Digital Minimalism - Cal Newport

I borrowed the Kindle and Audio versions of Digital Minimalism a few weeks ago. It had been on my list of books to read, referenced multiple times in other books, by various Youtube vloggers, and disseminated in Cal Newport’s podcast.

The proposals in this book stem from the unsurprising observation that most of us are spending considerably more time connected to technology. The author does a reasonably good job in Part 1 of this book, underscoring the impact of Social Media and our phones on our lives.

Part two of the book covers four areas of focus that can help us implement Digital Minimalism.

Spend Time Alone

This chapter introduced me to how Lincoln often retreated to The Old Soldier’s home in Washington, DC, during his Presidency. These escapes were spent alone on long walks contemplating political matters. Many important decisions in his politics may have originated from this time spent in solitude.

The concept of solitude isn’t new and had been well documented by the stoics many centuries ago as a way for the mind to formulate deep thoughts. Before the invention of the smartphone, a long commute or waiting in a long line provided moments of solitude. We now tend to spend every free moment gathering input from our smartphones and this has made us solitude deprived -

Solitude Deprivation A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds

This chapter ends by suggesting three practices to rectify our solitude deprivation -

  • Taking long walks - a time alone without the phone can help deepen our relationship with our thoughts.
  • Journalling - a way to spend more time with your thoughts
  • Leave your phone at home - sometimes this is a forcing function - no phone hence more time with your thoughts.

Don’t Click Like

The author illustrates an essential point with the “Rock Paper Scissors” example in this chapter - humans have evolved to read complex physical and social cues when in the company of other people. Digital communication prevents a person from learning these cues.

Turkle, for example, introduces her readers to middle school students who struggle with empathy, as they lack the practice of reading facial cues that comes from conversation, as well as a thirty-four-year-old colleague who comes to realize her online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance that have led her to the point where the line between real and performed is blurring.

My takeaway from this chapter was that of “Consolidated Texting.” It might make sense to consolidate digital communication to specific day periods. Furthermore, individuals should use this communication merely as a tool that facilitates real connections with others.

Reclaim Leisure

Reclaiming Leisure was an idea that I was already familiar with from Cal Newport’s podcasts. This idea, in part, emphasizes preplanning leisure. Preplanning eliminates spontaneity; however, it provides a clear structure. Without a system, the default for most people is mindlessly binge-watching TV shows or surfing social media.

I’ve noticed that once someone becomes more intentional about their leisure, they tend to find more of it in their life. The weekly planning ritual can lead you to begin fighting for more leisure opportunities. Seeing, for example, that Thursday is a light schedule, you might decide to end work at 3:30 that day to go on a hike before dinner.

The second part of this idea involves planning non-digital leisure - in particular activities that may be strenuous or involve physical work. Ideas include - social gyms like F3 or Crossfit and board game clubs.

The sting of defeat is all the more real when you sit across from your smiling victor while packing up the pieces, but because the defeat is within the structured confines of a game, it fades, allowing you to practice the complex inter-social dance required to defuse the tension.

Join the Attention Resistance

And lastly, Cal Newport proposes resisting the urge to embrace new technology unless it has some intentional benefit. The chapter illustrates two examples. The first concerns how people consume breaking news via Twitter, believing they have learned much information. In contrast, reading an in-depth article curated from high-quality sources (previously vetted by the individual) is probably an efficient method of consuming news.

A well-known journalist recently told me that following a breaking story on Twitter gives him the sense that he’s receiving lots of information, but that, in his experience, waiting until the next morning to read the article about the story in the Washington Post almost always leaves him more informed.

The second example in the chapter illustrates how professionals leverage social media for their growth and business. Rather than mindlessly scrolling through feeds, these professionals curate a list of individuals they want to follow and use tools like TweetDeck to filter content pertinent to their profession. The approach optimizes social media consumption for their benefit.

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.