Digital Declutter - How would you burn it all down?

Digital Declutter - How would you burn it all down?

Originally posted this on the GTD forums, but thought I’d get a totally different perspective over here…

I’ve been following Cal Newport for a few years, and I’m interested in the ideas in his latest book of digital minimalism.

I’m considering going through the 30 day digital declutter that is a part of his new book. Eliminate inessential digital things from your life for thirty days, and then add some back in carefully and with purpose after that thirty days.

For me it would mean eliminating social media. No podcasts. I might strip my phone down to stock apps, or close to it. Also, no phone on the gym floor, or in the family room or at meals…etc…

But I’m also considering what productivity related issues to try and squash.

I keep bouncing around between notes and writing apps without committing. Constantly trying to figure out some magical unicorn of a workflow.

Ditto task managers. I haven’t switched in awhile, but I keep thinking that my OF setup isn’t perfect and I burn cycles thinking through how to reorganize it, what perspectives could help, etc…

My question for the community:

If you were going to strip away everything unnecessary for productivity for 30 days, how would you do it?

Simple apps? Pen and paper? No contexts? Bound notebook? Note cards?


Ooh. This is a deep question, and I like it.

I did this once. I ran without a task manager for about two weeks. It sucked :laughing:

If I were to burn it all down, I’d go either to text files or a notebook (a la Bullet Journal). I’d have to keep things quite a bit more high level than I do now, though, as I am learning to capture as much as I can and sort it out later. It’s just harder to do that on paper (the processing that is).

For a reference system, I’d do the same. I definitely need places to take notes, but I’m not crazy with it either. A pocket notebook and a big notebook would probably be fine.

My calendar isn’t too complex as it is, so I’d just keep it as is.

TLDR; text files and/or paper. No worries about automation or metadata.

But then I’d probably bring all those things back to some degree because I try to pare my workflow down to the essentials. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Every once in a blue moon, I do go through a digital detox. There are many apps that have resided on my iPhone, iPad, or Mac. I’ll go through and clear them. I can usually download them from the App Store if needed. I also archive a lot of documents to sets of external hard drives just in case.

I’m also reducing my digital footprint as well by throttling the information flow. My Twitter feed is minimal now and checked every once in a while. I did have to go in stages. Withdrawal was painful because I was so used to entertaining myself with Twitter and Facebook. I don’t know if I could go cold turkey.

My RSS and social media feeds didn’t add as much value as reading a book. Like a nicotine addict, I’ve learned to substitute an old habit with new habits. Instead of browsing through my feeds, I’ve switched to book reading in Apple Books or Kindle app. I get more value out of books than I would from my feeds.

When my task manager database felt unwieldy, I have resorted to going back to BuJo and rebuilding from there. I spend two weeks building up my task and projects list in a BuJo. Over time, I’ll add back to my task manager and digital calendar. I think I’ve found a nice mix with my digital and analog now.

I mix the best of both worlds. I don’t know if I can go right back into an all digital workflow but I’ll never say never.

Sometimes we have to go one extreme and then scale back to the middle. Or even go to the other extreme.

Going back to analog did help me break down my digital declutter. I’ve added a lot of workflows in a Frankenstein manner to see what works. But then I’d have to do a monthly review to strip back those nuts and bolts. A lot of my digital declutter occurs when I fail to do my monthly review to declutter projects, tags, contexts, and workflows. Then it’s time to strip my productivity workflows back to the basics. I do have an expiration date on some workflows that I’ve picked up. Keeping my workflow as simple as possible has been worth it. I’ll add to it when a certain situation or condition happens. But I’ll need to remember to drop the workflow when I no longer need it. That’s always a judgement call and can be often hard to miss. But I’m trying.

Have you found your own centerpoint yet? I’d be curious to see if others have been able to mix analog and digital.

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For my notes in regular meetings, I’ve moved to use either Field Notes or an XL Soft Cover Moleskine, and this keeps me from getting distracted from an email or text that grabs my attention. Later I will type these notes or summarize them into Notebooks.

When I need to quickly jot a note down while on the go, I jump into Drafts, write the note and lock my phone. Drafts is set to show a badge for any notes in the Inbox, and because I hate badges I process those when shutting down for the night.

My digital notes all go into Notebooks which syncs via Dropbox, around August 2018 I was finally able to get over my need to try every notes app in the App Store. Likewise in early December I switched from OmniFocus to Todoist and haven’t looked back. Todoist allows me to get the information I need into it quickly and enables me only to see what I need to get done today or right now. I no longer fiddle with perspectives for hours on end, I finally have no desire to switch task managers, and when I do get the urge to fiddle with something, I’ve been using that drive to create a TiddlyWiki.

I realized I was using all this time for creating the perfect setup in OmniFocus and would change it a couple of months later, at the same time realizing it doesn’t matter because no one else would see it and it didn’t make me any more productive. When I started playing with TiddlyWiki, I realize this was something I could eventually release so others could see and benefit from it while learning something new.

I already stopped using Twitter and Facebook last year around February and instead started using for my social interactions online. I limit myself to checking once in the morning and once at night and only click the Show More posts options once.

If I removed all of the technology that I didn’t need, I would stick to Field Notes for tasks and my Moleskine for notes. I can get by with pen and paper but would prefer simple apps.

Todoist is simple compared to OmniFocus; you can add stuff into it and get it out when needed. Drafts is even simpler, it immediately opens to a cursor and is ready to write. Finally, my active note storage is in Notebooks, and that is just plain text in Markdown format. My archived notes and cold storage is all in DEVONthink. My current workflow has been working for about two months now and before that, the only change in the previous six months was from OmniFocus to Todoist. I started to pare down the apps I use while making sure they are mostly cross-platform to Windows for my job.

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I think the biggest thing that can be gleaned from Cal, which nobody does, is just stop social media. Just get rid of it. After about 2 weeks you won’t even think about it. Everyone agrees with Cal and then they open twitter.

On the topic of productivity - the issue with productivity dorks (myself included) is we tend to keep fiddling vs. focusing on what we’re supposed to be doing. A productivity system should take up zero mental real-estate once its running to allow you to focus on your core objectives. It is easier to fiddle with a new app or switch a workflow than it is to sit down and do your work.

This isn’t unique to productivity. Every field that has tools, gadgets, gear, etc. has the never ending loop around perfect setup. I used to make indie films and that community was no different. Everyone was always switching cameras, NLEs, or lighting gigs and very few were writing, filming, and editing.

The War of Art goes into this a bit, but it is all just distraction from the difficult items that move you forward.

The solution?

  • Define the simplest, most-barebones, MVP set of requirements for your productivity system. If this is a list of more than 5 items it is too long. If it is a paragraph of longer than three sentences it is too long.
  • Select the minimum # of tools required to do it of the tools you have now.
  • Don’t change it for a year. No tweaks, no updates, nothing.
  • Stop reading about productivity (Sorry Justin). It is too easy to see the new shiny.

I’m not offended :smiley: If something causes you to procrastinate, recognize it and do something about it.

Long term the answer isn’t always “abandon X”, but I think it’s better to deal with the reasons why you’re going to X in the first place.

I am directionally in agreement.

The challenge I see is that we add things into our lives, our information streams, our productivity tools, etc. with nearly zero friction. People then struggle to remove those items. Whether you call it a detox or something else, resetting to zero is the simplest way to get clarity.

When it comes to reading about productivity:

  • If you do not have a productivity system, reading about productivity can help create a baseline system which should improve your life.
  • if you have a core foundation of tools / processes that are stable then reading about productivity can improve upon and optimize the systems you have
  • If you have systems that aren’t stable or well adopted you can end up constantly tweaking systems. They need some maturity to give you a baseline to adjust vs. the wholesale quarterly tool switching that is seen in most productivity spaces. Constantly exposing this person to new productivity ideas will not allow this to stabilize. Hence the suggestion to stop and go do.
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If you were going to strip away everything unnecessary for productivity for 30 days, how would you do it?
Simple apps? Pen and paper? No contexts? Bound notebook? Note cards?

The way I interpret Cal’s idea of digital declutter is evaluating what you need and based on that tweaking and adjusting. For me, I use the following social media: Facebook, Instagram, Reddit (not quite social media in the traditional sense), Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Seems like a lot but as a 25-year-old it seems rather normal. In all honesty, I don’t use Pinterest all that much and usually, it’s for inspiration or idea generating that if it makes the cut I throw into DevonThink Pro. Twitter I don’t tweet but will search news stuff. Reddit I use all the time but have paired down what subreddit’s I visit. Instagram I periodically prune my list of friends and people I follow on it., Facebook I use a lot but mostly for different groups (a budgeting group, an eBay selling group, a KonMari group). I’ve made my Facebook not really have a news feed which has been great.

As for how I would do a digital declutter if I had to do one, I would do it more gradually. I would have one day where I stopped using Instagram. Then the next day post on Facebook I’m taking a break. Then not use Twitter the next day. Instagram next and then finally Reddit. Personally, I know Reddit would be tough to break. As for what I’d do, I would still use a digital task manager but daily or weekly write out on a big notepad what I’d like to accomplish for the week. I would also keep either in Drafts or a notebook a running stream of conscious about my observations of times I wanted social media. I think the biggest thing that @mike2 hits on is reading about productivity

I think it would be a good time then to reevaluate and determine your tools and entertainment sources. One of these entertainment sources and tools honestly for me would be social media. For example, I’m fine for deleting my Twitter account. Pinterest I’d have to see what I’d be able to access without having an account. I would definitely prune what I follow. Reddit I think I’ve done a good job curating. Facebook I could prune some friends and more importantly cut some groups I don’t use anymore.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tweaking systems. It becomes an issue when you spend more time tweaking then being productive. I’ve unofficially kept a running list of tweaking things I’d like to do and when I get the chance I do so or implement them slowly. In addition, I am reminded of when I had an Android phone for 6 months and got into the custom booting software stuff that I spent more time messing with instead of just being productive on my phone.


I weaned myself off all social media about this time last year.
I basically just uninstalled the apps from my phone - that was the first step, but the biggest really. I used to use social media on my phone the most, so not having the native app there waiting to grab my attention, meant I had to use the web browser to access the feeds. The browser experience is way worse than the native app, and in the end I just used it less and less.
Deleted the accounts about 3 months after removing the apps, and haven’t really looked back. Every now and again I follow a link to twitter, but quickly close the page as I don’t need to get sucked back in.

A couple of my best buddies also no longer use social media (I don’t include whatsapp in that list - we still use that for staying in contact, but we meet face to face!!).

It shows who your true friends are when you see the number of texts/phone calls coming in when its your birthday and no one has the reminder from facebook :wink:

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