Last week, I outlined some ways in which our lives can be improved if each of us takes a small step in being more mindful in our purchases, and in the physical items that we own. This week, I would like to show you the ways in which I apply the principles of minimalism to my digital life, and how you can too. I have always liked to keep my devices as organised as possible, using logical file structures and file names, and discarding documents I no-longer needed. It was, however, precisely one year ago that I started to think more about the actual use of my devices, and that I took the radical step of purchasing a basic feature phone to use in my daily life (rather than my smartphone). One year on, I can honestly say that I couldn’t be happier with the decision that I’ve taken. Not once have I felt an urge to go back to my smartphone, and the time I save from not checking email 5 times a day, from not scrolling through pointless social media feeds that we all forget anyways, and from not having distracting notifications about trivial things when I am working, has been incredible. I understand it is not something for everyone, but I would encourage you to try it for at least one-month. Here are some other, perhaps less drastic steps you can take to boost your productivity and use technology more mindfully. Many of these ideas come from having read Cal Newport’s ‘Digital Minimalism’, which is a brilliant read!
Lesson #1 — Turn off all your notifications, or delete social media off your phone altogether
Notifications are the number one enemy when trying to focus on a task. Picture this: You’re trying to work on an essential project that you’ve been putting off for weeks. This could be anything, a work project, a maths question sheet, an essay, etc. You’ve finally cleared 2 hours of your time to work on it, and you’re twenty minutes into the project, and just as you’re getting into it and you’ve gotten focussed… PING. You’re iPhone just went off with an Amazon notification informing you that there’s 20% off dishwasher tablets this weekend. This has happened to everyone, and studies have shown that it takes around 20 minutes to get to an optimum level of concentration when working on a task. This is not just related to work however, whether at the dinner table with your family, whilst driving, or on a dinner date, notifications — most of them pointless — break our flow and our conversation. Worse, studies have shown that just the presence of a mobile phone on a table, even without the screen being on, reduces your brain power, as outlined in this Atlantic article.
To fight against this, turn notifications from every app except calls and texts. If you’re sceptical then try it for a week and see what a huge difference it makes. The truth is that very few people care if you respond to their Snapchat messages a few hours later, and if something is that urgent that you must know at that moment, the message will find another way of getting to you, so there is no need to worry. Even better would be to delete Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn from your phone altogether, and use exclusively the website equivalents on your laptop at home. Not having social media everywhere that you go will give you a new sense of freedom, and will free-up your time for things that truly matter to you.
Lesson #2 — Be mindful about the applications and files on your devices
More applications mean more time spent on your phone. If you’re anything like the average Brit (the definition of average means that you probably are), you spend 4 hours/day on your mobile phone alone. Add to that the time spent consuming YouTube and browsing Netflix on other devices, and you’ll find that you’re spending 1/3 of your day consuming content. Although some of it is no-doubt useful, most of it is not. No-one remembers, or cares, what they saw on Instagram 5 years ago, and you won’t remember what you’ve seen on Facebook today 5 years from now. We all have projects that we’ve been putting off for ‘one-day’. You’ll always be able to think of credible explanations of why today just isn’t the day to start. However, the truth is that if you want to achieve anything worthwhile in life, you must get out of your comfort zone. Leave your phone at home at head to the library or to a café to work on your project, distraction-free.
As the great Stoic Seneca once said: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” The lesson we can learn from this is that if we want to make the most of the incredible gift of life, we must be mindful and try to always spend our time on what is most valuable. Only you know what truly matters to you.
Lesson #3 — Block schedule your day to make the most of your technology usage
It is undeniable that technology and social media do have many advantages. Without the internet, you wouldn’t even be reading this article! However, to leverage technology as much as possible, use a technique called ‘block scheduling’. This is the process of planning out your day beforehand, and allotting a fixed amount of time and no-more to social media and other use of technology. For instance, saying that you will check your social media from 6–7pm, and only 6–7pm, means that you can be completely concentrated on that task, and your other tasks throughout the day. Whilst you may be spending the same amount of time checking social media, your other tasks that you’ll be completing throughout the day, without the distraction of social media, will be completed either faster or to a higher standard. Even your social media use will become more mindful, you will focus on the content that is truly important as you know that you have set a 1-hour limit on your social media usage. This works for many tasks: e-mail, telephone calls, and even tasks that are not digital such as cleaning. Using this method will greatly improve your productivity throughout the day, just by planning for 5 minutes in the morning.