3 Key Habits to Become a Successful Digital Minimalist

Going on a digital detox can be (fairly) easy... but making these new habits stick is truly the hard part. Here is how.

3 Key Habits to Become a Successful Digital Minimalist

Hello dear Realists,

I’m currently writing to you on the last day of my long Italian stay – as I shared in a post last week, my child’s nanny has been recovering from surgery, so we decided to go stay with my family in Italy to get help with childcare. This unexpected life event forced me to slow down and go low tech for a month. The experience has been rejuvenating.

This week, I’d like to share with you a post from The Realists archives about what to do to make a digital detox stick. I originally published the post a lifetime ago, in 2019. I’m tweaking it and updating it for you here, incorporating things I learned along the way. Because I would very much like to continue to reap the benefits of a low tech lifestyle, even when life goes “back to normal.”

As always, thanks for being here!


3 Key Habits to Become a Successful Digital Minimalist

Originally published in November 2019 / updated for you on June 23, 2023

You’ve started a digital detox. Now what?

I wrote a series on “time thieves”: platforms, apps and digital devices that aim to grab and hold users’ attention for as long as possible – for their own financial benefit. From the “infinite scroll” of social media apps, to phones constantly pinging with new notifications and video streaming services that encourage binge watching by design. In case you missed this series, here are the previous posts:

Resisting distractions is one thing; making these new habits stick is a whole other challenge – because the first few weeks of a digital detox / minimalism overhaul are incredibly hard.

I would like to share some advice about techniques that helped me to stick to a digital minimalist lifestyle – in a world saturated with distractions and temptations.

First of all, it’s absolutely normal to feel moody and out of balance when you’re cutting out digital distractions. You’re used to grabbing your phone to open up social media apps and see what your friends are doing and suddenly, having deleted the apps from your phone, you no longer have that option. It may feel frustrating.

Well, it’s just like cutting out sugar: the first few weeks are the hardest. I know, because I cut out refined sugar from my diet in the summer of 2017: no sweets, cookies, juices, sweeteners, honey or any kind of dessert. I remember that in the first 3 weeks of the experiment I was in the crankiest mood of my life. And then, after sticking to it for a month, I noticed a major change: more energy, both physical and mental, and a sudden, new clarity of mind. A happier, more stable mood, too. I mention this because my digital minimalism journey yielded very similar results: the beginning is the hardest, sticking to it is key, and rewards abound once you’re no longer under the spell of certain devices or tech platforms.

Here are the 3 key habits that I would recommend implementing to successfully stick to a digital detox or digital minimalism lifestyle.

1) Setting Goals and Tracking Progress

Ask yourself: why am I interested in a digital detox? What are the activities I could do or goals I could achieve if I spend less time using my smartphone?

Visualizing the benefits and rewards of a digital detox / minimalism overhaul are key for sticking to the plan. In the wise words of my friend J.K. Hoey, “Where are you headed? I don’t know many people who take road trips without a map or a plan.

In my case, I had two goals: to read more books and be more physically active. Thing is, setting goals is easy. To be truly successful at digital minimalism, you need a plan and a tracking system to follow your progress.

Goal 1: Reading More Books

As I shared in a post in April (“Aligning our life goals with our technology use”) I have a system in Notion to keep track of books I'm reading, want to read next, and to visualize on a calendar my ideal reading schedule.

A screenshot of my books database in Notion
My book tracking database in Notion

Being able to see in front of me, in black-and-white, where I stand vis-à-vis my reading goals has been a total game-changer, motivating me to read daily.

Goal 2: Be more physically active

I was horrified to learn from my iPhone that in 2018 I walked an average of 5,500 steps a day. Inspired by my septuagenarian dad, who walks an average of 17,000 steps a day (yes, I know!), in 2019 I bought a pedometer to keep track of my steps.

pedometer THE REALISTS

When it started mulfunctioning, I switched to the app StepsApp – and I’m proud to say that since I began tracking my physical activity with a step counter, my average daily step count has been over 10,000 steps from 2020 to these days.

Even when I was pregnant with my daughter, I kept up the walking habit. I was in excellent shape, didn’t suffer any of the usual late pregnancy bloating, backache or poor sleep and my doctor encouraged me to keep on walking. Looking back at my walking stats from the 9th month of pregnancy (when I walked more than 10,000 steps every day, except on a snow day a week before delivery) I now tell myself I have no excuses if I’m ever feeling too tired to take a walk.

2) Identify Your Habit Loop

In order to create new habits – conducive to digital minimalism – it’s essential to understand how habits work. I learned a lot from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. On his website, Duhigg summarizes his findings this way:

The MIT researchers in Chapter One discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward. To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.

In the book, Duhigg explains further:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually […] a habit is born.

In my case, I noticed that I used to grab my phone to check social media whenever I was feeling lonely. But this never happened on days when I was out filming with a crew, or in meetings.

A feeling of loneliness, when sitting at my desk editing, was definitely the CUE that lead me to the ROUTINE of checking social media and posting a message or replying to posts by my friends. The REWARD: socialization (albeit a digital form of it). Feeling part of a community and corresponding with friends was the true reward of this habit loop.

So, in order to change my habit and spend less time on social media, all I had to do was to change my ROUTINE when the familiar cue – a feeling of loneliness – arose. Now I try to set up regular meetings with friends. Or, when I am feeling that loneliness cue, I send a text message or an email to a friend. If it’s evening, I may pick up the phone and call them, or call my family.

This new habit loop, with a routine of checking in with loved ones individually, feels so much more rewarding than mindlessly scrolling social media apps.

If you have a digital habit you’d like to change, what is your habit loop? Can you identify a cue, routine and reward? And which healthier routine would you like to implement?

3) Find New Pleasurable Hobbies Away from Screens

In addition to reading, walking, seeing friends, I also started to seek out activities away from screens in order to solidify my new digital minimalism lifestyle. Photography is one activity that invariably brings me joy… but it is ultimately tied to reviewing photos on a screen. So I looked for another hobby that is 100% screen-free: LEGOs.

When I was a kid, I used to play with LEGOs for hours every day. My neighbors – 4 girls that were around the same age as me – would come over to my grandmother’s house and we would build entire villages together. It was pure bliss. Towards the end of elementary school, I remember being very sad because I felt I couldn’t play with LEGOs anymore – it was something that only children did. Well, I got sucked back into the LEGO universe when the Women at NASA set was released… And then my husband bought me a LEGO Cinema as a Christmas present. I was hooked – again – and completely shameless about it.

One Christmas, I created elaborate LEGO “vignettes” for every member of my extended family. On my desk, I made similar vignettes about me and my work, visualizing some of my goals. Like being a cinematographer in an all women film crew:

LEGO film crew THE REALISTS

I also made several LEGO “homes” for my digital devices, as well as pen holders and highlighter holders with LEGOs:

LEGO pen holders The Realists

I wrote about this passion for LEGOs in November 2019… in January 2021 my daughter was born… and this year, after turning 2, she has fast become a major DUPLO fan (for those who are not familiar, DUPLO is LEGO’s toy line for little children - with larger blocks and bigger characters).

I had to put all my LEGO sets in storage - or put them up high on bookshelves where they are out of reach (because: risk of suffocation with small pieces). But I enjoy immensely playing with DUPLOs with my daughter.

Spending time with her has been such a blessing - we are raising her screen-free (aside from Facetime calls with the grandparents) - so for 7 hours a day you will find us reading books, playing with friends at the park, cooking meals or playing with DUPLOs at home. Basically, my screen-free dream life.

What about you, what are some hobbies you enjoy away from screens?

If you are looking for inspiration, the nosurf community (originally from Reddit) has plenty of advice in this post: “The NoSurf Activity List is now live: awesome ways to spend your time instead of mindless surfing.”

Thanks for being here!

Elena