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A Software Engineers Guide to Digital Minimalism

A Software Engineers Guide to Digital Minimalism

. 17 min read
The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking

I have a checkered past with social media and phones in general. I didn't actually own a 'smart phone' until 2015. Yes, you heard that right. Up until 2015 I had a £20 Motorola flip phone with a 0.3MP camera and no games. Shocker.

I was active on Bebo, MySpace and Facebook back in the day, but when smart phones came out, I just didn't feel the need to get one. I had my laptop, I could get on my social media accounts via that and if I was out and about with someone, well I would definitely savour the conversation or the present moment I was in without feeling the need to break away into a virtual world. I had an 'iPod Classic' that had 120gb of music holding capabilities that was chock full of music so if ever I had some spare time I would listen to that.

In 2010 I deleted my Facebook account. That meant that I had absolutely no presence online anywhere and people thought I was a bit weird at the time, "What the fuck is that?" people would chime up when I pulled out my trusty flip phone. This wasn't some digital protest on my behalf, at this time I knew absolutely nothing about the addictiveness of social media, 'digital minimalism' or anything, I just was happy living my life without these gadgets. I didn't need them or want them.

Chasing that Dopamine Hit

In 2015 I bought my first smart phone, an iPhone 6S. I was starting to do much more web development work for freelance clients and was finding myself needing to check email on the go, something that my current phone just couldn't do.

Over time, I created the social media accounts again. I signed up to Facebook and then signed up to Instagram, a platform that I had heard about but never used before. I never got much enjoyment out of Facebook whatsoever, but Instagram on the other hand was something different. I appreciated the visual aspect of it, finding myself automatically picking up my phone and scrolling through the feed whenever I got a free slot of time, be it 30 seconds or 30 minutes.

Creating my account and documenting my journey to become a full-time software engineer added another dimension to what was already clearly a very addictive habit that I had picked up. On posting a photo I was on tenterhooks for the next hour, replying to any comment that was left on my new photo to try and boost my reach, waiting for those love hearts to increase. If there was a lull in a conversation I was having with Becky, I would automatically reach for my phone, clicking onto Instagram and then scrolling through the images, hoping for a nice comment on one of my pictures or an influx of new followers.

I had a problem. And it went on for years. Whilst on one hand my Instagram feed had bought me so many new friends, opened up lots of new opportunities and helped me grow my online presence, I could feel myself being sucked in by it and the dopamine hit it gave me. It was scary as fuck, and I didn't like it.

The Turning Point

"Digital Minimalists" Cal Newport writes.. "The calm happy people who can hold long conversations without furtive glances at their phones or excessively documenting everything they eat".

I first read Cal Newport's "Digital Minimalism" in late 2019. It struck a chord at the time, it was almost a moment of clarity that someone had written about the problems I was facing. Cal discusses the motion of addiction in the book and how we as humans are developing unhealthy relationships with our screens and social media accounts and the various negative effects this has on us. At first I shook it off. "I'm not addicted to anything", I told myself, realistically knowing I was tricking myself.

I clearly had a big problem, and it was my phone. Below is a definition of addiction that is within the book. Social media was addictive. I was an addict.

"Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences."

At this time I was becoming more and more aware about minimalism, essentialism and de-cluttering as a movement or a way of life that wasn't just for the most extreme, due to the popularity of The Minimalists and Marie Kondo. It was definitely something that intrigued me, as I had and was a fairly materialistic person, almost addicted to the need for 'more' and equating life success to the ownership of 'things'.

Reading Cal's words was a catalyst for me examining my social media habit and the way in which I was using my phone a little bit closer. It was clear to me that scrolling through image after image was having a negative effect on me, I found myself less than content with things I had or owned, and I took a harsh view on my 'progress' in life and how I was doing, which in turn had a detrimental effect on my own mental well being. This lead me to work longer hours, which thus had an effect on my mood which snowballed into effecting my relationships with those closest to me. I could see the correlation between the negative behaviours I was displaying in life, buying items beyond my means. Instagram was the catalyst for this, almost like the little devil sitting on your shoulder like you see in the movies, whispering to you to do something stupid.

There is a hideous underbelly of "grind & hustle" culture on Instagram, motivational posts that encourage you to "work longer hours to achieve your goals" with the faces of the worlds most successful entrepreneurs. Whilst, of course, it can be a boost to read some of these messages, subliminally it was making me feel more and more inadequate.

Disgusted that I had let myself fall into this trap, I went on a complete social detox, as suggested in Cal's book. It was hard, there is no denying, but for sure a necessary step to be able to take a step back and appreciate that actually I didn't need these social accounts in my life to make me happy. I found my mood lifted quickly, my thoughts became much clearer, I started appreciating what was around me much more than I ever had done before and the jealousy that I had often experienced dissipated. I was motivated to make a positive but upmost importantly, sustainable change.

Putting Things into Action

I love to set myself goals and then build habits to be able to achieve those goals. It's how I stay ambitious in my work life and generally how I approach anything that I want to tackle. Therefore, I went about creating this new relationship with my phone in the exact same way.

I still wanted to use social media, as undeniably it has its benefits for me and my career by allowing me to build a personal brand and share my thoughts with the wider world, however I didn't want to fall back into the old habit of using it negatively. I wanted to be primarily creating for the platform rather than consuming.

I only set myself one very clear goal that didn't ban my phone completely, but would ensure I would stay more intentional with its usage:

Use my phone less than an hour a day.

The first step was delete all of the applications that I didn't use on a regular basis, or I thought were effecting my mental wellbeing in some way.

Facebook came off as I genuinely don't enjoy using the application and found myself rarely using it to do anything useful.

Youtube was deleted as it provided me little benefit other than wasting time. I still consume content from here, but typically will do so with Becky on the sofa in the evening.

Auto Trader was deleted, I tended to look longingly at cars realistically I would never be able to afford which detracted from my sense of self-worth.

Right Move came off for the very similar reason. Whilst we are looking for a house, my searches would often be £1000000+ which is obviously unaffordable. "These peoples house has got a indoor pool, I'm so fucking jealous".

In total I deleted about 15-20 applications that I deemed unessential to me or were harvesting some kind of negative energy on me and my life.

With the social media accounts that remained (Instagram & Twitter), I drastically cut my followed list down. On Instagram I went from about 200 accounts I was following to 90, with the intention of only following people I cared about or was interested in conversing with. Car, gadget, fashion & lifestyle pages and accounts that I didn't need/want to physically comment on or interact with were all removed.

I failed. Lots and lots of times. I would keep intentions up for a week at a time and then fall back into old habits of re-installing apps that were a problem or following accounts on social media that I had made an effort to remove from my life. The worst time I found was in the evening when I was relaxing on the sofa, Becky would be on her phone. It was so easy just to unconsciously reach for the phone out of your pocket and sit their mindlessly scrolling away. To combat this, when I felt the urge I would get up and go do something else more productive, even if it was just the washing up, or another technique would be to leave my phone upstairs on charge. Out of sight, out of mind.

It's something I still do now however. I have days were my phone usage is 10 minutes and I also have days where I clock up just over an hour, and this is ok with me now as long as the reasons for doing so are genuine. Maybe I had a long phone call with someone, was choosing/buying some clothes that I needed or was being productive.

The results are so worth the pain and effort of making this change however. I feel much more present in the moment and find I have better conversations with my partner and those around me. I appreciate what I have more, because I am not constantly longing for the next best thing that the "influencers" have. I have built stronger connections with my close circle of friends online, allowing me time to provide more value back to them.

My laptop use was not particularly unhealthy, so I de-cluttered my laptop and made it's use much more intentional, which enabled me to feel much more productive. There were times when I felt things we bearing down on me, I had too much on and I was losing control of what I was working on. Now, I have a few apps that I use, unnecessary appointments were taken out of my calendar and my workflows are succinct and optimised. Strangely, it is a very similar feeling to when you do a huge tidy up of your house or sort out your wardrobe, it feels good and you feel good. In the words of Marie Kondo - "Does it spark joy?" If not, then get rid.

I plan to talk about it more in the future, but de-cluttering the technologies and programming languages we use can also be super effective. How many of you have a library of Udemy courses that you have started to watch from some technology that you wanted to learn but never finished? I speak to so many people that learn something because it sounds interesting, but they never see it through enough to become dangerous with it because something else new and shiny pops up. There is a lot of value in learning a handful of technologies, libraries and frameworks and learning them really really well.

My Phone Layout

I don't think there is any better time to start practicing digital minimalism and becoming more intentional about your screen use.

If my story resonates with you, or digital minimalism is something that you have heard about before but never really tried, I am going to walk you through how I have my phone setup to enable me to use it less. After all, being intentional with your technology does not say that you cannot ever use tech. Its just minimising or re-approaching the way you use it to ensure you receive the benefits.

This is one of the things I wish that I had been able to find out more about when I started this journey, because actually how you lay your phone out can have such a positive impact on your mindset to approach this big life change. If you have been looking at the same layout of apps and the same wallpaper for the last three years, completely decluttering your phone is a breath of fresh air and really helps you stick with these difficult new habits.

With the release of iOS 14, I made a bit of a change to the way my phone is laid out:

Above is my phone as it currently stands.

Home Screen

I try and keep this as empty as possible, for the reason that if you subconsciously reach for your phone, rather than clicking on the same app which is in the same place on the screen each time, your brain will consciously have to think about what to do next. This small change can make a big difference for ensuring you avoid falling into a loop and will give you a chance to realise that actually, maybe I can do something more productive.

Only four apps sit at the bottom which are the apps that I use the most. Phone calls, messages, Roam Research (more on this later) and Spotify.

App Library

iOS 14 introduced an "app library". Usually all of your apps would have to sit somewhere on the home screen, be it in folders or not. This app library concept has been a massive win, in my opinion, for digital minimalism as it makes it possible to hide apps from sight when opening your phone.

I don't have a strategy for how I use this yet because it is a new feature, however I try and keep my apps to a minimal number. If I haven't used something for a month or so, I will typically delete it.

The eagle eyed amongst you will notice I have games in there. I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy gaming, but its about being responsible and intentional. I am able to play a quick game for 10-15 minutes in some down time and enjoy it and then switch off from that. If you played games 20 hours a day, then that is your problem/focus area, much as mine was social media.

Widgets

Another pretty neat iOS 14 feature was widgets. It allows me to have all of the essential information I need at a glance without having to go into the relevant applications.

As we can see, I have the weather, my daily calendar, my Things to-do list, Screen Time (so important to be able to IMMEDIATELY see how much screen time you have clocked up) and my finances with Monzo.

There are a few key points to take away from this if you want to practice being more intentional in your phone use:

  • Only keep the apps you use regularly. Delete those you don't use.
  • Keep your home screen as clean as possible and for the apps you use the most. Anything that is encouraging negative habits (social media/email etc) then try not to have it in sight.
  • Use widgets to give you useful info to avoid using other apps.
  • Have your screen time clearly displayed so you can keep an eye on it. This helps you to stay accountable.
  • Examine which notifications you use and turn off all but the most essential ones. I disable all notifications other than iMessage and Headspace.

My Desktop Layout

As I mentioned earlier, I have never really struggled with overusing my computer. I very rarely use my laptop outside of the working day and when work is finished I will close it down and not look at it again until the next day.

However, for me it has been super important to keep my computer clean and intentional as well. I don't like "digital clutter", much the same as keeping my physical workspace clean, having a clean virtual workspace can really help your mind and allow you to stay more productive.

The desktop on my MacBook Pro

Above is my desktop on my MacBook. Other than what is in the docking bar, I have very few apps actually installed on the machine, again, if I haven't used something for the last month or so then I will delete it.

I haven't put so much thought into how to keep my computer use intentional as I have my phone, however I follow a few simple rules, mainly for de-cluttering:

  • Close windows if you're not using them. This helps you stay clutter free and be able to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Don't keep Chrome tabs open. The level of anxiety I get at work when Im screen sharing with someone and they have ALL the tabs open is extreme! If I think I want something later, I will bookmark it.

I have dedicated a lot of time to finding out which apps work for me and suit the way I want to work on my computer. I love simple, minimal interfaces that are intuitive and generally I don't like apps to be all singing, all dancing. I would rather use something if it did a handful of things exceptionally well. There are a few apps I use to really help me keep productive and stay on top of my daily work and think that they are all worth a mention in this article as they do encourage the user to stay intention with their use.

The user interface of Tempo

Tempo (macOS Only)

Tempo has been one of the biggest game changers for me and I use it for all of my email. All three of my email addresses are linked, which means all my emails arrive in one place. I have stopped checking email on my phone all together.

Pause the noise and savor communicating your thoughts. Sometimes it's more than “just an email."

Whilst you can clearly see from above that the interface is incredibly clean, Tempos stand out feature of me is what they call "batches". Batches allow you to set up a specific time for your emails to arrive to you, until then, you won't see them other than the "new batch of mail" bar as seen at the top of the interface.

Clicking "sort batch" will enter you into a sorting loop, where you are shown your emails one at a time, where you have the options to add them to a "To Do" pile, "Keep" or "Archive". Anything that needs your attention goes on the To Do list which you can give your attention to later, and everything else is sorted out into relevant folders. I tend to archive all of my mail that isn't newsletters or something that I will likely want to read at a later date.

Tackling the days email first thing in the morning and then not having to worry about it until the next day is a really great way of de-cluttering virtually. You are someone that has a negative relationship with your inbox then definitely give this app a try.

Roam Research

For the longest time I was using pen & paper for note taking - then last year I started using Notion. Subsequently, the last two companies I worked for were heavily integrated into the app (which is why I still use it). Whilst I like Notion, I don't find it particularly intuitive, and fact that you can so heavily customise each page ultimately makes me waste time trying to format and make it look as visually appealing as possible. Definitely not intentional.

Just last month I was introduced to Roam Research and I have been so blown away by just how effective this app is. In my opinion, Roam outclasses Notion significantly for note taking.

The thing I love about Roam is the simplicity. It eradicates so many of the inefficiencies that Notion has (having to create pages, speed and formatting) , and adds a few additional benefits.

Interface for Roam

As you can see Roam is extremely simple. Software engineers will feel right at home because the only way to control layout of pages is through indentation, which means so much less time is spent formatting.

The stand out for me though is the ability to double bracket around key words and spin up pages. You can see above I have created pages for "Meditation", "Good Vibes, Good Life" as well as some specific pages for people I work with to keep track of meeting notes, all without breaking away from the flow of my note-taking.

Pages that are created then allow you to keep specific notes within that page, as well as automatically showing you every single time you have referenced that elsewhere. Roam states that it encourages "networked thought" by grouping all of these references so you can view them at a glance, which allows you to be extremely intentional with your thoughts. All of my notes for the book I am reading are in one easy to view place. It saves time, effort and also empowers you to have more information at a glance.

Things (macOS and iOS Only)

Im sure that most of you will be familiar with Things so I will keep this the briefest. I have used many To-Do list apps, but Things is the simplest and in my opinion has the nicest User Experience which is why I use it. It allows a little bit of customisation with the creation of projects, without giving you too much to tinker with, which I appreciate. It syncs up well with my phone meaning tracking my tasks is simple and painless.

The interface for Things

Conclusion

My intention with this article was not to sell you over to becoming the next digital minimalist, chucking your phone in the bin and 'unplugging yourself from the matrix'. Far from it.

We are all different. We all have different needs, weaknesses, strengths and addictions. Some of you reading this will be perfectly happy with the relationship you have with your devices, and that is ok! There is no right or wrong way. But some of you will potentially be thinking, "maybe I should use my phone a little less", "maybe I am playing too many games", "maybe I am on social too often", "maybe I should have a digital de-clutter" and this article is for me to share the benefits I felt in making a change to the way I use my screens. My intention is to educate that there is another way out there of doing things that we are maybe used to, and simplifying and going back to basics can help us excel at the things we really care about.

As a result of something as simple as using my phone less, unfollowing certain accounts and de-cluttering apps that I didn't use often or didn't enjoy - I feel happier, more content, more focused and productive - my relationship has improved and I have more money through not spending it on unnecessary shit sold to me through social platforms. I even was able to create this blog and commit to writing one article a week in the 10 hours a week I was saving from not being on my phone. Pursuing less, de-cluttering my life, prioritising and becoming more intentional has had such a drastic change on me and my mental well-being, that I would love for you to try it as well.

Please feel free to reach out to me via Instagram or Twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about anything I have mentioned above. More than happy to help anyone out!