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November 11, 2021

Time for a digital declutter: 7 simple ways to cut screen time

Cut down on daily screen time by learning how to purge your phone apps and step away from your smartphone.

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Aesthetic minimalism and sparking joy have been the rage over the past couple of years, and now you can master the art of digital minimalism, a term popularized by Cal Newport, an author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Newport makes the case for a thorough digital declutter, a task that requires reassessing our (often unhealthy) relationship with tech. As he defines it, digital minimalism is an “intentional approach to technology that involves a limited number of online activities.”

You have to digitally declutter to get there—to become the kind of person who can step away from their phone without, say, worrying that everyone is sharing memes without you. “The process allows you to focus on a few online behaviors that return you a lot of value—while happily missing out on everything else,” Newport says.

Yearning to spend more time away from your glass-and-aluminum sidekick—and way less time scrolling Instagram? Give digital decluttering a try. Here’s how you can pull it off.

1. Don’t call it a detox.

The term “detox”—like “juice cleanse”—implies it’s a quick break. “But taking a break from technology only to return to it later doesn’t help anything in the long run,” Newport says. Instead, he prefers “digital declutter,” where the many distracting apps are removed from a phone or tablet at the same time. “Once you take everything off, after some reflection, you can add back the apps that really matter.” Essentially, it’s like the Whole30 program for your phone, the Marie Kondo approach to online life.

2. Audit your apps.

Of course, digital decluttering applies to your phone, but it also comes in handy where fitness trackers, smart home devices, tablets and laptops are concerned. Newport suggests scrutinizing any digital tools that claim your time and attention outside of work. (The phrase “outside of work” is essential here: You can minimize your professional apps only up to a certain point before the boss starts wondering why you’re ghosting her on Slack and email.) In fact, Newport goes so far as to suggest temporarily stepping away from all social media, streaming videos, online news and digital games. It would even benefit you to dial back on text messaging. If this process sounds intense, that’s because it is. The goal, after all, is to minimize low-quality digital distractions in exchange for a life well lived.

3. Stay away for 30 days.

The key to digital decluttering isn’t merely getting rid of the apps and services and distractions—it’s committing to staying away for a month. Your job may not allow you to do this completely, but say goodbye to your most beloved apps (so long, Instagram and Facebook!) and cut down on regular text exchanges for two whole weeks. It might be hard at first, but you might find that you’ll enjoy more real-world socializing than texting. Worrying about missing a friend’s engagement or birth announcement? Sure, that might seem difficult.  But avoiding attention-demanding online behaviors allows you to carve out time to live your own life more intentionally, without feeling the need to check in (or click in) on anyone else’s.

4. Avoid the “quick glance.”

Willpower alone isn’t enough to help you navigate the throes of digital decluttering. You’ll learn that lesson on day one, when you find yourself repeatedly rifling through your purse to simply make sure your phone is still there and having the urgent impulse to check your device at the slightest hint of boredom. It turns out Newport has a name for that feeling: the quick glance. He points out that many mobile-adapted websites have been optimized to deliver an immediate and satisfying dose of input, which explains why we’re constantly checking to make sure we didn’t miss a text, tweet, notification or call.

5. Create some distance.

Newport calls having your phone with you at all times the “constant companion model.” To break this habit, he suggests first doing more things without your phone. If possible, leave it at home next time you run out for groceries or to walk the dog. “It’s surprising what a difference regular doses of phone freedom can provide, even if those doses are small,” he says.

Then, when you’re home, leave your device by the front door—treat it like ye olde home phone. (You remember, the thing with the curly cord or retractable antenna?) “If you’re worried about missing an important call, put the ringer on loud. If you want to look something up or check texts, do so in your foyer,” he says. Basically, you are never meant to curl up, cuddle up or get comfortable with your phone (reserve those behaviors for human loved ones!). This simple method will help transform your relationship with technology at home.

6. Rethink your free time.

During the decluttering period, think about what activities really matter to you. Incorporating daily hobbies, like exercising, reading or doing creative projects, leads to a high-quality leisure life that helps fulfill you over time, Newport says. If you worry that you don’t have the grit to stick it out for a digital declutter, start doing these things before you make the break. “That way, you’ll know what to do to fill your time once you no longer have a screen to stare at,” he says.

7. Let (a little) tech back in.

The tech break will come to an end after 30 days, at which point Newport advises you to log back on very carefully. “Only add back the apps that directly amplify or support the things you really care about,” he says. “Intention is everything.”

Used with permission. © Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved.