I recently finished Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I think this book is essential reading for anyone looking to free up time, become more present or just live a more fulfilling life. It’s scary how much time is wasted on mindless consumption, and a topic I think we all can relate to.
These are my notes and observations from the book.
Technology is fragmenting our lives, demanding our attention and we no longer have control over it. This kind of fragmentation is making us less productive (even though we are ‘busier’ than ever), creating more stress, anxiety and turning our relationships into a commodity. By developing a healthier, more minimalist relationship with technology we can vastly improve, and live much more rich and fulfilling lives.
The first part of this book discusses the reasons our technology use is getting out of control, introduces the key concept of digital minimalism and how to take the first steps to adopting a digital minimalistic lifestyle.
A Lopsided Arms Race
Chapter one, Part One of Digital Minimalism discusses how humanity is currently facing a losing battle with our technology. When Steve Jobs first released the ‘iPod that made phone calls’ in 2007, no one knew that this device would evolve and inadvertently be engineered and designed to become a ‘slot machine in our pockets’. Unfortunately, what was once just incredible technology is now being designed in every way possible to feed they attention economy, and turn our attention, into profit.
Silicon Valley is no longer in the industry of programming apps, they are now in the industry of programming people, figuring out the most effective ways to make their apps as addictive as possible. In a world where addictiveness equals profit, there is no way to avoid this unfortunate equation.
If we were look at the underlying reason why these apps (social media applications as an example) are becoming so addictive, it’s because they easily and readily serve two specific human needs – intermittent positive reinforcement and the desire for social approval. When these two needs are meet with a ‘ping’ or a ‘like’, these become ‘rewards’ for our primitive brains, and, when delivered unpredictably, become an enticing and addictive nudge in an otherwise typical day.
Chapter One, Part Two introduces the concept of digital minimalism, a relatively new philosophy for technology use where our focus is that of strict intention rather than mindless consumption.
The reason such radical intervention may be necessary is that whist the technology we have here in 2020 may be life changing, the majority of the time it is used for low substance activities such as playing games, scrolling social media, or anything that will prevent us from 5 minutes of boredom.
We are definitely not using these tools as we should be intending them for.
Ironically, the tools that are supposed to be making us more productive, are actually becoming counter productive.
There are three main principles to consider when becoming a digital minimalist and they are:
1) Clutter is costly
2) Optimisation is important
3) Intentionality is satisfying
As Henry Thoreau has stated, our time is the most valuable substance we posses, it is concrete. We should always reckon with how much life we trade for the value of the activities that claim our time.
The Digital Declutter
Chapter One, Part Three, introduces the digital declutter, the simplest way to start taking control of your technology again.
In order to start the process of adopting a minimalist digital lifestyle we must first begin with what Cal Newport terms the digital declutter. We must strip away the tools that are causing us so much distraction and then redefine how we interact with the tools that are supposedly meant to make us so much more productive.
The process is as follows:
1) Schedule a 30 day time period where you will take a break from all optional technologies. Not limited to smart phones, this could include tv, laptop, gaming system, and digital ebooks. If you must use some of these tool, strip them away to the bare essentials. Think of the tools you are using on the device and how they might be impacting your time. If unproductive, remove them.
2) During this 30 day experiment, try and rediscover the activities you used to find valuable and meaningful before technology become such a constant interruption. Activities can be practically anything that is analogue in nature; learn an instrument, learn a skill, cook, go hunting…you get the idea.
3) Once the 30 days are up, reintroduce technology into your life one by one, this time, with strict parameters and principals around how these tools are used.
When doing this experiment it’s best to consider all technology optional, unless ‘temporary removal would harm or specifically disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life’.
With your digital declutter now in full swing, start replacing your free time with intentional analog activities such as:
- Listening to records on a record player
- Reading every night before bed
- Calling a close friend/relative and having a real conversation
- Learning an instrument
- Replacing streaming services with a radio
- Reading a traditional newspaper
Once some of these types of activities are woven into your life, you will start to realise how much more fulfilling they are, and how much time is wasted scrolling the depths of social media and subreddits to no end.
How To Practice Digital Minimalism
The second section of this book discusses a few key concepts worth considering when adopting a digital minimalist lifestyle and how to apply them.
Spend Time Alone
One of the most challenging things to overcome when adopting a digital minimalistic lifestyle is how to manage the sense of solitude and boredom that invariably creeps upon us when we are no longer distracted by low value busy work.
In the book, Cal discusses how solitude is essential for the human psyche and in our always-connected 21st-century world we simply don’t get enough if it. Solitude and boredom give our brains time to process the things we are thinking about, without the constant distraction our current culture facilitates.
Our current lifestyles no longer allow that.
Today, it is now possible to be connected to some form of entertainment at any moment of the day. With the boom of the iPod and then the iPhone, music and content is becoming the backdrop of an entire day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed.
Other ways in which solitude is being prevented in the digital era is with what is what Cal Newport calls “the quick glance”. The second we are faced with boredom we reach for our phones to see if there is anything interesting on it. Now it’s not uncommon for people to be picking up their phones 100+ times a day.
When we avoid solitude we miss out on the positive things it gives us; the ability to clarify our problems, regulate our emotions, to build moral courage and to strengthen our relationships.
Don’t Click Like
The sound of a voice or a cup of coffee with a friend is now being replaced with a ‘like’ on instagram or facebook; the fast food of the digital world.
Why is this happening? A ‘like’ on Facebook follows the path of least resistance. It’s easy to post a like or quick comment for a low value connection than actually arrange to meet or make a phone call. Unfortunately, humans are biased towards doing what ever activity is easiest the over the short term, disregarding the potentially harmful long term effects.
As a digital minimalist, avoid all digital communication unless logistical. This will strengthen the relationships you care most about, and avoid entirely distracting open ended text based conversations we are all so familiar with.
Cal states that replacing the rich flow of human conversation with a single bit of information (the like) is the ultimate insult to humanity, and I’d tend to agree.
Whenever you feel the urge to ‘like’ do your relationships a favour and replace it with a call. Also stop leaving comments on social media, they’re just as bad as a like.
Reclaim Leisure Time
Before the iPhone, people used to fill down time with interesting projects and activities. Now days, downtime is replace with mindless scrolling.
To live a rich and fulfilling life is to partake in activities that challenge and enrich the mind. Not to be buried in chronic consumption.
To live a rich and fulfilling life is to partake in activities that ‘serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates’.
If life is consumed by activities that only stems from problems, difficulties and needs (ie work) and outside of that, low value activities, you might invariably start asking the question – is this all there is to life?
Get rid of the TV and unsubscribe to streaming services such as Netflix. When there is something you want to watch, rent it.
Now replace all that free time with actual life enriching projects. Learn an instrument, build something, learn to code, hang out with friends.
Join The Attention Resistance
The attention economy is one of the most profitable economies in the world today, and, it is ruining lives. Business’s in this sector literally gather your attention (life), try and harness as much of it as possible and then repackage it and sell it to advertisers.
Companies like Google and Facebook are extremely proficient art this, so much so that it has become more lucrative than extracting oil.
We all know how hard it can be to pry ourselves from the clutches of social media and the world wide web, so there are applications out there that can block distracting websites at certain times of the day, Freedom for example.
Cal suggests making the technologies you use ‘single-use devices’. Have your computer for a few key tasks and nothing else. Also radically change the way you consume information. Rather than consuming a multitude of different news sites, find one aggregated site and set clear boundaries around your consumption.
If you can’t curb your phone addiction, trade it in for a Nokia 130 or 3310.
This concludes my notes on Digital Minimalism, if you’re interested in learning more, you can get the book on Amazon here.