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Book Note

Thoughts On: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World—by Cal Newport

Summary: We waste too much time passively absorbing media. This results in anxiety, unhappiness, and reduced productivity. We need to remove our habituated dependency on tech and replace the time it previously occupied with high-quality leisure activities. This is not an anti-tech, Luddite argument, but a call for intentionality in our behavior.

Actionable takeaway

Digital Minimalism prescribes a one-month digital cleanse. Pre-plan offline activities to fill the time vacuum created by this tech absence. Once the abstinence period is completed, reintroduce technologies to your life after evaluating them on the following criteria: Do they solve a need? If so, are they the best tool to accomplish this? And if adopted, what are the costs?

Core Concept: Digital Minimalism

Don't be lured by gifts from the tech gods, they're just tobacco farmers in T-shirts

Digital media has is designed to be addictive and to pray on our evolutionary need for validation from the tribe. To tech companies, our time and our data is their product which they sell to advertisers. As such, they have been designed to maximize our habitual use. Many of us have been sold a digital maximalism lifestyle — where every free moment is consumed by media input.

Digital minimalism, as described by Newport, is "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.”

Adopting a new technology should be done intentionally to solve a value-based need. The minimalist will ask the following of every new technology: “Is this the best way to use technology to support this value? If the answer is no, the minimalist will set to work trying to optimize the tech, or search out a better option.”

Minimalist Principles

Principle 1: Clutter is costly.

Each new technology we add to our lives consumes part of our time. Our time and mental space is a finite resource. Each new tool does add small gains to our life but at the cost of what time?

Principle 2: Optimization is important.

If a new technology or service is required for work or serves a needed function, look for ways to optimize its use so it consumes as little time as possible (with the caveat of not investing too much time on over-optimizing.)

Principle 3: Intentionality is satisfying.

Evaluate new tech on its promised benefits versus tradeoffs. Make intentional adoption decisions, asking yourself what problem is the tech trying to solve? Is this the best way to solve the problem? And what are the costs?

Core Concept: The thirty-day digital declutter

Remove all non-essential modern digital devices from your life for one month. After the month is done you can begin reintroducing optional technologies back into your life provided they meet the following criteria:

  • 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 to limited usage times and functions (not sprawling, open-ended usage)

Tips for success:

  • Go in with clear parameters on any exceptions (such as one episode of a tv show before bed, or streaming music during workouts.)
  • Have plans in place in advance on how to replace the time vacuum that will be created.
  • Use the experience to explore new activities.

Merits of a decluttered life

Spending time alone

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal

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

Many of us suffer from solitude deprivation: "A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.” We fill every spare moment with distraction: podcasts, streaming, apps, news feeds. Gone is the needed time for reflection.

Productivity Hack: Carry a notebook or scraps of paper to record your reflections.

Lifehack: Level up your alone time by going for walks. “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” — Nietzsche

Spending time with others

Brain scans reveal that when we are not engaged in mental tasks, the brain's default mode is thinking about social interaction. Given even just seconds between tasks, the brain will revert to the default network: social cognition.

Social connection is such a real thing it is hard-wired into our nervous system: “The loss of social connection, for example, turns out to trigger the same system as physical pain—explaining why the death of a family member, a breakup, or even just a social snub can cause such distress. In one simple experiment, it was discovered that over-the-counter painkillers reduced social pain.”

If social interaction is good, why is Social media bad? Studies show that the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely.

“The use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being.” They found, for example, that if you increase the number of likes or links clicked by a standard deviation, mental health decreases by 5 to 8 percent of a standard deviation.

Facebook, of course, rebutted these studies with their own experiment showing the opposite.

“The experimental group who were asked to post more ended up reporting less loneliness than the control group during this week. Closer questioning revealed this was due primarily to feeling more connected to their friends on a daily basis.”

Further, “They found that when users received “targeted” and “composed” information written by someone they know well (e.g., a comment sent by a family member), they felt better. On the other hand, receiving targeted and composed information from someone they didn’t know well, or receiving a “like,” or reading a status update broadcast to many people didn’t correlate with improved well-being.”

How is this? One must not confuse connections with conversations; Connections being units of interaction, whereas conversations are much richer and engage many more senses. Many micro-connections such as likes and comments do not add up to a real conversation. Further, hours spent 'engageing' with social media necessarily equates to hours not spent having more meaningful connections. Even worse, engaging in social media might trick oneself into believing they've had meaningful connections and so not pursue the greater value conversations.

Social media and texting can still serve a valuable function, however, but as a tool for organizing greater-value interactions.

“In this philosophy, connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.”

Productivity hack: Don't use texts as conversations — get rid of the back-and-forth. Check your text at set times of the day and call people back.

Lifehack: Set up personal office hours and let everyone know you're available at a regularly occurring time for phone calls.

Filling your time as a Digital Minimalist: Reclaim leisure

From the author "more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that .. [are] crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise."

Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption

Using your leisure time to challenge yourself can be more invigorating than spending hours passively consuming entertainment. Theodore Rosevelt referred to this as the doctrine of the strenuous life.

"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." — Arnold Bennet

Lifehack: Trick your brain. The absolute prohibition on media consumption will cause your brain to find all the reasons why you need it and subconsciously undermine your resolve. Giving yourself set times to use these tools will keep it minimized.

Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world

One derives great satisfaction from creating a physical object — being able to point to a thing and say "I made that."

I have found the satisfaction derived from creating the art object to be greater than that found in just image-making.

Being a physical minimalist, however, I am conflicted on this concept due to my aversion to owning things. This value of the act of physical creation can be easily extended to cooking, gardening, repair, or home improvement projects, however, which do not come with the burden of possession.

Lifehack: Schedule weekly projects like changing out lamp fixtures, building planters, or minor plumbing.

Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions

Meetups, clubs, organizations — join them or start your own.

From the author to the skeptic (myself included): "It’s easy to get caught up in the annoyances or difficulties inherent in any gathering of individuals struggling to work toward a common goal. These obstacles provide a convenient excuse to avoid leaving the comfort of family and close friends, but ... it’s worth pushing past these concerns. Join first, ... and work out the other issues later."

My gut reaction is that there are so many reasons to not participate in group activities. That this reaction is so strong is perhaps all the more reason to examine/override it.

Strategies for success

Schedule your leisure (If I learn one thing, make it this)

Create seasonal, value-based leisure strategies. Seasonal works because a 4-month block is a good amount of time to achieve many goals, plus, schedule availability and weather are seasonally affected and relate to the plausibility of some goals.

Seasonal Leisure strategies can take the form of habit formation or end goals. Examples could be, read more books, exercise 30 minutes a day, learn a programming language, run a marathon, get a job, etc...

These strategies, then, can be translated into actual activities, in you're weekly and daily schedules, where, on a case-by-case basis, you can resolve the specifics of how to work them in.

Personal GTD Hack: I've coded my seasonal goals into the top of my daily to do list template file. Now each day has a reminder of these larger goals. I've also added a weekly task list section to track that less than daily occurring goals are met.

Protect yourself from bad tech

Block distracting sites except for at a few specified times.

Don't block them at certain times, make being blocked the default freedom app.

Separate your work and your personal

If you need social for business, use it as a business — have two accounts, a personal and a work account. Keep the work account being only highly curated professionals in the feed—important industry news only.

This separation could be taken further with two computers or two accounts on the same computer.

Move to slow-media

Breaking the media addiction by switching to slow media, rather than the "low information diet" popularized by Tim Ferris, means ingesting only high-quality news.

Move away from doom scrolling and constantly refreshing breaking news by scheduling intentional times to read thoughtful, long-form analyses from curated sources.


From the author, "digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins. Just as important: they’re comfortable missing out on everything else."

To varying degrees, I have been multi-tasking for the last twenty years. During this time, my attention has been under constant strain by some digital device or other, my thoughts replaced by podcasts, and silence filled with television or music. That the concept of decluttering the noise from my life is at once so alien and yet, at the same time, mildly horrifying is perhaps reason enough to give it a try.