Digital Minimalism - By Cal Newport

Date read: 
September 8, 2019
See My Collection of 50+ Book Notes

My Thoughts

Interesting look into the effects of excessive phone and social media use, though it does tend to get a bit preachy at times. Great strategies against compulsive technology use and alternatives. I've given away numerous copies of this book to friends & family.

Summary Notes

They joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends across the country, and then ended up unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table.

In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts.

Willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape—the addictiveness of their design and the strength of the cultural pressures supporting them are too strong for an ad hoc approach to succeed.

It’s easy to think of digital minimalists as as extreme, but the minimalists would argue that this perception is backward: what’s extreme is how much time everyone else spends staring at their screens.

Facebook didn’t arrive in our world with a promise to radically transform the rhythms of our social and civic lives; it was just one diversion among many.

What many forget, however, was that the original “revolution” promised by the iPhone was also much more modest than the impact it eventually created. In our current moment, smartphones have reshaped people’s experience of the world by providing an always-present connection to a humming matrix of chatter and distraction.

A college senior who set up an account on Facebook in 2004 to look up classmates probably didn’t predict that the average modern user would spend around two hours per day on social media and related messaging services, with close to half that time dedicated to Facebook’s products alone.

Similarly, a first adopter who picked up an iPhone in 2007 for the music features would be less enthusiastic if told that within a decade he could expect to compulsively check the device eighty-five times a day

“Philip Morris just wanted your lungs,” Maher concludes. “The App Store wants your soul.”

If I force you to quit Facebook, you’re not likely to suffer serious withdrawal symptoms. You might not sneak out to access Facebook, but if the app is only one tap away on the phone in your pocket, a moderate behavioral addiction will make it really hard to resist checking your account again and again throughout the day.

Sean Parker on mobile phone usage:
“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.”

These technologies are in many cases specifically designed to trigger this addictive behavior. Compulsive use, in this context, is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan.

Our current unease with new technologies is not really about whether or not they’re useful. We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons and then found ourselves increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.”

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.

“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?”

The average Facebook user uses the company’s products a little over fifty minutes per day”

Principle #1: Clutter is costly.
Principle #2: Optimization is important.
Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying.

Thoreau establishes early in Walden: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” You're choosing to spend the minutes and hours of your life in return for something.

Who could justify trading a lifetime of stress and backbreaking labor for better blinds? Is a nicer-looking window treatment really worth so much of your life? Similarly, why would you add hours of extra labor in the fields to obtain a wagon?

It therefore makes sense to clutter your digital life with as many of these small sources of value as you can find, much as it made sense for the Concord farmer to cultivate as many acres of land as he could afford to mortgage.

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?

We need to reevaluate [our current relationship with] online information sort of the way we reevaluated free love in the 80s.

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple: 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.

“Is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?”

Approaching decisions with intention can be more important than the impact of the actual decisions themselves.

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

The Digital Declutter Process

  • 30 days where you take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  • During this break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  • After 30 days, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life.

A typical culprit for failing to complete the 30 days were technology restriction rules that were either too vague or too strict. Another mistake was not planning what to replace these technologies with during the declutter period—leading to anxiety and boredom.

A temporary detox is a much weaker resolution than trying to permanently change your life, and therefore much easier for your mind to subvert when the going gets tough.

During this monthlong process, you must aggressively explore higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you’re avoiding.

You want to arrive at the end of the declutter having rediscovered the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life.

There’s one last question you must ask yourself before it’s allowed back into your life: How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?”

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.

You can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or, as President Lincoln discovered at his cottage, while sharing your lawn with two companies of Union soldiers, so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts.

On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen.

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

“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”

the ability to be alone . . . is anything but a rejection of close bonds and can instead affirm them. Calmly experiencing separation builds your appreciation for interpersonal connections when they do occur.

“We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness.”

The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life. Thoreau and Storr worried about people enjoying less solitude. We must now wonder if people might forget this state of being altogether.”

The average Moment user spends around three hours a day looking at their smartphone screen, with only 12 percent spending less than an hour. The average Moment user picks up their phone thirty-nine times a day. These numbers probably skew low, as the people who download an app like Moment are people who are already careful about their phone use.”

Solitude Deprivation = A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. As recently as the 1990s, solitude deprivation was difficult to achieve.

Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.

The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media.

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

The only factor that dramatically increased right around the same time as teenage anxiety was the number of young people owning their own smartphones.

“I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents I don’t really know . . . but it’s a substantial ratio."

In 90 percent of your daily life, the presence of a cell phone either doesn’t matter or makes things only slightly more convenient. They’re useful, but it’s hyperbolic to believe its ubiquitous presence is vital.

“Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”
To underscore his esteem for walking, Nietzsche also notes:
“The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit.”

Nietzsche began to walk up to eight hours a day. During these walks he would think, eventually filling six small notebooks with the prose that became The Wanderer and His Shadow, the first of many influential books he wrote during a decade powered by ambulation.

These efforts are hard, but the rewards are big. I’m quite simply happier and more productive—by noticeably large factors—when I’m walking regularly. Many others, both today and historically, enjoy the same benefits that come from this substantial injection of solitude into an otherwise hectic life.

We are interested in the social world because we are built to turn on the default network during our free time.

The loss of social connection, for example, turns out to trigger the same system as physical pain—explaining why the death of a family member, a breakup, or even just a social snub can cause such distress.

The researchers found that the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely. The highest quartile of social media users was three times more likely to be lonelier than someone in the lowest quartile. These results held up even after the researchers controlled for factors such as age, gender, relationship status, household income, and education.

“Our results show that overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being.” They found, for example, that if you increase the amount of likes or links clicked by a standard deviation, mental health decreases by 5 to 8 percent of a standard deviation.

The studies that found positive results focused on specific behaviors of social media users, while the studies that found negative results focused on overall use of these services.

Where we want to be cautious is when the sound of a voice or a cup of coffee with a friend is replaced with ‘likes’ on a post.

Don’t all these little tweets, these little sips of online connection, add up to one big gulp of real conversation? No, they do not. “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits.”

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 involves nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions.

Actually visiting the new mom will return significantly more value to both of you than adding a short “awww!” to a perfunctory scroll of comments.

As an academic who studies and teaches social media explained to me: “I don’t think we’re meant to keep in touch with so many people.”

Expending more energy in your leisure can end up energizing you more. Rework the old entrepreneurial adage “You have to spend money to make money” into the language of personal vitality.

The value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested. We might tell ourselves there’s no greater reward after a hard day at the office than to have an evening entirely devoid of plans or commitments. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began.”

Leisure Lesson #1:

Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.

“We live in a world that is working to eliminate touch as one of our senses, to minimize the use of our hands to do things except poke at a screen.”

“Leave good evidence of yourself. Do good work.” ”

Leisure Lesson #2:

Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.”

The most successful social leisure activities share two traits.
They require you to spend time with other people in person. and they provide some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal.

Leisure Lesson #3:

Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.

schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes. If you want to binge-watch Netflix while live-streaming yourself browsing Twitter: go for it. But outside these periods, stay offline.

Doing nothing is overrated.
In the middle of a busy workday, or after a particularly trying morning of childcare, it’s tempting to crave the release of having nothing to do. 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.

“Twitter scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.”

A nontrivial percentage of people who deleted the apps discovered that they essentially stopped using social media altogether. Even the small extra barrier of needing to log in to a computer was enough to prevent them from making the effort

the power of a general-purpose computer is in the total number of things it enables the user to do, not the total number of things it enables the user to do simultaneously. ”

Related Notes

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