Digital Minimalism

Background

Something is wrong with us now days. Why is it so hard to deal with a bit of boredom or lack of stimulation from our smartphones? The answer goes deeper than many thought.

After going through Cal Newport’s books: Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You I had to pick up his most recent work on the subject of software technology in our lives. This book isn’t just about getting work done, it is about getting your life back from companies who want your attention. The business model is clear: increase your attention on their products and extract more money. One may ask, is this good for society or is it a net negative for us? In Cal Newport’s latest book, it is clear what his answer is: when used how these platforms intend it, it is a net negative to our health and productivity as individuals. I won’t pretend to stay neutral on this since the evidence is clearer than ever. We need to get these tools under our control.

The Gist

Remove all unnecessary social media and technology tools from your computer, and especially your smartphone, and replace them with high quality analogue activities like cross-fit, woodworking, playing the piano, etc. Where will you find the time? You make time by scheduling in high quality leisure activities into your week. Create a schedule for your work and leisure, doing so might sound like you are removing spontaneity from your life but it allows you much more time for living a fulfilling and rewarding life. Just “chilling” is overrated, not that you never need it, but much less so than you would think. It can be much more rewarding to work on personal projects and fun difficult activities than simply just relaxing. Another option is time-boxing in which you are forcing yourself into a productive mode of 3-4 hour chunks.

How do you remove these digital technologies from your life that leech your attention and time? A 30 day digital detox, make sure to remove all social media from your phone. One of the major things you will find is that you can batch usage of email, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. into perhaps no more than once a week or day. Learn to push off things until the time comes to get it done. Speaking personally, my anxiety and distractibility has been significantly reduced after going through this phase and my smartphone usage has gone way down with minor hiccups. Learn to use the technology, not let it use you.

For the technology you keep after the 30 days make sure to have strict operating procedures when using it or you will be back to square one. Things like Freedom, StayFocusd, and RescueTime help limit your low quality browsing to short periods of time per day.

Minimalist and Stoic Values

The values and philosophical traditions espoused in this book are not new and we can summarize the primary ones as elements of stoicism and transcendentalism. The two most quoted and relevant thinkers at the core of Newport’s points are Henry David Thoreau who wrote Walden stating “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” and Marcus Aurelius who wrote Meditations stating “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?”

Minimalist philosophical tradition is summarized by Thoreau in Walden

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.

Why is minimalism such a powerful way of looking at the world? A minimalist realizes much value can be gained by using many things, including technology, but they realize that analyzing the costs and benefits must be weighed with extreme care. To bring something into your life is much easier than getting it out of your life. In a sense, your life has many lobster traps in it so you should be deliberate about what you introduce into your world because it may just be a trojan horse. The Pareto Principle is a strong reason this philosophy is so powerful, which is that you can usually extract 80 percent of the value from 20 percent of the technology, effort, etc.

Lopsided Arms Race

A major thing many people are aware of is that technology companies are after their attention, but to grasp the extent they are working on sucking as much attention as possible is hard to fathom without working there or being involved with technologists in this field. I won’t go into a ton of detail since I rather you look into this on your own, but if you look at some factors you will realize that the firepower is on the other side.

  1. Every year these companies get better at using the data they get and it is at an exponential rate.

  2. These companies are some of the largest companies in the world and some of the most profitable.

Digital Minimalism

To define this philosophy I will quote Cal Newport:

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.

The principles of this philosophy are as follows:

  1. Clutter is costly.

  2. Optimization is important.

  3. Intentionality is important.

Suppose you have lots of stuff, at the extreme you have a pack rat who keeps tons of stuff and cannot find anything. Now imagine a workspace which is clean and all items are there intentionally as opposed to a workspace that is cluttered. Which one would you prefer to work on? This isn’t just an opinion, in terms of time taken to get a task done you will almost always find a intentional, clean, and optimized workspace to be superior to a cluttered space with things unintentionally thrown about. The same goes for a cell phone or computer with tons of apps, files, etc. that are disorganized or kept on because “I might just need that later.” As the reason for keeping them. You could just store everything you rarely use on an external hard drive. Less is more in many cases.

After the initial clearings it becomes a habit to live this way and is second nature.

The Digital Declutter

Or as I like to call it The Purge. You will remember it that way, so I decided to use it.

The process is as follows:

1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional
technologies in your life.

2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you
find satisfying and meaningful.

3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate.
For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how
specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

This one is simple enough so I don’t have much to add but I would remind those of you who are prone to guilt to realize you are still human and forgive yourself if you relapse, but make sure to get back on the horse. You will make mistakes and they can be corrected. The most critical part is to keep trying. Iterative progress is better than perfection or purity. No one is truly “pure” in the sense that we all make mistakes or don’t act in perfect accordance with our espoused values. It’s fine, but letting that be an excuse to slide back into old bad habits is not.

Practices

The second half of the book is on the practices of digital minimalism which I will not be reviewing in depth because I do not think the parts need much elaboration beyond get used to spending periods of time alone, get used to being bored sometimes, don’t use that darn “like” button, and do leisure activities that stretch you but also not for any particular goal.

Solitude is a powerful tool for getting stuff done, solitude not in the sense of asceticism in the mountains, but in the sense of not interacting with other minds. I am in solitude in a coffee shop right now wearing my “don’t talk to me” headphones and listening to music loudly enough that I can barely hear anyone.

Conclusions

If you are suffering from any of the issues he mentions I would highly recommend practicing what he is preaching. The process works well for many as he outlines in the book many cases of people reclaiming their lives. You don’t usually realize what you are missing out on until you go through the process.

Overall, it was a solid read but not as gripping as his previous books since many of the ideas were elaborations or recycled material.

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