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  • Emily Kern

Digital Minimalism and Financial Success

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

Digital minimalism- focusing your online time on a small number of carefully selected activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else

[paraphrased from Cal Newport's book, Digital Minimalism]

I recognize the irony of using a digital platform to talk about Digital Minimalism! I guess I run the risk of you reading Cal Newport’s book and abandoning the blog once you try his “Digital Declutter” strategy! But, if his philosophy frees you from mindlessly scrolling through “the attention economy” - that’s totally fine with me. While the topics of digital minimalism and financial success don’t seem related at first glance, they have direct correlations that could profoundly impact your life- positively or negatively, depending on what decisions you make. First things first: what’s digital minimalism?

Digital Minimalism

Digital minimalism is not about removing all technology from your life. The goal, as Cal Newport demonstrates, is to help with “choosing a focused life in a noisy world.” It’s about utilizing technology for the value that it brings, but limiting your use of it in areas that don’t add value. We live in a constant state of interruption. Notifications and texts and emails and updates- it never ends. Smartphones are known for decreasing focus, increasing anxiety, and making us wonder where our time has gone. As Cal states,

“We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke up one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life.”

Social media is just one aspect of the “attention economy.” I hate to break it to you, but Facebook isn’t just an innocent platform where you seek out wedding photos and baby announcements. Facebook’s goal is to keep you on their platform for as long as possible. Facebook’s former president, Sean Parker, said it himself. They make money by selling your precious time to advertisers and they intentionally make the platform addictive so you’ll keep coming back. Before you know it, you’re spending countless hours scrolling. This is not a character flaw or weakness on your part, as the platform is designed to draw you in. That's what the attention economy does. It just means you’ll have to do some serious work to limit your consumption if you want to protect your time.

Maybe for you, it’s not Facebook. Confession... I went through a phase where I played Farmville. You read that right. Farmville. One day, my phone informed me that I’d spent 13 hours in the last week playing Farmville. *Vomit*. As a business owner and someone who often thinks “there just aren’t enough hours in the day,” this is sickening. If you had asked me how long I spent on Farmville that week, I would’ve guessed 3-4 hours (which is too much) but this shows how addictive apps can be. Maybe you haven’t sunk to the level of Farmville (or maybe I’m not alone), but what about Candy Crush? Temple Run? Solitaire? Compulsively checking email or text messages? You get the idea!

Americans check their phones 80 times / day. In millennials, smartphones are directly linked to an emerging mental health crisis. If you’re interested in learning more about the smartphone impact, check out Cal’s book- but from this point forward, let’s look at how some of this data can result in a positive (or negative) impact on our finances.

I had to throw in my favorite giraffe mug!

Technology overload = less time, which = less money.

You may remember the concept of opportunity cost from economics class. It’s the idea that when you participate in one thing, you give up another thing. You can’t be in two places at once. If you spend time scrolling through Instagram or playing video games, you’re forfeiting time that could be used to…

1) Make money

2) Learn valuable skills (that could save you money)

3) Build relationships (that could get you a job / increase your network)

4) Participate in “true leisure” (that provides the relaxation necessary to prevent stress and keep your mind sharp.. which can lead to money)

^ All of these things are much more valuable than screen time, and they provide either the productivity or the true rest your body & soul craves. I realize that there are many other benefits that aren’t mentioned here- but to keep this list from becoming a 50 page essay, we’ll stick to the money theme! Here are some examples of the 4 things you could be doing with that screen time:

1) Make Money

In college, I had a part-time job in the athletic department. It was the best job. While I very easily could’ve spent my “free time” watching Netflix (don’t get me wrong, I love Netflix), I instead sat at a desk making minimum wage in between classes. The money was maybe enough to pay for my favorite Japanese takeout once / week- but it was a job I (mostly) enjoyed, and working there established a connection that led to my first full time job after college. Even for those of us that work full time, many carry the weight of student loans, credit card debt, medical bills, and other forms of debt. You see an increasing number of people adding a “side hustle” to their full time job- and I commend those people for making the most of their time! Consider using your free time to pay down your loans or save for a nice trip.

If you constantly feel the urge to check your phone at work, you could be costing your employer money. says these distractions cost the U.S. economy $650 billion every year. If you’re self-employed, this is even worse news for you. You’re costing yourself money. Yikes! Think about how to capitalize on your time. Instead of screen time, what could you be doing to increase your earnings?

2) Learn Valuable Skills

Unless you’re using YouTube to learn how to fix your toilet or make a new recipe, the time you spend online is keeping you from learning new, valuable skills. My mother-in-law taught me how to cut my husband’s hair - and the time I spent learning that (which was minimal) has saved us an estimated $600 to date. Learning a new skill can save you money - and even if it doesn’t, it will provide you with a confidence boost much larger than you’ll get from monitoring Instagram likes. What have you always wanted to learn, but have never tried? What do you pay someone to do that you could learn to do yourself?

3) Build Relationships

We’ve all gone out to dinner and seen the table of people all staring down at their phones. While teenagers take the brunt of this most frequently, you’ll see plenty of parents and older couples on their phones, too. Regardless of age, the principle still applies: cell phone use often interferes with human interaction.

Technology changes the way we communicate with people. Texting and emailing can be so convenient - and they’re important. However, if we’re only communicating this way, we limit real-time, dynamic conversations and we miss out on the people we’re surrounded by. We’re not interpreting nonverbal cues, hearing someone’s tone, and responding on the spot. The result? In-person conversations become more difficult, especially when conflict resolution skills and negotiating skills are imperative.

It’s important to spend time building relationships with a wide network of people before you need to turn to them for guidance / help. Spending time face to face with others - whether it’s family members, friends, or potential future employers - will help you gain their trust and give you a chance to learn from their life experiences. Make a list of people in your life, in your field of interest, or in your family that you want to get to know better. Schedule “face time” with them during a time that you typically spend watching TV.

One great way to practice digital minimalism in a family setting is by using a service like Together Unplugged. Their mission is to deliver "screen-free family time" through a subscription box service where they send various activities, games, crafts, and much more. They help families be intentional in a time where it's easy to be disconnected with each other.

4) Participate in “true leisure.”

Reading blogs (like this one), listening to podcasts, and checking social media are not inherently bad. It’s great to hear ideas different from your own and learn from people smarter than you! However, allowing yourself the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts is crucial. Let your mind be free to produce creativity and think critically. Rather than flooding your mind with what everyone else is doing, solitude drowns out the noise and helps you focus on your path and your thoughts.

So now what?

What you do with this information is up to you. You can’t just say, “Okay, I’m going to stop spending ___ hours on my phone.” The key to reducing screen time is, actually, to not focus on reducing screen time. The key is to focus on what you’re replacing that screen time with, and the reduction in screen time will follow. Decide what you want your free time to look like. Figure out what truly relaxes you, what truly fulfills you, what will truly make you a better person, and focus on those things. You may end up happier, more successful, more skilled, more relaxed, or... all of the above.

Emily Kern


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