You know you’ve got a problem. You’re totally overwhelmed by media and don’t know how to extricate yourself from its maddening rush. You’re not sure it’s even possible to slow down. If it is, how could you keep from turning into a lonely hermit? What would it even look like to be a digital minimalist on a long-term basis? Is there anyone who has stuck with it for a significant period of time?
I consider myself a digital minimalist. What this means for me is that I don’t own a television, I use my smartphone for utilitarian purposes, and I have an almost non-existent social media presence. There are huge advantages to this kind of lifestyle, but there are also some drawbacks. In this article, I’d like to describe what made me choose this lifestyle in my pursuit of a meaningful life. Then I’ll share with you the pros and cons that I’ve experienced after practicing it for the last decade of my life.
Why I Became a Digital Minimalist
Defining myself is not easy. Am I conservative or liberal? Traditional or progressive? If we were to sit down and talk about abortion, separation of religion and state, the death sentence, or LGBTQ rights, you’d pin me as a liberal on some issues and a conservative on others.
I tend to be a traditionalist when it comes to the grand theories that shape our collective American identity. I believe we landed on the moon. I believe we live on a spherical planet, not a flat one. I’ve had all my major vaccinations.
But in some areas, I push the boundaries, looking for solutions to problems that previous generations didn’t face. For example, I believe in protecting the environment, and my way of taking action is to eat as sustainably as possible. For me, this has meant a meat-free diet for the last twenty years of my life (I did eat fish though – twice, while on a humanitarian trip to Haiti. There simply wasn’t anything else to eat).
I also push the boundaries of convention by questioning how much I want to allow myself to be involved in the media saturated context of Millennial America.
It is a choice. It may feel that immersion in media and digital technology is an uncontrollable feature of our culture, but it’s not. It’s a choice, and you have the ability to craft how much you do or don’t want to absorb.
My earliest memories of digital technology are negative ones. I am a Highly Sensitive Person who grew up in a highly chaotic home. I can remember my older brother beating me so hard my breath went out of me because I turned the gaming desktop off when it was his turn to play (in those days, rebooting took several minutes). I can remember Grandpa and Dad – both veterans – watching war movies with blood and gore that gave me nightmares (partly because of my HSP temperament, and partly because I was too young to be watching such content with them).
I remember vicious shouting matches between my brother and Mom when his video game addictions started affecting various spheres of his life. Sometimes it came to blows, with my brother threatening to call social services and my Mom threatening to call Dad to come home and give a “real” punishment.
Adrenaline junkies might have enjoyed the thrill of having front-row seats to such a gladiator match. I did not.
I became very spiritual from a young age, and my leap into digital minimalism reflected the goals and values of otherworldly pursuits. The late 2000’s were still the heyday of the so-called “Church Growth Movement” that focused on entertaining parishioners, who were expected to be passive consumers (much like the entertainment industry). Spirituality was marketed as a product and viewed as an enterprise. (Fortunately, the church growth movement has since been criticized on a number of grounds.)
There were always the subverts to the system, though. Neo-monasticism, based in part on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the spy/pastor who ran an illegal seminary in Nazi Germany and was executed for being part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler) wrote about the need to return to a more primal spirituality. One based on action, not passivity. Neo-monasticism made a resurgence in the early 2000’s.
There were always scatterings of those who turned up their noses at the prevailing Hollywood style of religion and reached backward for an ancient spirituality, one based in social action, spiritual discipline, serious thought, and mystical relationship.
In 2009, I began my spiritual journey at an institute that promised to teach us the ancient paths, but required a suspension of activities that could be a distraction during our experience. We were expected to avoid:
- Movies and non-sacred music
- Romantic relationships (exceptions granted to those already married)
- Drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine
After emerging from my spiritual training, what I noticed was intense clarity of thought and a high level of productivity. I was never into any kind of addictive substances or porn, so these items were not an issue for me, but having time away from movies, radio, and gaming offered a radical new perspective. I had so much time in the day and felt super-charged with creative ideas.
I was moving out of my parent’s house around that time and I made the decision not to buy a television or subscribe to any kind of streaming services. Over the last ten years, I have watched the equivalent of about 120 movies, most of them being foreign language serials that were quite stupid but helped me learn colloquial Arabic. That’s about 20 minutes of entertainment television per week over a ten year period.
I have an iPhone, but I use it minimally, more like a tool than a toy. I also used to be a power-user of Facebook and Pinterest, but gradually weaned myself down over the years. For Pinterest, I’ve learned to use it only when I am actively searching for inspiration for a specific, immediate project rather than scrolling passively and oohing and ahhing over things I don’t have. With Facebook, I pared down my 1,000+ friends to only 100 of the people who mattered to me the most, and have learned to log in to Facebook only 6-8 times per year (mostly for holiday posts).
In short, I’d become a digital minimalist.
I’ve stuck with the lifestyle – not because it’s always easy, but because once I felt the benefits, I never wanted to go back.
Pros and Cons of Being a Digital Minimalist
There are definitely benefits and drawbacks to this lifestyle. It’s not the most intuitive in a media-saturated culture and definitely takes some intentionality. After ten years of digital minimalism, I’ve rounded up for you the best and worst aspects of a tech-downsized lifestyle.
Pro: More Time in the Day
Statistics are surprising: the average American adult spends four and a half hours per day watching television and 1 hour 39 minutes using their smartphones. That hovers at around six hours per day passively sucking up entertainment from a screen! 🤯Without this passive expenditure of time, think of how many hours you’ll have to invest in important family relationships, pursue new hobbies, volunteer, take a degree, or brainstorm your new startup.
Con: I Don’t Know What Movie You’re Talking About
This is one of the most socially awkward aspects of being a digital minimalist. Everyone’s talking about the latest greatest new movie, and you’re like…
Recently, one of my friends had a birthday party themed around the TV show Friends, which included a special trivia segment. I didn’t attend the party because I was actually hosting a Thanksgiving get-together with other American expats that same evening, but when I found out what I had missed, I was ever-so-thankful. I’ve never watched a single episode of Friends. 😂
Although it can make me feel a bit excluded when everyone is talking about the latest Netflix series, I’m really thankful to have amazing friends and family who are supportive of my lifestyle choices. We have plenty of other interesting things to talk about, and I usually only experience awkward moments around new acquaintances who don’t realize I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.
Pro: More Realistic Grip on Reality
Over the last ten years, I’ve had some rough patches where I felt so frustrated at life that I let myself drift into couch-potatoism for several days or weeks. I expected to find mental relief by vegetating in a passive state of entertainment, but I actually experienced the opposite. As soon as the movie ended, I would loathe my current problematic situation even more.
The movies always portray clean, neat storylines that end on a satisfying note. Every major problem is solved within 90 or 120 minutes – far less time than real-life problems take. Everything about problem solving is stupidified in movie form and bears very little resemblance to the messy, prolonged problems we face in the real world that call for patience and dignified suffering.
As a writer, I’ve worked with small-scale productions as a scriptwriter, and let me inform you: everything you see on-screen is produced according to a well-known storyline structure. The storyline is split up into segments – the 10% point, 25% point, middle, etc. and certain movements and conflicts and resolutions MUST happen at these points. Producers know that the human brain craves these doses of suspense and resolution to stay engaged and end feeling satisfied, and they feed that to us in their movies. However, the catch is that the time span dedicated to solutions does not reflect reality.
Whether or not we actually have the attention span of a goldfish is up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: the attention-grabbing devices of the entertainment industry are more finely honed now than they were in our grandparents day.
I challenge you: sit down for three hours and watch the 1959 hit Ben Hur. Does it feel slow to you? Are the scenes long and drawn out, with interminable lengths of time before a camera switch?
Now watch something produced in 2019. Count the seconds between camera switches. About 2-3 seconds, right? Absolutely hypnotic, if I say so myself. No wonder life seems so overwhelmingly lethargic after watching movies.
I think avoiding it altogether helps me keep a firmer grip on reality. I’m calmer and less restless under difficult situations.
Con: Limited Entertainment Options
I’ll be honest here: sometimes our evenings and weekends can be a little stale. We live in Lebanon, and frankly, there’s not much to do in this country if you don’t enjoy nightlife, fishing, or smoking argileh.
There’s really only so many times you can visit city landmarks or stroll through the malls (we have the store layouts memorized). Maybe in other cities, where there are museums, concerts, and exhibitions, we’d have better things to do on our free time. But a movie-free lifestyle in some places is harder than others.
When we lived in the US, we had less of an issue with how to fill our free time, because we lived closer to nature and always had easy access to hiking trails and picnic spots. Being crammed in a city with limited activities makes it a little more difficult but not impossible.
Pro: I Don’t Need the Latest Phone
One of the pros of being a digital minimalist is that I really don’t CARE what kind of phone I have. In another article, I talk about how I decreased smartphone addiction by only using outdated phones. I can’t even guess how much money I’ve saved by accepting other people’s old phones (another benefit of being an expat is unlocked phones).
This resonates with my overall tendency towards having less stuff, regardless of what anyone thinks about digital technology itself. I nurse my phone all the way to its deathbed of software obsolescence.
Con: Sometimes My Phone Fails Me When I Need It Most
Because I tend to have outdated phones with an iffy battery, I sometimes pay for it the hard way. Once, I got in a minor car accident when my phone battery happened to be dead. I didn’t have a charging cable and couldn’t call my insurance company (in Lebanon, this is step #1. We don’t call the police unless it’s a major accident, because they’ll take an hour to arrive). The fact that I couldn’t call anyone ended up being a major issue in working out details with the other driver.
I’ve learned since then to keep a charging cable in the car or an extra battery charger in my handbag. I think it’s still cheaper than buying new phones.
Pro: Freedom to Create My Own Values
In my MA thesis, I analyzed the role of narratives in shaping worldview and cultural values, specifically in the context of religious narratives. What I gleaned from my research, though, extends to far more than the stories found in the Bible, Torah, ahadith literature, or Mahabharata. Even non-religious people consume stories every single day – narratives crafted by scriptwriters in Hollywood who know how to structure a story curve that will keep you watching their value depictions for 90-120 minutes.
A lot of good values and inspirational content can be found on social media and popular movies. But there’s a lot out there that I find objectionable.
What we watch over and over gradually becomes acceptable. The stories we hear becomes the stories we tell.
Or, taking it one step further, the relationship between social values and narratives is circular. The stories in any culture both shape and express the individual’s underlying worldview. This goes back to the theme of active versus passive participation. If you want to actively be in charge of creating your own values, you need to be the one telling the story, not consuming it.
I’m a not a hardcore digital minimalist – there are definitely others who are stricter in eschewing social media. Then there are some who are minimalists for security concerns, religious restrictions, or conspiracy theories.
That’s not me.
I’m a digital minimalist because I saw how it delivers something better, and I got hooked on it. I’m in love with the extra time and money I have, feeling more down-to-earth in my expectations, and being able to be an active agent in the mental food I feed myself.
Digital minimalism is one of the best lifestyle decisions I ever made.
If you’re contemplating digital minimalism, leave me a note to argue a point, give your perspective, or share your experience. Remember, you’re in control of how you want to expend your mental energy. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.
All the best in your journey,