In this episode we continue our recurring “Productive Reading” series, this time talking about my key takeaways from Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport.
Being more intentional about our use of digital tools can increase our productivity and enhance our quality of life
In past episodes of our recurring Productive Reading series, we’ve talked about the lessons and key takeaways I found in books such as Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing (episode 133), The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg (episode 147), 3 books written by Brené Brown (episode 166), Soulful Simplicity, by Courtney Carver (episode 182), The Free-Time Formula by Jeff Sanders (episode 211), James Clear’s wonderful Atomic Habits (episode 230), Free to Focus, by Michael Hyatt (episode 250), Attention Management, by Maura Nevel Thomas (episode 271), The Minimalist Home, by Joshua Becker (episode 324), and most recently, Effortless, by Greg McKeown (episode 349). This time I’m sharing some of my most important takeaways from a 2019 book by Cal Newport, who’s the author of, among other things, the best-selling Deep Work. I recently read his 2019 release, Digital Minimalism, and I’ve been looking forward to talking with you about it.
Who is Cal Newport?
From the back cover copy:
Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of six books, including Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. You won’t find him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, but you can often find him at home with his family in Washington, DC, or writing essays for his popular website, calnewport.com.
Why did I read this book?
I’ve heard about this book from several sources I respect, and I was intrigued by its premise, especially since I’ve personally struggled with the conflict between the convenience and utility of the devices and apps I use and the overwhelm of being always on. I thought this book would offer some insight into regaining some sense of control and peace in what Newport refers to as “our tech-saturated world.”
On the front flap, it says
Common-sense tips like turning off notifications, or occasional rituals like observing a digital Sabbath, don’t go far enough in helping us take back control of our technological lives, and attempts to unplug completely are complicated by the demands of family, friends, and work. What we need instead is a thoughtful method to decide what tools to use, for what purposes, and under what conditions.
The cover copy goes on to say:
Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you. This book shows the way.
The book is subtitled: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, and it’s really about just that. 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 things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
The introductory section talks about the genesis of the digital minimalism movement as a response to the experience many of us have of the very tools we acquired to help us manage our lives, which have become more and more intrusive and more and more consumptive of our time and attention. It also talks about what Cal has learned after publishing Deep Work, about the widespread exhaustion reported by his readers and others he talked to resulting from “the overall impact of having so many different shiny baubles pulling so insistently at their attention and manipulating their mood.” He notes that “Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addictions. The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”
Note that the issue isn’t the few minutes here and there spent online or checking social media feeds. It’s the way the urge to do this interrupts what we’re doing. Accomplishing things that matter, whether a creative project or a meaningful conversation, requires uninterrupted time, and that’s just what we seem to have so little of these days.
It’s important to note that this book is not anti-tech, and digital minimalism is not about getting rid of all your tech (any more than minimalism is about getting rid of all of your stuff). As Newport says:
Smartphones, ubiquitous wireless internet, digital platforms that connect billions of people–these are triumphant innovations! Few serious commentators think we’d be better off retreating to an earlier technological age. But at the same time, people are tired of feeling like they’ve become a slave to their devices. This reality creates a jumbled emotional landscape where you can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram while fretting about this app’s ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading.
Two sections: Foundations and Practices
Foundations – the philosophical underpinnings (the why) of digital minimalism, “starting with a closer examination of the forces that are making so many people’s digital lives increasingly intolerable, before moving on to a detailed discussion of the digital minimalism philosophy…”
Cal proposes a “Radical idea”: try a 30-day digital detox, where you eliminate all digital tools (apps, etc.) that aren’t essential to your business or professional life, and create operating procedures–boundaries around when and how you’ll use those tools during the 30-day period.
- Not a one-time detox, but a period to break the hold they have on you, then you are very intentional about which ones you take back into your life and under what circumstances.
- During the 30-day period, you intentionally pursue other interests and activities, purposefully creating a different kind of life that’s not dominated by online activities.
Practices – “a closer look at some ideas that will help you cultivate a sustainable digital minimalism lifestyle.”
- Spend time alone
- Don’t click “like”
- Reclaim leisure
- Join the attention resistance
Key takeaways and quotes
The tools (devices and apps) we’ve adopted to make our lives more productive have consumed more and more of our time and attention, crowding out other pursuits that may have more intrinsic value. These devices and apps have gone from being tools (things we use to achieve our own chosen purposes) to influences (things that trigger us to do things and affect our thoughts, emotions, and actions).
The addiction to these devices isn’t accidental, but the result of huge investments of time and money to exploit basic human qualities.
People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.
Cal compares tech companies to cigarette companies in the sense that both studied customers and invested money into researching and developing ways to keep us using their products.
The hot new technologies that emerged in the past decade or so are particularly well suited to foster behavioral addictions, leading people to use them much more than they think is useful or healthy.
According to various industry whistleblowers and several studies, “these technologies are in many cases specifically designed to trigger this addictive behavior. Compulsive use, in this context, is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan.”
In the case of the tech, they intentionally design features that take advantage of human psychology through the use of intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval. Cal goes into some depth discussing how this works and what features have been developed using this. For instance, features like the FB “Like” button or facial recognition that allows us to tag friends in our photos weren’t developed to serve the user, but to encourage us to spend more time.
We are not the customer; we are the product. Their customer is the advertiser, and they are selling us: our attention, our eyeballs on the screen.
It’s possible, even likely, that the costs of extensive use of these technologies outweigh the purported benefits.
We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons–to look up friends’ relationship statuses or eliminate the need to carry a separate iPod and phone–and then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.
Solitude is crucially important for our psychological health and our productivity, and there is a threat to solitude posed by unrestricted tech. Note that solitude is more than just physical separation, it’s “a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.”
Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences–wherever you happen to be.
Solitude deprivation: “A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings to 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.
In the book, Cal uses the generation born after 1995 as the “canary in the coal mine”; they are the first generation to enter pre-teens with access to smartphones, tablets, and widespread internet access. Parents and teachers note their constant use of their devices; a 2015 study “found that teenagers were consuming media–including text messaging and social media–nine hours per day on average. . . .”
A college administrator (head of mental health services at a well-known university) told Cal of observing shifts in student mental health.
Until recently, the mental health center on campus had seen the same mix of teenage issues that have been common for decades: homesickness, eating disorders, some depression, and the occasional case of OCD. Then everything changed. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety. . . . The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media.
There is similar information from another expert on generational differences among American youth. “Young people born between 1995 and 2012 . . . exhibited remarkable differences as compared to the Millenialsthat preceded them. One of the biggest and most troubling changes was [their] psychological health. ‘Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed, . . . with much of this seemingly due to a massive increase in anxiety disorders.” She correlates all this directly to the constant connectedness and an almost complete absence of solitude.
The importance of leisure (and the difference between leisure and “doing nothing”)
Cal describes and makes the case for “Leisure Lessons”
- Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.
- Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.
- Creating things – “In a culture where screens replace craft, . . . people lose the outlet for self-worth established through unambiguous demonstrations of skill.”
- Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.
Cal recommends specific practices to develop in place of using screen time to soothe boredom (starting during the 30-day digital detox period).
- Fix or build something every week.
- Schedule your low-quality leisure. (Put boundaries around screen time, social media, etc.)
- Join something
- Follow leisure plans.
Key message of the book:
Making small changes in our use, such as silencing alerts or taking days off from tech use, is not enough. We need to change our mindset about tech usage from maximalism (if it has some benefit, that’s good enough justification to adopt it) to minimalism (it has to serve a deeply held value and do so in a significant way).
By working backward from their deep values to their technology choices, digital minimalists transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived. By doing so, they break the spell that has made so many people feel like they’re losing control to their screens.
Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.
Some final thoughts
I have been a tech geek for quite some time, but even I have noticed the negative effects of life dominated by technology. This book gave me food for thought. Newport presents a specific, well-reasoned approach to taking control of your life back from the technology and provides specific, actionable suggestions for putting this philosophy into practice in a way that works for your particular life. Highly recommended.
What do you think?
Have you read Digital Minimalism? If so, what did you think? Share your takeaway with us. If you haven’t yet read it, what’s a productivity-related book you’ve read recently that you’d recommend? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport
- Deep Work, by Cal Newport
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