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Digital minimalism explained: Everything you need to know

Digital minimalism is a way to engage with consumer technology that prioritizes focused, intentional use of technology to limit distraction.

Digital minimalism is a strategy to help people optimize their use of technology and keep from being overwhelmed by it.

The term was popularized in a book by Cal Newport called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. In the book, Newport helps readers determine which digital activities provide value.

A successful digital minimalist focuses their time on a small quantity of optimized activities. They approach technology with a set intention for using it. This approach could have beneficial effects on digital wellness and reduce burnout at work.

A recent McKinsey & Company survey found that nearly half of workers reported feeling at least somewhat burned out. Quiet quitting has proliferated as a rejection of hustle culture and lack of job boundaries. According to a 2022 Gartner survey of 160 HR leaders, 23% of employees were quiet quitters.

Read up on some other HR buzzwords here.

The pandemic changed the work-life boundaries for many people. Many professions encourage -- and often require -- constant connectivity with digital devices and social media. Bring-your-own-device policies also contribute to a lack of digital boundaries, with personal and business notifications flowing in on the same device.

People and businesses can apply the idea of digital minimalism to help set boundaries and optimize technology to improve employee experience, overall mental health and employees' ability to do their job.

List of employee wellness program essentials.
Minimalism and tech optimization are part of a complete employee wellness program.

How digital minimalism works

There are three main steps to achieve digital minimalism in someone's personal or professional life:

  1. Define technology rules and values. Behavior changes that support something positive are sustainable. Changes that support negative behaviors are not sustainable. A person should decide what they want out of technology based on what they value. Some example values include convenience, accountability, community, security and power. Deciding to abstain from technology without a positive reward will not work.
  2. Take a digital decluttering period. People should only retain technology that would cause harm if removed. This allows time for self-reflection and to answer the question "What technology do I want to bring back?"
  3. Reintroduce technology that supports the user's values and well-being after the reflection period. Minimalism is different from minimization. Minimization is making something as small or unimportant as possible, whereas minimalism is the act of prioritizing only the important things and cutting the rest. Technology is necessary. Digital minimalism doesn't reject technology -- it proposes a more thoughtful way of engaging with it.

For example, a person might value staying informed about current events, getting their news from social media, news apps and TV. News on social media is often mixed with other information, causing users to scroll long after reading the original story. They not only waste time doing this, but lose momentum in or disengage from what they were previously doing.

During the decluttering phase, that person decides to delete social apps and stop watching TV. In the reintroduction phase, they place a limit on the amount of TV they watch, keep social media deleted from their mobile phone and configure news applications to refrain from sending notifications. The person now uses their technology with the intention of news consumption instead of being overwhelmed with random or low-value information.

Benefits of digital minimalism

Here are some of the personal and professional benefits that come with digital minimalism:

  • More space. Through constant, nonintentional, low-value engagement with technology, people are sacrificing time alone with their own thoughts. Solitude can be used to confront anxieties, define values and self-reflect. Engaging technology without intention takes attention from these activities, which are essential to mental health.
  • Work-life balance. Defining values and mapping technology to them helps users compartmentalize and optimize both personal and work lives. This helps people set boundaries and keep them from bleeding into each other.
  • Better focus. Choosing what technology really matters and reclaiming attention gives users more energy to devote to complex, difficult or more engaging tasks.
  • Reduced costs. A minimalist approach to technology enables users to reduce spending time and money on low-priority, low-value applications.

Challenges of digital minimalism

There are challenges to digital minimalism. Many types of technology are designed to attract and reinforce engagement. Many businesses profit on it in what some have dubbed the attention economy. Some of the challenges of digital minimalism include the following:

  • Sticking to values. There must be a reason to declutter and cut back. Decluttering for the sake of decluttering might work in the short term, but it isn't sustainable if there's no positive reinforcement. When it comes time to redownload a low-value app, there will be no reason to refrain from it.
  • Drawing the line. It can be difficult to map technologies to values -- deciding whether a technology truly serves a value and at what point a technology stops providing value.
  • Fear of missing out. Cutting back on applications or internet connectivity in general might cause FOMO. It can be difficult to rationalize missing out on the unknown when it could be potentially more valuable.
  • Tech dependence. Some technology is necessary for everyday activities. For example, in Sweden, a personal identity verification application called BankID is the preferred method of logging in for many services -- including healthcare and government services. This makes a smartphone necessary and makes removing or decluttering the technology more difficult as people are regularly compelled to use it for basic tasks.

Digital minimalism at work

It can be tricky to manage burnout, engagement and workload. Digital minimalism can be used at work to compartmentalize work and home life. Here are some ways to do this as a worker:

  • Use a "dumbphone" where possible. Dumbphones are the opposite of smartphones. They have limited or no internet access. Workers can use separate work and home phones.
  • Delete distracting applications. Applications that draw attention away from what a person wants to do while providing no other value should be deleted.
  • Use productivity apps. These applications -- such as Freedom -- can block access to other apps for set periods of time, making it more difficult to be distracted during work or helping to prevent doomscrolling.
  • Limit screen time. Screen fatigue or virtual meeting fatigue can damage digital wellness and productivity.
  • Use productivity techniques. One example is the Pomodoro Technique, which sets intentional breaks in the workday, as well as small but achievable productivity goals. Knowing there's a goal can help stave off distraction.
  • Categorize emails. Use an email client that splits the inbox to put urgent emails front and center.
  • Use applications without logging in. Accounts carry personalized preferences and recommendations. Recommendations can build up and become a distraction. Using an app without recommendations helps to focus on the search function.
  • Use password management tools. Password managers store and synchronize passwords between accounts.

Digital minimalism can also be adopted at a higher level. Many efficiency issues come down to poor communication. IT departments can communicate with teams to find out what employees' technology preferences are and help them by optimizing applications to meet those preferences.

IT departments can optimize the work environment in the following ways:

  • auditing old software to see if it still serves its intended purpose;
  • retiring duplicated applications;
  • choosing interoperable applications to avoid excessive sprawl;
  • doing a complete inventory to find apps that aren't being used or are taking up space;
  • encouraging employees to do their own decluttering;
  • streamlining and centralizing applications to improve user experience;
  • configuring the company intranet as an identity provider;
  • using single sign-on to reduce the number of passwords needed; and
  • using apps that enable personalization for employees.

IT and HR can help improve well-being at work with the help of optimized tech. Check out these 12 employee wellness apps to help minimize employees' digital strain.

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