Digital Minimalism – More than just a book review
I really love Cal Newport’s books. But when Digital Minimalism first came out, I was reluctant to read it. I think I just didn’t want to admit that I really needed to read that one. So, in the pre-Easter stress burst, I did. I got it on Audible and took it all in on my morning bike rides to work. This is what stuck with me, plus some personal thoughts and implementation ideas.
My initial reluctance towards digital minimalism showed how much I felt digital technologies had grown to be part of my identity. Could I be a Digital Minimalist and a Digital Humanist at the same time? Would it mean I had to give up Twitter again after I had just adopted it to promote my blog? Can I be a blogger and still reduce screen time? I wil now treat you to the takeways from the book and also keep you posted on my ongoing experiment in moving towards digital minimalism.
Digital Minimalism is not a manifesto against the digital, but rather one for enhancing your analogue life in a digital world. Thinking back about it now, I would say the most important takeaways for me were questions like “How to have a rich social life despite social media?”
At the beginning, Newport brings up Henry David Thoreau who is known most widely for being the author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods. His life in the wood, however, was about reflecting upon the good life in the times of industrialization. He saw that people in capitalism never questioned why they should consume. Consumption is seen as a value in and of its own because people only count the value novel things provide. They never thought about their cost, Thoreau realized. He saw that the value in buying new things hardly ever made up for the lifetime lost because people had to work in order to be able to afford their luxuries. They had hardly any time left to really enjoy them.
This is an important thought on its own (especially in terms of work life balance, deliberating whether you are ready to continue doing half of your work for free, etc.). But Newport points out that “clutter is costly”. In the use of digital tools, people mostly look at the benefits they seemingly provide (i.e. exposure to new ideas from Twitter, networking), but they hardly weigh this is in with the time they lose using those tools.
What are good reasons you use social media for? Mostly, the answers are in no way proportional to the amount of time we waste on the internet. Not because we’re lazy and tend to procrastinate, like we so often emphasize. Because the offerings of the internet are engineered to take up as much of our time as possible, distract us and make us addicted. There are several psychological factors at play here which you can read for yourself in the book.
In any case, the point is that Facebook would provide the same value (the reason with which we justify our massive use) without the like buttons which turn it into an addictive gambling machine. Getting likes combines our deeply ingrained desire for acceptance from our tribe with the thrill of the unforeseeable outcome of a gamble. Today, we live in an attention economy. Our attention is worth a lot of money to those who offer digital services. You can still get all the benefit from those servies when using them very selectively. But of course, that’s not what they want.
Newport’s digital minimalism mostly consists of rethinking “which tools we allow into our lives (“a philosophy of technology use”) which will result in using them more deliberately and selectively. He suggests we take back control over the screens coming from our deep-held values rather than making superficial changes which might miss the point.
Take a break from optional* technologies for 30 days. Explore what you could do instead. Re-introduce worthwhile technologies selectively. You might go through some withdrawal symptoms but afterwards realize you don’t need certain technologies anymore.
* Optional technologies are those you don’t absolutely need in your job. If unsure about which ones to look out for, start with streaming, social media and check your phone and computer. Don’t confuse convenient with critical. Critical is only something which would result in major consequences. Not keeping up with people for a month will probably not hurt. It might even make you see that you don’t want to invest in certain relationships anymore.
Spend Time Alone
We need solitude to order our thoughts. That’s why we often find so much clarity on lonely train rides and the like. But solitude is not total isolation. According to Newport, it means being free from outside input in your mind. The recent anxiety epidemic is caused by permanent connection via digital media. Solitude is also needed for deep work, which Newport discussed in his last book. A concept of utmost importance especially during your PhD! (Do read the book or get the audiobook!) Finding time to be alone with your thoughts, which should be the main activity during this time of your life, ironically has become an exceptional event, incredibly rare and hard to come by these days. So many distractions and extra responsibilities compete for the PhD student’s attention. It has become hard to keep the main thing the main thing. During the dissertation, your main job is to write that dissertation. Dare to claim back this time free from distractions.
Room of One’s Own
Today, we don’t ever need to be alone or bored anymore. Especially as PhD students who – quite litterally – don’t have a room of their own, room of one’s own is hard to come by. In general. Because people spam you with their own false emergencies and as an early career scholar, you obviously aren’t in a position to call people out for wasting your time. (Even if those same people will probably accuse you of wasting their time when you have a question which is absolutely crucial for you or you need this decision from your boss before you can continue).
While isolation might be an unattainable goal, Newport suggests solitude really means being alone with your own thoughts. This is what we should strive for: to plan for regular moments where no other’s thought intrudes into our minds (no music, no audiobook, no screens, no talking, etc.). In short, an environment without diversion, so you can focus on yourself and on your own thoughts. Walking has historically been a classic activity to obtain this state of mind.
When we are permanently diverted, solitude deprivation will actually make us sick. The rise in anxiety disorders of the past years coincides with the generation who grew up with smart phones. The problem is not a distraction every once in a while. Previous technologies offered these occasional diversions. Only since the 2000s, we can banish boredom and solitude completely and be permanently connected and diverted. Being sociable is important for humans as social animals, of course. But not continiously.
Not so long ago, it would have been a bit weird to constantly wear headphones in public. In the age of walkmans, only very few would actually spend their whole commute wired. People would be forced to have some moments of solitude while walking, waiting, and such activities. It all started with the white iPod headphones of the early 2000s. Nowadays, we can’t stand even a few minutes of boredom queueing at the supermarket. When label this “productivity” because our constant phone usage allows us to get something done on the go. Occasionally. If we were honest to ourselves, these productivity bursts are actually pretty rare events. The gain in productivity is minimal compared to the loss of lifetime we suffer from being sucked into the infinity of our dashboards.
Our digital habits have us at the brink of a mental health crisis. Constant screen exposure robs us of these moments alone where we can process our thoughts and feelings, make plans, or simply give our brains some much needed rest. This is especially relevant for creative workers, like we are as PhD students.
Giving up your phone completely will be an unnecessary struggle and make life more complicated. But there is no problem spending a few hours without it. Newport suggests to leave your phone in the car or give it to someone else to hold. That way, you still have emergency access but aren’t constantly distracted by it. Go on walks, alone, without your phone. Or meditate, as Astrid would probably recommend. Going running kind of fits this requirement as well. Journal to get in touch with yourself and your thoughts. Write a letter to yourself. Writing is productive solitude and helps you make sense of what’s happening.
Don’t click “Like”
Use Social Media consciously and intentionally: to network and to arrange meetings with friends more efficiently, not to replace real social interaction. Connection is not the same thing as conversation. You need meaningful quality time with friends, not superficial likes. So don’t click like because it will fool you into thinking you are maintaining a relationship when you really aren’t. Take time to consciously meet up with people. Really listen, don’t ignore them and stare into your screen once they’re there.
Set up “office hours”
Astrid, I and our friends have used this technique for ourselves recently (not knowing it was a techique). We decided we would consciously take time for a long Classics PhD student lunch break once a week. Everybody can join. We use an instant messaging group chat to discuss where we are going to eat each week. People will say who can join and who can’t. It has turned out that this lunch break (which can last up to three hours) has become very popular with our whole circle of friends since it allows us to share our common PhD issues. We’re all from the (wide) field of Classics but work at different institutes, so not all of us have like-minded colleagues at our institutions who share our problems. I really can’t express how much I now look forward to this lunch break every week and how disappointed I am when it occasionally doesn’t take place.
Taking back control: Don’t hit like, don’t interact, don’t scroll.
Historically, newspapers first were seen as a product in and of their own. Then in 1830, a witty publisher noticed that in reality, the readers were his product which he could resell profitably to those who wanted their attention (read up on this in Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants). So he made it his goal to capture attention instead of trying to deliver a good product.
Imagine you had to pay for services like Facebook. How many minutes would you spend per week? These minutes are essentially what this social network really is worth to you. Everything else is profit for the company specialized in reselling your precious time and attention. Newport suggests we “join the attention resistance” by being more conscious about our screen usage. Extracting your attention is more lucrative for these serives than extracting oil! Are we really ok with being sold out? Like the famous saying hints: If you’re not paying, your not the customer – you’re the product. The attention engineering which ensues strategically exploits our psychological vulnerabilities to maximize screen time and spend far more time than you intended. Your smartphone is a billboard you always carry around with you.
Set up fixed hours for screen usage (i.e. phone, social media, streaming) maximum 1h per day at [time]. Go back to single-purpose computing. Check social media only on your desktop PC and remove the apps from you phone. This alone will drastically reduce screen time already (as well as usage of that specific network). Make it as inconvenient as possible to use these apps (i.e. delete them, always log out, etc.). You might realize that you don’t need them as much as you had thought. Lots of people Newport interviewed quit social media altogether after having removed the apps from their phone. They had come to realize that these seemingly indispensable tools were just quick convenient hits of distraction. If you only use it sometimes, you can only use it for some well-chosen, conscious, high-value activities.
Fear of missing out
The ubiquity of Facebook, Google and the like put them in the lucky position that they never need to actually convince people of their product. People are weird if you they don’t use them. It is somehow self-evident you will use them. People are pressured into using them. Sometimes with the non-argument that “maybe there is some benefit you might be missing”. Being vague on your purposes makes you an easier victim for the attention economy. But of course, knowing what you want is more work than waiting to be entertained. If we assume average usage time per day is about one hour and compare that to the minutes people would spend per week if they had to pay, they would spend 10-20x less time on these services if they carefully monitored their use. But of course, then these services would not be top-of-the-economy profitable anymore. So they will use everything in their power to trick you to spend more time than you intend. Keeping up with friends and close social circles is important but actually doesn’t require a lot of time. But, of course, that too is a truth these services try hard to make you forget.
Cut out the noise. The dashboards can be surfed endlessly and are designed to take up more and more of your time. Use services intentionally and consciously, so you’re not used by them. Clickbait fragments your focus. Remember that your time is their money. A phone is an interactive billboard. And you give them the ad space for free. Maybe use a dumb phone to re-single-purpose your phone. I actually ordered a light phone 2.
We were so eager to get connected that we never asked why we would want to be connected in the first place. New technologies are tools to support your values, not values of themselves. Get comfortable missing out on everything that is not specifically valuable to you.
We should think of all digital services as “blocked by default”, only allowed on specific occasions. Newport suggests we control usage of these tools aggressively. If we managed to resist, we would take the value for free but not let ourselves be exploited. Like the pirate’s motto: Take all you can get and give nothing back.
Now that you got lots of helpful takeaways, I sincerely recommend you to get the book. I have the audiobook which is available from Audible. I found it so engaging and important to myself that I listened to it more than 3 times already. Each time, some other aspect resonates with me. This is an effect I find very typical of Newport’s books. I need to go through them at least 3 times to really get all the value. They are really that full of valuable insights. At least to me. I really like to listen to his books while commuting. That way, I can easily go through them multiple times and really engange with them. Though I probably should enjoy the solitude instead, according to him anyway.
PS: You can also watch Newport in action in his TEDx talk.
- freedom.to “Control distractions. Focus on what matters. Social media, shopping, videos, games…these apps and websites are scientifically engineered to keep you hooked and coming back. The cost to your productivity, ability to focus, and general well-being can be staggering. Freedom gives you control.” However, the tool is not free.
- Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our heads. NY 2016.