How to Practice Digital Minimalism (and Still Run Your Business)

7 min read • Apr 17, 2021 • Kayla Voigt

Ping, chime, whistle, buzz. These now-familiar noises from our phones and computers alert us to new messages, emails, events, and questions. They’re the background noise to a busy workday, whether that’s spent managing a team of a hundred or working for yourself.

But rather than trigger excitement, most notifications push a different Pavlovian response: anxiety or dread.

Embracing digital minimalism puts the focus on what matters most in your workday. Like tidying your home, cleaning up your computer can help you to breathe easier—and free you from the constant, always-demanding nature of your notifications. 

According to Cal Newport, who coined the term in his bestseller Digital Minimalism, it’s “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Are You Running Your Business—or Is It Running You?

How much time do you spend online? 

The first step toward cleaning up the digital clutter is to understand what you’re spending time on and why. Start tracking your screen time using built-in apps like Screen Time, which break down usage by category. Spoiler alert: it’s probably social media that’s sucking away the majority of your time (nearly 50%, according to research from AudienceProject).

Graph of Apps taking up time

Source: “The Apps Taking Up the Most of Our Time,” Statista.

 

“You can’t build a billion-dollar empire like Facebook if you’re wasting hours every day using a service like Facebook,” writes Newport. It may seem like you only check social media once or twice a day, but each time you pick up your phone, you’re breaking concentration—and making it impossible to truly focus on the bigger picture.

The average adult in the US consumes 5 times more information than someone 50 years ago and spends 12 hours a day staring at a screen. In an increasingly complex business world defined by what’s happening on a screen, it’s more important than ever to understand what’s important and what can be left behind, especially as you’re running your business.

Digital minimalism requires a fundamental shift in how we think about technology. Your computer, like a notebook or calculator, is a tool that helps you run your business—not the other way around.

Ways to Declutter Your Desktop Computer

These days, work begins by logging on to your computer. But visual clutter from multiple tabs, unread emails or notifications, and files makes it difficult to concentrate.

“Clutter can affect our anxiety levels, sleep, and ability to focus. It can also make us less productive, triggering coping and avoidance strategies,” writes psychologist Libby Sander for Men’s Health. “Our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions, and subsequent behaviors, including our relationships with others.”

Taking the time to organize your digital life matters. “The reason that most people are not organized is that it takes time. And the first thing that takes time is deciding upon a system of organization,” writes Mark Virtue for How-To Geek. “You should always choose your own system, based on how your own brain is organized.”

Declutter your computer desktop by:

  • Choosing a clean, simple desktop background
  • Picking an organizational system for your files and sticking to it
  • Creating larger folders based on type of work and sub-folders with specifics
  • Using 1 overarching naming convention for files
  • Sorting files immediately as they come in, rather than leaving them sitting on your desktop
  • Moving large files, like photos or music, to a cloud-based storage software
  • Removing downloads and trash on a weekly basis 
  • Deleting any apps you’re not using or removing them from your desktop
  • Automating repetitive tasks with file organization rules and apps
  • Creating a to-do list for your desktop or through a project management tool

Now, the hard part. Once you create your organizational system, it’s important to stick with it. “You need to be disciplined—forever! Every new file you get, spend those extra few seconds to file it where it belongs,” writes Virtue. “Otherwise, in just a month or 2, you’ll be worse off than before.”

Keep Your Phone From Distracting You

Once you have your computer organization set, it’s time to eliminate your biggest distraction: your phone. How do you keep work and life separate when it’s your lifeline for your business?

“Like our cars, our homes, and our bodies, our tech can get a little bogged down,” Andrew Moore-Crispin, director of content at Ting Mobile, tells CNBC. “Whether you call it routine maintenance, a spring cleaning, or a tech cleanse, there are things we can do right now that will help to improve performance, speed, and efficiency on our mobile phones.”

Declutter your phone by:

  • Keeping your phone updated with the most recent software
  • Choosing a clean and simple wallpaper
  • Using “Do Not Disturb” mode whenever you need to put your head down
  • Turning off notifications from distracting apps or email to set boundaries
  • Deleting any apps you’re not using—or ones that take up a lot of your time, like social media apps
  • Clearing your browser cache, app data, and downloads on a weekly basis
  • Organizing apps into folders by task or theme
  • Moving photos and music to a cloud-based storage system to free up space
  • Moving apps for fun or downtime to your second screen or within a separate folder
  • Deleting work-specific apps like Slack or Zoom from your phone

Running a business doesn’t mean you always have to be on. Establishing clear boundaries and decluttering digital spaces gives you room to think strategically, manage people more effectively, and be more productive—rather than heading straight for burnout with every ping, chime, whistle, and buzz.

Kayla Voigt

Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.