Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

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My notes on Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism

Sometimes you read a book, and it can be a great book, but it doesn’t change anything. You’re glad you read it, but life carries on as it was before. I don’t think that’s possible with Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. In fact, you’re very likely to come away with an action plan. And a pretty revolutionary one at that.

Regular readers of my newsletter will have noticed my move towards digital minimalism for some time. And in many ways, reading the book has validated practices I’ve been integrating over the last year or so. But this has challenged and prodded me even further.

It’s worth stressing that digital minimalism isn’t about becoming anti-technology. It’s about being intentional about our use of technology and putting it in service of our life values.

And that’s a critical point. This book is not a collection of tips and tricks for trying to be a little less addicted to our smartphones and social media. There are some great ideas to take away. But that, Newport argues, is not where to start. 

Technology’s hold over us is too great to resolve with a few tweaks here and there. We succumb to our smartphones and social media accounts not because we’re lazy or weak but because these tools are designed to get us addicted.

So we need what Newport calls a philosophy of technology use. We only use those tools that explicitly support our values and then happily miss out on everything else. That there is some value in many of these tools, doesn’t justify their use. Digital minimalists have higher requirements before embracing a service or app.

When it comes to actually starting to make changes, Newport says we need to be radical. Gradually changing habits doesn’t work. He suggests start by taking a 30 day break from all optional technologies. And we have to make sure we’re strict about what we label optional! 

If not using an app, website, or service for 30 days won’t significantly disrupt or harm our personal or professional life, it’s fine to quit for 30 days. We mustn’t confuse something being convenient with something being critical.

Then – and this is key – during this period, we need to identify other meaningful activities and behaviours. In other words, we need to fill that time we’re saving with something else that’s satisfying. 

The third step, at the end of the 30 days, with a new perspective, is to slowly reintroduce those technologies that truly match our values. And only those. 

On paper it sounds easy. But we all know that’s not the reality. So why is it necessary?

A key reason we all need to rethink our use of technology is because it is undermining our human need for solitude. And solitude isn’t about being alone. It is, according to Newport, a ‘subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.’ 

In other words, we need time alone with our thoughts. It’s critical to our well-being. And technology is massively undermining our time alone with our own thoughts. The iPod arrived and many of us now live with headphones streaming music in our ears. The smartphone arrived and we can’t stop glancing at our screens. We don’t give ourselves a moment to be bored. We fill our minds with stuff non-stop. 

How do we counteract this? Newport proposes – shock, horror – sometimes going out without our phones. And having time each day away from our phones. He also suggests we make time for long walks (without our phones!) so we have space to be alone with our thoughts. And then he encourages writing in a notebook. Collecting thoughts. Processing complicated decisions or hard emotions. Or capturing a surge of inspiration.

There is much more that Newport covers, but I hope this provides something of a taster of the book. This book is timely. Its arrival is necessary for these days we’re living in. Anyone interacting daily with technology and social media will find it helpful.

We won’t all want to become digital minimalists, of course. But I’m convinced we’d all find it helpful to ensure our use of technology is intentional.

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