Cal Newport - Digital Minimalism
We’re still sticking to Thoreau’s minimalist line, but I wanted to add a modern perspective, to see the principles in practice in the 21st century. For this purpose, a fairly obvious and highly recommended candidate is Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism. I didn’t have to worry too much about relevance, since the subtitle for one of the chapters confirms just this: “A new look at old advice”.
The author is also a university professor of computer science, who has written several times before on the intersection of technology and culture. And after his advice on working with deep concentration, more and more people started to ask him “And what about my personal life?”
Because these days there are so many gadgets and apps competing for our attention – whether intentionally or unintentionally – and that’s not sustainable in the long term. Some of these, ironically, are often bad for the very things we’d use them for. For example, the main benefit of Facebook is that we can stay in touch with other people; but then we get so addicted to it that we can’t even have a normal conversation with our friend across the table without checking our phones! Apps take away our autonomy, affect our moods, and although they have positive aspects, they undeniably have their downsides, too.
It’s these kinds of problems that we are trying to solve here. But unfortunately, as with all major lifestyle changes, half-measures won’t do. What we need is a comprehensive “digital philosophy” to manage our lives. After Thoreau’s cabin-in-the-woods lifestyle, the minimalist approach being promoted here will hopefully not seem so extreme in the first place. And then, the more we try to look at it from a different perspective, the more we’ll likely realize that it’s actually the amount of screen time acceptable today that’s really extreme.
The book is divided into two major parts, the first of which presents the basic philosophy, with motivation and argumentation. The second part gives concrete techniques on how to keep the good aspects while giving up the bad. The exact table of contents is as follows:
- What’s the problem? – A lopsided arms race
- What’s the solution? – Digital minimalism
- How do we implement it? – The digital declutter
I would also like to highlight a quote from the beginning:
Long before Henry David Thoreau exclaimed “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” Marcus Aurelius asked: “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?”
In light of my reading list so far, this seems to indicate that we’re on the right track… So let’s dig in!
A lopsided arms race
Neither Facebook nor the iPhone started out with the intention of changing our lives – or, at least, not the way they did. They were both attempts to optimize the “fringes” of our everyday lives in small ways. One’s basically a digital university yearbook, while the other is just the merging of a phone and a music player, so we can have one fewer thing in our pockets. Yet today we still wake up to find them at the center of our lives. And that’s not particularly good for us. It’s like we’ve stepped backwards into shit – we didn’t know it, we didn’t see it, but now we’re in it.
The pro-technologists might exclaim “How useful!” at every stage, but that’s not even the issue. No one’s arguing that they aren’t. But if we are no longer in control, it isn’t worth it.
It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy.
And if we start to wonder how we got here, the truth quickly emerges. We’ve probably not so much “stepped” backwards into said metaphorical shit as we’ve been “pushed” backwards into it. There is big money in attention, and many have a vested interest in making our whole lives revolve around gadgets and apps. Finally, an ex-Google engineer sounded the alarm, and revealed that it’s not just paranoia: companies are really doing this knowingly.
Another early recognizer of the problem began to dig in his heels based on his psychological background. And unfortunately, the deeper he got, the clearer the parallels with addiction became. Okay, app addiction isn’t exactly a drug, and we’re probably not going to steal our own mother’s jewelry for the next fix… But when it’s in our pockets just a click away, it’s pretty hard to stop.
There are two main techniques in the developers’ toolbox to get us hooked:
Intermittent, unpredictable positive feedback. If we’re not sure it’s gonna come, that just makes it all the more impactful when it does come. And it spurs us to action even if it’s not coming, because on the next refresh it might… As a mental image, feel free to imagine a slot machine! Interestingly, these little positive feedbacks are not what most people find consciously useful about their apps, so they could be taken away. Only they won’t be, because then what would keep us there beyond our original intentions?
Emphasis on social conformity. We’ve already seen the importance of social interactions and how deeply ingrained they are in Sapiens. And that’s precisely what companies are exploiting! Positive feedback feels like acceptance by the tribe, and lack of it feels like figurative exile; making it seem crucial to pay attention to what’s happening.
So we can hopefully see now that we are under conscious attack and we’re not just wasting so much time by accident if we’re not careful. And if the “enemy” has an increasingly sophisticated plan of attack against us, we should also arm ourselves a little. So now that we know what we’re up against, let’s see how to fight back!
Superficial “tips and tricks” are not enough against methods that can also play on our psychological weaknesses. For example, it’s not enough to turn off 112 app notifications; we should ask ourselves why on earth we have 112 apps on our phones in the first place? The book offers digital minimalism as a more comprehensive solution:
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.
As with “traditional” minimalism, there is a need for virtually constant value-for-money trade-off considerations. Not just looking at the benefits of something, but also acknowledging the costs; or what we’re doing it instead of. The book’s batch of examples can be succinctly summarized: if we start from our internal values, we’ll often end up giving up our addictions voluntarily – or, at least, transforming them to serve us, rather than the other way around! Newport has 3 principles to support why his philosophy works:
Clutter is expensive. I wouldn’t want to write too lengthy a “proof” here, since the author himself references Thoreau as well. So please go back and read the Walden post if you need further convincing about this point! Just very succinctly: Thoreau is very much in favor of economic thinking and calculation, it’s just that many of us don’t calculate correctly. Extra things provide extra benefits, sure, but they also have extra costs. And once the costs are factored in, they may not even be worth it anymore!
Optimization is important. Here the book showcases the usual “diminishing returns” curve. This is most often used to illustrate that after a while, the extra work invested into something doesn’t yield as much benefit – that is, the performance growth “flattens out” and it’s no longer worth pursuing. Now we are looking at the other extreme of the graph, showing that a very small investment of energy at the beginning of a process can bring a big improvement in results. Let’s try to take the same approach to regulating our digital consumption. Of course, the other side wants to hold this back, because as soon as we think of something as “to be optimized”, they won’t be able to keep us there for as long. But that should be our motivation: we learn to take advantage of the positives more efficiently, thereby avoiding most of the negatives and wasting less time!
Intentionality is satisfying. As an example, the Amish come up, who may appear to be wacky technology-deniers at first glance, but this is no longer the case upon closer inspection. They just have their values front and center, and consciously judge whether to allow a certain piece of technology into their lives. It’s fine to disagree with their values, but we can all learn from how conscious they are about their access to technology and how satisfied they say they are with it. The selectivity itself gives them more than what they are missing out on.
The digital declutter
The digital minimalism outlined above is best achieved through a 3-step transformation. But be prepared for a relatively radical approach. The method is not based on scaling back gradually, as attention-grabbing psychological tricks and convenience will be much more likely to wear away our resolve that way. If we do something, let’s do it properly!
1,600 of Newport’s followers signed up for testing, which is where most of the real case studies originate. His two main findings are that the method 1) works, but 2) it’s tricky. If we are too lax – or even too disciplined – in our withdrawal, if we don’t have substitute methods devised, or if we only think of it as a temporary “detox”, it won’t work. That’s why he’s included tips alongside the specific steps to maximize our chances of success. We should:
Set aside a month when we’ll give up all optional technologies. Bye-bye to anything consumable on a screen! Yes, including video games and TV. The word “optional” is important, of course. But what we can’t cut out completely (say, because of work), we should at least cut back on – only twice a week, only on the bus, etc.
During this month, we’ll nicely discover (or even rediscover) activities that we find meaningful and enjoyable. The first 1-2 weeks can be uncomfortable, but once the withdrawal symptoms taper off, it brings clarity, leading to better choices later on. Trying to reform our habits right away without such a “fast” would deprive us of such clarity. Remember, though: we shouldn’t simply endure being bored, but actively seek out what we can use to fill the void left behind instead! All this obviously in a way that already fits with our values.
After our month of fast, we can slowly bring back the technologies we really need, one by one, where the “value for money” balance has proven to be positive. But even for those cases, we should define exactly what function they’ll perform and how we’ll use them! The “reintegration phase” is probably the most important factor in how much the detox will change our lives in the long run. It’s worth taking the following steps to screen all candidates:
Does it serve a value that is very important to us? Because it’s not enough to just provide something of value.
If so, is it the best tool serving that particular value? If not, let’s leave it – only the best will do!
Even if we get this far with something, we still need a set of rules for its use. Remember, optimization!
At this point we are supposed to be “done”! Our use of digital media is optimized, and we will be able to fit a lot of things into our lives that would have seemed impossible before. And although tips and tricks alone are not enough, we now know the basics, so we can safely turn towards some extra tips and tricks to make things easier…
Spend time alone!
Let’s start with what we mean by solitude in this case. The most important thing is that we don’t have to be physically alone! For many people, it would be difficult to be so far away as often as they should be. But fortunately, there is no need; it can be done in a crowd.
The point is to be alone in our heads. But it follows that we may not be lonely during physical solitude, either! If we’re reading a book, watching a film or listening to something, we’re in touch with another mind. We need times when it’s just us!
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
– Blaise Pascal
Everyone needs solitude to “digest” difficult problems, to gain insights from reflection, emotional balance, moral courage, and stronger relationships. Here, too, of course, balance is the key. If we were always alone, there would be no input to process and no relationships to strengthen. But if we only have input all the time, we can’t process it properly! Even Thoreau wasn’t completely solitary – he just alternated connection with privacy appropriately. We have to strive for something like that somehow!
Solitude deprivation is not a new phenomenon, but the extent of it is. In the past, some people might have frowned upon the fact that a telegram should interrupt the flow of their lives. But then, loneliness was the norm, and a telegram was just a distraction. In the age of smartphones, it’s all reversed, and a quiet moment or two is the “surprise”.
If we deprive ourselves of solitude completely, our quality of life will deteriorate. This is what the iGeneration has unintentionally done, and by all accounts, they are paying the price – anxiety, depression, record high suicide rates, etc. The constant use of the social circuit in their brains means there is no time to “look in the mirror” and figure out who they are, what they want, or to process their emotions and what’s happening to them.
Let us therefore try to consciously build periods of solitude into our days! Concrete implementation tips:
Let’s leave the phone at home! Smartphones, while useful, are vastly overrated. If you think back just a few years, everything was fine without them. No one is asking us to abandon them completely, but life shouldn’t grind to a halt if we aren’t glued to them for a bit!
Let’s take long walks! Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau… they all praised walking – and such illustrious company is worth joining! It’s easy to find inspiration in books (or in the thoughts of others), but it’s in solitude that we can most surely find our own voice. Obviously, we have to make time for this, because it won’t just fit in anywhere by itself. But according to Newport, we’ll feel measurably happier and more productive during periods when we’re walking regularly.
Let’s write letters to ourselves! It’s actually a diary, but also it isn’t. It’s not about timing, it’s about the writing itself – which can help us process problems, emotions, and inspirations when we encounter them.
Don’t click “like”!
Man is a social animal… But why? Cognitive scientists have used imaging to study what is activated in the brain when we do certain activities, and what is activated when we do nothing. It turns out that the default network is for social stuff. And that’s just great! We don’t spend our free time thinking about social things because we’re interested in other people, but the other way around: we care about other people because our brains are wired by default to think about other people in our free time!
Digging further into this thread, they also saw how the rich flow of information present in our brains during communication is processed through complex neural networks. And that’s where trying to maintain connections through short text messages and likes muddy the waters. They’re a bit like “social fast food”, and they have about the same effect on our mental health as real fast food has on our bodies.
There are both positive and negative studies on social media use, though, so who’s right? The answer, again, lies in cost-benefit ratios, and the fact that a day, even between friends, is strictly 24 hours. And it is useless to have small positives from social media if they push us away from offline relationships, which have been proven by many to have a much better effect overall.
We must therefore distinguish between simply connecting and really talking! And again, this is absolutely not anti-technology… Let’s just make sure we know what everything in for! And if texting, chatting and liking are just about connecting – but we’re aiming for real conversation – then something needs to change. We’re not as connected as we think we are. We don’t need to be, either. But the few connections we have that do matter should be nurtured differently! At first it will seem like a narrowing of our social network, but the withdrawal symptoms will soon subside. And then the real conversations can begin.
Concrete implementation tips:
Let’s not blindly like things! A like is the bare minimum, 1-bit piece of information we can transmit. Replacing our complex social skills with this is the biggest slap in the face to our brains.
To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.
Let’s consolidate the time we spend texting! “Do not disturb” should be the default mode! Designating 1-2 short periods a day (email mode) where we check on our notifications up to that point, respond, and then go back to “do not disturb” mode should be enough! The 2 main benefits are that 1) we can be more present when we’re not messaging, and 2) the non-immediate replies and slightly more reserved availability means that neither party will delude themselves into thinking this is a real conversation. Therefore, if we value the connection, we’ll make an effort towards real conversation, which will benefit both sides. And if not, then the relationship will slowly fade away; which will also benefit us in the long run.
Let’s have phone-based “office hours”! The phone provides a real conversation because it relies on an analogue signal – tone, pitch, volume, tempo, etc. However, distance makes it uncomfortable to call the other person when we don’t know whether we’re interrupting. It may therefore be worthwhile to set office hours publicly, in advance, where anyone can call. They’ll know that they are not disturbing, so they may call more often, leading to real conversation.
The disappearance of our digital habits doesn’t cause serious inconvenience because we miss what we no longer have. Rather, the problem is that it forces us to confront the existential vacuum that Frankl mentioned earlier, which is what we were covering up with most of our digital stuff in the first place. So if we don’t fill that vacuum while – or indeed, before! – we minimize our digital attitudes, then change will be unsustainable.
And for some filling advice, it’s worth looking at people who no longer need to work – and can therefore spend their days however they want. It may be surprising, but rarely will we see relaxation, idleness, or the symbolic lounging in a hammock stretched out between palm trees. They feel good about themselves because they are working – only according to their own values and schedules, because there is no one to impose anything external on them anymore. A guy called Bennett wrote a (biased, but mostly evergreen) book about this topic. He argues in it that the more energy we put into the 8 hours we work, the more energy we can put into the 16 hours we are “free”. That is: the value we get out of an activity is directly proportional to the effort we put into it. So we should prioritize challenging activity over consuming passivity!
And while any kind of self-fulfillment can be satisfying, the book argues strongly that this should happen in the physical world, not in a digital space. I would add: if not exclusively, at least also! By no means should we leave our two hands out of the fun entirely!
We can also take advantage of the interesting phenomenon that in certain social circles (board game cafes, training teams, volunteering), heightened emotions that would seem crazy in other contexts are normal and acceptable. Think of a shouting match during a race… The point is that it should be a social activity with a set of rules, internal cohesion, even its own language and culture. And the excitement created here gives us an experience that we wouldn’t get during “normal” socialization – especially not in front of a screen. So let’s look for activities that require real-world, structured social interaction!
Of course, the author is still not saying that we should turn away from the digital world. But he does say that analogue is likely to be a much more rewarding experience. Digital minimalism therefore demands that we replace our primary sources of leisure with analogue ones. And from then on, we can safely use all sorts of digital aids to support those.
Concrete implementation tips:
Let’s fix or build something every week! Instead of the handymen of old, nowadays everyone just pays for their things to be fixed. But manual work can not only be fun, it can also save us a lot of money.
Let’s plan our “low-level” free time in advance! If we do a total cutback, the little inconveniences can easily cross the critical threshold where we can talk ourselves out of this whole minimalism thing. From there, we fall back into excess in no time. But if we plan in advance when and how much time we can “just piss away”, this danger is much less threatening.
Let’s join something! It’s almost certain that there is a club for all of us where we can better express ourselves. And if there isn’t, there’s nothing stopping us from starting one.
Let’s make plans for “higher” leisure too! In GTD, we’ve already talked about different horizons, complex planning, and the recognition of the link between long-term results and current actions. Now, these could (should?) be applied not only in our professional lives. We should have about quarterly plans with specific goals and habits to maintain.
The overall lesson is that doing nothing is highly overrated! Doing something harder but more rewarding is always more worthwhile. We just need to get into the habit of actually doing something like this instead of mindlessly tapping away on our phones…
Join the attention resistance!
There’s been a trend for some time that many media sources see their consumers not as customers, but as products that they can resell to advertisers. This has obviously taken off with the internet, but the real big breakthrough has been smartphones, because they have been able to gobble up all our remaining bits of attention that were previously unattainable. As things stand, the attention economy is worth more than oil!
To turn smartphones into this attention hoover, people had to be trained to look at their phones as much as possible. Hence all the psychological research on how to exploit our evolutionary weaknesses. And to maintain it, we need to stop thinking about what we’re doing.
So let’s rebel! Let’s join the “resistance” and think of it all as a zero-sum game, where one side wins exactly as much as the other side loses. If we give them our attention, they benefit and we lose our autonomy. And we don’t even have to give up digital services to change this balance of power. We should just use them with surgical precision and intentionality! For their own benefit, and at the expense of the attention market.
Concrete implementation tips:
Let’s not install social media apps on our phones! These are the ones most likely to bother us anyway. And since they bring big money to companies, they do bother us constantly. If you feel you really need one, use it from your browser! Because sure, the need for a particular service may be defensible – what is not defensible, though, is needing such a service on our phones, with us at all times!
Let’s change our devices to single-purpose ones! A lot of productive time could be saved if, for example, we couldn’t browse the web when we “shouldn’t”. At first glance, it may seem strange that limiting a general-purpose tool can increase productivity – but it really does. Of course, computers really are good tools exactly because they can do so many things. But not because they can do so many things at the same time! If we write, we need a typewriter; if we read; we need an e-reader. So let’s use blockers, bans, zen modes, and so on. And if we can’t seem to compromise, we might even want to consider a “granny” phone. If that’s the only way out, we’re better off with a dumb phone than staying in the grip of our smart ones.
Let’s be open to slow media! Consumption of information is more efficient from a few quality sources than from the many “lukewarm puddles” proliferating out there. Everyone has a voice online, but we should only be willing to give attention to those who can prove they deserve it. Let’s have an elaborate, intentional method of how we inform ourselves! It doesn’t necessarily have to be analogue – but let’s not compulsively click through 5-10 websites several times a day!
Despite first appearances, this book isn’t promoting anything radical, just pure practicality! It shows us who is grabbing our attention behind the scenes and what philosophy can pull us out of their clutches. If we master the principles and follow the advice, in time all the technology we use will serve us, not the other way around. It’s not really about the technology itself, it’s about getting our daily agenda more in line with our principles.
It’s also important to emphasize that all this has nothing to do with anti-technology! We are not rejecting innovation, just the way it ends up being used. So let’s leave everything that doesn’t support our values, let’s choose the best of everything, and let’s even impose strict conditions of use on top of that! Doing so, after the initial difficulties, will undoubtedly lead to a more conscious, better quality life.