On Living Better with Less Technology
Life gets busy. Has Digital Minimalism been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
About Cal Newport
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. As well as this academic research, he writes articles and blog posts on the intersection of digital technology and culture. Cal has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times. He also has a long-running blog called Study Hacks, which receives over 3 million visits a year.
“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.”– Cal Newport
Digital Minimalism outlines how we can obtain value from technology while limiting the drawbacks associated with digital clutter. Minimalism is the art of knowing how much is just enough. Digital minimalism applies this idea to our technology. It is the key to living a focused life in an increasingly noisy world. Cal Newport provides an outline of how excessive technology is ruining our leisure time and our interactions. The alternative is stripping your technology back to the minimal tools that improve your life and interactions with others. This is digital minimalism.
What is Digital Minimalism?
Digital Minimalism is not what standard technology articles suggest. Instead of a quick fix approach, digital minimalism should be a philosophy you live by. Specifically, a technology philosophy whereby you focus your online time on only a few crucial digital tools. Digital tools should not be used merely because they support something that a digital minimalist values. Instead, these tools must pass a tougher test. Is this tool the best way you can use technology to support your values?
Digital minimalism is an uncommon approach to technology. Minimalists do not just use technology whenever it provides any potential benefit, no matter how small. Minimalists are more concerned with protecting the large certainties in their lives. Sometimes technology might provide minor benefits but will impact our lives’ most critical things, e.g., face-to-face interactions.
The Principles of Digital Minimalism
“Simply put, humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”– Cal Newport
Cal Newport describes digital minimalism via three core principles:
- Clutter is costly – Cal Newport is not just talking about physical clutter. You want to avoid cluttering your time and attention with too many devices, apps and services. If you do not reduce this clutter, your small benefits will diminish.
- Optimization is essential – To extract maximal benefit from the technology you use, you must think carefully about how and why you are using it. Always aim to optimize how you are using this technology.
- Intentionality is satisfying – Becoming a digital minimalist means that you gain satisfaction from intentionally engaging with new technologies.
Thoreau’s New Economics
Cal Newport provides arguments for each principle of digital minimalism. The first principle is supported by Thoreau’s New Economics theory and is based on one of his quotes:
“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.”– Cal Newport
You should be thinking about what you have to exchange for new technology rather than the value you can gain. More often than not, people consider how specific digital tools can bring further value to their lives. So, balance the value you gain from new technology against the costs measured in terms of your life.
The Return Curve
Cal Newport explains that the same law of diminishing returns seen in economics can be applied to technology. Most people’s personal technology relationships are on the early part of the return curve. This means that initial additions of technology will yield massive returns. That said, the value and use of these services reduce over time, with more technologies added.
The Amish Hacker
Cal Newport provides one of the Amish community’s principles as a justification for his third principle. You want to start with the technologies that you value the most. Then, declutter by working backward and asking yourself whether this next technology performs more harm than good.
“The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”– Cal Newport
Cal Newport does not recommend a gradual removal of your technologies. Instead, a rapid transformation is a better process of digital decluttering. Here is the step-by-step process of decluttering provided by Cal Newport:
- Put aside 30 days to take a break from technologies that are not essential.
- Use these 30 days to learn new skills, activities and behaviors that you find meaningful.
- At the end of the break, you can start reintroducing technologies by starting with your blank slate.
- For each technology you reintroduce, you must determine the value it serves in your life and how you will maximize this value.
Do not view this period as a detox and nothing else. Instead, use this time to learn about yourself and your relationship with technology. Use it as a period to improve your relationship with the digital world.
Spend Time Alone
Cal Newport encourages readers to consider the importance of solitude in their lives. Solitude is not about being alone in your environment but about what is happening in your brain. If you have mastered solitude in your life, you can even engage with solitude on the busiest train.
Avoiding others’ minds intruding on your own is crucial for effective solitude. Solitude also requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people. Instead, you must focus on your own thoughts and experiences. Cal Newport explains that technology reduces the time you spend alone with your thoughts.
Cal Newport provides three crucial benefits of mastering solitude:
- You will realize you are better able to establish new ideas
- You will develop a better understanding of the self
- You will obtain a closeness with others that you previously were unable to obtain.
Another benefit of solitude is that you develop a greater appreciation for social interactions. So, regular doses of solitude mixed with social interactions will help you flourish.
The millennial and iGen generation are the first generations to be living without solitude. Studies show these children spend, on average, 9 hours per day consuming digital media. The result is a sharp rise in anxiety disorders.
Practices to Adopt
Leave Your Phone at Home
Cal Newport emphasizes the importance of losing the notion that not having your phone is a crisis. Once you lose this feeling, you can start spending some time away from your phone on most days. Cal Newport doesn’t recommend ditching your phone altogether. Phones are convenient, but you do not always need them with you.
Take Long Walks
To highlight the importance of walking, Cal Newport talks about Nietzsche’s view. Nietzsche outlined that all great thoughts are produced while walking. Subsequently, the famous philosopher would walk up to eight hours a day. These walks were accompanied by notebooks. After filling six of these notebooks, Nietsczhe had written The Wanderer and His Shadow. Walking is so effective because it taps into solitude.
To fully tap into solitude while walking, you should regularly take long walks. If you can, aim to walk in areas that are scenic and go on these walks alone. To Cal Newport, alone means without people, but also without your phone. Do not let the weather put you off going on a long walk. It does not have to be sunny for you to benefit from walking.
Write Letters to Yourself
Writing in and of itself has many benefits. The same parts of the brain are used while writing as when going about your social life. The loss of social connection in our lives can also trigger the same brain systems like those seen when you are in physical pain. This is why research has found painkillers are also able to reduce social pain. Sp, if you are struggling to form social connections, writing might be an alternative.
Reclaim Your Conversations
“My argument is not anti-technology… it’s pro-conversation.”– Cal Newport
Digital media has warped what healthy conversations look like and reduced our ability to form true connections. Cal Newport describes connections in the modern world as low-bandwidth interactions that define our online social lives. Many people view conversations and connections as two separate approaches to accomplishing the same social goals. That said, Cal Newport introduces the idea of Conversation-Concentric Communication. This theory argues conversations are the only form of interaction that is important for maintaining a relationship.
Based on Cal Newport’s consideration of interactions, he suggests that textual or non-interactive exchanges are not conversations. Sending somebody a Whatsapp is not a proper interaction. So, Cal Newport is recommending readers to downgrade their idea of connections to a logistical role. Although this might mean you reduce the number of people you have a relationship with, you will improve the richness of your interactions. At the end of the day, this is more important.
Don’t Click Like
Cal Newport suggests you avoid clicking like or commenting on social media posts. Engaging with these behaviors will only teach your mind that these interactions are a reasonable alternative to proper conversations. On the flip side, completely removing these behaviors from your life will force you to engage in proper conversations.
Texting should not be something you slip in and out of during the day. By default, Cal Newport recommends keeping your phone in Do Not Disturb mode. You should also schedule specific times for texting.
As well as offering unwanted distractions, replying throughout the day to text messages encourages pseudo-conversations with your friends and family. If you are always available, it is easy for your loved ones to become complacent about your relationship.
“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.”– Cal Newport
High-quality leisure is crucial for human happiness. Despite this, more and more people are struggling to claim this all-important leisure. We forget about insufficient high-quality leisure we have because we fill this time with digital noise. That said, this digital noise does not have the same positive impact as high-quality leisure.
To provide a simple outline of how you can start to reclaim leisure, Cal Newport provides three leisure lessons:
- Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption – Cal Newport encourages people to engage more in crafts. He introduces the idea of crafts as any activity where you apply the skill to something valuable. So, crafts are a good source of high-quality leisure. Crafts also help build your self-worth, something lost during the digital age.
- Use skills to produce valuable things – Your skills are crucial for making a difference in the physical world. However, they are also useful when playing games. Cal Newport emphasizes the effectiveness of playing games as a type of supercharged social interaction. Games are often higher intensity than everyday social interactions. This is a good thing. So, play board games and engage with social fitness and recreational sports leagues.
- Seek activities that require real-world social interactions – Cal Newport describes the interaction between the internet and leisure as a renaissance. Every individual has more leisure options at their disposal than ever before. The internet can be a positive thing if used to find genuine social interaction in the physical world. Digital technology should be present but subordinated to a support role.
Practices to Reclaim Leisure
Fix or Build Something Every Week
One way to create meaningful leisure that utilizes touch is by fixing or building something weekly. This might be changing your car oil, installing a new light fixture, or building your first shed.
Schedule Your Low-Quality Leisure
You will inevitably engage with some low-quality leisure during your time. That saio, to prevent these activities from taking over your life, Cal Newport recommends scheduling these low-quality leisure times in advance. He suggests that the vast majority of regular social media users can receive their social media value within just twenty to forty minutes of use per week. Then, you should fill this newly freed time with high-quality alternatives.
Follow Your Leisure Plans
Your free time should be as well planned as your productive time. So, Cal recommends planning out quarterly and weekly leisure plan objectives. Just like any objective, they should be specific and measurable. Plus, identify habits you should develop to help you reach your objectives.
Every week, you should be figuring out what you can do to progress toward your quarterly objectives. Schedule these activities into your weekly planning. Suppose you are more intentional rather than spontaneous about your leisure. In that case, you will realize that leisure is forming a larger part of your life.
Final Summary and Review of Digital Minimalism
The digital world has a significant impact on all of our lives. That said, this doesn’t mean its impact is entirely positive. Cal Newport argues that technology is here to stay, so we must learn how to extract its best qualities and remove its bad ones. He identifies several things you can do to start making this change and adopt digital minimalism:
- Only keep the technologies that you require
- Spend time alone away from friends/family and your technology
- Take long walks to help clear your head
- Stop viewing virtual messages as real conversations
- Plan leisure time that is productive and enjoyable
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