Digital Declutter: The Crucial Philosophy Nobody Ever Taught You

Back in college, I did a short project on “living mindfully”. During my research, I found that being mindful and intentional about how we live is more about getting rid of everything that prevents us from it than it’s about learning how to live fully in the moment with equanimity. Ruthless decluttering is far more effective than anything else.

Most of the clutter in modern life is digital clutter. As we all would agree, technology, despite making our lives efficient, has also added a lot of complexity. For starters, it has stolen our time from us. Whether we are doing work or browsing casually, we are always connected to others, and that’s where lies the problem.

“If you aren’t paying for it, you are the product.” It’s a cliche, but it’s still true. There was a time when news wasn’t free. One had to pay a decent amount for quality news. Then a guy named Benjamin Day changed the game completely. In 1830, he launched the New York Sun, a penny press newspaper.

Up to that point, publishers treated their readers as customers and focussed on providing quality news at a reasonable price. Day, on the other hand, gave it away almost for free, because according to him, readers were his products. His customers were advertisers who wanted an easy way to reach the readers.

To do so, Day lowered the price of the newspaper to a penny, and pushed more mass interest stories. Ring any bells? All of social media is littered with memes, jokes, and easy to digest stories that appeal to the masses—and all of it is free. But we are actually paying for these free goodies with the most valuable thing we have: our time.

“Your phone is a slot machine,” says Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google. You don’t know what you are gonna get the next time you see a notification, or the next time you pull to refresh. What seems like a tiny distraction hooks you in and steals your hours—hours that you could have used doing something else—perhaps something more fulfilling.

The case that I’m obviously trying to make is that in order to live deliberately, we have to start decluttering. Decluttering doesn’t mean getting rid of our phones and all our social media accounts. They definitely have certain benefits. Decluttering in this context means giving it a lot of thought to figure out what role a certain technology plays in our life, and deciding how we’ll use it to make sure it brings enough value to us.

So you see, my case isn’t against the use of technology. My case is for the proper use of technology. To be more specific, I want us to consciously decide how we’ll use WhatsApp, Twitter, Netflix, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and the likes so that our overall life becomes more enjoyable than less.

If you are with me so far, I would like to point out that it’s easier said than done. For one, they might play an important role in our professional, personal, and social life. And more importantly, the designers of these products and services have put in a lot of effort to make sure they are addictive. The people behind the social media and gaming companies are in fact “tobacco farmers in t-shirts.” (I know this because I am one of them. The difference is that I don’t use my knowledge as a weapon. I do try to make the products I design sticky, but never addictive. There’s a difference.)

In short, it’s not easy to get rid of social media and other addictive apps. Otherwise Facebook wouldn’t have been making so much of money off of us. On top of that, our brains are hardwired to be social. The default network of the brain—when we aren’t doing anything cognitive—is connected to social cognition. Which means that whenever we are idle, taking a break, or simply put, not doing anything cognitively challenging, we start to think of our social world. Even if we get a break for a couple of seconds, this is the default activity the brain falls back into. It’s that moment during a commercial break or a movie interval when you instinctively look at your phone—to check on what others are up to, to see if anybody likes your new profile photo, or to see if you got a new message in the college WhatsApp group.

Interestingly, neither Steve Jobs, nor Mark Zuckerberg understood initially how this phenomenon would just take off, how mobile would become ubiquitous, and how Facebook would be generating 80% of its ad revenue from mobile alone. The iPhone was just an iPod that could make phone calls, and Facebook was just a list of profiles of college students. But now the reality is very different. Unless we do something about it, things are going to get out of hand real fast.

The problem isn’t that social media is all evil. There are lots of people meeting new people, launching new businesses, and making a living off of social media. The thing is that, unlike a lot of us, they aren’t sleepwalking into it. They have a specific purpose of going online. When we go online, it’s usually out of boredom, or in search of finding something interesting, without any specific or valuable purpose in mind. And this is a problem because, as mentioned, when people are spending time on social media they aren’t spending time doing something else—something more valuable or fulfilling.

Winning fights on Twitter, or binging on Netflix, or scrolling Reddit maybe fulfilling for some people, but these are mere ephemeral and ever-fleeting joys. Instead, when you make art, or write an essay, or make a furniture, it’s long-lasting.

To get long lasting fulfilment, you need to put in significant effort and get something valuable in return. You might put a lot of mental effort while playing PUBG, but at the end you don’t get anything valuable other than momentary joy that satisfies your hedonistic impulse. When you spend most of your day scrolling the newsfeed, posting selfies, winning Fortnite matches, and doing similar less cognitively challenging activities, you are eventually left devoid of value and meaning.

“My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere,” said Sherlock Holmes. It’s true both for a detective like Holmes and average human beings like us. You need hard thinking to solve problems, you need challenges that are fulfilling. Because, without the proper mental stimulants, you are bound to fall into depression.

On top of that, the ROE (Return On Effort) of spending most of your time being connected to others isn’t justified. Twitter, for example, might be important to you, say, to find likeminded people to share ideas or discuss topics. But, how much of your time and attention, you should ask, must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that are earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter? Not much!

How many of your friendships are strengthened by being on Instagram and Facebook all your waking hours? How better an alternative is it than a simple phone call, or a face to face conversation? Not much! These little distractions through WhatsApp notifications, Facebook comments, Instagram likes, and Snapchat messages only add clutter, and clutter is costly.

Your phone does have value. Even the apps in it do provide value. But you have to recognise that cluttering your time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

This is the same case Cal Newport makes in Digital Minimalism. Digital Minimalism is “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

In other words, you should be deliberate about what activities you do, and be comfortable missing out on other things. You can do anything, but you cannot do everything. Doing less things with more focus is always valuable and more fulfilling.

You can derive significant satisfaction by being more intentional about how you engage with new technologies. Therefore, to truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how you’ll use a new technology or an app that you introduce into your life—even if it brings value.

Apps like WhatsApp and Facebook want us to be in constant connection, and they sell it as a value. Its is not. Constant connection is not communication, and it doesn’t help foster relationships. The interactions in bits and pieces that you have with your colleagues and friends don’t add up to be a full conversation. That’s not how it works. Communication happens in realtime with your full involvement. You have to put yourself out there when you communicate.

Your comments in real life, unlike your social media comments, are rarely a simple “Awww!” It’s because you put more effort and thought into them. This is how relationships prosper. When you are talking to somebody in person, or over a phone call, or via video chat, you don’t have the option to ignore and run away.

Meet face to face, or make a phone call instead of simply chatting or commenting. Face-to-face conversation (even via video chat) is the most human and humanising thing we do. By being fully present, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity to empathise. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.

Connection is not an alternative to conversation, it’s merely its supporter. Real conversation involves analogue cues such as hearing a voice or reading facial cues that just isn’t feasible through chat or comments.

If you’ve been with me so far, here’s the summary of my case. Digital technology is a tool that social media companies have manipulated to devoid us of our time. Being on social media isn’t necessarily bad. Being on social media all day long, by default, without any specific purpose is bad. These technologies prevent us from other important things: practising solitude, doing leisurely activities, and increasing offline interactions—all essential activities for us to live deliberately.

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