Highlights from ‘Digital Minimalism’ by Cal Newport (Ch.2)

Although it took me a while to get into Newport’s Deep Work, I have to say I’m not very impressed with this book so far. That’s for a couple of reasons:

  1. He disdains ‘tips and tricks’ but offers something similar in the form of ‘restrictions’ and ‘optimisations’.
  2. What he’s proposing so far sound less like minimalism and more like asceticism.

“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, as I argued in the previous chapter, 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.”

“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.”

“As Adam admits, the loss of his smartphone made certain things in his work life more annoying. In particular, he relies heavily on text messages to coordinate with his staff, and he soon relearned how hard it is to type on the little plastic buttons of an old-fashioned cell phone. But Adam is a digital minimalist, which means maximizing convenience is prioritized much lower than using technology to support his values. As a father, teaching his kids an important lesson about embracing life beyond the screen was far more important than faster typing.”

“Digital minimalists are also adept at stripping away superfluous features of new technologies to allow them to access functions that matter while avoiding unnecessary distraction. Carina, for example, is on the executive council of a student organization that uses a Facebook group to coordinate its activities. To prevent this service from exploiting her attention every time she logs on for council business, she reduced her set of friends down to only the fourteen other people on the executive council and then unfollowed them. This preserves her ability to coordinate on the Facebook group while at the same time keeping her newsfeed empty.”

“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.

The validity of digital minimalism is self-evident once you accept these three principles. With this in mind, the remainder of this chapter is dedicated to proving them true.”

“Thoreau then asks what benefits these worn-down farmers receive from the extra profit they eke out. As he proved in his Walden experiment, this extra work is not enabling the farmers to escape savage conditions: Thoreau was able to satisfy all of his basic needs quite comfortably with the equivalent of one day of work per week. What these farmers are actually gaining from all the life they sacrifice is slightly nicer stuff: venetian blinds, a better quality copper pot, perhaps a fancy wagon for traveling back and forth to town more efficiently.”

“Thoreau’s new economics, however, demands that you balance this profit against the costs measured in terms of “your life.” How much of your time and attention, he would ask, must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter? Assume, for example, that your Twitter habit effectively consumes ten hours per week. Thoreau would note that this cost is almost certainly way too high for the limited benefits it returns. If you value new connections and exposure to interesting ideas, he might argue, why not adopt a habit of attending an interesting talk or event every month, and forcing yourself to chat with at least three people while there? This would produce similar types of value but consume only a few hours of your life per month, leaving you with an extra thirty-seven hours to dedicate to other meaningful pursuits.”

“The reason I’m introducing this idea from economics in this chapter on digital minimalism is the following: if you’re willing to accept some flexibility in your definition of “production process,” the law of diminishing returns can apply to the various ways in which we use new technologies to produce value in our personal lives. Once we view these personal technology processes through the perspective of diminishing returns, we’ll gain the precise vocabulary we need to understand the validity of the second principle of minimalism, which states that optimizing how we use technology is just as important as how we choose what technologies to use in the first place.”

“With this in mind, assume you invest some energy to identify a more carefully curated set of online news sites to follow, and to find an app, like Instapaper, that allows you to clip articles from these sites and read them all together in a nice interface that culls distracting ads. This improved personal technology process for keeping informed is now producing even more value in your personal life. Perhaps, as the final step in this optimization, you discover through trial and error that you’re best able to absorb complex articles when you clip them throughout the week and then sit down to read through them all on Saturday morning on a tablet over coffee at a local café.”

“Another optimization that was common among the digital minimalists I studied was to remove social media apps from their phones. Because they can still access these sites through their computer browsers, they don’t lose any of the high-value benefits that keep them signed up for these services. By removing the apps from their phones, however, they eliminated their ability to browse their accounts as a knee-jerk response to boredom. The result is that these minimalists dramatically reduced the amount of time they spend engaging with these services each week, while barely diminishing the value they provide to their lives—a much better personal technology process than thoughtlessly tapping and swiping these apps throughout the day as the whim strikes.”

“Finding useful new technologies is just the first step to improving your life. The real benefits come once you start experimenting with how best to use them.”

“As Kelly elaborates in his 2010 book, What Technology Wants, the simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm, where “cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.” Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the “smoking, noisy contraption.” Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.”

“As with the Amish who find contentment without modern conveniences, an important source of Laura’s satisfaction with her smartphone-free life comes from the choice itself. “My decision [to not use a smartphone] gives me a sense of autonomy,” she told me. “I’m controlling the role technology is allowed to play in my life.” After a moment of hesitation, she adds: “It makes me feel a little smug at times.” What Laura describes modestly as smugness is almost certainly something more fundamental to human flourishing: the sense of meaning that comes from acting with intention.”

“Outsourcing your autonomy to an attention economy conglomerate—as you do when you mindlessly sign up for whatever new hot service emerges from the Silicon Valley venture capitalist class—is the opposite of freedom, and will likely degrade your individuality.”