Digital Minimalism

practicing mindfulness online

by naabia romain

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As a community, minimalists and people seeking a more meaningful lifestyle have been discussing the role of social media and cell phones in our lives. Here at SUSTAIN, the lovely Alyssa Ford wrote about her social media cleanse last summer. She talked about how it felt and what she learned, which got me thinking about life after the purge.

Some people may decide to give up social media for the long-term, but if not, how do you come back with better intentions? I know when I began to reflect on my own screen time and social media usage, I just wanted balance. I wanted to have a healthier relationship with the Internet.

So, after a week of tracking my usage and looking more closely at the various digital ecosystems that I found myself in, I wanted to share what I learned in reflecting on my usage. My only disclaimer is that my experiences and solutions may be slightly biased to iPhone users.

SETTING INTENTIONS

People who identify as minimalists will often say that minimalism doesn't have to be about having as few items as possible. Minimalism is actually about having truly meaningful items, regardless of how many items that may be. I define my approach to social media as Digital Minimalism, and I think the most important takeaway I gained from my digital self-reflection, was learning to utilize effective notifications.

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My productivity would likely drop off if I turned off notifications entirely. Instead of turning them off, I have customized them more than the average user. I suggest you too, scroll through your notification center; most people can probably identify 2-3 apps that they receive useless notifications from. For example, I adjusted my settings so that I no longer received notifications from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I still receive notifications when someone messages me directly, but all likes and mentions simply await my attention inside the app.

If you have apps such as Netflix, UberEats, or Starbucks Rewards on your phone, they likely send you promotional notifications that don’t actually add any value to your screen time. These are additional examples of things to turn off or change.

Similarly, I cleaned out my email subscriptions with the same criteria. If I found myself regularly receiving emails that I deleted without reading, I unsubscribed to those senders. I also removed subscriptions that prompted me to consume in ways I wouldn't otherwise. If you are trying to make lifestyle or habit changes, think about how the brands you follow and subscribe to may be holding you back or tempt you to relapse. 

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Now, changing my Instagram habits required me to get a little deeper. Instagram is an app I use a lot, but also get a lot out of. It can eat up my time, but also really light up my day.  I knew I couldn’t cut it out in the way I was able to cut out Twitter or Facebook, nor did I want to.

First, I set a time reminder which tells me when I’ve been on Instagram for an hour that day. This feature is actually within the app, under “Your Activity.” Apple has also added a feature which allows you to set similar mindfulness reminders and boundaries for all of your apps. However, I don’t always adhere to the time restriction on Instagram because Instagram often adds a lot of value to my life. The digital environment that is my Instagram brings joy, creative inspiration and motivation. That’s why I don’t see extra time spent as a waste, but a thoughtfully curated media consumption.

 I had to take the time however, to create a digital space that actually inspired and motivated me. I had to be intentional in order to make it a positive environment. I have experienced Instagram through other people’s devices and it was a little traumatic. We are always discussing the downsides to ‘The Ominous Algorithm,’ but I think it gives me a certain level of freedom as a consumer that I value.

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Over the course of several weeks, I followed people and communities that I valued and unfollowed accounts that did not serve my digital space. Today, my feed and explore pages consist of only my favorite things, including: visual art, design, sustainability, ethical fashion, natural hair, female empowerment and house plants. My Instagram is curated for the person I want to be more than the person I already am.

If you want to make your time spent on the Internet more meaningful, I think it’s about setting boundaries for that relationship. Don’t allow the Internet to intrude in ways that aren’t positive for you. If you want to lower your consumption or spend less on certain things, think about where there might be an unwanted influence in your life. Search and free your email from fast-fashion store subscriptions, maybe unfollow people that make you feel less than.

There are lots of accounts out there where you can get fashion and beauty inspiration without being prompted to make purchases. I love people like Shannon Buckley, who facilitate conversations about fashion and ethics together or separately on Instagram. Guilt-free fashion inspo is always a plus. Recently, I enjoy getting edgier ethical fashion vibes in my feed. Avid thrifter, Tamar Esperanza, always gives me that.

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If going on social media often negatively affects your mental health, consider changing the nature of your experience. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook all hold the potential to be what you make them. Unfollow people who make you feel low and maybe try to seek out the influences and vibes you would like to have more of. 

Social media isn’t going away anytime soon. People are often skeptical when I say that being on Instagram brings me joy and inspiration, but it was a journey to get to that point that took time. Managing your own relationship with the media might not look the same as it did for me, but with time and good intentions, we can all have a better experience online. I hope the things that I’ve learned about myself through this process help you reflect on what Digital Minimalism might mean in the context of your life.


Illustrations by Morgan Hartsfield.