Book Summary: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

By James Razko

Scrolling, swiping, and tapping occupies more and more of our time and brain space. And, many are coming to find that all this screen time adds up to a life not fully lived. In short, our devices are taking our autonomy.

The rising tide of dissatisfaction with technology has many looking for solutions to their digitally induced woes. And, these seekers, often find that tips and tricks found on the internet fail to produce meaningful change when pitted against technologies that have been designed to be addictive by some of the most powerful organizations in the world’s history.

This book summary of Digital Minimalism provides a clear framework that works backward from one’s principles to minimize harm and extract the most value from technology. In the age of distraction, if you want to live an intentional fully-lived life, a personal technology-philosophy combined with technology operating procedures will provide a framework to regain your autonomy.

Book Summary

Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport


Principles of Digital Minimalism

  • Clutter is Costly.
  • Optimize technology use.
  • Intentionality is satisfying in itself. 

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.

Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport

Thoreau’s economics: 

The cost of anything is the amount of life-time one must exchange for it.

Apps and devices by themselves may provide small benefits.  However, when a single app or a multitude of apps take to much of your time, their perceived benefits become worthless.

Your [clock symbol] = Their [money symbol]

Law of diminishing returns

In the beginning returns on investments are enormous. And, over time if you keep investing the returns will eventually even out or possibly begin to decline. Imagine adding more and more people to an assembly line, at first production will skyrocket. But eventually, there will be less and less room, production will plateaue and, if you continue to add more and more people, the output will begin to decline.

As most people have not begun to optimize their technology use, the law of diminishing returns is especially useful when considering principal 2. A little optimization will provide the average user with considerable gains in reclaiming their autonomy, time and attention. 

Addiction

Consider the compulsive gambler and it will be obvious behavioral addictions are real. Yes, addiction to smartphones may be moderate and easily ignored, but the damage smartphone addiction can do, is no less significant. 

Among the many, the two primary ways tech companies encourage addiction are through:

    •    Intermittent positive reinforcement—embodied by a slot machine’s random reward system.

    •    Drive for social approval— our prehistoric brain evolved to scrutinize our social standing amongst the tribe. This is why when a friend doesn’t respond to your text message you may feel hurt. Or when you get a lot of likes, you feel good.

The Like-Button

Among the many ways big-tech makes their products addictive is with the like button,  introduced in 2007 and now used by almost every social media platform. The like-button provides data on you while keeping you coming back for more with intermittent positive reinforcement and drive for social approval, packaged in one small button. The like-button creates a malevolent concoction that our Paleolithic brains find irresistible—hence, the near constant checking of most popular social media platforms. 

Compiling onto the like-button’s problems is that a “like” is the least amount of information a human can communicate with another human; it is one bit of information. This near information-less “like” doesn’t tell anyone, besides big-tech much of anything. It leaves us socially unfulfilled, and left to deal with the paleolithic mood swings that the drive for social approval produces. 

Social Super Computers

Shockingly, Rock Paper Scissors is a sport and was for some time televised on ESPN.  On its face, the sport of Rock Paper Scissors may seem based solely on luck, but if you watched on ESPN, you would have noticed the same people winning over and over. So, what skill were they deploying to win? It turns out, the elite players of Rock Paper Scissors are the best at reading their opponent’s subtle body language and verbal cues. They are masters of reading people and predicting what hand they would throw based on the available information— like reading another person from across the poker table.

The truth is all human like the Rock Paper Scissors “athletes,” are social super-computers. It is one of the things we evolved to do best. And, when we don’t use this massive computing power we are left feeling unfulfilled.

Humans crave rich social interaction and communication and social media platforms provide hardly any information for our super social brains. 

The Brain’s Default Mode Network. 

Social cognition is so vital to the human species that over our evolutionary history, the brain developed the Default Mode Network, a system that activates whenever you are at rest. This network is primarily a social emulator and is even shown to be active in infants. And, as you may have discovered in bouts of boredom, this system mainly focuses on thoughts of self and social interactions, past and imaginary. The Brain’s Default Mode Network, under experimental conditions, looks identical to social cognition experiments.

The brain did not evolve over millions of years to spend its free time practicing something irrelevant to our lives 

Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport

Face to Face Contact

A face to face conversation, even if only for one minute is filled with immense amounts of information. In a few seconds, the human brain can determine a person’s mood, health, age, and so much more. This rich face-to-face contact is what we have evolved to do, and for that reason, it’s satisfying.

Unfortunately, modern, technology, has most people choosing low-quality forms of communication like text messaging over higher quality forms of conversation like a phone call, or face to face interaction. In turn, our brains are underutilized, and we are left feeling alone.

Whenever you can, choose face to face contact over texting and other information poor forms of communication. 

Social Media Paradox

Some studies (funded by Facebook) have shown that facebooks users feel better after specific uses on the platform, while other studies (not funded by Facebook) have shown that, overall, social media use contributes to a decline in a user’s wellbeing.

Researchers believe the answer to this paradox is that the more people use social media, the less face to face interactions they will have. Part of our nature is to seek efficiency and while social media may be more efficient, it ends up costing us the pleasure of face to face communication. 

Solitude

Besides lacking face to face conversation,  modern humans are also solitude deprived. Podcasts, music, audiobooks and many other technologies can and often do fill every moment of waking life. For the first time in history, a person can go their entire day without a moment of solitude.

For some, this may seem ideal. However, solitude provides humans with moments of introspection that foster emotional balance by dealing with issues instead of avoiding them. Solitude also paradoxically strengthens relationships by letting people miss you, and letting you miss people.

Solitude is necessary for a balanced mind. 

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal

Good Way’s to Experience Solitude

  • Go for long walks, alone and without a cellphone.
  • Write letters to yourself.
  • Leave your phone at home, in the car, or inside a backpack.

Solitude-less Case Study 

Those born after 1995, who grew up with a smartphone and on average use devices for a shocking 9 hours a day, are excellent case studies to examin what a solitude-less life would do to a human. Unfortunately for this group of young adults, researchers and college counselors alike have noticed a sharp spike in mental illness, especially anxiety. Surprisingly, many anxious teens identify their smartphones as a significant contributing factor. 

Choose High-Quality Conversation over Low-Quality Communication

Today, texts are nearly essential and great for organizing events. The author recommends batching texts the same way you would emails. Set a specific time to check and reply to all of your text messages, allowing you to have a richer conversation while saving you from the digital clutter of an all day text chain. Make sure to let your friends now before you make this change.

A phone call is orders of magnitude richer than a text. Strive to choose phone calls over text messages. The author offers the tip of setting a time and day for friends to give you a call. Often people hesitate from calling because they don’t want to call at a bad time. Likewise, you can open office or coffee shop hours at a set time and day and invite friends to come and visit you for rich face to face conversation. If you choose the coffee house option, bring a book to read while you wait, or in the case that no one shows that day. 

Where to Start

To start, the author recommends a 30 day digital declutter challenge. This 30 day fast will give you the mental space to break the cycles of addiction and clearly see your previous habits. Most taking this challenge will be surprised by the amount of digital clutter that has invaded their conscious experience.

Importantly—this is not a detox, where you will go right back to full-blown tech use at the end of the 30 days. Instead, it should be viewed as the beginning to a healthier more intentional relationship with technology. 

30 Day Technology Fast

Step 1:
Define your technology rules. Begin by removing all nonessential technology. For any essential technology like your work email, develop an operating procedure to guide your use. In the end, you should have many banned technologies and a few essential technologies with clear operating procedures for each.

Step 2: 
Take a thirty-day break from all non-essential technology and fill the extra time by rediscovering high-quality analog leisure activities that you enjoy.

Step 3:
Reintroduce technology that supports your deeply held values. Even if a given technology supports your value, ask yourself if it is the best way to serve this value. If it is, then optimize your use with an operating procedure.

For example, you may deeply value looking at art and consider reintroducing Instagram. However, you may find that going to a museum and art galleries biweekly better supports this value, and for that reason, Instagram should be left alone. 

Rediscover Leisure Time

 Once you ditch most distracting devices, you will find you have a lot of time on your hands. As stated in step 2 of the 30-day technology fast, the best way to fill this time is with high-quality leisure activities. 

Leisure Lesson #1:
Prioritize demanding activities like building a shed, over passive consumption like watching Netflix.

The Bennett Principal:
The Value you receive from an activity is proportional to the energy invested.

The author studied financial independent young people to get an idea of how they spent their ample free time. Surprisingly, these early retirees, like Pater Adeney (Mr. Money Mustache), tend to spend their time doing rewarding activities like playing the guitar or are often found performing hard work, like building things.

For some, this may seem odd, but performing demanding activities is something we are designed to do, and for that reason, we derive significant satisfaction from using our hands and working hard. 

Many might think that expending a lot of energy on leisure activities would leave you feeling tired. However, it is the opposite; the more energy a high-quality leisure activity demands the more energy you will have after.

Leisure Lesson #2:
Produce valuable Things for the world. 

Develop a Craft: A craft is producing something of value that requires a skill. This is an extremely rewarding form of leisure time. 

Likewise, not too long ago most people were by necessity—handy. Being handy is fulfilling and is another fine form of leisure time. So, the next time something breaks, learn to fix it instead of buying something new or calling the repair person.

Ultimately, experiencing life through a screen is unsatisfying. Humans need to think and experience the world with both their mind and hands. Swiping doesn’t fulfill the later desire, and after hours of device use,   many of us find ourselves feeling unsatisfied and drained.

Leisure Lesson #3: Seek Activities that require real-world, structured social interaction. 

Ever wonder why Crossfit has become so popular. Despite its torturous nature, there is one Crossfit box for every two Starbucks in the USA. That’s impressive. Crossfit is popular because technology and a lack of social interaction are leaving many of us craving rich structured social interaction, and Crossfit fills this need perfectly. So does the board game industry, that is alive and well despite the popularity of video games and smart devices.

To live a more fulfilling life join a club or make one yourself. The internet is helping to fuel this kind of leisure renaissance by connecting like-minded individuals and by providing access to obscure information. 

Create a Leisure Plan

The author recommends to create a leisure plan and schedule seasonal activities (three times a year) and weakly activities to make sure you stay on track. This plan can take many forms, but make sure you develop one or you risk lapsing back into passive media consumption. 

Schedule Low-Quality Leisure Activities

Many love their Netflix or FB time. So, instead of trying to banish these low-quality and passive forms of leisure, schedule a time to have unrestricted access. Scheduling will let you focus on high-quality leisure activities and still feed your tech hunger pangs.

Join The Attention Resistance

Some of the largest companies in the world, like Google, Apple, and Facebook, are making billions on people’s time and attention, no matter the cost to you or society. These conglomerates form the core of a massive economy known as the Attention Economy. Bluntly, these companies make their living by designing addictive technology that glues you to a screen—to sell ads, with their primary asset— the smartphone. By design, the smartphone has become a new appendage that begs (like Frodo’s ring) to be used until it fully consumes you.

The Attention Resistance is a loosely based organization that uses operating procedures to extract the most value and minimize harm when using the Attention Economy’s technology. Many who join the resistance choose to get rid of their smartphone all together or dumb down their current smartphone by getting rid of nearly all the apps. Ditching your smartphone is one of the best ways to avoid being used by the attention economy.

You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia. Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis

Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport

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