A Summary and Review of Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
I just finished Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and am excited to share a summary and review. Cal Newport is one of my favorite authors. I like the fact that he is a computer science professor. That said, he’s also an incredible writer with an ability to distill information in an engaging way.
The book is all about how we use technology in our lives and how society has been transformed as a result of the latest technological development. Reading this book was somewhat of a wake-up call for me. Even though I was fairly conscious about my social media use and tried to go on only once a day, I realized that I, like many social media users, had simply accepted these technologies and brought them into my own life without questioning what benefits they brought and if these benefits outweighed the costs. I just got on these platforms because all my friends and family were doing so.
Cal Newport breaks the book down into two parts: foundations and practices.
Foundations is made up of three chapters:
- A Lopsided Arms Race
- Digital Minimalism
- The Digital Declutter
Practices is made up of four chapters:
- Spend Time Alone
- Don’t Click “Like”
- Reclaim Leisure
- Join the Attention Resistance
Part 1: Foundations
A Lopsided Arms Race
Very few people predicted how much our relationship with Facebook and the iPhone would change in the years after these technologies were released. Social media and the smartphone have massively changed how we live in the 21st century.
These societal changes weren’t expected or planned. Nobody could’ve predicted that the average user would spend 2 hours per day on social media and would check their smartphone 85 times per day. One morning, we woke up to discover that these new technologies had colonized the core of our daily lives. We didn’t sign up for the digital world we now occupy.
These technologies increasingly determine how we behave and feel and coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy. We’re uncomfortable with the feeling of losing control.
Many of the technology tools that we use aren’t as innocent as they seem. Tech companies want you to use technologies in particular ways for long periods of time because that is how they make their money. Minimizing distraction is at odds with tech companies’ goal to make money. Some of these technologies we use on a daily basis were designed to put slot machines in our pockets.
As individuals, we need to better understand how our devices are so easily able to subvert our best intentions for our lives.
Adam Alter, author of Irresistible, researched our obsession with smartphones from a psychological perspective and was led to investigate the science of addiction. Addiction can be defined as a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.
In the 21st century, research has found that people can get addicted to behaviors that don’t involve substance ingestion. In conducting research, two things became clear to Adam Alter:
- Our new technologies are particularly well suited to foster behavioral addiction
- The addictive properties of these technologies are carefully engineered design features
Through intermittent positive reinforcement and drive for social approval, these technology platforms encourage behavioral addiction.
Intermittent positive reinforcement occurs when rewards are delivered unpredictably and, as a result, are far more enticing than they would be when delivered with a known pattern. Something about the unpredictability of these rewards releases more dopamine in our brains.
There’s nothing fundamental about the unpredictable feedback that dominates most social media platforms. The platforms would function just as well if they delivered notifications on a specified cadence or in real-time when the action occurred. However, these companies use unpredictable feedback because it works so well to keep users glued to their screens.
The drive for social approval revolves around our identity as humans. We are social beings and can’t ever completely ignore what others think of us. New technologies have leveraged this deep drive to create profitable behavioral addictions. The tech industry has become adept at exploiting our instinct for social approval and created a social-validation feedback loop.
Compulsive use of technology is not the result of a character flaw. Rather, it’s the realization of a massively profitable business plan. We didn’t buy into this business plan and sign up for the digital lives we now lead.
Digital minimalism is a strategy built to push away the forces manipulating us toward behavioral addictions. It offers a concrete plan for how to put new technologies to use for our best aspirations and not against them.
Through the use of tips and tricks alone, it’s hard to transform your digital life. Small changes aren’t enough to solve the big issues that we have with new technologies. The underlying behaviors that we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture and based on psychological forces that empower our base instincts.
Our relationship with technology needs to be rebuilt from scratch using deeply held values as a foundation. We all need a philosophy of technology use that covers which digital tools we allow into our lives, for what reasons, and under what constraints.
Digital minimalism is one such philosophy. Cal Newport defines digital minimalism as 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 the things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.
Digital minimalists constantly perform cost-benefit analyses. When a new technology supports one of the minimalist’s values, it still must pass a stricter test of whether or not this is the best way to use technology to support this value. If a given technology isn’t the best way to support the value, the minimalist will try to optimize the technology or search for a better option.
Digital minimalists transform innovations from a source of distraction into tools that support a life well lived. The digital minimalist philosophy contrasts starkly with the maximalist philosophy that most of us adhere to by default. This maximalist philosophy states that if a technology provides any potential benefit, we should start using the new technology.
Digital minimalists go against the grain and carefully curate their tools to deliver massive, unambiguous benefits. They are wary of low-value activities that can clutter up their time and attention and end up hurting more than they help.
Digital minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things. Rather, they worry about diminishing the large things they already know contribute to a good life.
Not all digital minimalists reject common digital tools. Digital minimalists are skilled at stripping away unnecessary features of new technologies, which allows them to access functions that matter while avoiding distraction. Little optimizations in the way digital minimalists use technology yield major differences in their daily lives.
There are three core principles of digital minimalism:
- Clutter is costly
- Optimization is important
- Intentionality is satisfying
Digital minimalists know that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative impact that can outweigh the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.
Digital minimalists believe that deciding that a technology supports one of their values is only the first step. They go beyond this and think carefully about how they’ll use the technology to get full potential benefits.
Digital minimalists also derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technology.
Optimizing our use of technology is just as important as how we choose what technology to use in the first place. Digital minimalists focus not just on what technologies they adopt, but also on how they use these technologies.
Many digital minimalists remove social media apps from their phones. In doing so, they eliminate their ability to browse accounts when they’re bored, but still get the high-value benefits of the technology, as they can use it on their computers.
There are two reasons as to why so few people optimize their tech usage:
- Most technologies are relatively new
- The large attention tech companies don’t want us to think about how we use their platforms, as they make more money if we spend most of our time engaged with their products
When it comes to new technology, less is more.
The Digital Declutter
Gradually changing habits one at a time doesn’t work when it comes to becoming a digital minimalist. Rather, results are likely to stick when someone engages in a rapid transformation that occurs in a short period of time and is executed with conviction.
Newport advises the digital declutter. In the digital declutter, you aside 30 days to take a break from optional technologies. During this break, you explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that are satisfying and meaningful to you. At the end of the break, you then reintroduce optional technologies into your life starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves and how you’ll use it to maximize this value.
The digital declutter resets your digital life by clearing away distracting tools and compulsive habits and replacing them with a more intentional set of behaviors that are optimized to support your values.
In January 2018, over 1,600 people on Newport’s mailing list signed up to do a digital declutter. He collected and reviewed the data and came to two conclusions:
- The digital declutter works
- The declutter process is tricky
Many people gave up before the 30-day period was over and the most common reason that people gave up involved subtle implementation mistakes. These mistakes were:
- Tech use rules that were either too vague or too strict
- Not planning what to replace the technologies with
The digital declutter process involves three main steps:
- Define your tech rules
- Take a 30-day break
- Reintroduce technology
In the first step, you define your technology rules. You need to decide which technologies are “optional” for you. Consider a technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life. TV and video games appear to be two borderline cases. In Newport’s study, participants insisted that tech like Netflix and other streaming platforms be included when defining rules for the digital declutter.
When confronting technology that’s largely optional, use operating procedures. Specify exactly how and when you use a particular technology.
The digital declutter process focuses primarily on new technologies including apps, sites, and tools delivered through computer or phone screens. You should also probably consider video games and video streaming platforms to be optional.
Take a 30-day break from all “optional” tech. In some cases, you’ll abstain from using the technology altogether, while in others, you’ll specify a set of operating procedures that clearly dictate when and how you’ll use the technology.
You’ll be left with a list of banned technology as well as relevant operating procedures. Write this down and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day. Clarity in what you’re allowed to and not allowed to do during the digital declutter will be crucial to its success.
The next step involves taking a 30-day break. For 30 days, follow the rules you established. At first, you’ll likely find it challenging, as your mind has developed expectations about distractions and entertainment that will be disrupted when you remove optional tech from your daily life. Many participants reported that the discomfort fades after a week or two.
The detox experience is important, as it will help you make smarter decisions at the end of the declutter when you begin to reintroduce some of the optional technologies back into your life. Without the clarity that the detox provides, the addictive pull of technology will bias your decisions.
Thinking of the digital declutter as just a detox is a mistake. The goal is to spark a permanent transformation in your digital life and the detox is a means to that end.
During the detox, you should spend time rediscovering what’s important to you and what you enjoy outside the digital world. If you cultivate high-quality alternatives to the easy distraction digital tools provide, you’ll be more likely to succeed in reducing their role in your life. By rediscovering what you enjoy, you’ll have something to guide you through the reintroduction phase at the end of the process.
The first week or two will be difficult, as you’ll have to fight urges to check technologies that you won’t be allowed to check. These feelings will pass and the resulting sense of detox will be useful when it comes time to make clear decisions at the end of the declutter.
The goal of the digital declutter isn’t just to enjoy time away from the intrusive technologies. During the process, you aggressively explore higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional tech you’re avoiding. This should be a period of strenuous activity and experimentation.
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 in which technology serves a supporting role for more meaningful ends.
In the final step, you reintroduce technology. Reintroducing optional technology is more demanding that you’d think. Some people make the mistake of treating the declutter as a detox and reintroducing all the optional tech after the declutter ends.
The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let technologies that pass your strict standards back into your life. The care that you take in this final step will determine whether the process sparks lasting change in your life.
For each optional technology you’re considering adding back into your life, ask the following:
- Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value?
- Is this the best way to support this value?
- How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harm?
Newport describes the minimalist tech screen to help complete this final step. To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the declutter, it must:
- Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit isn’t enough)
- Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better)
- Have a role in your life that’s constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it
Taking a break from optional technologies resets your digital life. You can now rebuild it from scratch in an intentional and minimalistic way. To do so, apply the minimalist tech screen to each technology you’re thinking of reintroducing.
The digital declutter will help you cultivate a digital life in which new technologies serve your deeply held values as opposed to subverting them without your permission. In this careful reintroduction, you make intentional decisions that will define you as a digital minimalist.
Part 2: Practices
Spend Time Alone
Anyone can benefit from regular doses of solitude and anyone who avoids solitude for an extended period of time will suffer. Your brain needs regular doses of quiet to support a monumental life.
Before we can discuss solitude, we need to better understand what it means. Solitude is often mistakenly associated with physical separation. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on a regular basis.
Solitude is really about what’s happening in your mind, not the environment around you. Newport defines solitude as a subjective state in which your mind is free from input of other minds. Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by others and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences.
From solitude, one can gain insight and emotional balance. Across the majority of poets, novelists, and composers, the need to spend a great deal of time alone is common. Solitude can be just as important for both happiness and productivity as intimate interaction. Solitude is also a prerequisite for original and creative thought.
Three crucial benefits of solitude are: new ideas, understanding of the self, and closeness to others.
Your ability to be alone can affirm close bonds rather than rejecting them. Calmly experiencing separation can build your appreciation for interpersonal connections when they do occur.
To flourish as an individual, regular doses of solitude mixed in with our default mode of sociality are necessary.
For the first time in history, solitude is beginning to fade away altogether. While the concern that modernity is at odds with solitude isn’t new, the important question is whether our current moment offers a new threat to solitude that’s somehow more pressing than those of the past. Newport argues that the answer is a definitive yes.
The invention of the iPod changed our culture. For the first time, we had the ability to continuously distract ourselves from our own mind.
The transformation didn’t reach its full potential until the release of the iPhone and spread of modern smartphones. Smartphones provide a new technique to eliminate any remaining slivers of solitude that we have. At the slightest hint of boredom, we can use any number of apps that are optimized to provide us with an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. Solitude can now be completely banished from our lives.
Now, we should wonder whether people will forget solitude entirely. The severity of the smartphone problem is easy to underestimate. While many think they use their smartphone too much, they don’t realize the full magnitude of the technology’s input.
Solitude deprivation is a state in which you spend close to no time alone with your own thoughts and free from input of other minds. Today, solitude deprivation is widespread.
The key question is whether this widespread solitude deprivation should concern us. By avoiding solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, regulate your emotions, build moral courage, and strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, the quality of your life degrades.
Humans aren’t wired to be constantly wired. We need solitude to thrive. In recent years, without even realizing it, we’ve been systematically reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives. The alternation between regular time alone with your thoughts and regular connection is the key to avoiding solitude deprivation in a culture that demands connection.
Newport discusses several practices to create solitude in an increasingly noisy world:
- Leave your phone at home
- Take long walks
- Write letters to yourself
Don’t Click “Like”
Every one of us has the ability to perform complicated social thinking. We should treat with great care any new technology that threatens to disrupt the ways in which we connect and communicate with others.
For a long time, humans have had an affinity for interaction and communication. There’s a particular set of regions in the brain that activate when you’re not attempting to do a cognitive task and deactivate when you focus your attention on something specific.
Scientists call these regions the default network and determined that it seemed to be connected to social cognition, as we usually think about other people, ourself, or both when we let our minds wander. When given downtime, our brain defaults to thinking about our social life. This behavior is instinctual, as studies have shown that the default network lights up even in newborns.
Humans are wired to be social. Our brain networks evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich, face-to-face encounters and social groups were small and tribal.
By contrast, the past two decades are characterized by the rapid spread of digital communication tools which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and clicks of approval that are orders of magnitude less informational than we’ve evolved to expect.
The more you use social media to interact, the less time you devote to offline communication. Replacing real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to our well-being.
Social media use doesn’t directly make us unhappy, but it tends to take us away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable.
Newport adopts a conversation-centric communication philosophy. He argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of face-to-face meeting or video chat. Anything textual or non-interactive (all social media, email, text, and IM) doesn’t count as conversation and should be categorized as connection.
Connection is downgraded to a logistical role with two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation and to efficiently transfer practical information. This philosophy doesn’t ask that you abandon digital communication tools. Rather, it recognizes that these tools can enable significant improvements to your social life.
This philosophy requires sacrifices. You’ll reduce the number of people that you have an active relationship with. When you no longer count connection as conversation, your social circle will seem to contract. This sense of contraction is only illusory.
Our sociality is too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to IMs and emojis.
Newport suggests three practices to reclaim conversation in your life:
- Don’t click “like”
- Consolidate texting
- Hold conversation office hours
A life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates. Embrace pursuits that provide a source of inward joy.
Cal Newport distinguishes between high-quality and low-quality leisure. High-quality leisure involves pursuits that provide you a source of inward joy. Low-quality digital interactions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. More and more people are failing to cultivate lives full of high-quality leisure.
If you want to succeed with digital minimalism, you can’t ignore the reality that there will be a void. You won’t know what to do with yourself when you remove your access to all the technologies you use. The most successful digital minimalists renovate what they do with their free time and engage in high-quality leisure before submitting to the worst of their digital habits.
Activities that seem like work can offer multiple levels of benefits. There is an inherent value in active leisure. Often, the value you receive from a pursuit is proportional to the energy invested.
Newport offers a few lessons about cultivating high-quality leisure:
- Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption
- Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world
- Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions
A craft is any activity where you apply skill to create something valuable. Crafts are a great source of high-quality leisure. Crafts make us human and can provide deep satisfaction that is hard to replicate in less hands-on activities. Purely digital activities, like programming, can also be considered crafts.
We should avoid states where passive interaction with our screens is our primary leisure. We can replace these states with states where our leisure time is filled with better pursuits, many of which exist in the physical world.
Several practices to help you upgrade your leisure life are:
- Fix or build something every week
- Schedule your low-quality leisure
- Join something
- Follow leisure plans
Join the Attention Resistance
The attention economy is a business sector that makes money gathering consumers’ attention and repackaging and selling it to advertisers. Extracting “eyeball minutes” has become significantly more lucrative than extracting oil.
Compulsive use of technology is not an accident, but a fundamental play in the digital attention economy playbook. Critical use of technology is a problem for the digital attention economy. To approach services with intentionality isn’t a commonsense adjustment to your digital habits. Rather, it’s a bold act of resistance.
To successfully resist, you need both preparation and a ruthless commitment to avoiding exploitation.
To resist the influences of the digital attention economy, Newport offers five practices:
- Delete social media from your phone
- Turn your devices into single-purpose computers
- Use social media like a professional
- Embrace slow media
- Dumb down your smartphone
- Rating: 89/100
- I thoroughly enjoyed Digital Minimalism. There was a remarkable amount of actionable and valuable information within it.
- Newport does an incredible job of delivering information in an engaging way.
- Throughout the book, Cal Newport makes it clear when he’s arguing something and when he’s stating a fact. I appreciated this.
- I enjoyed the historical references and the succinct nature of the stories Newport tells.
- Since reading this book, I’ve started my digital declutter. In another story, I plan on sharing my experience.