A Review of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism

books, reading, technology

One of my main goals for this month was to watch my social media time. That is, I would try to restrict my time on facebook and instagram to Saturdays. This has been mostly successful. Saturdays has included Sundays and last week I checked facebook to check up on CrossFit Open information. I’ve been more mindful and quick to click out, so I think it is overall an improvement from mindlessly scrolling.

The inspiration for my social media hiatus is Cal Newport‘s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. I have been a follower of Newport ever since I listened to his interview with Ben Domenech on the Federalist Radio Hour the other year. Back then, he was discussing his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Both are similar in that the nemesis to be thwarted is an attachment to social media, but where Deep Work focused on the harmful effects of social media and the internet on work, Digital Minimalism focuses on their harmful effects in our personal life and ways to overcome our digital addiction. Quick sidenote: All Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning if you buy something I make a percentage. 

And that it is an addiction is a characteristic Newport wants to make clear. I think he describes most lives (including my own) when he writes, “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.” This happens to me when I’m trying to read. I have to check facebook. Or before I do any work, I have to check facebook, then instagram, then facebook again, then work. I try really hard not to look at my phone when out to dinner or visiting with friends, but I know I do it all the time when with Bruno or family. Baby C has a few more months to go, but I keep seeing articles pop up on what our constant phone checking is doing to children. I think Newport speaks to something we all know is true, but frankly, kind of feel helpless in what to do about it. The Internet is ubiquitous.

I think that is where this book becomes most useful. If you already know you are struggling with social media and internet use, to the point where you are constantly checking, you do not need to be preached to. But what to do about it is another thing entirely. After discussing what it is about social media that makes it so addicting, Newport presents his alternative (you guessed it): “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.”

He provides a number of options for “digital minimalism,” but the suggestion I found most intriguing was that of cultivating leisure. Newport’s theory is that we cannot just get rid of the all-encompassing amount of social media in our lives, but we need to replace it with something. We’ve lost the meaning of leisure and have replaced it with facebook likes and instagram videos. And by leisure, he does not mean we should just read more books, but also create things and learn things. His list is fairly male-centric (learn how to do mechanics on the car, for example), but I think anybody could come up with a list of weekend learning projects. That way we have something to actually show for our lives beyond “a photo of your latest visit to a hip restaurant, hoping for likes.”

Another one of his suggestions I particularly appreciated had to do with politics and news coverage. I think news-media addition is its own problem, especially because most people I know who are constantly sharing things on social media probably never, if ever, read from a viewpoint different from their own (not to mention I think everything found in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business can apply to sharing news on social media — the medium is the message — but I digress). Newport advises “slow news consumption,” as opposed to our twitter, outrage-addicted news cycle. One of the benefits of slow news consumption is worth quoting at length “if you’re interested in commentary on political and cultural issues, this experience is almost always enhsanced by also seeking out the best arguments against your preferred position. I live in Washington, DC, so I know professional political operatives on both sides of the aisle. A requirement of their job is that they keep up to speed on the best opposing arguments. A side effect of this requirement is that they tend to be much more interesting to chat with about politics. In private, they don’t exhibit the same anxious urge to tilt at straw man versions of opposing viewpoints that’s exhibited by most amateur political commenters, and instead are able to isolate the key underlying issues, or identify the interesting nuances that complicate the matter at hand. I suspect they derive much more pleasure out of consuming political commentary than those who merely seek confirmation that anyone who disagrees is deranged.” What a better world that would be.

I plan on continuing my current facebook/instagram amount into next March (this is more than Newport’s recommended 30 days completely off). I like having my weeks social media free. I think, after reading this book, the next step will be to focus on internet usage as a whole. I find myself far too often down the internet rabbit hole, googling, searching, checking, and window shopping all too often. And for what? I think the best argument Newport gives is how much more you can add to your life when you are not just mindlessly scrolling. You can read. You can listen to music. You can actually focus on the conversation you are having. Life becomes fuller and indeed more intentional when it is not lived with the constant chains of the screen.*

What are your thoughts on digital minimalism? Have you read anything by Cal Newport? Reading anything good now?

*Yes, this is an intentional Rousseau ending. Ain’t no breaking these chains of love.

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