Sparking Joy In a Digital World

My fascination with digital minimalism began when I read Deep Work by Cal Newport back in college. I won’t give a summary of the book here, but can say that it’s one I’ve revisited occasionally over the years–a handbook for focus and discipline that has profounded impacted the way I choose to spend my time in more positive and fulfilling ways.

My enthusiasm for a minimalist lifestyle only increased after reading through Marie Kondo’s famous book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. When I moved home from 3 years of living in Shanghai, not wanting to pay for extra baggage on the flight home forced me to purge most of my belongings, and I’ve never felt the impetus to reaccumulate the things I let go of. Now, my acquisition of new products is an intentional and careful selection process, and it’s helped me develop a deeper appreciation for the material goods I do introduce into my life.

After my vipassana experience in November, the resolve to find joy in the acceptance of my reality was at an all-time high. I uninstalled most social media apps from my phone, turned off notifications, and generally spent more time living, and less time reacting.

Content used to take up much more space in my life. Don’t get me wrong–it’s led to some incredible experiences (Lili and I would absolutely not be the best friends we are today if Facebook didn’t exist back in 2012). But I do believe in the theory that there’s a point in which the consumption of endless feeds and countless notifications gaming for my attention produces diminishing returns over time. I think the majority of people understand where I’m coming from when I describe an instinctive pang of annoyance in response to my phone vibrating, or a notification popping up on my desktop (especially when I’m in the midst of a more cognitively demanding task, context-switching has real, quantifiable costs!). An endless feed of beautifully curated content, short-form blog posts, and 140-character tweets, has never really created more value in my life. If anything, it perpetuates my insecurities through an unconscious comparison of myself to the content curator–am I witty enough, fit enough, well-traveled enough, interesting enough? On a theoretical level, I understand that’s usually not the intent of content sharing. But the very nature of consuming a part of someone else’s life yields an unpleasant side effect: it takes me out of the present and precious moments of mine.

The final cleanup was actually a mass detox of junk living on my phone, initiated by my partner (the ultimate down-to-Earth minimalist). He walked me through the process of detoxifying my phone, and I have him to thank for a permanent change in the way I use my phone and spend my time. This final effort is the sole reason why, on average, I spend less than an hour a day staring at my mobile screen, and why I feel so much more in control of my phone as it relates to my ability to be present in other areas of my life.


At first, the idea of a big purge freaked me out. I was the person who would respond to messages instantly. I’m still that person that stresses over the red notification circle. I’m an inbox-zero kind of person. I asked all of the questions I now field when I show people what my home screen looks like on my phone:

  1. What if you miss a message?
  2. Do you do this for email too?
  3. What about work?
  4. You don’t even use Facebook for messenger?
  5. How do you talk to people?
  6. How do you know what’s going on in the world?

To answer most of these, I think Cal Newport’s aforementioned book presents the argument of digital minimalism in a much more compelling fashion. The end objective was to interact with my phone and apps in a more intentional manner. I also wanted to minimize digital distraction, which was usually disguised in the form of a red circle notification. I realized that I’d often pick up my phone for a specific reason, only to be lured into spending much more time on it simply because other things were in view or easily accessible. My specific goals were to 1) feel happier and calmer using my phone, 2) only use my phone for the sole purpose I had in mind when I reached for it, 3) If I did pick up my phone to kill time (for example, standing in line in a coffee shop), to use it in an enjoyable and beneficial way, and 4) choose when to interact with my phone, instead of my phone prompting me to interact with it.

Here’s what I did to achieve make progress on those 3 goals:

  1. Feel happier and calmer using my phone (image 3)
    • I went through every application on my phone, and thought back to the times I had used it before. I tried to observe and label how my body would viscerally feel when I used the app. Most social media apps caused a lot of noticeable tension in my body, so I deleted the ones I just outright didn’t find valuable anymore. Apps that tended to optimize for purchasing behavior and instant gratification (Amazon, food delivery apps) were also purged. My basic principle for keeping apps on my phone continues to be pretty simple: If the app incentivizes better behavior and feelings, it stays. Otherwise, I say goodbye to it.
    • I then put every single application I have into a single folder, and put that folder on the second page of my home screen. When I used to unlock my phone, I’d be greeted with folders of different categories, some of which had aggregated numbers of notifications, waiting to be resolved. For me, that amount to some level of stress, even if it wasn’t work related; it felt like an unwelcoming to-do list. When I open my phone now, all I see is a beautiful visual of our planet. It’s entirely different from how I used to feel when I’d open my phone.
    • I turned off my notifications, and only put back ones I needed. This is usually where typically I lose people who might otherwise be interested in detoxing their phone. People are, understandably, worried about missing important messages, being unreachable, not seeing the latest tweets or reading the latest opinions, or experiencing the illusion of a growing distance with their friends if they haven’t seen their recent vacation collages. It’s possible to experience endless permutations of FOMO, and that is a valid experience to have. I wanted to feel less FOMO. Turning off notifications is a gradual and ever-evolving 2-step process:
        • I first shut off all notifications, of every kind (banner, lock screen, badges, sounds). I went a day without any notifications, and gradually reintroduced banner notifications for apps I needed to continuing functioning day-to-day, configuring them as need. These include: NYT, calendar, email, slack, chat apps (iMessage, WeChat, Whatsapp).
          • When I have the intention of crossing things off my to-do list, or using my phone to resolve tasks, I swipe down to view all of my notifications in my Notification Center, and can dismiss or address them one-by-one. This is super important to me because I’m the one who chooses when I want to turn my attention towards resolution of items (see goal #4 for more on this).
        • never turned badge notifications back on. No, not even for messaging apps. The one exception is my time-sensitive reminders app where I schedule in reminders that are highly urgent. An example is the deadline to pay bills, where failure to complete the task immediately will result in a heavy penalty. Creating urgency around things that are actually urgent is effective way; I’ve never missed an important deadline that has been recorded in this app, so it seems to be working.
          • Though this does make me less immediately responsive to text messages and mobile Slack messages, I open these apps often enough that I will see messages I need to respond to, or I access the banner notifications that have been queued in my Notification Center. People can always reach me by calling me if something is truly an emergency.
  2. Only use my phone for the sole purpose I had in mind when I reached for it (image 2)
    • To access any of my apps (all of which are contained inside a single folder), I short swipe down to bring up Search on the iPhone. I type in the name of the application I want to open–typing forces intention, and opening my apps this way, as opposed to browsing and searching for the application I want, has decreased the number of times I end up detouring to a different destination.
    • I turned off Siri Search & Suggestions. The initial problem with searching to open apps was that bringing up Search without typing would already include results, based on which apps Siri thought I wanted to open. This is unnecessarily distracting–for example, if I want to open Maps but Slack comes up first (as it’s a frequently used app on my phone), I might end up distracted and begin responding to Slack messages instead of trying to navigate myself.
  3. If I did pick up my phone to kill time (for example, standing in line in a coffee shop), to use it in an enjoyable and beneficial way (image 1)
    • I only put my Kindle app and Messages app at the bottom bar of my phone. This way, the first two things I’m visually drawn to when I unlock my phone are those two apps, both of which are important for different reasons. I always feel like I never had enough time to read. My list of books to read only lengthens with time. I wanted to read more often, and I wanted to consume more books than articles. I downloaded the Kindle app, which syncs seamlessly with my e-Reader, so I can pick up exactly where I left off on my physical Kindle..
    • When I’m standing in line at a coffee shop, killing time before meeting someone, or hanging out in my car because I arrived at an appointment early, I can steal a few precious minutes to read the book I’m currently engrossed in. This is probably my favorite hack! Reading genuinely makes me happy, and it’s a nice way to carve out small pockets of time to indulge in this during my day.
  4. Choose when to interact with my phone, instead of my phone prompting me to interact with it.
    • I turned off notifications (see goal #1), and only reintroduced ones that were absolutely necessary.
    • My phone is nearly always on silent and in Do Not Disturb mode, including when I interact with it (this is to encourage goal #2). The exception is if I’m having a back-and-forth conversation with text, and am expecting a response within the next minute or two.
    • I activate Screen Time from 11PM until 12PM the next day. This feature on the iPhone hides all of the notifications in your Notification Center, unless apps are allowed. My always allowed apps are: Spotify, Google Maps, and Calendar. It means that when I wake up, I don’t accidentally scroll down to see a ton of banners that trigger the instinct in me to resolve them. They all appear in my Notification Center at noon, so I can hoard my precious morning moments, and savor them distraction-free.

It’s already been several months since I did the big purge, which felt like the final push into digital minimalism. I can say that I’ve never been happier with how I use my phone, and no longer suffer the unintended consequences of endless feeds and way too much content consumption. I’ve also shared this experience with several friends and family, who have all been happier after trying out a new approach to using their phone. If you’re thinking about turning your digital detox into a lifestyle, experiment with this process and let me know if you enjoy it!

2 thoughts on “Sparking Joy In a Digital World

  1. Kyle

    I know you walked me through this last time, but reading your written words is a great reminder of why I should do this too. Been practicing similar principles of deep work, and though I can’t say it’s changed my life, I am definitely happier by the change. Thanks for writing this for others to see 🙂

  2. Chrystal Post author

    I’m super happy to hear you’re practicing the principle of deep work, and that it’s made you happier as a result 🙂 Can’t wait to catch up with you when you’re back in town (or when I make it out to NYC!)


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