Book Report / Experiment: "Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport
Published: February 27, 2023
Disclaimer/conflict of interest: I spent most of the past 5 years employed by one of the companies featured in a consistently negative light in this book - and it’s impossible for that to not bias my reading. I’m no longer working in social media and hold no individual shares in any technology company.
Last week I finished listening to “Digital Minimalism”. It was inspiring enough that I’ve spent the past week setting up some small experiments as recommended in the book, and plan to spend March doing what Newport refers to as a “digital declutter”.
I’ve been interested in reading some of Newport’s work for a while. My impressions prior to this were that he was a CS professor very interested in optimizing how we work, and that he really hates email. This book was a good introduction. I plan to read or listen to “Deep Work” in the near future.
“Digital Minimalism” was written in 2016, so I’m somewhat late to the party. Minimalism as a philosophy seemed somewhat more in vogue in this era. “The magical art of tidying up” by Marie Kondo came out in 2010 and was very popular. At one point my wife and I owned two copies, which was a very funny realization. “Essentialism” came out in 2014, and while I haven’t read it seems to apply many of the same principles in a business context.
I won’t write many words summarizing the book, for that Nat Eliason has done a great job.
Newport’s central thesis behind the book is that we need a philosophy for how we interact with digital technology, particularly smartphones and social media. He proposes “Digital Minimalism” as one possible approach. He spends the first portion of the book making a case against the role of social media and smart phones in many of our daily lives, with a particular focus on the degree to which much of social media has been engineered for addictiveness. He then lays out a core of three principles behind digital minimalism.
- Clutter is costly.
- Optimization is important.
- Intentionality is satisfying.
Newport argues for a “digital declutter” process in which one sets aside a 30 day period where they eliminate what he considers “optional” technologies. After this period those technologies are only reintroduced after careful consideration of their value.
The rest of the book discusses many practices that extend far beyond technology towards leading a fulfilled life including optimizing leisure and embracing solitude. His argument here is that many are using technology as a means of avoiding these parts of life, and if we don’t address the void we’re filling with passive consumption we will return to those same habits.
Some practices that stood out to me as good ideas here were the following:
- Build or fix one thing a week. This is great, I plan to embrace it. This week I tore up our back porch to allow our plumber access to do a sewer repair.
- Delete the apps, keep the websites. This has been a strategy I’ve seen many effective people I know personally employ, along with extremely aggressive notification management.
- Make computer single use. People are really bad at context switching and multi-tasking. The more single-threaded I can make my task on a computer the better I am at it.
- Embrace slow media. One theme that resonated with me throughout this book was a rejection what Newport identifies as an American puritan attitude towards categories of behavior. He offers an embrace of slower, more intentional media consumption compared to what many have done of completely ignoring the media and news. How I interpreted this: Following a small number of high quality and carefully curated websites and journals outperforms “I don’t read the news”. He also makes a point that one should read the best arguments against their beliefs.
- Schedule low-quality leisure activities. Things like checking notifications should be relegated to a specific time-boxed period.
Much of the latter part of the book focuses on developing an intentional leisure life and engaging in activities that are challenging with other people. I agree that this is a void for many in modern life, but personally have spent much of the past decade carving this out for myself. I’d much rather be on the other end of a rope on a glacier with a couple of good friends than mindlessly scrolling the news.
There were a few arguments that I didn’t agree with. At one point, Newport suggests to use analog tools such as physical instruments vs digital counterparts. This makes little sense to me, as I don’t think the artist using a digital drawing tool is less invested in their work than the one opting for paper, nor the DJ in a digital tool less so than a guitar player in a garage. Later, on the topic of how one should interface with digital services “It’s important to approach these activities with a sense of zero-sum antagonism”. This was frustrating to me, as many of my “IRL” friendships, mentors, and jobs came from networks built atop these tools. I don’t think a sense of zero-sum antagonism is compatible with leveraging social media and other technology to escape one’s local social bubble and in some ways contrasts with the broader theme of being ruthlessly intentional in finding healthy and moderate ways of engaging with digital tools and services.
Overall I enjoyed the book. Newport describes his ideas in a succinct manner and proposes most practices in realistic and flexible frameworks instead of dogmatic beliefs. The core thesis of the book isn’t “smartphones are terrible, we should be luddites!” it’s “be intentional about how you live, and the role technology plays in that”. This is definitely one I plan to recommend to friends if they mention they’re struggling with their relationship to social media or technology in general.
My experiment: March Digital Declutter
One of the things I most appreciated about the book is Newport’s flexible approach to what you include and exclude in your digital declutter. This is highly personal depending on one’s profession and lifestyle. He defines optional as:
Consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life
Newport also proposes putting strict guards on the technology that you include during and after this time period, such as leveraging do not disturb and blocking access to websites. He puts a particular focus on the technologies that are designed to capture your attention, such as social media. One great change that has happened since he wrote the book in 2016 is that the tooling available out of the box on iOS has gotten notably better. Do not disturb profiles are very convenient for this kind of intentionality. I’ve used self control a long time ago on the Mac, and have just re-downloaded it for this.
I’ve spent the past week softly introducing many of the practices of a declutter into my daily life to see where I’m likely to fail and guard against it. So far I’ve set up working hours do-not-disturb profiles on my phone and deleted social media/messaging apps off of my cell phone. This has provided pretty immediate benefits at marginal annoyance.
For the purposes of the March experiment I’m following these constraints and categories of optional/essential.
These are things that I need for work, or I’ve already determined provide high value in my personal life at minimal costs to my attention.
- All working tools - this includes things like slack, GitHub, and work email. My job is to write software for computers, and that involves being on them all day.
- Apps related to my physical training. This includes my Garmin watch + Garmin Connect and Strong. However, during training sessions I’m moving to zero phone use. Sets are recorded in a notebook, timing is handled by my watch, and music playlists are pre-set. Outdoor cardio is the priority when weather allows, and I don’t listen to music during it.
- Audible - I listen to more books than I sit down and read. I don’t plan on changing that.
- Writing - I jot notes down in a notebook, but do my best writing on a computer.
- Social media I manage. My role with Cascade Backcountry Alliance is managing our social media. This takes very little time per week.
- Podcasts - Only outside of work hours and only when engaged in something else such as chores or driving. Only high-quality educational podcasts such as Huberman Lab
- Personal email - Only between 6-9PM. This is more of a chore and less of something that I get distracted by.
- Messaging services - This is basically messenger and instagram DMs but both are invaluable tools for planning my recreation. Limited to only between 6-7PM and only on the desktop (though instagram desktop has a bug that makes this flaky). Acceptable to check back in later in the evening (before 10PM) for ongoing conversations on specific plans for skiing/social engagements.
- Streaming - Netflix, YouTube, etc. Only with other people and in the evening.
Optional and eliminated
- Personal social media including Strava (though workouts will still auto-sync from Garmin)
- Reddit, hacker news, and other forum type websites
- Blogs I’m subscribed to via email lists
- Shopping - I expect this to be one of the larger behavior shifts but am also confident it’s manageable for a month
Other practices during the month
- Phone goes into airplane mode before bed and is out of physical reach
- Zero phone use during training sessions
- Audit screen time to keep myself accountable. In the first half of February I was averaging roughly four (!!) hours a day. Putting that out in a public place is something that causes me a degree of embarassment. My goal is that this is < 1 hour/day through March, though I expect things like Google maps may make for some outlier days.
I plan to write a follow up in early April on how this process went, and what changes I see as durable going forward.