Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

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Summary

Most people recognize the power of technology but feel overwhelmed by digital consumption. One one hand services like social media give us some benefits, on the other hand they disrupt our attention and agency.

Is not that being on social media is useless, is that we are unable to control our use of it. It is, by design, highly addictive. Trying to fix the problem with tips and tricks doesn’t really work.

The only way to tackle this issue is by integrating a new philosophy/set of values that makes you choose which platforms you use, for what reason, and under what conditions.  A philosophy, in other words, like digital minimalism.

Digital Minimalism is 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.

Book Notes

Almost everyone I spoke to believed in the power of the internet, and recognized that it can and should be a force that improves their lives. They didn’t necessarily want to give up Google Maps, or abandon Instagram, but they also felt as though their current relationship with technology was unsustainable

Our culture’s relationship with these tools is complicated by the fact that they mix harm with benefits. You can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram while fretting about this app’s ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading.

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. Checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addictions. This irresistible attraction to screens is leading people to feel as though they’re ceding more and more of their autonomy when it comes to deciding how they direct their attention. No one, of course, signed up for this loss of control.

What’s making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child’s bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience. It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy.

The most common response to these complications is to suggest modest hacks and tips. The appeal of this moderate approach because it relieves you of the need to make hard decisions about your digital life.

But as is becoming increasingly clear to those who have attempted these types of minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.

What you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

We require a philosophy that puts our aspirations and values once again in charge of our daily experience, a philosophy that prioritizes long-term meaning over short-term satisfaction. A philosophy, in other words, like digital minimalism.

Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism is 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.

The so-called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit cost-benefit analyses. 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.

  • Principle #1: 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.
  • Principle #2: 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.
  • Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies.
“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.” - Henry Thoreau

The Digital Declutter Process

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  3. 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.

Some of the participants in my mass declutter experiment treated the process only as a classical digital detox—reintroducing all their optional technologies when the declutter ended. This is a mistake. The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards. It’s the care you take here that will determine whether this process sparks lasting change in your life.

The Minimalist Technology Screen

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.

The importance of Solitude

Solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.

We need solitude to thrive as human beings, and in recent years, without even realizing it, we’ve been systematically reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives. Simply put, humans are not wired to be constantly wired.

As I’ve learned by interacting with my readers, many have come to accept a background hum of low-grade anxiety that permeates their daily lives.

Advice

Schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes.

What to do with your free time?

  • Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.
  • Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.
  • Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.

More advice:

  • spend time away from your phone home every day
  • go for long walks, possibly in nature
  • write a journal to process your thoughts in solitude
  • Always favour offline conversation over online interaction
  • Stop putting likes to things online altogether
  • Text less and only at certain times of the day
  • delete social media apps from your phone
  • use tools like Freedom to limit use from laptop
  • select carefully who to follow
  • consume only high-quality sources
  • dumb down your phone (e.g. Light phone)

The Attention Resistance movement is made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services—dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut.

If your personal brand of digital minimalism requires engagement with services like social media, or breaking news sites, it’s important to approach these activities with a sense of zero-sum antagonism. You want something valuable from their networks, and they want to undermine your autonomy—to come out on the winning side of this battle requires both preparation and a ruthless commitment to avoiding exploitation.

The key to sustained success with this philosophy is accepting that it’s not really about technology, but is instead more about the quality of your life. The more you experiment with the ideas and practices on the preceding pages, the more you’ll come to realize that digital minimalism is much more than a set of rules, it’s about cultivating a life worth living in our current age of alluring devices.

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