimizing technology — which would be a weird philosophy for a computer scientist like myself to promote. It’s instead about putting tools to work on behalf of the things you value most, and then ignoring the distractions that don’t clear this high bar.

For Jane, constant social media checks and idle web surfing weren’t supporting the things that truly mattered to her, and if anything, they felt like obstacles between her and things she cared about. When she became intentional about her digital life, as with some many others who have made similar commitments, her real world existence became much richer.

26 thoughts on ““It’s Like I Couldn’t Stop”: A Digital Minimalism Case Study

  1. Scott says:

    Spot on Cal.
    After almost hitting a pole with “text driving” caused a wake up for me….
    So, back In 2010 I bravely put My Blackberry in a drawer and went to work. After 2-3 days of “withdrawal” I began to heal.
    I began to realize that the “Joy of missing out” is a lost art form. One that I sorely MISSED!
    Nine years later, my flip phone and I get along wonderfully- that is when I actually have it on,OR bring it with me.

    Freedom isnt free.

    Each piece of tech we say yes to takes a piece of our analog life with it.
    The “ffaster” we live, the sadder we (really) become.
    When we out pace nature, we suffer.

    Thanks for all you do.

  2. Mairi Stones says:

    Great to hear other people’s stories.
    I deleted all my social media accounts over a year ago. I do miss to on a few things but enough to lure me back. I too definitely feel more relaxed and it has in fact allowed me to get more clear about what are the true stressors in my life and what was driven by being on social media.

  3. Bebo Singh says:

    I have ordered Digital Minimalism and looking forward to reading it .

    1. EA says:

      You won’t be disappointed! It’s just great!

      1. Heartily agree, though don’t miss Cal’s “Deep Work,” a masterpiece.

        1. EA says:

          So Good They can’t ignore you and Deep Work are life changing.

  4. Mount Woods says:

    Social media does effect you. It’s everywhere and people stick to it. It’s so engaging that with every scroll new videos, images and so much more keeps coming on and on which is hard to ignore. Even if you do delete your account as Mairi Stones has said above, you will keep receiving emails. Even there are other cases where people deleted their account and their life started becoming more richer, healthier and got connected to their loved one. It’s hard but not impossible to stay away from social media.

  5. Love hearing about these case studies! I just finished reading the book last week and I’m planning a digital declutter (which I’ll be writing about weekly on my site) for September. As an entrepreneur, I often feel encouraged to be tethered to my phone and my computer, but I truly don’t want to be and I know I’d be happier (and more productive?) if I wasn’t. Thank you for such a great book and for contributing an intelligent perspective on an ongoing issue that matters to many of us.

  6. GMT says:

    I’m a very strong person in a high stress job which involves personal danger daily. One wrong split second decision and I can cause injury, death or ecological disaster to vast areas.

    Why then, have I un-installed Twitter three times (yesterday was the third).?

    I feel like I can’t quit smoking… Twitter is a horrible world…much like a life of smoking. Someone check social media for nicotine, I am hooked and this is not good!

    1. Scott says:

      I quit “3 times”. Each time, twitters last message was something like
      “your acct will be deleted in 30 days” (30 days? I want it gone NOW!)
      DELIBERATE STRATEGY (And not in the users best interest).
      SO, Just get to day 31 and you have crossed the finish line!

      1. Deb says:

        One thing you can try with clever services that will deactivate/delete your account after X days is that you can change your password to something random (use a random password generator) and then forget about it, just realise that you can’t do anything about it and changing the password again is just too much hassle. Make it difficult and unattractive.

        1. Frida says:

          Indeed, that works great! Recovering a password is such an hassle that I did not log onto FB for sooooo long. I just forgot all my passwords and I was going to delete my accounts months ago, but even that was too much work and I detest even seeing those sites’ logos or colors.

          I just deleted all social media apps from my phone and stopped using them on my pc as well, must be more than a year, I could not be happier

  7. Amy E. says:

    Ever since reading digital minimalism, my personal email gets checked like once a day, maybe twice. I’ve eliminated Yahoo News completely. I’ve limited my social media use to Saturday mornings, for no more than an hour, usually 30 minutes. I adjusted my Facebook newsfeed settings to prioritize the 15-ish people I care to hear about most. I check to see if I was sent any friend requests or invites to birthday parties. And that’s really it. I’ve been doing this for 2-3 months now and I find that that time is really all I need to feel like I’m not missing out while not letting Facebook take over my free time.

  8. Melissa says:

    I agree with Jane’s comment “I don’t need to get [daily] updates about people who aren’t actually in my day-to-day life.” This also influenced my decision to deleted my FB and IG accounts in January of this year. I knew I would still stay in contact with the people who mattered to me and who I mattered to. I have no regrets and haven’t missed it at all.

    1. I couldn’t get my whole reply to you in the comment box, so I wrote a blog post instead… Please enjoy and thank you for your comment.

      https://alixander.co/2019/09/14/going-back-to-the-things-that-matter/

  9. Mark Miranda says:

    I swear Cal if it wasn’t for you and your books I probably would have never enjoyed my life in such a way possible. Quitting social media was probably of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

  10. Geoff says:

    I deleted FaceBook in 2015. My experience may be a little different to others though. I had been disillusioned for a long time, and I experienced zero withdrawal.

    I adopted twitter when I started my blog, as a means of promoting my posts, but it’s become increasingly that the benefit, at least this stage is not worth the cost.

    I’d rather put effort into more innovative ways to get my posts in front of people.

    More importantly, the last thing I ever wanted was to feel as if I was at the mercy of big tech, with getting my work in front of people.

  11. Eric says:

    Great post Cal; I can’t tell enough how deleting the three apps myself has been of great help to my life.

  12. Brady says:

    I deleted my social media apps two months before my finals/dissertation were due in. I found that the days seemed to get longer!
    Instead of having my concentration consistently interrupted by the compulsive need to check social media, I had more time in the day to completely focus on the tasks which needed to be completed. Recently found out I’m graduating with first class honours too…
    Too many students walk into the typical lifestyle staying up late and desperately trying to finish essays, when actually it can be easily avoided by managing what and who you value.
    This stuff works and anyone who is currently studying or just simply looking to improve their wellbeing and lifestyle should read and adopt the practicalities of this book!

  13. Joel Sanders says:

    No Facebook, Twitter, or IG for me in months now. Phone calls and face-to-face get-togethers (hikes, coffee, etc.) have replaced online social activity. Meetup is my new friend for work-related activity, and I’m beginning to look into the social life part of Meetup as well. I also joined two different Slack groups for entrepreneurs, and a WhatsApp group, but very little happens in those online channels…the main benefit comes from regularly-scheduled Zoom video calls.

  14. Gary Dotzler says:

    Enjoyed Digital Minimalism. Now I’m on a quest to read more. My search for a definitive list of related titles has been frustrating at best. Would sure love it if Cal or this group could brainstorm a comprehensive list of books us recently Liberated Luddites ™ could devour.

    I’ll add the first couple .
    1) Reclaiming Conversation – Turkle
    2) Chasing Slow – Loechner

  15. Masha says:

    As a professional artist, I have felt the need to be on IG to promote my work. Since reading Deep Work and, more recently, Digital Minimalism, I have come to question just how valuable the tool is. As an artist who works in solitude, it is very easy to succumb to social validation, which can distract significantly from the path towards mastery and potentially affect your creative decisions.
    Though I definitely have had some benefits from IG and even sold a couple of works via the platform, I have decided to temporarily deactivate it for now to see how useful it is and how I feel without it. Not having the app on the phone the past few weeks has also dramatically reduced the time I waste scrolling.

  16. Great article Cal, I think the most important thing people can do is delete social media apps from their phone. Once this step is taken and people realize how much better they feel they will continue to be smarter with their digital habits.

  17. Bob Tacto says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkEn5RR2Iew

    Check this out now there is a band called Echosmith and they just released a song called Lonely Generation. The Lyrics are straight outta Cal Newports research on the toxic side of Social Media though.

  18. James says:

    Sometimes I think that all these factors like social networks, our job, even friends overwhelm us and do not leave us time to be alone with our thoughts.
    Next week I’ll do some digital minimalism be skipping all not urgent calls, not going to social networks and somewhere outside the town.

  19. Ozair says:

    I loved Digital minimalism and Deep work. Both made a huge impact on my life. i tried putting down smartphone for 4 weeks and found it to be liberating. Then for few reasons (Better camera, clearer Voice recorder, App to silent notification of promotional SMS, and App to complaint of Telemarketers ) i came back to smartphone. But i am still feeling it difficult. I still spend hours in settings and non social media apps. i have made some changes to make the use difficult like deleting the face and fingerprint data and using a hard and long password to unlock phone and open any secondary app, this reduced my usage greatly, but still at some time i spend too much time on phone, i guess i don’t have discipline to avoid the screen.

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