Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport

This book provides the antidote to a modern lifestyle that has become tragically dependent on constant stimulation from technology.


  • I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.
  • Marcus Aurelius asked: “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?”
  • The tycoons of docial media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.
  • Addiction is 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.
  • I want to briefly focus on two forces from this longer treatment that not only seemed particularly relevant to our discussion, but as you’ll soon learn, repeatedly came up in my own research on how tech companies encourage behavioral addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
  • Pearlman, who was a product manager on the team that developed the “Like” button for Facebook (she was the author of the blog post announcing the feature in 2009), has become so wary of the havoc it causes that now, as a small business owner, she hires a social media manager to handle her Facebook account so she can avoid exposure to the service’s manipulation of the human social drive.
  • As Sean Parker confirmed in describing the design philosophy behind these features: “It’s a social-validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
  • As Socrates explained to Phaedrus in Plato’s famous chariot metaphor, our soul can be understood as a chariot driver struggling to rein two horses, one representing our better nature and the other our baser impulses.
  • 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.
  • In the book Walden, he wrote about this experience, famously describing his motivation as follows: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
  • The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.
  • The Amish prioritize the benefits generated by acting intentionally about technology over the benefits lost from the technologies they decide not to use. Their gamble is that intention trumps convenience—and this is a bet that seems to be paying off.
  • To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must: Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not 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 is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.
  • 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.
  • to spend a great deal of time alone was common among “the majority of poets, novelists, and composers.” He lists Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein as examples of men who never had families or fostered close personal ties, yet still managed to lead remarkable lives.
  • Solitude Deprivation A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
  • In 1889, as Friedrich Nietzsche’s fame began to spread, he published a brief introduction to his philosophy. It was called Twilight of the Idols
  • This practice proposes that you’ll find similar benefits by spending more time alone on your feet. The details of this practice are simple: On a regular basis, go for long walks, preferably somewhere scenic. Take these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone. If you’re wearing headphones, or monitoring a text message chain, or, God forbid, narrating the stroll on Instagram—you’re not really walking, and therefore you’re not going to experience this practice’s greatest benefits. If you cannot abandon your phone for logistical reasons, then put it at the bottom of a backpack so you can use it in an emergency but cannot easily extract it at the first hint of boredom. (If you’re worried about not having your phone, see the discussion on this topic in the preceding practice.)
  • Sure enough, once scientists knew what to look for, they discovered that the regions of the brain that defined the default network are “virtually identical” to the networks that light up during social cognition experiments. When given downtime, in other words, our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.
  • the researchers found that the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely.
  • The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable.
  • The idea that real-world interactions are more valuable than online interactions isn’t surprising. Our brains evolved during a period when the only communication was offline and face-to-face.
  • The philosophy of Conversation-Centric Communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call—so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions.
  • To be clear, Conversation-Centric Communication requires sacrifices. If you adopt this philosophy, you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people with whom you have an active relationship. Real conversation takes time, and the total number of people for which you can uphold this standard will be significantly less than the total number of people you can follow, retweet, “like,” and occasionally leave a comment for on social media, or ping with the occasional text. Once you no longer count the latter activities as meaningful interaction, your social circle will seem at first to contract
  • Motivated by the above observations, this practice suggests that you transform the way you think about the different flavors of one-click approval indicators that populate the social media universe. Instead of seeing these easy clicks as a fun way to nudge a friend, start treating them as poison to your attempts to cultivate a meaningful social life. Put simply, you should stop using them. Don’t click “Like.” Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well. No “so cute!” or “so cool!” Remain silent. The reason I’m suggesting such a hard stance against these seemingly innocuous interactions is that they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation. The motivating premise behind my Conversation-Centric Communication philosophy is that once you accept this equality, despite your good intentions, the role of low-value interactions will inevitably expand until it begins to push out the high-value socializing that actually matters. If you eliminate these trivial interactions cold turkey, you send your mind a clear message: conversation is what counts—don’t be distracted from this reality by the shiny stuff on your screen. As I mentioned before, you may think you can balance both types of interaction, but most people can’t.
  • To summarize, the question of whether or not you continue to use social media as a digital minimalist, and on what terms, is complicated and depends on many different factors. But regardless of what final decisions you make along these lines, I urge you, for the sake of your social well-being, to adopt the baseline rule that you’ll no longer use social media as a tool for low-quality relationship nudges. Put simply, don’t click and don’t comment. This basic stricture will radically change for the better how you maintain your social life.
  • This practice suggests that you keep your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default. On both iPhones and Android devices, for example, this mode turns off notifications when text messages arrive. If you’re worried about emergencies, you can easily adjust the settings so calls from a selected list (your spouse, your kid’s school) do come through. You can also set a schedule that turns the phone to this mode automatically during predetermined times.
  • instating your own variation of his conversation office hours strategy. Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversation. Depending on where you are during this period, these conversations might be exclusively on the phone or could also include in-person meetings. Once these office hours are set, promote them to the people you care about. When someone instigates a low-quality connection (say, a text message conversation or social media ping), suggest they call or meet you during your office hours sometime when it is convenient for them. Similarly, once office hours are in place, it’s easy to reach out proactively to people you care about and invite them to converse with you during these hours whenever they’re next available.
  • As the MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya expands in his modern interpretation of the Ethics, if your life consists only of actions whose “worth depends on the existence of problems, difficulties, needs, which these activities aim to solve,” you’re vulnerable to the existential despair that blooms in response to the inevitable question, Is this all there is to life? One solution to this despair, he notes, is to follow Aristotle’s lead and embrace pursuits that provide you a “source of inward joy.”
  • Similarly, composing a song in a digital sequencer misses the pleasures that come from the nuanced struggle between fingers and steel strings that defines playing a guitar well, while fast twitching your way to victory in Call of Duty misses many dimensions—social, spatial, athletic—present in a competitive game of flag football.
  • If you want to fully extract the benefits of this craft in your free time, in other words, seek it in its analog forms, and while doing so, fully embrace Rogowski’s closing advice: “Leave good evidence of yourself. Do good work.” This then provides our second lesson about cultivating a high-quality leisure life.
  • The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First, they require you to spend time with other people in person. As emphasized, there’s a sensory and social richness to real-world encounters that’s largely lost in virtual connections, so spending time with your World of Warcraft clan doesn’t qualify. The second trait is that the activity provides some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal
  • broken. The state I’m helping you escape is one in which passive interaction with your screens is your primary leisure. I want you to replace this with a state where your leisure time is now filled with better pursuits, many of which will exist primarily in the physical world.
  • schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure.
  • If you want to binge-watch Netflix while live-streaming yourself browsing Twitter: go for it. But outside these periods, stay offline.
  • When first implementing this strategy, don’t worry about how much time you put aside for low-quality leisure. It’s fine, for example, if you start with major portions of your evenings and weekends dedicated to such pursuits. The aggressiveness of your restrictions will naturally increase as they allow you to integrate more and more higher-quality pursuits into your life.
  • I suggest you strategize this part of your life with a two-level approach consisting of both a seasonal and weekly leisure plan. I explain each below.
  • A good seasonal plan contains two different types of items: objectives and habits that you intend to honor in the upcoming season. The objectives describe specific goals you hope to accomplish, with accompanying strategies for how you will accomplish them. The habits describe behavior rules you hope to stick with throughout the season. In a seasonal leisure plan, these objectives and habits will both be connected to cultivating a high-quality leisure life.
  • Here’s an example of a well-crafted objective that you might find in a seasonal leisure plan: Objective: Learn on the guitar every song from the A-side of Meet the Beatles! Strategies: Restring and retune my guitar, find the chord charts for the songs, print them, and put them in nice plastic protector sheets. Return to my old habit of regularly practicing my guitar. As incentive, schedule Beatles party in November. Perform songs (get Linda to agree to sing).
  • If you’re already in the habit of creating detailed plans for your week (which I highly recommend), you can just integrate your weekly leisure plan into whatever system you already use for planning. The more you see these leisure plans as just part of your normal scheduling—and not some separate and Potentially optional endeavor—the more likely you are to succeed in following them.
  • doing nothing is overrated.
  • it’s tempting to crave the release of having nothing to do—whole blocks of time with no schedule, no expectations, and no activity beyond whatever seems to catch your attention in the moment. These decompression sessions have their place, but their rewards are muted, as they tend to devolve toward low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and half-hearted binge-watching. For the many different reasons argued in the preceding pages, investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much richer rewards.
  • if you’re going to use social media, stay far away from the mobile versions of these services, as these pose a significantly bigger risk to your time and attention. This practice, in other words, suggests that you remove all social media apps from your phone. You don’t have to quit these services; you just have to quit accessing them on the go.
  • I’m not talking about occasionally blocking some sites when working on a particularly hard project. I want you instead to think about these services as being blocked by default, and made available to you on an intentional schedule.

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