Cal Newport offers a philosophy to combat the more damaging effects of a digital age dominated by "attention economy conglomerates," and strategies for living a more deliberate, intentional, and fulfilled life.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport, Portfolio, 304 pages, Hardcover, February 2019, ISBN 9780525536512
Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is all the rage once again, thanks to her new Netflix show. People love to hate, and they will, but my wife and I have been slowly and deliberately working our way through her process for the past few months, and I can’t tell you how often it feels as if a burden has been lifted when we finish one section or another. I have always kind of enjoyed clutter, so I never realized how much I’d appreciate not having so much of it—kind of like how I’ve always enjoyed doing the dishes, and didn’t realize how much I’d enjoy not doing them until we got a dishwasher. Our house is still full of the things we love most—we’ve kept most of our books and records and art and childrens’ toys—but we found we were able to rid it of many, many minivan sized loads of stuff we’d accumulated.
I’m not sure he’d approve, but I’ve been thinking of Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism, as a similar kind of instruction for tidying up our digital lives. We have accumulated so many digital communications tools in our lives and work over the past decade—and so blurred the lines between home and work with them—that it feels like high time we take an inventory of what tools we’re using, how often we use them, and how it is affecting our well-being. These are tools and devices that, by design, have been deliberately “engineered to hijack our social instincts to create an addictive allure.” Most are designed as a “digital slot machine,” with cognitively rewarding bells and whistles that are all the more addictive for the mirage of social engagement they offer. And, judging by the sheer volume of time spent on them, such tools have taken over a large portion of our lives. People who have signed up for the Moment app to track their smartphone usage check their phone, on average, 39 times a day and spent around three hours a day looking at their screens. And that is amongst people already being careful enough about their cell phone usage to track and attempt to curb it! Most of us are likely much worse.
We were such big fans of Cal Newport’s previous two books, So Good They Can't Ignore You and Deep Work, that both ended up on the shortlist of our yearly book awards. Digital Minimalism can be seen, in many ways, as part two in a series that began with Deep Work, applying many of the principles for creating more meaningful and deliberate work to living a more meaningful and intentional life. The first part of the new book sets out the philosophy of digital minimalism and how it helps us live more purposefully in the modern age, and then provides a method for adopting it: a 30 day, digital declutter. I’ll leave the details of that process for you to discover, but the principles behind it (that digital clutter is costly, optimization is important, and intentionality is satisfying) are likely to have you wanting to give it a try.
Part II of the book is where Newport identifies the habits one must form to live such a deliberate and fulfilled life. The first is solitude. Here he cites Lead Yourself First by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin, which we reviewed here, and Solitude by Michael Harris, which I somehow overlooked upon its release in 2017 even though we celebrated his previous book, The End of Absence, two years earlier. While most literature on wellbeing and fulfillment focuses on the importance of connecting to others, these books, and another Newport cites also entitled Solitude, this one by Anthony Storr, celebrates the importance of spending time free from the input of others’ minds. Storr quotes Edward Gibbon to open his book: “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” We’ll get back to the topic of conversation in a minute, but the point is that periods of solitude are as important to our well-being and satisfaction with life as a connection to others.
Pointing out that “the entirety of Storr’s list of remarkable lives [in the book] focuses on men,” Newport himself turns to Virginia Woolf on the topic:
As Virginia Woolf argues in her 1929 feminist manifesto, A Room of One’s Own, this imbalance should not come as a surprise. Woolf would agree that solitude is a prerequisite for original and creative thought, but she would then add that women had been systematically denied both the literal and figurative room of their own in which to cultivate this state. To Woolf, in other words, solitude is not a pleasant diversion, but instead a form of liberation from the cognitive oppression that results in its absence.
Time alone has been increasingly replaced with time on our devices. And while we may feel like we’re connecting to others as we stare at our screens, Michael Harris’s Solitude makes the case that one of the benefits of solitude is that it provides a truer “closeness to others.” (The other two primary benefits of solitude are the ability to develop new ideas and an understanding of the self.) It may be, as Newport explores in a subsequent chapter, that “When given downtime … our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.”
Newport believes we increasingly suffer from “solitude deprivation,” and warns of a push “toward a newly alienated phase in our relationship with our own minds.” Yuval Noah Harari, in last year’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, has a similar warning about algorithms—that they’re increasingly robbing people of the ability “to observe the reality about themselves,” robbing us of the ability to observe our own thoughts and our own mind. On a less existential level, solitude deprivation degrades the quality of our everyday lives:
[W]hen you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.
Newport next turns to psychologist Jean Twenge, author of iGen, who has found, analysing generational data stretching back to the 1930s, that “rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed” in the current generation entering college over the past decade—the first to have been raised with smartphones and social media. The research suggests the ubiquitous connectivity such tools offer—or at least the way in which they been deployed and integrated into the social fabric of a younger generation—is leading to a dramatic increase in anxiety and other mental health issues in today’s teens and young adults. As Newport suggests:
[W]e need solitude to thrive as human beings, and in recent years, without even realizing it, we’ve been systematically reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives.
Simply put, human beings are not wired to be constantly wired.
He suggests deliberate activities, such as leaving your phone at home, taking long walks, and writing letters to yourself, to practice “productive aloneness,” while being careful to remind readers that this is not an obligatory or comprehensive list of actions one can take to lead a more digital minimalist life. So what field attracted Cal Newport’s professorial attention to these topics? He is, in fact, a computer scientist. But like a nutritionist discovering that industrially “enriched” foods and other commercial practices were undermining the quality and healthfulness of our diet, Newport notes that:
Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are providing to be similarly worrisome.
There are both positive and negatives to life online, but there is also a very real “zero-sum relationship between online and offline interaction.” The moment you’re on social media is the moment you are not really engaging with those around you. Newport borrows from Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation (which we named the best Personal Development book of 2015), drawing a distinction between connection and conversation. Simply put, the tone and nuance and empathy needed to have a real conversation teaches us different skills and habits than the more performative connections and interactions we have online.
Newport offers a philosophy here he calls conversation-centric communication. What this philosophy asks of you in practice is that you downgrade digital communication tools to a logistical role. That is, you can maintain social media accounts and keep texting, but both should be used to to support facilitating real conversation—relegating the tools to information gathering tasks, such as asking a quick question of your spouse, or to coordinate face-to-face social events and interaction. “Gone will be the habit of regularly browsing these services throughout the day, sprinkling ‘likes’ and short comments, or posting your own updates and desperately checking for the feedback they accrue,” says Newport, and “you’ll no longer participate in open-ended, ongoing text-based conversations throughout the day. The socializing that counts is real conversation, and text is no longer a sufficient alternative.”
One need not give up these tools, which can help us facilitate our social lives. We simply need to redefine their role in our lives, to stop using them for more open-ended wandering, swiping, and tapping, as a way to “follow” people online or document every moment of our own lives, or perhaps more dangerously to use them as a news service. It seems so obvious once Newport puts it in the following context:
You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia.
That’s not to say some of these tools aren’t wondrous. Newport used Facetime to talk to his sister while she was living in Japan, something unimaginable a short time ago. A teacher at my kids’ school uses texts to organize our weekly basketball games. But the purpose is, again, to get people together in real life, although it does also facilitate a fair amount of trash-talking to enhance the stakes of the game. But to replace the “rich flow” of information we get through face-to-face interaction with the kind of “single bit” interaction we get from platforms like Facebook is, Newport believes, “the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery.”
To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.
That is, the computers we carry in our pockets can very easily make us less sophisticated, and less connected to each other, rather than more so. To counter that tendency, Newport suggests we stop using the shiny, slot-machine-like bells and whistles of “Like” buttons and quick perfunctory comments. If that means you lose some of the weaker social ties you maintain on social media, he has some “tough love reassurance: let them go.”
Humans have maintained rich and fulfilling social lives for our entire history without needing to send a few bits of information each month to people we knew briefly during high school. Nothing about your life will notably diminish when you return to this steady state.
I think most of us knew this when we signed up for social media, but a new normal of weak ties has replaced the question of why we sought them out or accepted them in the first place.
Newport also suggests we keep our phones on “Do Not Disturb” and consolidate texting in specific time windows. (You can adjust the settings so that people like your spouse, parents, or children are always able to get through.) This lessens the amount of almost constant disruptions and the amount of anxiety associated with them, and allows us to be more present in our face-to-face interactions with those around us. He also offers the idea of conversation office hours—similar to an idea in Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at Work—to set aside regular hours where people know you’ll be available to talk and answer questions. Variations on the theme include coffee shop hours, once-a-week happy hours at a favorite bar, or daily walks that you let certain people know they have an open invitation to join you in. Newport himself has broadened his own professorial open office hours, already required in most of academia, by extending them to any Georgetown student, letting them know they’re welcome to stop by rather than scheduling every interaction. The result is that he’s much more connected to the student body than he would have been otherwise. How can you use the idea in your social life or organizational structure?
One of the more powerful suggestions is that we reclaim our leisure time. Rather than essentially working for Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms in our leisure time, he provides examples of productive leisure, and prioritizing more “demanding activity over passive consumption.” He uses the example of a younger generation in the FI (or financial independence) movement, who have lived frugally and saved enough to become financially independent earlier in life than most—many in their early thirties. He finds most of them now engage in more demanding physical lifestyles, taking up homesteading projects, or buying and renovating buildings. That may not be in the cards for most of us, but we can take up more active and rewarding leisure activities. And if you think your job is too demanding to do so, I offer you an example from Jeanne Marie Laskas’s Hidden America. It is in that book that I learned many of the workers who go into coal mines in Appalachia have done so to hold on to family farms. As Laskas tells it:
Only a few of the coal miners I met didn't own at least a hundred acres of Ohio farmland, chunks passed through the generations, added to, divided up among brothers and sisters. Farming doesn't pay the bills, so you go into the coal mines.
She spoke to one miner who goes by the name of Foot:
“There ain’t nothing I like more than to smell that fresh-cut hay, throw that hay, rake that hay,” he said. Sometimes neighbors offer to help him; they’ll say ‘You work down in that mine all night and then you’re out on that damn farm.’ And I just tell them, ‘If I was sitting here on the bank with a fishing pole in my hand, fishing, would you come take it out of my hand?’ ‘Well, no.’ And I say ‘Well, this is my fishing.’ You know, this is my fishing.”
A more familiar phenomenon to most of us would be the resurgence of arts and crafts, which Newport explores at some length. The practices he suggests here are that we commit to fix or build something once a week, and that we come up with a leisure plan so that we don’t too easily fall back on the crutch of our devices.
Finally, he calls for us to join the attention resistance. Is it a call to reclaim our autonomy from the digital forces arrayed against it. “The average user,” Newport reminds us, “spends fifty minutes per day on Facebook products alone.” But we are not Facebook’s customers; we are its product. We spend our hours there providing valuable data which they then sell to their real customers—advertisers and others who would use that information in an attempt to further manipulate our behavior. To take back that time and our autonomy from “attention economy conglomerates,” Newport offers easy and practical suggestions like deleting social media apps from your phone, and a call to embrace slow media—similar to the Franklin Foer’s suggestion in a World Without Mind for returning to a more tactile, hands on form of consuming information (i.e. reading on paper, and getting information from books, newspapers, and magazines rather than Facebook and Twitter). Both make an analogy to the Slow Food movement, which fought back not only against the industrialization of our food supply, but for our quality of life and the health of our body. Digital Minimalism offers a strategy not only to resist the industrialization of our attention, but for our quality of life and health of mind. As a philosophy, it is not anti-technology because, as Newport says “it’s not really about technology, but is instead about the quality of your life.”
If we use them more minimally, in fact, these technologies can improve our lives, our relationships with others, and the human experience. Digital Minimalism can help us start down that path.