“Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport
The goal of this book is to make the case for digital minimalism, including a more detailed exploration of what it asks and why it works, and then to teach you how to adopt this philosophy if you decide it’s right for you.
We cannot passively allow the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel. We must instead take steps to extract the good from these technologies while sidestepping what’s bad.
A Lopsided Arms Race
People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.
There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used by technology companies to get you using the product for as long as possible.
Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.
Two forces that repeatedly came up in my own research on how tech companies encourage behavioral addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
Rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern.
Social media is now carefully tuned to offer you a rich stream of information about how much (or how little) your friends are thinking about you at the moment.
These technologies are in many cases specifically designed to trigger this addictive behavior. Compulsive use, in this context, is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan.
We didn’t sign up for the digital lives we now lead. They were instead, to a large extent, crafted in boardrooms to serve the interests of a select group of technology investors.
When seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that this is a battle we must fight. But to do so, we need a more serious strategy, something custom built to swat aside the forces manipulating us toward behavioral addictions and that offers a concrete plan about how to put new technologies to use for our best aspirations and not against them. Digital minimalism is one such strategy.
To re-establish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.
Digital Minimalism — 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.
By working backward from their deep values to their technology choices, digital minimalists transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived. By doing so, they break the spell that has made so many people feel like they’re losing control to their screens.
Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.
THE PRINCIPLES OF DIGITAL MINIMALISM:
- Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.
- Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.
- Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
It’s easy to be seduced by the small amounts of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resource we possess: the minutes of our life.
More often than not, the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.
Finding useful new technologies is just the first step to improving your life. The real benefits come once you start experimenting with how best to use them.
The sugar high of convenience is fleeting and the sting of missing out dulls rapidly, but the meaningful glow that comes from taking charge of what claims your time and attention is something that persists.
The Digital Declutter
THE DIGITAL DECLUTTER PROCESS:
- Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
- During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
- At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.
A major reason that I recommend taking an extended break before trying to transform your digital life is that without the clarity provided by detox, the addictive pull of the technologies will bias your decisions.
You want to arrive at the end of the declutter having rediscovered the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life — one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.
To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must:
- Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
- Be the best way to use technology to serve this value ( if it’s not, replace it with something better).
- Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.
Spend Time Alone
Solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you, a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.
Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences — wherever you happen to be.
Three crucial benefits provided by solitude: new ideas; and understanding of the self; and closeness to others.
Regular doses of solitude, mixed in with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being.
It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life. We must now wonder if people might forget this state of being altogether.
Solitude Deprivation — a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from other minds.
When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.
Humans are not wired to be constantly wired.
There’s nothing wrong with connectivity, but if you don’t balance it with regular doses of solitude its benefits will diminish.
PRACTICE: LEAVE YOUR PHONE AT HOME
In 90 percent of your daily life, the presence of a cell phone either doesn’t matter or makes things only slightly more convenient. They’re useful, but it’s hyperbolic to believe its ubiquitous presence is vital.
Life without a cell phone is occasionally annoying, but it’s much less debilitating than you might expect.
The urgency we feel to always have a phone with us is exaggerated. To live permanently without these devices would be needlessly annoying, but to regularly spend a few hours away from them should give you no pause.
I recommend that you try to spend some time away from your phone most days. This time could take many forms, from a quick morning errand to a full evening out, depending on your comfort level.
PRACTICE: TAKE LONG WALKS
On a regular basis, go for long walks, preferably somewhere scenic. Take these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone.
If we try to spend as much time as reasonable on foot and engaging in the “noble art” of walking, we too will experience success in preserving our health and spirits.
PRACTICE: WRITE LETTERS TO YOURSELF
Writing a letter to yourself is an excellent mechanism for generating exactly this type of solitude. It not only frees you from outside inputs but also provides a conceptual scaffolding on which to sort and organize your thinking.
The key is the act of writing itself. This behavior necessarily shifts you into a state of productive solitude — wrenching you away from the appealing digital baubles and addictive content waiting to distract you, and providing you with a structured way to make sense of whatever important things are happening in your life at the moment.
Don’t Click “Like”
We should treat with great care any new technology that threatens to disrupt the ways in which we connect and communicate with others. When you mess with something so central to the success of our species, it’s easy to create problems.
Our brains adapted to automatically practice social thinking during any moments of cognitive downtime, and it’s this practice that helps us become really interested in our social world.
Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools — a sort of social fast food — are proving to be similarly worrisome.
The more you use social media to interact with your network, the less time you devote to offline communication.
We have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being.
Where we want to be cautious … is when the sound of a voice or a cup of coffee with a friend is replaced with ‘likes’ on a post.
Many of these tools are engineering to hijack our social instincts to create an addictive allure. When you spend multiple hours a day compulsively clicking and swiping, there’s much less free time left for slower interactions.
Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.
Conversation is what we crave as humans and what provides us with the sense of community and belonging necessary to thrive. Connection, on the other hand, though appealing in the moment, provides very little of what we need.
PRACTICE: DON’T CLICK “LIKE”
Instead of seeing these easy clicks as a fun way to nudge a friend, start treating them as poison to your attempts to cultivate a meaningful social life.
For the sake of your social well-being, to adopt the baseline rule that you’ll no longer use social media as a tool for low-quality relationship nudges. Put simply, don’t click and don’t comment. This basic stricture will radically change for the better how you maintain your social life.
PRACTICE: CONSOLIDATE TEXTING
This practice suggests that you keep your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default. If you’re worried about emergencies, you can easily adjust the settings so calls from selected list (your spouse, your kid’s school) do come through. You can also set a schedule that turns the phone to this mode automatically during predetermined times.
It allows you to be more present when you’re not texting. Once you no longer treat text interactions as an ongoing conversation that you must continually tend, it’s much easier to concentrate fully on the activity before you.
It can upgrade the nature of your relationships. When your friends and family are able to instigate meandering pseudo-conversations with you over text at any time, it’s easy for them to become complacent about your relationship. These interactions give the appearance of close connection, providing a disincentive to invest more time in more meaningful engagement.
Being less available over text has a way of paradoxically strengthening your relationship ever while making you (slightly) less available to those you care about.
PRACTICE: HOLD CONVERSATION OFFICE HOURS
Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversations. Depending on where you are during this period, these conversations might be exclusively on the phone or could also include in-person meetings. Once these office hours are set, promote them to the people you care about.
The conversation office hours strategy is effective for improving your social life because it overcomes the major obstacle to meaningful socializing: the concern that unsolicited calls might be bothersome. People crave real conversation, but this obstacle is often enough to prevent it. If you remove it by holding conversation office hours, you’ll be surprised by how many more of these rewarding interactions you can now fit into your normal week.
The most successful digital minimalists tend to start their conversion by renovating what they do with their free time — cultivating high-quality leisure before culling the worst of the digital habits. When the void is filled, you no longer need distractions to help you avoid it.
Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.
People have the need to put their hands on tools and to make things. We need this in order to feel whole.
When you use craft to leave the virtual world of the screen and instead begin to work in more complex ways with the physical world around you, you’re living truer to your primal potential. Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate in other less hands-on activities.
Leisure Lesson # 2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.
On a social level, video games are decidedly low bandwidth compared to the experience of playing a game on a square of flat cardboard with another human being.
The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First, they require you to spend time with other people in person. The second trait is that the activity provides some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal.
Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.
PRACTICE: FIX OR BUILD SOMETHING EVERY WEEK
The simplest way to become more handy is to learn a new skill, apply it to repair, learn or build something, and then repeat. Start with easy projects in which you can follow step-by-step instructions more or less directly.
PRACTICE: SCHEDULE YOUR LOW-QUALITY LEISURE
By cultivating a high-quality leisure life first, it will become easier to minimize low-quality digital diversions later.
By confining your use of attention-capturing services to well-defined periods, your remaining leisure time is left protected for more substantial activities. Without access to your standard screens, the best remaining option to fill this time will be quality activities.
When first implementing this strategy, don’t worry about how much time you put aside for low-quality leisure. The aggressiveness of your restrictions will naturally increase as they allow you to integrate more and more higher-quality pursuits into your life.
The vast majority of regular social media users can receive the vast majority of the value these services provide their life in as little as twenty to forty minutes of use per week.
PRACTICE: JOIN SOMETHING
Join first, and work out the other issues later. Few things can replicate the benefits of connecting with your fellow citizens, so get up, get out, and start reaping these benefits in your own community.
PRACTICE: FOLLOW LEISURE PLANS
Without a well-considered approach to your high-quality leisure, it’s easy for your commitment to these pursuits to degrade due to the friction of everyday life.
A good seasonal plan will have a small number of tractable habits designed to ensure a regular patina of quality.
At the beginning of each week, put aside time to review your current seasonal leisure plan. After processing this information, come up with a plan for how your leisure activities will fit into your schedule for the upcoming week. For each of the objectives in the seasonal plan, figure out what actions you can do during the week to make progress on these objectives, and then, crucially, schedule exactly when you’ll do these things.
If you’re consistently failing to execute a given habit, regardless of your efforts to cajole yourself into action, there might be an issue with the habit itself that makes it difficult to satisfy.
Join the Attention Resistance
The average user now spends fifty minutes per day on Facebook products alone. Throw in other popular social media services and sites, and this number grows much larger. This type of compulsive use is not an accident, it’s instead a fundamental play in the digital attention economy playbook.
PRACTICE: DELETE SOCIAL MEDIA FROM YOUR PHONE
The smartphone versions of these services are much more adept at hijacking your attention that the versions accessed through a web browser on your laptop or desktop computer.
As more people began to access social media services on their smartphones, the attention engineers at these companies invested more resources into making their mobile apps stickier.
By removing your ability to access social media at any moment, you reduce its ability to become a crutch deployed to distract you from bigger voids in your life.
PRACTICE: TURN YOUR DEVICES INTO SINGLE-PURPOSE COMPUTERS
Think about these services as being blocked by default, and made available to you on an intentional schedule.
PRACTICE: USE SOCIAL MEDIA LIKE A PROFESSIONAL
To a social media pro, the idea of endlessly surfing you feed in search of entertainment is a trap — an act of being used by these services instead of using them to your own advantage. If you internalize some of this attitude, your relationship with social media will become less tempestuous and more beneficial.
PRACTICE: EMBRACE SLOW MEDIA
The key to embracing Slow Media is the general commitment to maximizing the quality of why you consume and the conditions under which you consume it.
PRACTICE: DUMB DOWN YOUR SMARTPHONE
Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance. This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of digital attention economy.
This philosophy is meant to be a human bulwark against the foreign artificiality of electronic communication, a way to take advantage of the wonders that these innovations do in fact provide, without allowing their mysterious nature to subvert our human urge to build a meaningful and satisfying life.