Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
Author: Cal Newport
Publisher: Portfolio
Published: 2/5/2019
Georgetown computer scientist Cal Newport's Deep Work sparked a movement around the idea that unbroken concentration produces far more value than the electronic busyness that defines the modern work day. But his readers had an urgent follow-up question: What about technology in our personal lives?

Book Summary - Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Key Insights

Over the past 10 years, people have become increasingly dependent on their smartphones spending large parts of their days swiping through their phones. Newport argues that this preoccupation with digital media has turned into behavioral addiction, costing its users more than it benefits them. Newport’s solution is called Digital Minimalism, or an organized way to resist automatic uses of this technology which has to lead to increased loneliness and depression. He advises taking a 30-day break from the digital activity and replacing this time with activities that bring meaning, purpose, and focus, and then only reintroducing the digital activities that remain essential.

Key Points

Our smartphones weren’t intended to be addictive. They have evolved to profit from our attention and away from being positive tools.

When cellphones first hit the market, no one suspected they’d evolve into personal and portable computers. As technology changed, smartphones started adding more and more features making them increasingly attractive all-in-one tools. But as people started using the phones for more than phone calls and short text messages, a new incentive emerged for tech and media companies: keep people using our products for increasing amounts of time.

The tech industry has flourished as a result of keeping our attention. The more they can do this, the more money they get from advertising companies. Google and Facebook have ballooned into a billion-dollar powerhouse for its skill at delivering advertisements to its users who return to the service multiple times a day. Users should be aware that companies profit from their attention, and they prioritize this profit over the well-being of their users.

Companies maintain this attention by tapping into our primal need for rewards and social approval. Getting many “likes” on a post or lots of positive comments on an opinion produces a buzz of excitement. We develop a reflexive urge to check for more notifications and post things that will garner attention, a simple way to satisfy these primal feelings. But because digital media is so accessible, we begin to scroll mindlessly on the most pleasurable and instantly rewarding applications. Increasingly, behavior becomes addictive we fill spare moments with continuous scrolling.

Life can be improved by removing distractions and embracing the things that support our values.

Newport’s digital minimalism comes from the broader concept of lifestyle minimalism, or the idea that living with less can improve your life. According to minimalism, the things we most value can bring high reward, and removing distractions can help us live more intentionally. You can consider: which things support your values as no other thing can?

When this thinking is applied to our technology we can ask: what technology can support my values? Is it distracting me from what is most important by taking time and energy away from meaningful pursuits? How can I use technology to maximize the value I get from the time spent on it?

Newport presents three principles that explain the benefits of minimalism in economic terms. The first principle states that clutter is costly. Newport explains that in a practice called New Economics, popularized in the late 1990s, economists started to incorporate life costs when calculating something’s worth. In our daily lives, we can consider whether the presence of certain things is costing us by being apart of our lives and whether after this calculation it still feels worth it to include.

The second principle states that optimization is important. In economics, this principle is seen in the Law of Diminishing, where the value of a good decrease as you get more of it. For example, buying an additional smartphone wouldn’t feel nearly as valuable as buying a first smartphone. Accumulating things, products, and activities in our lives does not necessarily result in improvements.

The third and final principles state that intentionality is satisfying. Choosing things that support our values can make our use of them feel more rewarding. By the same token, rejecting things that do not support our values can make our lives happier and more meaningful. Newport advocates for this sort of vetting in our digital lives.

A 30-day break from digital activities gives us a new perspective.

Before writing his book, Newport conducted an experiment where he asked 1,600 volunteers to take a “technical sabbatical”. He hypothesized that this break from technology could help people understand how to live a more rewarding life, and notice the more satisfying alternatives to our digital habits. At the end of the experiment, most of the volunteers made significant adjustments to technology’s role in their lives and reported feeling more satisfied, less depressed, and less alone.

Newport recommends those interested in digital minimalism to take this 30-day break themselves. It begins by cutting all non-essential technology. For example, keeping Facebook to maintain connections with people is merely more convenient than necessary. An essential technology could be a cell-phone for emergencies or a computer used for remote work. If a cell-phone is allowed, you could check which applications are being used through the Screentime feature on iPhones and the Digital Wellbeing feature on Androids, and remove the distracting and non-essential ones.

During this period, aspiring minimalists should consider what they will replace the digital activities in their life with. These activities should be enjoyable and compelling. For example, if Twitter was used to keep up with political commentary, you could find a political discussion group or create one amongst friends. Social clubs are a great way to experience the social rewards of social media in a more robust way, and tangibly build relationships within your community.

After the 30-days, the reintroduction period becomes critical to finding a new path forward. Minimalists should go through each app, website, and device and consider whether to bring them back into their life. Newport recommends asking three questions and only moving to the next question if the former answer is yes.

First, you should ask whether the technology supports something you deeply value. If yes, then is it the best way to support that value? If yes again, how can this tool be used to maximize its benefits and minimize its harm?

At the end of the 30-days, minimalists have a new understanding of which technologies are serving their personal philosophies and which created unhealthy attachments.

Smartphones have made contemplation and solitude difficult. There are ways to build these things back into your life.

Thanks to iPhones, we don’t ever have to be alone with ourselves. But for the young people born into a world with smartphones, many aren’t used to spending time away from screens and with their own thoughts. It can be difficult to go for a walk without listening to music or spending time reflecting on our lives without feeling drawn back to social media.

Solitude and contemplation are important for understanding our relationships, emotions, and real feelings. Reintroducing contemplation into our lives can help us feel more self-assured in ourselves and our identities. Being in touch with our feelings can also increase the utility of our eventual interaction with other people, which becomes more fulfilling when we feel more secure in ourselves. We can appreciate these interactions more when they aren’t constantly happening on an unsatisfying and superficial level through technology.

Contemplation can also help us defend ourselves against “group-think” seen often on social media sites. By taking explicit time to examine our feelings, we don’t have to default to the most popular, socially rewarding opinion online to feel a sense of belonging. Building this relationship with yourself can lead to higher self-satisfaction, a lower vulnerability in toxic group dynamics, and confidence in your decisions.

Because many people find it difficult to find solitude, a minimalist can practice this by leaving their phone at home during a walk or an errand. They could also bring their phone with them for emergencies but make it difficult to access, such as by leaving it in the car or hiding it in a bag. Another way to practice contemplation is by leaving headphones at home during a walk and instead of spending time with thoughts that arise. Although difficult at first, these periods can be a rewarding way of understanding our real feelings and interests.

Social media and texting can feel social, but engaging with posts will never compare to real conversations. Schedule a time to talk or call with others.

Newport points out that online interaction with a person and speaking to them in length feel entirely different in value. Responding to a friend’s post may seem like you are maintaining your friendship, but this is not nearly as satisfying as seeing a friend in person. Seeing friends in the flesh fills us with energy, allows us to gauge the nature of the relationship through body language, and creates lasting memories. Newport recommends noticing this difference and substituting online social stimulus for more intimate conversations which yield more fulfilling results

Of course, it is easy to default to maintaining friendships online since they require much less mental energy, time, and emotional investment. Newport doesn’t advise against all digital interactions. Phone calls can make for great lengthy conversations, and for those averse to the difficulty of phone calls, FaceTime can facilitate a real conversation as well.

Newport gives an example of how an executive in his study builds meaningful conversations into his life. He offered his friends and peers a standing invitation for anyone to call him at 5:30 PM, an hour which he dedicated to speaking with people on any topic. Another version of this could be asking people to drop-in and join you for coffee at a certain time on a weekend. Such welcoming and open calls for conversations create space for real conversations and relationship development.

Our leisure time becomes rewarding and satisfying when we spend it doing tough and mindful activities. To avoid spending time on low-quality hobbies instead, schedule designated times for digital media use.

Newport believes that since going cold-turkey on all digital activities can be difficult and cause too much frustration, minimalists should schedule their digital activities for small chunks of time that allow them to limit and contain their use.

Meanwhile, this makes room for a different form of relaxing called high-quality leisure. Think of an activity that fills you with joy for life. It may be hiking, writing a story, reading a good book, playing soccer with friends, or building something with your hands. These activities are so rewarding because they require real physical and mental energy to complete, and we can feel proud of ourselves for investing ourselves into something with a real-life reward. There is nothing more satisfying in life than seeing the fruits of our labor in the flesh, whether it be the smiling faces of friends at a club meeting, the sweat and ache of muscles after a run, or a completed wooden chair made by your own hands. These activities can create rich personal lives for us if we spend our rest-time doing them.

It may be difficult to immediately find satisfaction in these things, given their difficulty relative to digital activities. One way to ease this transition is by scheduling the low-quality activities as a reward for the high-quality ones, given the low-quality activity feels more desirable at first. According to Newport, both activities become more valuable to us, and it becomes easier to become accustomed to healthier habits.

Single-purpose and low-tech devices can help to resist the temptations of smartphones.

When we consider what benefits our devices provide us, we can come up with a list of the tasks they help us complete. Single-purpose and low-tech devices can help separate these essential tasks from the distracting features of high tech gadgets. For example, a flip-phone, though ugly and outdated, allows a minimalist to call their family and friends. Another example is the use of a bullet journal in the place of a digital calendar and planner. Custom layouts can make for an all-in-one planning tool without having to reference a screen not to mention how much cheaper journals are to replace than smartphones. Getting used to these single-use devices can be difficult, but it is a sure-fire way to avoid the temptations of smartphones.

The Main Take-away

Digital minimalism offers a way to rethink and reshape your relationship with technology to serve your values in the noisy digital age. Newport argues that we should consider that our attachment to our devices, websites, and apps aren’t necessarily serving our interests and distracting us from moving forward with our passions. He also argues that technology is no substitute for time spent with other people, with our communities and with ourselves. Taking time away from our technology can help us understand what we really need to improve our well-being, and we can move forward with more confidence in our digital presence.

About the Author

Cal Newport is an author and computer science professor at Georgetown University. He has written six self-improvement books including Deep Work (2016), So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012), and How to Win at College (2005). He’s been writing the Study Hacks blog since 2007 where he developed his ideas for deep work and digital minimalism. He holds a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in computer science.


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