Over the past few days I’ve powered through Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. This is the latest in line from Newport who has managed to successfully place himself as a modern day productivity and career guru with his works, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Deep Work”. Like his other works, Digital Minimalism is a celebration of the real, a celebration of deep, focussed attention and a celebration of inhabiting the physical world as opposed to the digital reality. The crux of the book is the recommendation to follow a strict, 30 day, optional digital detox and then to selectively and careful reintroduce digital services back into your life. Something I may have to test out in the future.
I went into the book expecting a gentle refresher on some of the things that I already knew. From reading works such as “Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff and “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr I’ve become acquainted with the works of the anti-social media crowd and the growing literature of the harm that our modern, hyperconnected, culture can create. In that space, Digital Minimalism which begins with a light refresher on some of the ills that have arisen in society is nothing new. I would recommend “Surveillance Capitalism” for the reader who wants a more in depth survey.
But this isn’t the point of Newport’s latest and I would be doing him a disservice if I judged it on these merits. Newport is interested in the practical implications of becoming, what he terms, a “Digital Minimalist”. To Cal, a digital minimalist has everything to do with the intent that you use a particular service for. If you’re able to sneak in, use it for a purpose that gives you a lot of value and then escape the traps that social media services and their ilk try to lay for you, then, by definition, you could be considered one. Any individual who is seeking to understand and consciously control their digital lifestyle is well on this pathway.
Digital Minimalism, the book, can be thought of as a series of four practices with accompanying material. These practices are, loosely interpreted:
- Conversation over Connection
- High Intensity Leisure
- Conscious Use
In the sections on spending time alone Cal channels Thoreau’s retreat to the cabin to extol the virtues of being comfortable without the intrusion of any other minds. I found this point particularly interesting as it had absolutely nothing to do with being alone in the physical sense and instead everything to do with the mental sense.
If you’re working through a forest with your ear phones blasting you’re not actually alone, sure, in the physical sense there’s no-one around but you’re still being influenced by the music. Likewise if you’re walking down a street and coming across billboard after billboard packed with advertisements. In fact, it’s actually pretty hard to be alone in these situations mentally. There’s always something or someone who wants to intrude upon your thoughts. Looking into my own life I can see the grains of truth here. Whilst I’m a relatively independent person it is still difficult for me to spend time with only my own thoughts. I hate to think how much of my potential independent thought I’ve squandered this way.
My key takeaways from this section were:
- Be comfortable being alone, don’t instantly reach for a source of distraction, get over the fear of not having anything to do
- Embrace long walks without a phone, preferably in nature, as a mechanism for finding solitude
- Every now and then write a letter to yourself
In Conversation over Connection Newport discusses the differences between high bandwidth, full sensory experience, in person conversation and fleeting, intermittent and transient connection. Sitting down over coffee with no distractions with a friend is conversation, it engages you fully. Hitting like on a Facebook post is a little hit of dopamine and a fleeting bit of connection.
I think this particular distinction, which Newport borrows from Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation is extremely valuable as it lays bare the lie that social media companies have told us. They promote connection as though it is conversation when in reality the difference between the two could not be more vast. By equating the two they’ve help to drive a societal shift were all conversation has become connection and we are poorer for it.
Newport wants us to return to a world where we have more conversation, even if that means we must have less connection, and thinks we’ll be better for it. I cannot help but agree. To that end, my key takeaways were to:
- Be more proactive about scheduling time with the people closest to me, a digital conversation is not the same
- Join groups
- Text less, mostly for logistical purposes, call and meet in person more
I particularly enjoyed the sections on High Intensity Leisure. Newport takes as inspiration the lifestyle of a well known internet blogger, Pete Adeney or “Mr Money Mustache” and his slightly unusual FIRE lifestyle (Financial Independence, Retire Early). Pete retired young, in his early 30’s from memory and now lives a life filled with all sorts of DIY, projects and activities. Whilst not for everyone Newport uses Pete as an example of how to increase the demands on our leisure time.
As such, Newport espouses three principles of “Reclaiming Leisure”.
- Prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption
- Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world
- Seek activities that provide real world, structured social interactions
These are then coupled with a set of practices including:
- Fix or build something every week
- Schedule your low quality leisure time
- Join something
- Follow leisure plans
This was probably the chapter that I enjoyed the most and it’s something that I aspire to and often fail in. On a personal level, I find a deep satisfaction in making things, bringing something physical out into the world. It’s the engineer deep within me that I occasionally like to let out. But, I often get distracted, I get sucked into the rabbit hole and I don’t manage to achieve the things that I want to. This chapter gave me a few skills and things that I could take away to help with this, in particular, the leisure planning.
You see, I think I’ve been looking at relaxation the wrong way. Instead of thinking that I need to “switch off” and “relax” by “zoning out” and doing nothing instead it could be that I need to do the complete opposite. Perhaps the reality is rather than trying to do less I should be focussing on doing more of something completely different that engages me fully. If I spend all day on a screen then the last thing I should be doing when I come home is sitting in front of another screen. Instead, I should spend tha time actively making and creating as well as working on activities that I find intellectually satisfying.
For me, the reality is that I’m not limited by my ability in these situations it is, instead, that I fall into this trap of doing less. I also find it incredibly difficult to get to sleep and there may be some coincidence there. If, instead of coming home from work and not thinking about stuff I begin to throw myself into the things that I enjoy I’ll probably take a much more deep seated enjoyment from the activity as well as being able to go to sleep easier. Something I’ll need to spend some more time thinking about.
The final chapter is on the conscious use of technology and reclaiming your attention. This is a simple chapter, much shorter than the others, where Newport outlines an approach to consciously using internet services versus the unconscious way that most of them are used today. Most of this centers around the prevention of mindless browsing and in particular the role that smart phones play in our lives.
Whilst, due to professional commitments, I won’t be able to get rid of my smart phone any time soon I can most definitely implement some of the practices that Newport talks about. In particular for me, I need to reduce the amount of time that gets sucked into streaming video services like YouTube and reading news articles. In fact, it’s likely that I need a complete detox from these services in order to work on the things that are actually important to me. Something for me to ponder more of.
Overall, I found the work a good read. There’s nothing ground breaking in it but I did find the sections on the Amish and the role of conscious and strenuous leisure time in particular enjoyable. I think this would be a useful book to reread chapters of every now and then as a reminder and as a guide to think about what role technology is playing in your life.
I’ll give it a 4/5.