This book is about forming a philosophy that prioritises long-term meaning over short-term satisfaction.
1. A Lopsided Arms Race
Before 2013, Adam Alter had little interest in technology as a research subject. A business professor with a PhD from Princeton in social psychology, Alter studied the broad question of how features in the world around us influence our thoughts and behaviour. Alter was searching for a new topic to pursue and that quest kept leading him back to a key question: “What’s the single biggest factor shaping our lives today?” After a six-hour long flight he came to the conclusion that our screens are the single biggest factor shaping our lives today. And instead of approaching the issue as a cultural phenomenon, he focused on its psychological roots.
Addiction came forward. Here is a representative example of a definition for addiction: Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences.
2. Digital Minimalism
We need ‘a philosophy of technology use’ to combat the addictive habits created by a culture of constant technology use. Cal Newport has one such philosophy to propose: Digital Minimalism.
Digital Minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
By working backward from their deep values to their technology choices, digital minimalists transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived. Digital minimalists are also adept at stripping away superfluous features of new technologies to allow them to access functions that matter while avoiding unnecessary distraction.
Cal suggests that he provide an explanation of why digital minimalism works. His argument for this philosophy’s effectiveness rests on the following three core principles:
Principle #1: Clutter is costly.
Principle #2: Optimisation is important.
Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying.
An argument for principle #1 (Clutter is costly): Thoreau’s new economics
Thoreau expands his economic theory in his often overlooked Walden.
The first and longest chapter of Walden is titled “Economy.” It contains many of Thoreau’s signature poetic flourishes about nature and the human condition. It also, however, contains a surprising number of bland expense tables. Thoreau’s purpose in these tables is to capture precisely how much it cost to support his life at Walden Pond. Thoreau then contrasts these costs with the hourly wages he could earn with his labour to arrive at the final value he cared most about: How much of his time must be sacrificed to support his minimalist lifestyle? After plugging in the numbers gathered during his tabulation of needs, he determined that hiring our his labour only one day per week would be sufficient.
This magician’s trick of shifting the units of measure from money to time is the core novelty of what the philosopher Frederic Gros calls 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.”
In walks the attention economy…
The first principle of digital minimalism states that clutter is costly. Thoreau’s new economics helps explain why.
If you value new connections and exposure to interesting ideas, Thoreau 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? Instead of scrolling for hours on end through Instagram of Facebook. This would produce similar types of value but consume only a few hours of your life per month, leaving you with extra time (apposed to scrolling social media) 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.
Thoreau asks us to treat the minutes of our life as a concrete and valuable substance – arguable the most valuable substance we possess – and to always reckon with how much of this life we trade for the various activities we allow to claim our time.
An argument for principle #2 (Optimisation is important): The return curve
How we use technology is just as important as how we choose what technologies to use in the first place.
The App “Instapaper” allows you to clip articles from blogs and news sites (or any site that you read) and read them all together in a nice interface that culls distracting ads. Instapaper removes the adds from the sites and lets you read without distracting banners and flashy adds. Clip you articles throughout the week and then sit down to read through them all on Saturday morning on a tablet or printed out over coffee at a local coffeeshop.
The reason the second principle of minimalism is so important is that most people invest very little energy into these types of optimisations. 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 optimise 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.
There are two major reasons why so few people have bothered to adopt the bias toward optimisation.
1. Most optimisation technologies are still relatively new.
2. The large attention economy conglomerates that introduced many of these technologies don’t want us thinking about optimisation.
An argument for principle #3 (Intentionality is satisfying): The lessons of the amish hacker
This third principle for digital minimalism claims that approaching decisions with intention can be more important than the impact of the actual decisions themselves.
At the core of the Amish philosophy regarding technology is the following trade-off: The Amish prioritise 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.
3. The Digital Declutter
(For this chapter rather buy the book and deep dive into the decluttering process than just going on my notes.)
Step 1: Define your technology rules
The digital declutter focuses primarily on new technologies, which describes apps, sites, and tools delivered through a computer or mobile phone screen. You should probably also include video games and streaming video in this category.
Take a thirty-day break from any of these technologies that you deem “optional” – meaning that you can step away from them without creating harm or major problems in either you professional or personal life. In some cases, you’ll abstain from using the optional technology altogether, while in other cases you might specify a set of operating procedures that dictate exactly when and how you use the technology during the process.
In the end, you’re left with a list of banned technologies along with relevant operating procedures. Write this down and put it somewhere where you’ll see it every day. Clarity in what you’re allowed and not allowed to do during the declutter will prove keu to its success.
Step 2: Take a thirty-day break
You will probably find the first week or two of your digital declutter to be difficult, and fight urges to check technologies you’re not allowed to check. These feelings, however, will pass, and this resulting sense of detox will prove useful when it comes to make clear decisions at the end of the declutter.
The goal of a digital declutter, however, is not simply to enjoy time away from intrusive technology. During this monthlong process, you must aggressively explore higher quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you’re avoiding. This period should be one of strenuous activity and experimentation.
You want to arrive at the end of the declutter having rediscovered the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life – one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.
Step 3: Reintroduce technology
Questions you want to ask yourself: Is this technology the best way to support this value? How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximise its value and minimise its harms?
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 standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.
Your monthlong break from optional technologies resets your digital life. You can now rebuild it from scratch in a much more intentional and minimalist manner. To do so, apply a three-step technology screen to each optional technology you’re thinking about reintroducing.
This process will help you cultivate a digital life in which new technologies serve your deeply held values as opposed to subverting them without your permission. It is in this careful reintroduction that you make the intentional decisions that will define you as a digital minimalist.
4. Spend Time Alone
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal famously wrote in the late seventeenth century. Half a century later, and an ocean away, Benjamin Franklin took up the subject in his journal: “I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude….I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind.”
Edward Gibbon writes: “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”
In Michael Harris’ book titled Solitude he surveys relevant literature and then points to three crucial benefits provided by solitude: “new ideas; an understanding of the self; and closeness to others.”
The poet and essayist May Sarton explored the strangeness of this point in a 1972 diary entry, writing: “I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange – that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…”
Practice: Leave your phone at home
The rise of cell phone as vital appendage is supported by many different explanations. Young people, for example, worry that even temporary disconnection might lead them to miss out on something better they could be doing. Parents worry that their kids won’t be able to reach them in an emergency. Travelers need directions and recommendations for places to eat. Workers fear the idea of being both needed and unreachable. And everyone secretly fears being bored.
Practice: Take long walks
Walkers embraced the activity (of walking) for different reasons. Friedrich Nietzsche regained his health and found an original philosophical voice. Wendell Berry formalised his intuitive nostalgia. Henry David Thoreau found a connection to nature he thought fundamental to a thriving human life. These different reasons, however, are all served by the same key property of walking: it’s a fantastic source of solitude. It’s important here to remember our technical definition of solitude as freedom from input from other minds, as it’s exactly this absence of reaction to the clatter of civilisation that supports all these benefits.
Practice: Write letters to yourself
Writing a letter to yourself is an excellent mechanism for generating exactly this type of solitude. It not only frees you from outside inputs but also provides a conceptual scaffolding on which to sort and organise your thinking.
5. Don’t Click “Like”
The “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools – a sort of fast food – are proving to be similarly worrisome.
“Where we want to be cautious…is when the sound of a voice or a cup of coffee with a friend is replaced with ‘likes’ on a post.”
Offline interactions are incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone. The low-bandwidth chatter supported by many digital communication tools might offer a simulacrum of this connection.
This is why value generated by a Facebook comment or Instagram like -although real- is minor compared to the value generated by an analog conversation or shared real-world activity.
Humans are naturally biased toward activities that require less energy in the short term, even if it’s more harmful in the long term – so we end up texting our sibling instead of calling them on the phone, or liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of stopping by to visit.
In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle draws a distinction between connection, her word for the low-bandwidth interactions that define our online social lives, and conversation, the much richer, high-bandwidth communication that defines real-world encounters between humans.
Turkle notes that decreased well-being occurs when conversation is replaced with connection.
Digital tools, if used without intention, have a way of forcing a trade-off between conversation and connection.
The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a hard stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call – so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice of facial expressions. Anything textual or non-interactive – basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging – doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorised as mere connection.
Connection can not be an alternative to conversation, instead it should support conversation.
The socialising that counts is real conversation, and text is no longer a sufficient alternative.
In true minimalist fashion, conversation-centric communication doesn’t ask that you abandon the wonders of digital communication tools. On the contrary, this philosophy recognises that these tools can enable significant (supporting role) improvements to your social life.
To be clear, conversation-centric communication requires sacrifices. If you adopt this philosophy, you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people with whom you have an active relationship. Real conversation takes time, and the total number of people for which you can uphold this standard will be significantly less than the total number of people you can follow, retweet, “like”, and occasionally leave a comment for on social media, or ping with the occasional text. Once you no longer count the latter activities as meaningful interaction, your social circle will seem at first to contract.
Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.
Practice: Don’t click “like”
To replace rich face-to-face conversation with a single bit “like” is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. 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.
Don’t click “Like”. Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well. No “so cute!” or “so cool!”. Remain silent.
The reason I’m suggesting such a hard stance against these seemingly innocuous interactions is that they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation.
If you eliminate these trivial interactions cold turkey, you send your mind a clear message: conversation is what counts – don’t be distracted from this reality by the shiny stuff on your screen.
Practice: Consolidate texting
The more you text, however, the less necessary you’ll deem real conversation, and, perversely, when you do interact face-to-face, your compulsion to keep checking on other interactions on your phone will diminish the value you experience.
Therefore, I want to offer a compromise that respects both your obligation to be “on call” and your human craving for real conversation: consolidate texting.
There are two major motivations for this practice. The first is that it allows you to be more present when you’re not texting. The second motivation for this practice is that it can upgrade the nature of your relationships.
Being less available over text, in other words, has a way of paradoxically strengthening your relationship even while making you (slightly) less available to those you care about.
You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emojis can provide.
To conclude, let’s agree on the obvious claim that text messaging is a wonderful innovation that makes many parts of life significantly more convenient. This technology only becomes a problem when you treat it as a reasonable alternative to real conversation. By simply keeping your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default, and making texts something you check on a regular schedule – not a persistent background source of ongoing chatter – you can maintain the major advantages of the technology while sidestepping its more pernicious effects.
6. Reclaim Leisure
“The best and most pleasant life is the life of the intellect.” He concludes, “This life will also be the happiest.” – Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics.
A life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.
The more I study this topic, the more it becomes clear to me that low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness.
The most successful digital minimalists, therefore, tend to start their conversion by renovating what they do with their free time.
What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen (leisure) hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change -not rest, except in sleep.
We might tell ourselves there’s no greater reward after a hard day at the office than to have an evening entirely devoid of plans or commitments. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began. As Bennet would tell you if you instead rouse the motivation to spend that same time actually doing something – even if it’s hard – you’ll likely end the night feeling better.
Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption.
Gary Rogowski, a furniture maker based in Portland, Oregon wrote in his book Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction. “Long ago we learned to think by using our hands, not the other way around.”
In a culture where screens replace craft, people lose the outlet for self-worth established through unambiguous demonstrations of skill.
Craft allows an escape from this shallowness and provides instead a deeper source of pride.
While it’s true that a digital creation can still generate the pride of accomplishment, both Rogowski and Crawford imply that activities mediated through a screen exhibit a fundamentally different character than those embodied in the real world.
Rogowski’s closing advice in his book: “Leave good evidence of yourself. Do good work.”
Leisure Lessen #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.
The local new-mom boot camp, F3, and CrossFit are successful for the same reason as the Snakes&Lattes board game café: they are leisure activities that enable the types of energised and complex sociality that are otherwise rare in normal life.
The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First, they require you to spend time with other people in person. As emphasised, there’s a sensory and social richness to real-world encounters that’s largely lost in virtual connections, so spending time with your World of Warcraft clan doesn’t qualify. The second trait is that the activity provides some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal. As argued, these constraints paradoxically enable more freedom of expression. Your CrossFit buddies will holler and whoop, and give you emphatic high fives and sweaty hugs with a joyous enthusiasm that would seem insane in most other contexts.
Leisure Lessen #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.
Practice: Fix or build something every week
To be more concrete, here’s a sample list of the types of straightforward projects I had in mind for someone new to using their hands for useful purposes. Every example below is something that either I or someone I know was able to learn and execute in a single weekend.
– Changing your own car oil
– Installing a new ceiling-mounted light fixture
– Learning the basics of a new technique on an instrument you already play
– Figuring our how to precisely calibrate the tone arm on your turntable
– Building a custom headboard from high-quality lumber
– Starting a garden plot
Practice: Schedule your low-quality leisure
The premise of this practice is that by cultivating a high-quality leisure life first, it will become easier to minimise low-quality digital diversion later.
Schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure.
Practice: Join Something
When Benjamin Franklin couldn’t find gatherings that interested him, he created them from scratch. This strategy worked.
Join first, he would advise, and work out the other issues later. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local sporting league, a committee at your church, a local volunteer group, the school board, a social fitness group, or a fantasy gamers club: few things can replicate the benefits of connecting with your fellow citizens, so get up, get out, and start reaping these benefits in your own community.
Practice: Follow leisure plans
In the professional world, many high achievers are meticulous strategists.
With this in mind, I suggest you strategise this part of your life with a two-level approach consisting of both a seasonal and weekly leisure plan. I explain each below.
The Seasonal Leisure Plan
A good seasonal leisure plan contains two different types of items: objectives and habits that you intend to honour in the upcoming season.
In a seasonal leisure plan, these objectives and habits will both be connected to cultivating a high-quality leisure life.
The Weekly Leisure Plan
At the beginning of each week, put aside time to review your current seasonal leisure plan. After processing this information, come up with a plan for how your leisure activities will fit into your schedule for the upcoming week. For each objective in the seasonal plan, figure out what actions you can do during the week to make progress on these objectives, and then, crucially, schedule exactly when you’ll do these things.
7. Joint the Attention Resistance
Practice: Delete social media from your phone
Practice: Turn your devices into single-purpose computers
Practice: Use social media like a professional
Practice: Embrace slow media
The right response is to become more mindful in our media consumption: Slow Media cannot be consumed casually, but provoke the full concentration of their users… Slow Media measure themselves in production, appearance and content against high standard of quality and stand our from their fast-paced and short-lived counterparts.
This movement remains predominantly European. Whereas the Europeans suggest transforming the consumption of media into a high-quality experience, Americans tend to embrace the “low information diet” in which you aggressively eliminate sources of news and information to help reclaim more time for other pursuits.
This American approach to information is much like our approach to healthy eating, which focuses more on aggressively eliminating what’s bad than celebrating what’s good.
It’s a general rule of slow movements that s small amount of high-quality offerings is usually superior to a larger amount of low-quality fare.
Practice: Dumb down your smartphone
According to Clough, the main inconvenience he experiences about life without a smartphone is his inability to Google something on the go: “But how great I feel without a smartphone far outweighs that.”
Thoreau’s fundamental question: To what end?
The result is a society left reeling by unintended consequences. We eagerly signed up for what Silicon Valley was selling, but soon realised that in doing so we were accidentally degrading our humanity.
Minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value – not as sources of value themselves.
In my experience, 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.
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.
If this summary has sparked interest in you, consider buying this book as this blogpost only shows the tip of the iceberg. For the depth of this argument you should rather buy the book than rely on this short summary. You can buy it at loot.co.za or amazon.com
Also, a good companion to this book is The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. This book is designed with the family in mind. For the family who wants to choose character, shape space and structure time together, so that technology will be in it’s proper place.