Do Leaders need Digital Minimalism?
Do Leaders need Digital Minimalism?
July 2, 2019

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Usually, when I pick a book from the shelf at the bookstore, I feel excited.

It’s that excitement where you know that someone has spent years of devoted time to amass the wisdom and insights on a topic that I am about to benefit from.

With Cal Newports’ “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” I have to confess it was the opposite.

When I saw the book amongst the others, I cringed big time: I cringed, even more, when I made the decision to buy it and cringed again after I paid for it.

Now, why would a book make me physically cringe even before I have read any of it?

Because this book goes pretty much against everything I have learned about marketing, branding and career development.

And my immediate answer was no to the question am posing.

DIGITAL MINIMALISM DEFINED

I often emphasize to WonderWomen the role that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram play in today’s world of work.

If you want to get noticed, then you need to be on these platforms, and while there, you need to be smart about how you use them and start building your profile.

So reading a book about ditching online social media presence already makes me resentful, especially given the large number of time that I personally spend there.

Yet, to be honest, I am grateful I picked up this particular book because it gives you an instant deep dive into the most valuable resource that we have: time, and the way technology impacts on our perceptions what we should be spending it on.

Cal calls for a philosophy of digital technology that is best described as digital minimalism:

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of selected and optimized activities that strongly support things that you value, and then happy miss out on everything else” (p. 28).

It is not necessarily really about the platforms themselves, although this page in particular about the Persuasive Technology Lab explains how companies actually engineer very purposefully the sites so that you get lost and also start attaching your self-worth on the “likes” and comments that you get.

Everyone knows that time is our scarcest resource; this has been drummed to our brains from every angle because, well, life is finite.

Yet, it is surprising how many of us seem to have less control over how we spend it, let alone thinking whether we spend that time on something that we truly value.

 

PRINCIPLES OF DIGITAL MINIMALISM

The three 3 principles of digital minimalism are the basis of this philosophy:

Clutter is costly. With so many different platforms, it is difficult for us to live a focused life especially since many of these divert our attention, sometimes unwillingly as you become accustomed to checking these all the time. The damage this does to our focus and ability to think deeply is increasing.

There are multiple examples of key leaders who have understood and chosen in the past, even before media platforms, to find solitude to strengthen their focus and thinking; who have understood that focused attention and reflection can lead to innovation.

Optimization is important. You need to think very carefully what value you are actually getting out of what service and platform. Is this true value or perceived value, and what would happen if you closed down a particular service? Optimization is about being smart how you use these platforms, for what purpose, and how often.

But the way the platforms have been created is a far cry from thinking about optimizing your activities and time.

In fact, as Cal notes, “The large attention economy conglomerates that introduced many of these new technologies don’t want us thinking about optimization” (p. 48) because that would mean that you would be in charge how much time and attention you’d be spending on them.

Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists take a step back and make clear value-based decisions which platforms they are using and why. It is this being intentional that really is a key for them so that they do not waste their time and focus on unnecessary activities.

It is the choice of being intentional about your time: “approaching with decisions with intention can be more important than the impact of the actual decisions themselves” (p. 53).

DEPRIVING INNOVATION 

While all of this might sound pretty manageable and easy to implement, the truth is that there is something much more sinister going on behind the scenes in how our technology-driven worlds are constructed.

Much of this constant noise is drowning out our opportunities for deeper reflection that is often a source of innovation and decision-making.

This constant chatter results in solitude deprivation that is

“A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds” (p. 103).


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With the emergence of mobile phones and the ability in most of the world to stay constantly connected, many of us are losing and choosing to stay connected whenever we can.

For some leaders and managers, this could seem somewhat self-evident given the strong push in recent years towards mindfulness in coaching and mentoring circles.

Yet, how many of us can honestly say that we spend enough time in reflection, processing our emotions and thoughts alone, and taking time to really get clarity in which direction we should be heading in our decision-making?

Many digital minimalists actually disconnect from most platforms once they discover that the value they experience without the distraction gives them more value than being on them; they embrace not being connected and focus on innovation without distraction.

Some might use strategies like consolidate texting (turn on messaging apps only 1-2 times a day), set contact hours for family and friends (set times to be available at a coffee shop or on the phone), invest in more real conversations vs. texting, and putting their phone on “do not disturb” mode for most of the day.

(If you want to check your own smartphone usage, an app Moment that tracks your phone use and then helps you to reduce that time).

DEVELOP YOUR VALUE-BASED APPROACH TO DIGITAL PLATFORMS. 

Everything Cal says about distractions rings so true to me even if I often try to justify my time online as a form of information gathering and keeping in touch with friends.

Yet, I do think that we need much more discussion where we can deliver the most value, and which platforms are actually the relevant ones to our goals and aims.

The truth is that especially younger people are living much of their lives already now online and for organizations like the IPCC and UNFCCC, we need to be there to engage with them and create more awareness and also provide a more human face for global climate change institutions.

With also climate adaptation activities and services driven and delivered via online platforms, apps and services, this is also an important conversation to what extent, and which ways, we can deliver the most value.

But a lot of what Cal says in the book applies as much to individuals, families, communities and all types of organizations and institutions in that we all need to have a much more serious think what our value-based approach to engaging with digital platforms is.

To me, this means identifying the value-adding bits of that activity but also where the largest leverage points are for whatever we want to be messaging about our lives, goals, and visions.

Engaging with such disciplines as social marketing will be increasingly important especially in cases where we do want to make an impact and influence how people behave and think.

But all of this should be underpinned by your own values, vision, and goals as to the role you’d like technology vs. time offline spent in reflection to drive your career.

To answer my own question, I do believe that you can be successful outside of these growing sets of digital platforms, but I don’t think you need to abandon all of them.

Finding out what works for you, being brave enough to disconnect when you feel like you really need to, and developing your own philosophy of digital technology is what matters where you can and want to go.

 

Dr. Johanna Nalau

Adaptation Scientist * Leadership * Climate Risk Management * Career Development * IPCC * Innovation * Decisionmaking
Southport, Queensland, Australia

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