Digital Minimalism

Author(s): Cal Newport
Published: 2019

Overall Thoughts & Roadmap

A really useful guide on how to use technology to enhance your life and achieve your goals, rather than let technological tools control your life. The book covers both the theory behind digital minimalism and how to go about being a digital minimalist.

This book summary is split into a "theory" and "practice" section. The theory section covers: 

(1) What is digital minimalism? 

(2) Why do we need digital minimalism?

The practice section covers: 

(3) How to do a digital declutter

(4) How to be a digital minimalist


1. What is digital minimalism? 

Digital minimalism 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 everything you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

“The so-called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit cost-benefit analyses. If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it. Even when a new technology promises to support something the minimalist values, it must still pass a stricter test: 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.”

Importantly, digital minimalists aren't anti-technology, they're just pro-technology for specific intentional purposes.

“A foundational theme in digital minimalism is that new technology, when used with care and intention, creates a better life than either Luddism or mindless adoption”

Examples of digital minimalism

  • Using flip phone instead of smart phone.
  • Not necessarily quitting social media, but being smarter in how you use it - e.g. bookmarking the Facebook events page so you’re up to date with what’s going on but don’t see other things.
  • Unsubscribing to newsletters that you don't read.

2. Why do we need digital minimalism?

We're losing our autonomy

There’s now scientific consensus that technology can be addictive.

  • Technology addiction is different to substance addiction. It is a type of behavioral addiction - we keep doing this action even though we know its benefits aren’t great.
  • This makes us feel a loss of control when we use technology. This is true even if technology is useful.
  • Our current discussion shouldn’t be about whether technology is useful (it is), but rather whether and how it takes away our autonomy.

There are 2 forces that make technology "irresistible" 

  1. Intermittent positive reinforcement. Social media websites are designed to give you a dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on your photo or post. We feel good about ourselves so we keep using it.
  2. Drive for social approval. We like getting recognition from others, period. Social media websites provide the perfect portal to get this recognition.

Digital clutter is costly

We're fooled into thinking we gain a lot from using the latest app, subscribing to another newsletter, buying a new device. But we forget about the opportunity cost of using these technologies: the minutes in your day! 

“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”

Because digital clutter is costly, it's important to be intentional and selective about which tech tools you use and how much of them you use. Suppose that you spend 10 hours per week on Twitter. What return do you get for those 10 hours? If your purpose of using Twitter is to connect with people and expose yourself to new ideas, are there better ways of achieving these goals? Would going to an interesting talk every month and forcing yourself to chat to a few people there be a better use of your time?


3. How to do a digital declutter

Step 1. Identify optional technologies

Which technologies are optional?

  • “Consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life."
  • Email not optional if it’ll harm your career.
  • If your daughter uses text to tell you when she’s ready to be picked up, then it’s okay to use text for this purpose.

Step 2. Take a 30 day break from optional technologies

Take a 30 day break from these activities. You will probably find the first week or two of the digital declutter to be difficult. Find new activities to “fill this void” - you need to discover what leisure time activities give you joy.

“The goal is not to simply give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life. The detoxing is merely a step that supports this transformation.”
“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

Do not reintroduce all technologies. Only introduce those that pass the following screen tests:

  1. It serves something you deeply value (it’s not enough if the technology just offers some benefit).
  2. It is the best way to serve this value (e.g. if your goal is to keep up with your sister’s baby, is Instagram really the best way or can you just call her up?).
  3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifics when and how you use it (e.g. I check FB each Saturday on my computer to see what my close friends and family are up to. I don’t have the app on my phone).

Decide on your rules for using these technologies

  • You can either totally abstain from these optional technologies for 30 days or you can create “operational rules” for them.
  • Operational rules: I will only use technology X under circumstances C. (E.g. will only watch Netflix with other people).

4. How to be a digital minimalist

Spend time in solitude

What is solitude? 

  • Solitude = the subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.
  • Crucially, solitude is about what's happening in your brain, not the environment around you. For example, solitude does not necessarily equal physical separation. You can be physically alone but not in solitude - just go on twitter and listen to other people's minds.
  • We live in era of solitude deprivation - a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
  • There are at least three benefits of solitude: (1) leads to new ideas, (2) helps you understand yourself, (3) gets you closer to others.

Practical tips to increase solitude:

  • Leave your phone at home. Not having your phone with you is not as disastrous as people make it out to be... Before we had phones, people were pretty happy to get lost and just read a map!
  • Take long walks. Some really great thinkers swore on taking long walks. E,g, Thoreau spent at least 4 hours a day sauntering through woods.
  • Write letters to yourself. The key here is the act of writing itself - it shifts you into a state of "productive solitude" (ugh... that term!).

Emphasize high-bandwidth interactions

What are high-bandwidth interactions? 

  • Low-bandwidth interactions = connections; usually happens online. Examples include email, texting.
  • High-bandwidth interactions = conversations; usually happens face to face. Examples include face-to-face convos, video chats, a phone call.
  • High-bandwidth interactions requires us to be attentive to nuanced cues like the tone of the other person's voice and their facial expressions.

Practical tips to have high-bandwidth conversations: 

  • Don't click "like". Clicking like on a post is a low-quality and trivial way of communicating! It doesn't convey much information about the sender or the receiver. Call that person instead if you want to say congrats on their new baby/engagement! 
  • Consolidate texting. Put your phone on "Do not disturb" by default. Make texts something you check on a regular schedule, like email.
  • Hold conversation "office hours". Put aside set times on set days during which you're always available for conversation.

Find high-quality leisure activities

What counts as high-quality leisure activities? Cal defines leisure as activities that are done for their own sake. He suggests that high-quality leisure activities are usually analogue in nature and have one of the following three characteristics: 

  1. It's active rather than passive.
  2. It uses a set of skills to produce something valuable in the physical world. For this reason, craft is a good source of high-quality leisure.
  3. Requires real-world, structured social interactions. Examples: board games, social fitness, volunteer activities.

Note that although the activities discussed so far are primarily analogue in nature rather than digital, their successful execution often depends on strategic use of new technologies. E.g. using YouTube to learn a skill rather than binge-watching something.

Practical tips for doing high-quality leisure activities: 

  • Build something every week (e.g. change your own car oil, learn an instrument) 
  • Schedule your low-quality leisure (e.g. work out the specific time periods during which you'll web surf mindlessly).
  • Join a group (e.g. volunteer group, PTA, fitness group).
  • Make weekly and seasonal leisure plans.

Join the attention resistance

What is the attention resistance movement? 

  • Most social media companies operate in the “attention economy” which makes money gathering consumers’ attention and then repacking and selling to advertisers.
  • The attention resistance movement promotes combining high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct strikes on popular attention economic services.

Practical tips for joining the attention resistance:

  • Delete social media from your phone. Smartphone versions of social media tools are much more adept at hijacking your attention because they're everywhere. Try to only use social media when you're physically sitting in front of your computer.
  • Turn your devices into single-purpose devices. E.g. When you're working on something deep, try to make sure you can't browse the web on your laptop. This might also mean dumbing down your smart phone.
  • Use social media like a professional. Invest effort into selecting whom to follow. Have a careful plan for how you use different platforms, with the goal of maximizing good information and cutting out the waste.
  • Embrace "slow media". The “slow media” movement rejects the production and consumption of click-baity media. Unless you’re a breaking news reporter, it’s usually counterproductive to expose yourself to the fire hose of incomplete, redundant, and often contradictory information that comes immediately from breaking news. Instead of ready quick media, go for longer-form content!