The Critical Relationship Between Digital Minimalism & Creativity

One of the most mainstream conversations is our compulsive addiction to our digital devices. Yet, we treat it like other societal problems (e.g. our collective health, the growing levels of personal and global debt) with a nod, an eye roll and a grumble that translates to I’ll worry about that tomorrow.

The reason for the lack of urgency is because we know it’s a problem, but not as big as some of the more louder challenges in our life. Social media platforms and digital tools make some parts of life easier, even though it’s a time-suck. So why change anything?

The only asset that we cannot get more of is time.

The unfortunate truth is that the slippery nature of time in today’s digital age is truly one of our most critical threats to the modern human’s quality of life. Through those seemingly harmless scroll sessions on social media, rechecking notifications or compulsively refreshing headlines for new updates, we are not just allowing, but willing, time to slip through our fingers on truly nonproductive activities.

The price is more than time (‘whoops, there goes another twenty minutes to Instagram‘), it’s truly a price of our innate creativity. Before these artificial stimulations, the ‘dead moments’ (the silent space in conversations, time in grocery store lines, the minutes—or hours—waiting for your partner to finish packing) are traditionally the gaps in time where our brain processed recent events and synthesize ideas into new creative ones.

We are all addicted to our technology devices (generalizing here, but if you participate in modern society and own a smart phone…this probably a safe bet). Actually, it’s not the technology itself we’re addicted to, it’s the constant access to new information and stimulation.

Headlines of our diminishing attention spans update every few years. In just 15 years, the human attention span dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. This drop in attention span and access to user-optimized (AKA stay on me as long as possible) technology creates the perfect combination of time consumption and creative drain.

Oof.

As humans, we are capable of and created for more than simple, mindless consumption of curated content. We are creative, powerful beings and it is through the innovative thinking of generations past that society advanced. That said, our modern generation has a unique battle to fight. We have to fight for our creativity and time.

This battle is a bit different from the wars of the past. This one is fought on the individual level and will look different for each of us. We need to have the courage to recognize our innate addictions and resist the comforts of curated thinking in favor of original thought.

This is incredibly hard for two reasons:

  1. Quitting digital devices is not a [practical] option. In today’s society, we really can’t go cold turkey. If you moved through your days without the internet or a smart phone, you would miss out on the majority of modern conveniences at best and even lose access to critical services at worst. Like it or not, the fabric of our society is woven by digital threads.
  2. Modern technology plays directly into the cravings and comforts our subconscious. The 2020 Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma , covers this topic in depth. This means that while digital devices are satisfying and comforting, we need to rationally recognize that those sensations are artificially created.

One Solution: Digital Minimalism

The concept of digital minimalism is rooted in the modern minimalism movement, which is led by a loose collection of influencers (bloggers, writers, etc) who advocate a simpler life with a focus on a small number of things that return more meaning and value — often at the expense of many activities and items we’re told we’re supposed to crave.

These ideas are not new. Reaching far back in history, many forward-thinking leaders embraced a simple life, including Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Diogenes, the Stoics, Jesus, Mohammad, St Francis, the Quakers, John Ruskin, William Morris, the New England Transcendentalists (especially Henry Thoreau), the European Bohemians, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Lenin, Richard Gregg, Helen and Scott Nearing, and many of the Indigenous peoples around the world.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Tao Te Cheng, Lao Tzu

 

The theories, always taking a new form and shape, resurface from time to time from the voluntary simplicity movement of the 1970’s to the more recent modern minimalism movement.

Minimalists tend to spend much less money and own many fewer things than their peers. They also tend to be much more intentional and often quite radical in shaping their lives around things that matter to them.

Defined by Cal Newport as:

“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.”

Earlier this year I discovered The Artist’s Way and while the approaches are starkly different—The Artist’s Way is rooted in a more spiritual perspective while Digital Minimalism sits firmly in a psychological foundation—the recommendations share several similarities. Both recommend setting aside time for solitude and leisure. They also both emphasize the importance of creating space for quiet.

Both also emphasize the importance of going beyond tips and tricks to make true, foundational change.

“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.”

Cal Newport

 

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