Digital minimalism: How much technology do we really need?
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Digital minimalism: How much technology do we really need?

Digital minimalism: How much technology do we really need?

It is imperative to understand the technology needed to support our lifestyle and needs and cut out the rest

Technology

Arguably one of the strongest forces of antagonism, leading us to become distracted in our professional and personal lives, is the ubiquitous rise of nonessential digital technologies, which serve little or no purpose. Don’t misunderstand me, digital technologies do have a place, if they help us fulfil our purpose.

As a writer, I am indebted to my laptop and software, any amateur cyclist who competes will tell you they are heavily reliant on their tracking and performance apps. I’m not talking about digital technologies, which augment
your purpose in life, rather I am referring to the ones that rely on dopamine hits to keep us jacked into an endless cycle of frivolous entertainment.

Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism (2019), argues that what we need is a “full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else”.

Newport forcefully makes the case that we should spend our online time on a few carefully chosen activities, which support the things we value, and gladly miss out on all others. In others words, ask the question: what do I really value and then determine how technology can supplement this value.

Technology should be there to support the thing you value, it’s not the source of value by itself, unless you happen to be a technology geek, then fine, go do your thing. If you are a gardener, use carefully selected technology to become a better gardener. Likewise, if you are a musician, use technology to make you a better artist.

Newport’s philosophy’s rests on the following three principles:

Principle 1: Clutter is costly
Littering our time and attention with too many devices, apps and services results in a negative cost that drowns the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.
Principle 2: Optimisation is important
To unlock the benefit of a technology, think carefully about how to use it
Principle 3: Intentionality is satisfying
When we are more intentional about how we use technology, it leads to significant satisfaction about how we engage with technology. Minimising, decluttering, stripping out distraction, allows us to have clear space for reflection. It’s the very thing the social media companies and those whose business models are built on grabbing our attention through dopamine hits, don’t want us to do. And ironically, it’s the very thing we need to do, if we are going to escape the gravitational pull of frivolous distractions.

Here is something you might want to apply in a work setting. Create two categories: vital work and optional work.

Vital work: This is what you are paid to do. If you are a sales person it will be to close deals, a financial advisor to manage the portfolio of your client, a consultant to advise your client.

If you can stay in this zone, you are providing value to the organisation and are being productive. There will always be a subset of vital work, which may be uninviting to do, such as attending budget meetings, doing mandatory
training, writing monthly reports. These uninviting tasks should not take more than 20 per cent of your time and effort, or else you run the risk of losing sight of your main purpose.

Optional work: These are all tasks which fall outside the vital, as you do not accomplish much by doing them compared to your vital tasks. For example, tidying up your inbox, clearing out paperwork from the office, reading the newspaper for the fifth time. Generally, you gravitate towards these tasks when you dawdle over doing something else which may be uninviting, such as completing the annual mandatory health-and-safety training
which is overdue.

When we start something new like a job, or move into a new home, we seem to have a clearer line of sight into what is vital and what is optional, whereas over time this becomes a little fudged. It’s a really useful exercise to do every few months, to recalibrate yourself by asking what is vital and what is optional in both your professional working life as well as in your personal one.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT and a novelist

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