Time for a Digital Declutter: 8 Simple Ways to Cut Screen Time

You regularly rid your home of unwanted items, but when was the last time you took stock of your smartphone's contents? One writer purges her apps in an attempt to slash her daily screen time.

Photo: Getty Images

As I sit on my sectional, banging away on my laptop, my phone is nowhere within reach. In fact, it's currently set to airplane mode and stashed in my nightstand for the foreseeable future. You see, I'm learning to master the art of digital minimalism, a term popularized by Cal Newport, an author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Newport makes the case for a thorough digital declutter, a task that requires reassessing our (often unhealthy) relationship with tech. As he defines it, digital minimalism is an "intentional approach to technology that involves a limited number of online activities."

You have to digitally declutter to get there—to become the kind of person who can step away from their phone without, say, worrying that everyone is sharing memes without you. "The process allows you to focus on a few online behaviors that return you a lot of value—while happily missing out on everything else," Newport says.

Armed with the desire to spend more time away from my glass-and-aluminum sidekick—and way less time scrolling Instagram—I gave digital decluttering a try. Here's how you, too, can pull it off.

1. Don't call it a detox.

The term "detox"—like "juice cleanse"—implies it's a quick break. "But taking a break from technology only to return to it later doesn't help anything in the long run," Newport says. Instead, he prefers "digital declutter," where the many distracting apps are removed from a phone or tablet at the same time. "Once you take everything off, after some reflection, you can add back the apps that really matter." Essentially, it's like the Whole30 program for your phone, the Marie Kondo approach to online life.

2. Confront your daily data.

Perhaps like you, I receive a push notification every Sunday that tells me exactly how much time I've spent looking at my screen. Before my declutter, that number hovered around 3.5 hours a day, for a total of about 24 hours a week. That means every week, without fail, I was unthinkingly dedicating one entire day to my phone. Whether that time was spent skimming news headlines, refreshing my Instagram feed, or texting recipes back and forth with my dad didn't matter—it was enough to convince me to change my consumption habits for good.

3. Audit your apps.

Of course, digital decluttering applies to your phone, but it also comes in handy where fitness trackers, smart home devices, tablets, and laptops are concerned. Newport suggests scrutinizing any digital tools that claim your time and attention outside of work. (The phrase "outside of work" is essential here: You can minimize your professional apps only up to a certain point before the boss starts wondering why you're ghosting her on Slack and email.) In fact, Newport goes so far as to suggest temporarily stepping away from all social media, streaming videos, online news, and digital games. It would even benefit you to dial back on text messaging. If this process sounds intense, that's because it is. The goal, after all, is to minimize low-quality digital distractions in exchange for a life well lived.

4. Stay away for 30 days.

The key to digital decluttering isn't merely getting rid of the apps and services and distractions—it's committing to staying away for a month. My job as a lifestyle editor requires me to be on top of daily trends, so admittedly I couldn't log out of the internet altogether for an entire month. But I did bid adieu to my most beloved apps (so long, Instagram and Facebook!) and cut down on regular text exchanges for two whole weeks. At first, the hiatus from social media and even my trusted Netflix app felt unbearable, but once I accepted I could make do with less tech and more real-world socializing, the process became somewhat cathartic. Did I worry I'd miss out on a friend's engagement or birth announcement? Of course. But avoiding attention-demanding online behaviors let me carve out time to live my own life more intentionally, without feeling the need to check in (or click in) on anyone else's.

5. Avoid the "quick glance."

Willpower alone isn't enough to help you navigate the throes of digital decluttering. I learned that lesson on day one, when I found myself repeatedly rifling through my purse to simply make sure my phone was still there. The urgent impulse to check my device arrived at the slightest hint of boredom, and it turns out Newport has a name for that feeling: the quick glance. He points out that many mobile-adapted websites have been optimized to deliver an immediate and satisfying dose of input, which explains why we're constantly checking to make sure we didn't miss a text, tweet, notification, or call.

6. Create some distance.

Newport calls having your phone with you at all times the "constant companion model." To break this habit, he suggests first doing more things without your phone. If possible, leave it at home next time you run out for groceries or to walk the dog. "It's surprising what a difference regular doses of phone freedom can provide, even if those doses are small," he says.

Then, when you're home, leave your device by the front door—treat it like ye olde home phone. (You remember, the thing with the curly cord or retractable antenna?) "If you're worried about missing an important call, put the ringer on loud. If you want to look something up or check texts, do so in your foyer," he says. Basically, you are never meant to curl up, cuddle up, or get comfortable with your phone (reserve those behaviors for human loved ones!). This simple method will help transform your relationship with technology at home.

7. Rethink your free time.

During the decluttering period, think about what activities really matter to you. Incorporating daily hobbies, like exercising, reading, or doing creative projects, leads to a high-quality leisure life that helps fulfill you over time, Newport says. If you worry you don't have the grit to stick it out for a digital declutter, start doing these things before you make the break. "That way, you'll know what to do to fill your time once you no longer have a screen to stare at," he says.

8. Let (a little) tech back in.

For me, there was no doubt that a digital declutter changed my daily life. But the tech break did come to an end, after 30 days, at which point I logged back on very carefully. "Only add back the apps that directly amplify or support the things you really care about," Newport says. "Intention is everything."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles