Is your productivity, peace of mind, and ability to enjoy meaningful and intimate relationships constantly compromised by your smartphone? You’re not alone. Digital fatigue is becoming more common as technology takes over our lives, and digital minimalism is growing as a way to balance what is otherwise very useful technology.
If you’ve never met a digital minimalist, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a 29-year old PhD student, author, and wife, and I’m on a journey to rediscover the present-ness and social connections our great-grandparents once enjoyed. During the last ten years of my life, I’ve watched no more than 200 hours of entertainment television, which translates to just over 20 minutes per week. Yes, I’ve been doing that for ten years. I also am a bare-bones social media user and have never had an Instagram or Twitter account. Ever.
And guess what? I’m really, really satisfied with the results.
Not everyone is prepared for such an extreme lifestyle, but maybe you’ve been feeling the need to back away from your smartphone. Maybe it’s interfering with intimacy or it’s constantly raising your stress level. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but maybe a little bit of digital minimalism can help you. In this article, I’d like to share with you a few habits of mine that might seem surprising. I believe that implementing just one or two of them can help you to renegotiate a more workable relationship with digital technology.
Habit 1: I Only Use Outdated Phones
My first and most important principle of digital minimalism is that I view technology as a tool, not a fashion statement, toy, or accessory to declare my socioeconomic status. For some types of technology, it’s important for me to stay up-to-date. One example is my MacBook Air, which I replace every three to four years since I spend a good portion of my day using it for writing and research. In other areas, older technology is just fine. For example, before I started becoming more minimalistic, I had quite a collection of kitchen gadgets –wand blenders, electric vegetable cutters, bread machines –you know how it is for women who enjoy cooking. 😉 Now, I’ve pared down my collection to the basics. I no longer have a wand blender – I’ve got one of those old-fashioned hand mashers. Yep, the kind our ancestors used on the American frontier.
When it comes to phones, I take this “basics” approach and try to keep phones as absolutely long as possible before they slip into software obsolescence. Right now, I have an old 2015 iPhone 6 that formerly belonged to my husband. When it started slowing down, he purchased the iPhone X and I gladly recycled his castaway. It’s now very slow – terribly slow, but I don’t care. It’s not a gaming console, so why do we need phones to respond instantly? Didn’t our grandparents have to wait awhile when they dialed the operator? 👵🏻
Using older or nearly-outdated phones is a habit I’ve been following for a few years now (this is my third recycled phone). What I notice is that using old phones takes the focus off the phone as a toy and attention-grabber. It’s slow and cumbersome and might have a battery that runs out too soon or it may not be compatible with new apps.
For me, it’s fantastic. The mental effect is that it dampens my enthusiasm to spend “quality time” with my phone while still giving me the basics that I need to survive in today’s world – maps, phone calls, text messages, emails, and a web browser.
Habit 2: I Never Turn on Social Media Notifications…Because I Don’t Do Social Media
This might be better explained in another post, but I don’t really do social media. I don’t have Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat. I do have a Facebook account which used to have over a thousand friends (all real people that I knew) but some time ago I unfriended about 900 of them and kept only the 10% that I valued the most. I scroll through my Facebook feed maybe once every two or three months. Mostly, I keep the account active so I can receive messages from anyone who wants to personally contact me.
The good news is that with this deep, dark moat of nothingness surrounding my online life, I don’t get social media notifications popping up on my phone all the time.
Now, before you start panicking at the idea of disappearing from social media, let me say that I’m definitely not the kind of person to dictate to anyone else what they should or should not do with their online life. This is simply what I find most satisfying and meaningful. If you find that social media is an authentic way for you to connect with others in your life, I’m definitely not going to tell you to stop. But, if you’re looking to renegotiate your relationship with your smartphone, it might be helpful to turn off social media notifications and set a specific time each day when you’ll open those apps and check out what’s new.
One of the objections to decreasing our allegiance to social media is that we’ll miss out on what’s happening.
Ye olde FOMO. 🙄
What I’ve found, however, is that after I communicated my media preferences to my friends and colleagues, they have always taken extra steps to tell me breaking news in person or through another route. If someone gets pregnant, gets engaged, or has the baby, I’ll find out. I really do. I’m usually not the first person to find out, but who cares? Does my worth go down if I find out the name and birth weight of Rachel’s new baby a few hours later than everyone else? I think not.
Habit 3: I Treat My Smartphone as If It Had a Cord
Remember back in the day when phones had cords? We had to leave our phones at home, and if someone called while we were out, they could leave a message in a fancy little box called an “answering machine.” Basically, I treat my smartphone like this a lot of the time.
I leave my phone somewhere in my house – I don’t have a specific place, anyplace where I used it last – and I leave it there for hours at a time. I don’t put it in my pocket, and I definitely do not wear it on one of those weird smartphone necklaces.
When I go out with my husband, I leave my phone at home. If we need directions, opening times, or menu options, we’ve got his phone. Why would two people need two phones? If I go out alone, I do take my phone, though, mostly as a safety precaution (I live in Lebanon as an expat and get lost from time to time).
I think this way of conceptualizing of my phone as a “corded” device started with my previous phone, a very outdated iPhone 4 with an unpredictable battery. Sometimes it would show that it had 45% battery and then it would jump to 5%, or it would show 30% and randomly die. I learned to keep it plugged in whenever possible (I’ve since been told that this is actually bad for the battery). During those months, I lost the habit of carrying my phone with me, and I liked it much better.
When you don’t carry your phone with you, you’re limiting your physical access to the information highway. Why would this even be desirable? Well, if you experience anxiety when you’re away from your phone, it’s a pretty good signal that you have an unhealthy dependency on it. You, more than others, could benefit from treating your phone as though it had a cord. Don’t let it be in your back pocket all the time. Gain some distance. Force yourself to take a few steps to its “spot” if you feel the urge to check it. Start by leaving it in the living room while you work around the house, then power up to level two and leave it at home for short family trips to the grocery store. Slowly but surely, you can rebuild a healthy relationship to digital technology.
Habit 4: I Don’t Always Answer Right Away. On Purpose.
I feel under zero obligation to answer text messages and voice messages until I’m good and ready. Again, there’s a story behind this.
I used to be extremely prompt and timely in responding to messages, but there was a point when that changed. I was working in a refugee relief program here in Lebanon that identified vulnerable Syrian refugees and delivered food parcels to their homes (which were no more than dank rooms in warehouses or basements or barely livable locations throughout the city). I loved the work because I had time to visit with each family once or twice per month. I did a lot of listening. Some of them became my friends. Others gave my phone number out indiscriminately to other refugees that needed help.
The problem was, our program didn’t have funding to help everyone.
I started getting bombarded with messages and requests from people I didn’t even know. Worthy causes, many of them. But simply beyond the scope of my ability to help. Those were the days I started muting my phone. When I saw a WhatsApp message from someone who wasn’t in my contacts, I often wouldn’t even open it, because I didn’t have the heart to respond and say we couldn’t help.
Then there were the annoying few who pestered me to get more than their share. It was always nice pestering, of course – Syrians are generally very courteous – but they started to wear me down with their constant maneuvering and self-promotion.
It was at that point that I realized no one has the right to expect me to answer my phone. Ever.
What country has a law that says you must answer phone calls, text messages, and notifications within a certain amount of time? If ever? By answering our phones immediately, we are effectively giving other people the power to control our time management. Frankly, no one has that right. I’m a busy lady and I’ll answer my phone when I’m good and ready. If anyone has the right to contact me, it’s my family, boss and colleagues, and they know very well how to contact me without a phone.
This recognition was incredibly freeing. You’d think pandemonium would break loose, but in our circle of friends and colleagues, most people have my number as well as my husband’s number. There is usually only one or two times per year that someone calls my husband to find me because I’m not answering my phone and they have an urgent need.
I continue to be a slow answerer and have never looked back.
Habit 5: I Use My Phone Primarily for Communication
Another phone habit that characterizes my minimalistic approach to technology is that I have a very narrow scope of what I expect my phone to do for me. I want my phone to provide the following:
• Web Browser
• Text Messaging
• Phone Calls
• VoIP (Telegram, WhatsApp)
• Alarm Clock
Notice that out of these 11 items, 4 relate to communication, 3 relate to productivity, 2 relate to transportation, 1 relates to information accessibility, and 1 relates to photos. Primarily, I use my phone to communicate with friends, family, and coworkers. Since I live overseas, I have several different VoIP apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp, and Skype, along with traditional iMessages that allow me to call and text home for free. I view this gadget as a phone with a few extra accessories, not as a multi-purpose all-entertainment gaming console.
Even my use of the iPhone’s camera is pretty sparse. In 2019, I took a total of 760 photos. That’s an average of just over 2 photos per day, but in reality I usually go for several days or even a week without taking a photo and then snap twenty at a time when I attend a social event or go on a trip. Here’s a list of everything I took a picture of in 2019:
At 50 selfies in a year, that’s about one per week, and most of them aren’t perfect. Compare my 50 per year to the research suggesting that Millennials, on average, will take 25,000 selfies during their lifetime.
At 50 selfies per year, that will only get me to about 4,500 if I live to see 90. (I usually take less, but this year’s number is inflated since my husband and I were separated for two months while I was back stateside working on my PhD, and we tended to share more selfies during that time). 💔
Most of my pictures are of social events and outings with important people in my life: friends, colleagues, and family members. I also have a habit of photographing food I eat, crafts I make, and random things going on around me – like critters coming into my home or seeing my neighborhood streets get lit up during the Lebanese Revolution.
Speaking of smartphones and the Lebanese Revolution, check out this photo someone captured the moment when Prime Minister Hariri announced his resignation after intense protests. You can feel the intensity and joy and victory in the facial expressions of the protesters:
But – oh, wait – Miss Red Shirt in the back is completely emotionless. She’s not present in the moment with the others. Why? She’s on her smartphone. 🤦🏼♀️
The essence of renegotiating your relationship with your smartphone is asking yourself what value you want to emphasize by making a change. Are you wanting to be more present in the “now?” Are you wanting deeper connection and intimacy with others? Are you wanting a less stressful way of relating to your work life?
As a digital minimalist, you might wonder if my life is boring. No movies. No social media. Phone habits that sound like the 1950’s. But no, my life isn’t boring. I find richer and more meaningful connections when I’m not distracted by a blinking screen. Just in the last seven days, digital minimalism has given me so many special moments with friends and family…
- Checking out the night view from the top of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beirut with friends who are moving away to Australia…
- Listening to an older professor share about the challenge of taking care of his aging, ill father…
- Exploring old city streets hand-in-hand with my husband and laughing like crazy about a really nasty vegan smoothie…
- Meeting a friend on a Sunday morning for a stimulating discussion of a book we’re both reading…
- Empathizing with a Lebanese mom about the struggles her family is facing due to the current crisis…
- Hiking with some “adopted” kids and bringing them back to our house for laughter, popcorn and smoothies…
I want to catch all these smiles and tears and genius ideas. I can’t risk missing something important by having my head stuck in my phone. Therefore, I use my phone primarily for communication with people who aren’t here with me. And that’s all I really need it to do.
To summarize everything that characterizes my personal attitude towards phones:
1. I only use outdated phones to reduce the tendency to view them as toys
2. I never turn on social media notifications, which saves me a lot of overstimulation
3. I treat my smartphone as if it had a cord, minimizing the amount I carry it with me
4. I purposely don’t answer right away, which allows me to be in control of my time management
5. I use my phone primarily for communication, the way phones were originally designed
If you want to renegotiate your relationship with your phone in order to increase interpersonal intimacy or reduce digitally-induced stress, you might wish to try one or more of these ideas. As I mentioned before, I’ve followed these habits for years and I can genuinely say it’s helped me to have a balanced relationship with my phone.
I don’t radically eschew all forms of technology. I do use smartphones. But that’s just it: I use them. They don’t use me.
Wishing you a successful reorientation of your digital habits,