“I finally finished it!” my brother told me on a train headed to the north of Germany.
By “it,” I could tell, he meant Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Not just because I had recommended the book to him a few months prior, but also because there was a smugness in his voice that probably aimed at getting me away from the mobile game I had been playing for the past hour.
I paused the game.
My brother now smiled like a poker player who was just about to reveal a royal flush. “I sold my TV.” Then, he casually added, “Oh, and my Xbox.”
I envied him.
Some people find it easy to decaffeinate their digital stimulants after reading Digital Minimalism or realizing that their devices no longer bring them value. I’m not one of these people. It took me three years of rigorous experimentation to quit social media and lead a techno-stripped life. Today, I live without Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter (okay, X), and all the other usual suspects. The only social technologies I still use are messaging services and blogging platforms.
But the upswing of quitting slowly is that I learned a lot along the way. I re-read Digital Minimalism twice, tinkered with several non-digital approaches, and tried to make my anti-technological approach as nuanced as possible.
Here are my five most essential takeaways from Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
1. The Slippery Slope of Social Media
“We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons — to look up friends’ relationship statuses or eliminate the need to carry a separate iPod and phone — and then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.”
— Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
“Stephan,” a friend told me on a crisp winter day in 2015, “you need to be on Instagram!” Seconds later, she grabbed my phone, installed the app, created an account for me, took a selfie of us, and uploaded the picture. Yep, just like that. She proudly handed me back the phone. I stared at my first grammable footprint, excited to see the digital debris.
I looked like a drunk donkey.
Instagram was my first social media (barring some cringy teenage dabbling on Facebook). This was mostly due to my shyness — I had been timid and terrified of sharing myself online. There was no way that I would upload digital replicas of myself for friends and strangers to see. To what ends? I kept asking myself. Why would anyone be interested in seeing my face plastered on their screen? In other words, I never wanted to be on social media in the first place. Peer pressure made me do it.
Once this new world was at my fingertips, its appeal was undeniable. I soon became a passive user, scrolling through miles and miles of people’s pictures and platitudes. Over time, my home feed showed fewer friends and increasingly more friends of friends and loose acquaintances. But strangely, their lives seemed so noteworthy, now that they owned digital real estate on the device I carried with me 24/7. I started spending several hours per day on social media.
Wasted time, psychological weight, pseudo relationships — my friend surely didn’t want to entangle me in any of this. And neither did I, of course. But it’s the essential problem with most social media…
…we didn’t actually sign up for this.
Sure, there were once genuine reasons we started using certain platforms, even just for uploading silly pictures or keeping up with the zeitgeist. But then, as if diverted by evil currents, we didn’t just get off course but also found ourselves in an uncontrollable maelstrom.
As Cal Newport puts it in Digital Minimalism:
“These changes crept up on us and happened fast, before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade.”
This doesn’t just apply to social media but also to modern technology in general. Newport observed that when the first iPhone was launched in 2007, nobody would’ve predicted that, sixteen years later, the average American would check their phone up to 352 times a day. This was never part of the plan. The core mission of the first iPhone was simply “playing music and making phone calls,” as one of the original iPhone team members told Newport. These days, of course, we do, well, everything with our phones. And sure, it’s practical to some extent. But also overwhelming. Paralyzing. Terrifying.
Once again, we didn’t sign up for this.
Thus, the essential problem isn’t the overwhelming array of possibilities we have gained through social media. It’s the anxiety-inducing loss of control that came with these possibilities. And so, the goal of digital minimalism, as Newport suggests, isn’t as much to elevate usefulness as to regain autonomy.
The decluttering process of digital minimalism can help us get there.
2. From Maximalist to Minimalist: The Digital Declutter Process
“[M]ore often than not, the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.”
— Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
The necessity for a digital declutter arose five years after my first flirt with Instagram, in the fall of 2020.
Ironically, I had wanted to give social media another chance. I had just finished my undergrad and had garnered many stray connections all over the globe. This double bind of needing to position myself on the “career market” and staying in touch with friends had gotten me thinking: maybe social media can genuinely add value to my life. I had also become less shy. Maybe everything will change if I switch from being a passive user to an active one.
Spoiler: it didn’t work.
When I first posted something on my fresh Instagram account (I had created a new one), it was like a drug. The gratification of dozens of likes and comments washed over me like a warm shower.
Shortly after publishing this post, I went on a hiking trip that was supposed to get me away from technology. And yet, I couldn’t help but check my phone every ten steps. I couldn’t stop thinking about my next post. I yearned to ‘grammify’ each moment. It was as if my brain had been rewired — all thoughts now revolved around stories, posts, reels. Likes, comments, followers. More, more, more.
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport suggests one rapid antidote to this kerfuffle: the digital declutter process. It works in three funky steps:
- Abstinence — Declare a 30-day period in which you forgo optional technologies (“optional” meaning that abstaining from these outlets won’t cause major harm to your personal or professional life).
- Exploration — During this period, discover non-digital pastimes you find satisfying and meaningful.
- Curation — At the end of the thirty days, reintroduce the technologies you put aside in step one. For each one, pinpoint why it adds value to your life and how you will use it.
In Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anna Lembke describes a similar (albeit more complex) framework to quit addictive behaviors. She, too, suggests 30 days of abstinence because that’s the typical time it takes for your brain to reset from the addiction. I’ve applied this, for instance, to end my YouTube addiction — with great success.
And yet, social media proved itself to be a different force of nature.
It would be a neat lie to say I simply did a digital declutter at the peak of my social media obsession, cutting the weeds before they grew rampant. But, of course, it wasn’t that easy. It would take me another year of chasing likes, maintaining pseudo-relationships, and sacrificing sleep for scroll time until I could make amends. Sometimes, I would manage to live without social media — just to relapse into complete mayhem.
Here are the mistakes I made and the practices and principles I wish I had known earlier.
3. The Three-Step Minimalist Technology Screen
When I decided to end my Instagram obsession, I deleted the app from my phone but kept my account. My intention had been to access it once per month through my computer to check updates from friends — and perhaps provide a little update from myself. Simultaneously, I wanted to use it as an easy way to exchange contact information with new people I met.
The reality was different.
The first time I revisited Instagram after the 30-day break, I felt like I was riding a wild horse. Even though I had planned the direction where I wanted to go (casually checking updates), things went uncontrollably sideways. The second I opened Instagram on my browser, it was as if I got sucked into a virtual vacuum of pictures and captions. Absent-minded, I scrolled for minutes and minutes — back hunched, eyes aimlessly scanning, mouse wheel spinning — before I finally caught myself. What am I doing here? How did I get here?
This didn’t just happen once. It happened every time I opened the site on my computer. The gravitational force of Instagram was inevitable.
I soon learned that the digital decluttering process is only the tip of the iceberg. The make-or-break factor is how you handle the technology after the declutter. And the biggest mistake I made was thinking that the break from social media alone and some half-hearted resolutions would do the trick. Well, they didn’t.
So, how to go about this?
In Digital Minimalism, Newport suggests the three-step minimalist technology screen to combat relapse and promote intentional use. It’s like a filter. Only after optional technologies pass these three sieves — (note to self: and only then!) — do they deserve a spot in your life. I reformulated them into questions to simplify the decision-making process:
- Screen #1: Does this technology not just offer shallow benefits, but does it actually serve something I deeply value in life?
- Screen #2: Is this technology the best way I can serve this value, and if not, how can I replace it with something better?
- Screen #3: Can I bind the technology to operating constraints that leave me in control of when and how I use it?
After my first digital declutter, social media broke free from my intentions like an untamed steed because I didn’t apply this screening process carefully enough. While I had a rough idea of how I would use Instagram (and other social media) after the declutter, my obsessive part was so desperate to return that I couldn’t tether it to intentional constraints.
When I actually applied the screening the second time around, I had some uncomfortable realizations.
The icy truth of a technology screen
It turned out that, yes, I deeply value connection. But social media wasn’t the best way to serve that value. It was actually doing the opposite. It tricked me into believing my need for connection was being served when, in reality, it was an illusion. Most of the people I interacted with were loose connections, strayed all over the globe, for whom I had no strong desire to deepen the relationship in real life.
The icy truth I realized was this: Social media is about having relationships rather than being in relationships.
By all means, if you can leverage specific platform features without getting sidetracked, go ahead. I sincerely envy you. But for me, it’s a binary operation: either I devote myself to a platform (and pay the price of scattering my intentions) or I abandon the platform altogether. In the vast majority of cases, I prefer the latter.
In Digital Minimalism, Newport echoes my experience. As he puts it, summarizing his mass digital declutter experiment, in which 1,600 people participated:
“Perhaps predictably, many participants … ended up abandoning the social media services that used to take up so much of their time. These services have a way of entering your life through cultural pressure and vague value propositions, so they tend not to hold up well when subjected to the rigor of the [minimalist technology] screen described above.”
Again, this doesn’t have to be black or white. But it seems the benefits of a platform rarely outweigh its incisions on your time and attention. One of the participants in Newport’s experiment said it best:
“In the end, I just accepted the fact that I would miss some events in their [the participant’s friends] lives, but that this was worthwhile for the mental energy it would save me to not be on social media.”
Yes, it may be a challenge. But as we’ll see next, it’s a challenge we can master meaningfully — while opening up many opportunities.
Here’s one of my favorite upswings from quitting social media: solitude.
4. The Hidden Benefits of Solitude
Contrary to popular belief, solitude doesn’t require being isolated from other people, not necessarily. Instead, Newport argues — based on a definition from the book Lead Yourself First — that solitude is simply this:
“… a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.”
This “input from other minds” can obviously be a conversation, but it can also include more subtle things, like listening to music, reading a book, and, of course, scrolling through your social media feed.
The problem with modern technology and social media is that they systematically deprive us of solitude as we’re constantly influenced by other people’s input. By reading Digital Minimalism, I noticed that I had been killing boredom and solitude for years. After, say, a lecture, I would frantically pull out my phone, check messages, updates, refresh, refresh, refresh. While running, walking, or cycling, I would blast music or podcasts. I would do everything, in other words, to avoid my own thoughts.
The problems with this go deeper than just being distracted.
The problems with solitude deprivation
“Regular doses of solitude,” Newport writes in Digital Minimalism, “mixed in with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being.” Reversely, this means that solitude deprivation inhibits human flourishing.
I’m certainly not the only one who gets this frantic, anxious, itchy feeling — almost depressive — when I consume excessive technology without processing my own thoughts. The endless flow of technological input doesn’t just rob me of creative and emotional insight. It also sabotages my mental health.
And it’s not just anecdotal.
Most psychologists agree that social media use and mental health crises are linked. As psychology professor Jean Twenge puts it in a New York Times feature, summarizing her findings from several studies on social media and unhappiness:
“The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues. It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”
In Digital Minimalism, Newport concludes:
“Simply put, our brains are not wired to be constantly wired.”
In other words: If we excessively wire ourselves, we might go haywire.
Conversely, if we manage to free ourselves from the constant input from other minds, we might unlock the three great benefits of solitude:
- New ideas
- An understanding of the self
- Closeness to others
The first two are pretty obvious, but the third one surprised me. On reflection, though, it made total sense — especially when combined with my research on loneliness. It’s only when we’re away from people that we can truly appreciate their presence. It’s only away from people that we build up joyful anticipation to reenter social situations. It’s only away from people that we can properly process social encounters — what we’ve learned, who we’re becoming, and what kind of people we want to have around us.
So, how can we harness the hidden value of solitude? These practices have helped me the most.
Three ways to reclaim solitude
The three practices that follow may sound a little shallow and perhaps obvious. But once I actually implemented them — even just one of them — my relationships with technology, others, and myself transformed:
- Leave your phone at home — “the urgency we feel,” Newport writes in Digital Minimalism, “to always have a phone with us is exaggerated.” In most cases, he’s right. At the height of my social media obsession, not having a phone was a downright crisis. I would panic. It was as if my life hinged on this stupid brick of silicone. Luckily, though, there’s a simple strategy to curb this dependence: spend long stretches without your phone. This didn’t come naturally to me, but slowly working toward no-phone time helped. First, a phoneless walk. Then, phoneless visits to friends. Finally, a phoneless day at work or uni. But once again, this is not an absolute dogma. In many situations (especially emergencies), phones are useful. For me, it’s been more about internalizing a deeper lesson: my life quality doesn’t depend on the presence of my phone.
- Take long walks — The instructions are simple but not necessarily easy. “On a regular basis,” Newport writes in Digital Minimalism, “go for long walks, preferably somewhere scenic.” That’s it. I still remember the clarity and productive slowness I unlocked when I first got into walking. Every day, I would walk to a cafe to do my writing. Thirty minutes to get there, thirty minutes back. Ever since, longer walks (without my phone) have been idea incubators and dissolvents of writer’s block. Whatever the problem — walking typically solves it.
- The Bennett Principle (aka rethinking leisure) — After quitting non-essential technologies, I realized something strange: 24 hours is a lot of time. You can do a lot in a week, let alone a month or a year. Naturally, I yearned to slip back into digital indulgences — fill the time with video games, movies, podcasts. But I changed my mind after discovering the “Bennett Principle” in Digital Minimalism. This says that the value we gain from leisure is proportional to the effort we invest. In other words, engaging activities (creative hobbies, exercise) provide far more relaxation than passive pleasures (doomscrolling social media, binge-watching). Sure, doing more stuff feels counter-intuitive. But when I look back, passively watching Netflix compares to playing the piano like fast food to fresh vegetables.
Note that returning to solitude will probably feel tricky in the beginning. When I first sought out solitude as a digital minimalist, I still had that constant itchy feeling to pull out a device, a distraction — something, anything.
The good news is that it gets better. The itchiness will fade — not just the more you practice solitude in general but also the more you can resist the urge to distract yourself during one specific “solitude session.” To me, it always feels as if my brain has to readjust to the absence of other people’s chatter. Typically, my first 10 minutes of solitude feel itchy — grouchy even. Then, for the next 10 minutes, I get restless.
But if I make it through these initial hurdles, the next few hours are often a firework of productive reflection, emotional processing, and creative ideas.
5. Guidelines for Long-Term Digital Minimalism
Quitting social media for an hour is easy.
Quitting social media for a day is hard.
Quitting social media for a month is nerve-racking.
Quitting social media for a year is easy.
What I mean by this is that quitting social media felt strange and radical in the short term, but in the grand scheme, I don’t miss a single social media platform. Not even in the slightest. Even though these platforms tried to hook me again and again, like fishermen reeling in a slippery salmon, it paid off to resist the bait. In the long run, living without non-essential technology has been far more rewarding than the slice-and-dice lifestyle of digital maximalism.
That said, here are some guidelines that have significantly helped me stay true to my intentions.
Guidelines for using devices (so they don’t use you)
These things have helped me tame my devices so I can still use them sanely while doing my essential daily tasks.
- Schedule low-quality leisure — Some technologies are like candy. In moderation, they can sweeten our day. In excess, however, they’re corrosive to our well-being. The solution — digitally and culinarily — isn’t to ban these pleasures altogether but to enjoy them with intention. “Work out the specific time periods,” Newport writes, “in which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes … But outside these periods, stay offline.”
- Dumb down your phone — I dedicated an entire article to this, but the basic idea is that you strip away the manipulative power of your “smart” phone. Dumbing down your phone ranges from disabling notifications to grayscaling your phone’s screen.
- Delete apps (and accounts) — Yes, I know. Cliché advice. But it has worked for me exceptionally well. The trick is to leverage one small moment of clarity to save yourself from future distractions. Of course, you can still use the platform on your computer and/or redownload the app when you actually need it. If you’re feeling adventurous, delete your entire account. Sure, it’s a shame for all those followers. But then again: accounts can always be recreated.
Principles for a rich social life without social media
Even though my connections on social media didn’t feel meaningful, their absence left me feeling like I had lost friends and acquaintances. Call it post-social-media loneliness, if you will. But this type of loneliness was productive as it propelled me to replace these shallow connections with more meaningful ones in real life.
I like keeping these three principles in mind.
- Use texts as a springboard — Opinions vary here, but I find excessive texting shallow and treacherous. There’s just too much nuance that gets lost by transforming spoken words into written characters. One antidote is to use digital interactions as a means to the end of real-life interaction. In Digital Minimalism, Newport calls this conversation-centric conversation. “It argues,” he writes, “that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship.” This doesn’t mean that all social encounters must take place in real life. But it might entail using texting not as a vehicle but as a springboard for conversation. Rule of thumb: only use texts to arrange real-life meetings, video calls, or phone calls.
- Make technology consumption social — The rationale here is similar to “scheduling low-quality leisure” (see above). Except, in this case, the goal is to outsource digital entertainment to social interactions. As a result, the sometimes shallow event of, say, watching a movie provides an additional social richness and a foundation for profound conversations.
- Leverage structured interactions — Although humans are social creatures, we love making up excuses to get together. “Just meeting” has a strange vibe to it. We need a higher purpose — going for a walk, getting coffee, playing board games. Why? The great benefit of structured social activities is that they provide rituals and rules for social interaction. For instance, getting to know new people in a sports club is much easier than approaching them on the street. Other examples of “structured sociality” include volunteer activities, book clubs, and most events on Meetup.com.
It’s not that I always follow all these rules like clockwork obeys the laws of physics. It’s more that they give me structure, a level playing field. Whenever I get out of bounds — which happens occasionally — it’s fine because I know what I can do to get back in the game.
Conclusion: Should You Throw Away Your Phone?
Finally, let’s acknowledge that digital minimalism is a tricky affair in our day and age. I’ve been applying the strategies above for the past three years now — and I still struggle. Heck, if anything, digital distractions are like water: they always find a way through the cracks. No matter how tightly I try to seal my mind from distractions, something always leaks through.
And so, for a long time, I thought about abandoning my phone altogether as it seemed to be this untamable equine beast with no reins. But is this a reasonable conclusion? Should we throw away our phones if they’re the source of so much misery?
My short answer: no.
The slightly longer answer is that it’s a steady process of weighing off values, benefits, and sacrifices. I’ve now reached a point where I can comfortably say that technology adds more value to my life than it does harm.
Are there days when the dam of digital minimalism bursts? Absolutely.
Now that I don’t have any social media to distract me, I often aimlessly check email 30–40 times a day. Other times, I open my browser to read random Wikipedia articles about, say, the Guillotine or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Other times, I would download dating apps, temporarily denying the fact that they sap away my attention and willpower.
But ultimately, it’s a significant improvement to the aimless slot machine use of social media. I went from rodeo-riding the untamed, wild, steroid steed of social media to escorting the cute pony of digital minimalism. I regained control, clarity, and peace of mind. (At least most of the time.)
And once again, digital minimalism — like physical minimalism — isn’t about categorically banning all things from your life. It’s not a black-or-white situation. There are infinite shades of gray in between.
So, if there’s just one thing you take away from Digital Minimalism, let it be this guiding question:
What’s the best way to harness the power of modern technology while blissfully ignoring the elements that make you miserable?
For my brother, the answer was selling his TV and Xbox. For me, it was quitting social media. You needn’t have an answer now, not necessarily. Simply beginning to ask the question is a giant leap to reclaim your attention in a distracted world.
Want to Get More Out of Everything You Read?
If I learned one thing from studying philosophy and devouring hundreds of books, it’s this: reading books in a community supercharges your ability to extract their wisdom. That’s why I started The Bibliosopher’s Club, a book club where we explore what it means to live a good life – one book at a time.
The best part? It’s free.
Just enter your email below to join hundreds of avid readers on our quest to read and live better.