Digital Minimalism

My long-time friend and mentor, Cal Newport, has just released a new book, Digital Minimalism.

The basic premise is one you’ve heard before: digital addictions, from social media to constant texting, have invaded our attentions, reduced our productivity and made our lives worse.

The antidote isn’t to smash your smartphones and live as the Amish do, but to embrace a deliberate philosophy Newport calls digital minimalism.

This philosophy is guided by the idea that we should be in control over what kinds of media we consume, not have our habits dictated to us by technology.

Taking Leisure Seriously

While Newport’s massively popular book, Deep Work, tackled the problems of our always-on connectivity as they pertain to work, Digital Minimalism does this for your personal life. Having deep work at the office, but digital addictions at home, is hardly a victory.

To resolve these problems, Newport argues we should all take our leisure time much more seriously. Instead of defaulting into the low-quality obsessions that leave us wondering where the time has gone, we should cultivate high-quality hobbies that lead to lasting satisfaction.

In order to have the kind of meaningful use of our personal time, however, we need to first re-evaluate our relationship to technology. Newport suggests first a period of abstinence, followed by a selective re-introduction of only those tools and technologies that pass a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis than we typically impose.

Addiction and Modernity

A substantial theme in Newport’s book, although usually under-the-surface, rather than extensively argued, is how modernity and addiction may go hand-in-hand.

The reasoning is simple. We evolved to live in a specific kind of environment. That original human society created our minds to seek certain things, which rarely ever became excessive to the point of vice: high-calorie foods, sexually-stimulating sights, social approval and new information.

However, in our modern world, due to our wealth and technology, we don’t have the same limitations. Therefore we seek out more of these things than we need, and our market economy scrambles to provide them for us.

As a result, addiction seems to be the inevitable consequence of our culturally-created environment changing faster than our biologically-hardwired brains. A cultural problem requires a cultural solution.

Unfortunately, our recent changes to society have progressed too fast, even for culturally-transmitted solutions to be proven and durable. Thus, I expect books like Newport’s, and others, will fill the void as we recognize collectively the need to generate innovations to counteract the problems of our own success at fulfilling basic desires.

My Reactions to Digital Minimalism

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would. Although I love all of Newport’s writing, I use more social media than he does. I have Facebook, Twitter and Reddit accounts, and I feel like I get value from them.

I also police my online usage more than most. I use Leechblock on my computer browser, which prevents me from going over a pre-allocated limit on addicting websites. I don’t have Twitter, Facebook or Reddit on my phone.

Thus, I expected the book to mostly reaffirm what I already felt I was doing. However, after reading through the book, I got a chance to re-evaluate many of my habits and pass them over with greater scrutiny:

  • Rethinking Twitter. Twitter is a platform I love for the chance to hear from experts, academics, entrepreneurs and interesting people. But, it’s also a dumpster fire of toxic political controversies and culture war in-fighting. I used to think the benefits made up for the costs, but Newport’s book has made me seriously reconsider.
  • Being deliberate in my leisure time. Like most people, I’m often tired after work and just want to “relax.” However, that can easily devolve into spending time on things that don’t bring relaxation or meaning, but just waste time. Selectively blocking some tends to increase the influence of others. But putting your leisure time first, and taking seriously what kinds of activities you’ll engage in presents an opportunity to push out the waste through the opposite direction.
  • Am I really in control? Alcoholics frequently don’t think of themselves as addicted to drinking. Instead, they “like” drinking and could stop whenever they feel like it. They just don’t feel like it right now. While digital addictions aren’t chemical dependencies, they create reinforcing behavioral patterns so that not checking your smartphone every five minutes makes you feel a pang of discomfort. I’m no longer sure you can safely evaluate your media consumption, while you’re in the midst of it. Newport’s advice to step away for a month may be necessary to see your habits objectively.

The reason I loved the book, however, wasn’t a specific tactic he recommends or a specific, new idea, but that it paints a different vision of what your life could be like. A life strategy that is slower, less anxious, more meaningful and deeply connected to the things you care about.

This picture of life really resonates with me, and if it sounds like it will for you too, I strongly recommend reading Digital Minimalism.

Note: Cal Newport gave me a free digital copy of his book, so that I could read it in order that my review would appear online.

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