Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
The Book in Three Sentences
Clutter is costly: commit to being more intentional, think about how you’ll use technology, and understand if the benefits outweigh the negatives. If you prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption, use your skills to produce valuable things in the physical world, and seek activities that require structured interaction, you’ll find yourself with fresh ideas and a stronger connection to those you care about. The key to sustained success with a Digital Minimalist philosophy is accepting that it’s more about the quality of your life, not the technology.
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. (p28)
Digital minimalist starkly contrasts the philosophy that most people deploy by default: a maximalist mindset is one where any potential for benefit is enough to start using a new technology that catches your attention. (p29)
Embracing digital minimalism doesn’t mean eradicating social media altogether. Instead, you can reduce it down to where you get the most value. Example: an artist could reduce the social media chatter down to a single service like Instagram, settle on posting only one photo per week, and follow a much smaller group of people who actually inspire them. (p34)
Principles of Digital Minimalism
Clutter is Costly — don’t clutter your life with too many devices, apps an services or risk losing the benefits of each individual item by itself.
Optimization is Important — don’t just decide what technology to use or what not to use. Think about how you’ll use the technology to understand if the benefits outweigh the negatives.
Intentionality is Satisfying — commit to being more intentional and you’ll find things are more meaningful. (pp35–36)
How did I use My Time Today?
More often than not, the cumulative cost of the non-crucial things we clutter our lives with far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises. (p43)
“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 David Thoreau in Walden. (p39)
Social media corporations want you to think of their service as a fun ecosystem where you mess around and interesting things happen. But in reality, they make more money the longer you’re engaged with their product. (p48)
This is why social media services prefer to focus on the question of why you use them, not how. When you think about how you’re using them, it’s easy to see you’re spending way too much time online. (p202)
Studies of social media tend to go in one of two ways:
Positive Results — focus is on specific behaviours of social media users.
Negative Results — focus on the overall use of social media services. (p140)
More direct engagement with social media (obviously) leaves less time for meaningful offline interaction, leaving heavy users the loneliest of all. (p141)
In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle differentiates between connection and conversation:
Connection — low-bandwidth interactions that define our online social lives.
Conversation — communication that defines real-world encounters between humans. (p144)
Don’t click the ‘like’ button! Think of this as a digital slot machine—a stream of social approval indicators that arrive in an unpredictable fashion creating an impulse to keep checking over and over. (p152)
Reframe the problem: Imagine if Facebook started charging you by the minute. How much time would you really need to check in on everyone and find which events you’ll attend? (p219)
The Digital Declutter
Step 1: Define Your Rules
Put aside a month-long period where you take a break from optional technologies in your life. (pp63–68)
The declutter includes apps, sites, and tools delivered through a computer screen or mobile phone (including streaming video and video games).
If you must use a particular technology, define a set of operating procedures for how and when you will do this. Do not confuse necessary with convenient.
The goal is a list of banned technologies along with relevant operating procedures. Clarity in these rules will be key in your success.
Step 2: The 30 Day Break
Explore and rediscover activities that you find satisfying and meaningful. (pp69–74)
This is not a digital detox. This is designed to change your habits and think more critically about how and why you use these technologies.
You will probably find the first few days hard. These feelings will pass.
Step 3: Reintroduce Technology
At the end of the break, slowly reintroduce carefully selected technology that will add value to your life and how you will maximize this value. (pp75–81)
Before reintroducing optional technology, ask yourself, “does this directly support something that I deeply value?” and “is this technology the best way to support this value?”
Control your use of this reintroduced technology with an operating procedure that defines when and how you will use it.
Find Your Solitude
Don’t mistake solitude as equal to physical separation. Solitude is a subjective state in which your mind is free from the input of other minds. It’s is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. (pp93)
Solitude requires you to focus on your own thoughts and experience. Even in a quiet setting, solitude can be interrupted by any input from another mind: a conversation with another person, reading a book, listening to a podcast, or just about any activity involving a smartphone screen. (p94)
Three crucial benefits provided by solitude:
The ability to arrive at fresh ideas
Understanding of the self, self-knowledge and self-awareness
Closeness to others. Genuine experience with solitude brings us closer to the people we love.
The Default-Mode Network
When you’re not attempting to do a cognitive task, there is a particular set of regions in the brain that consistently activates; these regions also deactivate when you focus your attention on something specific. (p132)
What’s especially interesting is that the default network—aka when you’re in solitude—seems to be connected to social cognition. When given downtown our brain defaults to thinking about our social life. In fact, according to Matthew Liebermann, we are interested in the social world because we are built to turn on the default network during our free time. (p133)
Embrace Leisure Time
Interestingly, Financially Independent young people provide a good case study for exploring high-quality leisure time. To pursue FI at a young age, which typically leads to radical lifestyle decisions, self-selects for individuals who are unusually intentional about how they live their lives. (p170–171)
3 Leisure Lessons
Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption. (p177)
Use your skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. (p182)
Seek activities that require real-world, structured interactions. (190)
Hold Conversation Office Hours
To regularly enjoy phone conversations, you can get past the inconvenience of placing and receiving phone calls by letting everyone know you’re always available at a certain time. Ex. on your evening commute home, calling it the 5:30 rule; or immediately after dinner, calling it the 7 pm rule. (pp160–161)
When someone sends you a text message or a DM, suggest the call you or meet sometime during your ‘office hours’, whenever is convenient for them. (p162)
Improve your social like by implementing ‘office hours’. It helps both parties get past the biggest obstacle of meaningful interaction! (p164)
Fix or Build Something Every Week
For a period of 6 weeks, try learning a new skill every week. Ex. starting a garden plot or building a simple piece of furniture. (p198)
Matthew B. Crawford points out that the Sears catalogue used to include exploded parts diagrams for all their appliance and mechanical goods because people used to demand it. (p195)
Schedule Your Low-Quality Leisure Time
Schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. Work out when you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. Stay offline outside those hours, but you can feel guilt-free during that time. (pp200–201)
Treat these services as blocked by default, and made available to you on an intentional schedule. (p229)
Develop a Leisure Plan
If your life is filled with low-quality activities it might seem absurd to schedule your leisure time. This is because absolutely no foresight is required to support browsing Instagram or binging Netflix—it’s passive. (p206)
The big advantage of scheduling in advance is that you have the opportunity to recognize when your schedule is light or open, and you have the foresight to end your day early to do something especially fun! For example, to end early on a Friday afternoon to go for a bike ride before dinner. (p212)
The Seasonal Plan — have a small number of interesting and motivating objectives, coupled with a small number of tractable habits designed to “ensure a regular patina of quality”. In other words, habits you’ll actually enjoy doing over and over. Make sure you identify an objective, strategy, and habits to support this. (pp208–210)
The Weekly Plan — at the beginning of each week, quickly review your current seasonal plan. Then come up with a plan for how you’ll attack the upcoming week. Make sure you’ll make progress on your objectives, and schedule when you’ll do these things. Systematic planning will actually increase the amount of leisure time you have to enjoy during the week. (pp210–212)
Focus on Quality and not Quantity
You’ll be better served by checking in on a few people you respect the most on Twitter or Instagram than sifting through hashtags or scrolling aimlessly through a constantly refreshing feed. (p240)
If you want to fully understand cultural and political issues, you can enhance your experience by seeking out contrasting viewpoints to your own preferred position.* Professionals are able to isolate the key underlying issues or point out interesting nuances that complicate the matters at hand. (p240)
*This is sometimes referred to making a steel-man argument, rather than a straw-man argument. You should constantly test your assumptions and beliefs in order to build a better mental model of the world. If you can’t respond to the strongest argument from the other side, there’s a good chance you’re doing something wrong.
The key to sustained success with a Digital Minimalist philosophy is accepting that it’s more about the quality of your life, not the technology. (p253)