Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World – by Cal Newport

I'm a fan of Cal's previous books Deep Work and So Good They Can't Ignore You and will always recommend those two to anyone. Digital Minimalism, however, is a much smaller, and less important, and not even about minimalism. This book covers social media and bad habits around using them. If you have a good handle on your social media habits (read: don't check it compulsively) skip this book. If you are spending more time on social media than you wish—read it. It's perfect for that. Short and easy to understand too.

I guess my only gripe with a book is its title. I'd call it "How to Break-up with Social Media" or something like that.

Highlights

[...] checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

“Why do I need to use Facebook?” I would ask. “I can’t tell you exactly,” they would respond, “but what if there’s something useful to you in there that you’re missing?” This argument sounds absurd to digital minimalists, because they believe that the best digital life is formed by carefully curating their tools to deliver massive and unambiguous benefits.

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.

To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.

Thoreau’s “new economics,” a theory that builds on the following axiom, which Thoreau establishes early in Walden: “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.”

As he notes in Walden, working a large farm, as many of his Concord neighbors did, required large, stressful mortgages, the need to maintain numerous pieces of equipment, and endless, demanding labor. He describes these farmer neighbors as “crushed and smothered under [their] load” and famously lumps them into the “mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation.”

If you value new connections and exposure to interesting ideas, he might argue, why not adopt a habit of attending an interesting talk or event every month, and forcing yourself to chat with at least three people while there? This would produce similar types of value but consume only a few hours of your life per month, leaving you with an extra thirty-seven hours to dedicate to other meaningful pursuits.

This is why clutter is dangerous. 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.

The reason the second principle of minimalism is so important is that most people invest very little energy into these types of optimizations. To use the appropriate economic terminology, most people’s personal technology processes currently exist on the early part of the return curve—the location where additional attempts to optimize will yield massive improvements. It’s this reality that leads digital minimalists to embrace the second principle, and focus not just on what technologies they adopt, but also on how they use them.

[...] seeing new technologies simply as tools that you can deploy selectively, you’re able to fully embrace the second principle of minimalism and start furiously optimizing—enabling you to reap the advantages of vaulting up the return curve.

The Amish prioritize the benefits generated by acting intentionally about technology over the benefits lost from the technologies they decide not to use. Their gamble is that intention trumps convenience—and this is a bet that seems to be paying off.

“My decision [to not use a smartphone] gives me a sense of autonomy,” she told me. “I’m controlling the role technology is allowed to play in my life.” After a moment of hesitation, she adds: “It makes me feel a little smug at times.”

As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, however, it’s a mistake to think of the digital declutter as only a detox experience. The goal is not to simply give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life. The detoxing is merely a step that supports this transformation.

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.

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.

Several participants discovered that eliminating the point-and-click relationship maintenance enabled by social media requires that you introduce alternative systems for connecting with your friends.

[...] the authors start with what is arguably one of their most valuable contributions, a precise definition of solitude. Many people mistakenly associate this term with physical separation—requiring, perhaps, that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on any sort of a regular basis. As Kethledge and Erwin explain, however, 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.

Edward Gibbon: “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”

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.

“Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” To underscore his esteem for walking, Nietzsche also notes: “The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit.”

In short, I would be lost without my walks because they’ve become one of my best sources of solitude. This practice proposes that you’ll find similar benefits by spending more time alone on your feet. The details of this practice are simple: 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 you’re wearing headphones, or monitoring a text message chain, or, God forbid, narrating the stroll on Instagram—you’re not really walking, and therefore you’re not going to experience this practice’s greatest benefits.

Thoreau once wrote: I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

These dueling studies seem to present a paradox—social media makes you feel both connected and lonely, happy and sad. To resolve this paradox, let’s start by looking closer at the experimental designs described above. The studies that found positive results focused on specific behaviors of social media users, while the studies that found negative results focused on overall use of these services.

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.

“Don’t all these little tweets, these little sips of online connection, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?” Turkle was clear in her answer: No, they do not. As she expands: “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance.” On the other hand: “When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits.”

I learned it from a technology executive in Silicon Valley who innovated a novel strategy for supporting high-quality interaction with friends and family: he tells them that he’s always available to talk on the phone at 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. There’s no need to schedule a conversation or let him know when you plan to call—just dial him up. As it turns out, 5:30 is when he begins his traffic-clogged commute home in the Bay Area. He decided at some point that he wanted to put this daily period of car confinement to good use, so he invented the 5:30 rule. The logistical simplicity of this system enables this executive to easily shift time-consuming, low-quality connections into higher-quality conversation. If you write him with a somewhat complicated question, he can reply, “I’d love to get into that. Call me at 5:30 any day you want.”

I’ve also seen people deploy daily walks for this purpose. Steve Jobs was famous for his long strolls around the tree-lined Silicon Valley neighborhood where he lived. If you were in his inner circle, you could expect invitations to join him for what was sure to be an intense conversation.

Erecting barriers against the existential is not new—before YouTube we had (and still have) mindless television and heavy drinking to help avoid deeper questions—but the advanced technologies of the twenty-first-century attention economy are particularly effective at this task.

Here’s how Pete explains his leisure philosophy on his blog: I never understood the joy of watching other people play sports, can’t stand tourist attractions, don’t sit on the beach unless there’s a really big sand castle that needs to be made, [and I] don’t care about what the celebrities and politicians are doing. . . . Instead of all this, I seem to get satisfaction only from making stuff. Or maybe a better description would be solving problems and making improvements.

Pete and Liz emphasize a perhaps surprising observation: when individuals in the FI community are provided large amounts of leisure time, they often voluntarily fill these hours with strenuous activity. This bias toward action over more traditional ideas of relaxation might strike some as needlessly exhausting, but to Pete and Liz it makes perfect sense.

In a culture where screens replace craft, Crawford argues, people lose the outlet for self-worth established through unambiguous demonstrations of skill. One way to understand the exploding popularity of social media platforms in recent years is that they offer a substitute source of aggrandizement. In the absence of a well-built wood bench or applause at a musical performance to point toward, you can instead post a photo of your latest visit to a hip restaurant, hoping for likes, or desperately check for retweets of a clever quip.

Spending an hour browsing funny YouTube clips might sap your vitality, while—and I’m speaking from recent experience here—using YouTube to teach yourself how to replace a motor in a bathroom ventilation fan can provide the foundation for a satisfying afternoon of tinkering.

A foundational theme in digital minimalism is that new technology, when used with care and intention, creates a better life than either Luddism or mindless adoption.

TURN YOUR DEVICES INTO SINGLE-PURPOSE COMPUTERS

Jennifer now tries to keep friend engagement* below the Dunbar Number of 150—a theoretical limit for the number of people a human can successfully keep track of in their social circles. Jennifer does not, for the most part, interact with professional colleagues on Facebook: “If I need to connect with a colleague, I’ll stop by their office or chat after work.” Jennifer also thinks it’s not the right platform to keep up with news (more soon on what Jennifer prefers for this purpose) or to debate issues, noting “the civility issues on that platform have gotten difficult.”

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