Excerpt: The 'Digital Minimalism' Approach to Unplugging

Posted by Cybil on March 22, 2019
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

His new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World arrived in U.S. bookstores this February. The following excerpt is from Digital Minimalism, which makes the case for distancing yourself from a barrage of online distractions. Be sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf.

A Minimal Solution

Around the time I started working on my new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, a columnist for the New York Post published an op‑ed titled "How I Kicked the Smartphone Addiction—and You Can Too." His secret? He disabled notifications for 112 different apps on his iPhone. "It's relatively easy to retake control," he optimistically concludes.

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These types of articles are common in the world of technology journalism. The author discovers that his relationship with his digital tools has become dysfunctional. Alarmed, he deploys a clever life hack, then reports enthusiastically that things seem much better. I'm always skeptical about these quick‑fix tales. In my experience covering these topics, it's hard to permanently reform your digital life through the use of tips and tricks alone.

The problem is that small changes are not enough to solve our big issues with new technologies. The underlying behaviors we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture, and they're backed by powerful psychological forces that empower our base instincts. To reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.

The New York Post columnist cited above, in other words, should look beyond the notification settings on his 112 apps and ask the more important question of why he uses so many apps in the first place. What he needs—what all of us who struggle with these issues need—is a philosophy of technology use, something that covers from the ground up which digital tools we allow into our life, for what reasons, and under what constraints. In the absence of this introspection, we'll be left struggling in a whirlwind of addictive and appealing cyber‑trinkets, vainly hoping that the right mix of ad hoc hacks will save us.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I have one such philosophy to propose:

Digital Minimalism

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 so‑called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit cost‑benefit analyses. If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it. Even when a new technology promises to support something the minimalist values, it must still pass a stricter test: Is this the best way to use technology to support this value? If the answer is no, the minimalist will set to work trying to optimize the tech, or search out a better option.

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.

Notice, this minimalist philosophy contrasts starkly with the maximalist philosophy that most people deploy by default—a mind‑set in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention. A maximalist is very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone might miss out on something that's the least bit interesting or valuable. Indeed, when I first started writing publicly about the fact that I've never used Facebook, people in my professional circles were aghast for exactly this reason. "Why do I need to use Facebook?" I would ask. "I can't tell you exactly," they would respond, "but what if there's something useful to you in there that you're missing?"
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This argument sounds absurd to digital minimalists, because they believe that the best digital life is formed by carefully curating their tools to deliver massive and unambiguous benefits. They tend to be incredibly wary of low‑value activities that can clutter up their time and attention and end up hurting more than they help. Put another way: 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.

To make these abstract ideas more concrete, let's consider some real‑world examples of digital minimalists I uncovered in my research on this emerging philosophy. For some of these minimalists, the requirement that a new technology strongly supports deep values led to the rejection of services and tools that our culture commonly believes to be mandatory. Tyler, for example, originally joined the standard social media services for the standard reasons: to help his career, to keep him connected, and to provide entertainment. Once Tyler embraced digital minimalism, however, he realized that although he valued all three of these goals, his compulsive use of social networks offered at best minor benefits, and did not qualify as the best way to use technology for these purposes. So he quit all social media to pursue more direct and effective ways to help his career, connect with other people, and be entertained.

I met Tyler roughly a year after his minimalist decision to leave social media. He was clearly excited by how his life had changed during this period. He started volunteering near his home, he exercises regularly, he's reading three to four books a month, he began to learn to play the ukulele, and he told me that now that his phone is no longer glued to his hand, he's closer than he has ever been with his wife and kids. On the professional side, the increased focus he achieved after leaving these services earned him a promotion. "Some of my work clients have noticed a change in me and they will ask what I am doing differently," he told me. "When I tell them I quit social media, their response is ‘I wish I could do that, but I just can't.' The reality, however, is that they literally have no good reason to be on social media!"

As Tyler is quick to admit, he can't completely attribute all of these good things to his specific decision to quit social media. In theory, he could have still learned the ukulele or spent more time with his wife and kids while maintaining a Facebook account. His decision to leave these services, however, was about more than a tweak to his digital habits; it was a symbolic gesture that reinforced his new commitment to the minimalist philosophy of working backward from your deeply held values when deciding how to live your life.

Before I can ask you to experiment with digital minimalism in your own life, however, I must first provide you with a more thorough explanation for why it works. My argument for this philosophy's effectiveness rests on the following three core principles:

Principle #1: Clutter is costly.

Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

Principle #2: Optimization is important.

Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it's necessary to think carefully about how they'll use the technology.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying.

Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.

Excerpted selection of Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Excerpted with permission by from Portfolio/Penguin Random House.

Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World is on sale now. Be sure to add it to your Add it to your Want to Read shelf here.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Jenny (new)

Jenny HaleyC, exactly what I was thinking. Now I know what to call myself at dinner parties lol

message 2: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Baranoff Digital clutter is real and suffocating and for me, it’s beyond Facebook, the only social media I really use. It’s all of the productivity tools that are out there, too. I seem to have all of them, maybe use one of them, and am less productive than ever. I have some documents in Google Docs, others in OneNote, then there’s Dropbox, Evernote, good old-fashioned Word, and physical notebooks and journals. Add multiple accounts for work, personal, volunteer, or other reasons, and it’s a pile of disarray. Apps, email, books, articles, blogs…I’m gasping for air. My brain feels like a beehive.

Question now is should I share this on Facebook?

message 3: by Joanna (new)

Joanna Bonnie wrote: "Digital clutter is real and suffocating and for me, it’s beyond Facebook, the only social media I really use. It’s all of the productivity tools that are out there, too. I seem to have all of them,..."
Maybe instead of sharing it on Facebook you should bring the topic up in conversation with a few people in your life.

message 4: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Baranoff Joanna wrote: "Bonnie wrote: "Digital clutter is real and suffocating and for me, it’s beyond Facebook, the only social media I really use. It’s all of the productivity tools that are out there, too. I seem to ha..."
Thanks for the suggestion. Digital clutter is a problem I'm working on, and I've talked to family and friends about it; many share the same challenge. I guess my quip about Facebook didn't come across as intended. I find it funny--given the subject matter--that you can share this excerpt on social media.

message 5: by Joanna (new)

Joanna Bonnie wrote: "Joanna wrote: "Bonnie wrote: "Digital clutter is real and suffocating and for me, it’s beyond Facebook, the only social media I really use. It’s all of the productivity tools that are out there, to..."

Oh the irony was not lost on me! Here's another one, a video advocating less screen time from a guy whose career is based on people watching his YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRl8E...

message 6: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Robinson I'm the only person I know who has never owned an Iphone or a Smartphone, and have chosen to keep it that way lol 😂

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