Digital Minimalism: Using Technology Mindfully

By Rosie Barton, LMSW

It’s no secret that many of us are continually assessing the connection between social media, smartphone use, and mental health. Recently I’ve been exploring my own beliefs and guiding principles in terms of the role I want my phone to play in my life. I knew that I wanted it to take up less space, but let me explain why I think this is such a fundamental question for every person to ask themselves, regardless of mental health history. 

I recently finished the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, who offers readers a path toward reclaiming autonomy when it comes to smartphone use. His book is far from anti-technology, rather, it’s about being able to use technology as a tool to cultivate the life of value we want, rather than the technology being a thing of value in itself. 

Newport argues that we all deserve to take back our sense of agency, and states that being intentional feels much better than digital clutter and mindless scrolling. He also argues that by critically evaluating our smartphone habits, we can increase our ability to focus and pursue high-quality leisure activities. 

We all know the urge to check our phone—most of us feel it almost constantly. You might be able to resist it while out to dinner with a friend, but the second they go to the bathroom, what’s the first thing you want to do? What about while you’re waiting at a stoplight or for an elevator? Many of us have even disengaged from the pursuit of hobbies and interests outside of work because we numb out with mindless scrolling day after day. It’s become natural for us to use our phones in these instances, but I’m not satisfied with accepting this as the status quo. 

Cal Newport writes incisively about the importance of solitude, and as a psychotherapist, I couldn’t agree more. In his book, Newport coins the term “solitude deprivation” as a way to describe what most of us in the smartphone era are experiencing. Solitude is crucial for our ability to manage distress and anxiety. And he doesn’t just mean solitude in the Walden-esque sense of escaping into the wilderness alone. He says that we can have solitude regardless of our external environment. Even on the subway, we can choose to encounter solitude with our own thoughts. You’d be surprised how many people truly struggle to sit in their own minds, which is one of the reasons I believe therapy is so beneficial. It forces you to confront yourself head-on. It’s often the crux of my work — what is it like to be you? How can I help you get to know and accept your core self, without any filters or distractions?

The more we rely on smartphones to entertain us and distract us, the less able we are to sit with ourselves and all the feelings that arise throughout the day. Humans are not wired to be constantly wired. But we are wired to form deep meaningful bonds with other humans. Newport says that instead of being anti-technology, we can be pro-conversation. We don’t all need to go delete Instagram this instant or return to a flip phone in order to heal, but he does advocate for us to take a break from optional technology in order to understand how we’ve been using it and what we actually want from it. 

I decided to embark on my own 30-day break from optional technology. It’s important to note this wasn’t a ‘detox’ in the sense of returning straight back to old habits once the time was up. Instead, by disengaging from optional technology, I had the opportunity to consider how (and if) I would allow these tools to re-enter my life. After a few initial days of discomfort without my usual distractions, I began to feel like I was taking my life back. 

Newport makes the caveat that in order for us to be successful in the long haul with digital minimalism, we need to have quality leisure activities that will fill the void left in the wake of Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, etc. I won’t list the activities that work for me, because mine undoubtedly differ from yours. But I am here to spread the message that it’s possible to change your relationship with technology and that you don’t have to feel beholden and enslaved to a device that was meant to improve your life, not fill it with anxiety, inadequacy, complacency, and comparison. 

Rosie Barton is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Elizabeth Cobb