Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport: Summary and Notes

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport “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.”

Rating: 8/10

Related Books: Deep WorkSo Good They Can’t Ignore You, Atomic HabitsMake Time, Indistractable

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Digital Minimalism Short Summary

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport will teach you how to reclaim your time from addictive digital technologies. Tech products are built to be addictive and this can be detrimental to your mental health and general well-being. To live a more fulfilling life, you need to take back the control you have lost. Newport will show you how.

About Cal Newport

digital minimalism cal newport Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times bestseller author. He is best known for his books on productivity and technology, such as Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

Part 1: Foundations

Smartphones have reshaped our experience of the world by providing an ever-present connection to distractions. What makes people feel uncomfortable about digital technologies is the sense of losing control.

The addictive properties of new technologies are not accidents but are designed that way. Tech companies make their money by making users engage with their products compulsively.

Tech companies encourage tech addiction through two forces:

  1. Intermittent positive reinforcement: Variable rewards are more addictive than predictable rewards. When you never know what you are going to keep scrolling down the pages
  2. The drive for social approval: The need for social approval is deeply seated in our brains. It mattered when we lived in tribes and in small groups but with social media, the process has been hijacked. An example is the Facebook Like button that ‘signifies approval’

A Minimal Solution

It is not enough to make small tweaks to our relationship with new technologies. What we need is to rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch. 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.”

Digital minimalists work backward from their deep values to their technology choices and not the other way around.

“Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.”

Principles of digital minimalism:

  1. Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists know that by cluttering their attention and time to too many things, they miss out on the benefits that each individual item provides in isolation
  2. Optimization is important. Digital minimalists think carefully of the way that they will use a particular technology before adopting it
  3. Intentionality is satisfying.  Digital minimalists derive joy from their conscious decisions to use technology in a particular way. Acting with intention gives us a sense of meaning

The Digital Declutter

The digital declutter process:

  1. Take a thirty-day break from the optional technologies in your life
  2. Rediscover activities and behaviors that add more meaning to your life during this thirty-day break
  3. Reintroduce technologies that have an actual purpose in your life and determine how to maximize their value at the end of the thirty-day period

“Much like decluttering your house, this lifestyle experiment provides a reset for your digital life by clearing away distracting tools and compulsive habits that may have accumulated haphazardly over time and replacing them with a much more intentional set of behaviors, optimized, in proper minimalist fashion, to support your values instead of subverting them.” “If you begin decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life before you’ve convincingly filled in the void they were helping you ignore, the experience will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worse”.

Part 2: Practices

Spend Time Alone

Seek solitude or time to confer with the self.

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

Because of technology, it is now completely possible to banish solitude from our lives. Solitude deprivation:

A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your thoughts and free from input from other minds.” “As recently as the 1990s, solitude deprivation was difficult to achieve. There were just too many situations in everyday life that forced you to be alone with your thoughts, whether you wanted to or not—waiting in line, crammed into a crowded subway car, walking down the street, working on your yard. Today, as I’ve just argued, it’s become widespread.”

Solitude gives the ability to clarify hard problems. The key to avoiding solitude deprivation is to alternate between regular time alone with your thoughts and regular connection with the outside world.

To create time for solitude, you need to abandon the belief that you can’t live without your cell-phone. Start by keeping your phone away from you and only reaching for it when it is absolutely necessary.

Practice solitude by:

  1. Leaving your phone at home
  2. Taking long walks
  3. Writing letters to self

Don’t Click “Like”

digital minimalism - Don't click "like" Our brains evolved a strong sense of social connection. So strong that it is the default network in our brain. When we are bored, we tend to think about our place in the social circle.

Our intricate highly developed brain networks evolved where our day-to-day interactions were rich, face-to-face encounters, and very localized. It is very different from the digital communication tools that provide a stream of endless information both local and no-localized.

The more we use social media, the more we become lonely and feel isolated.

“As the negative studies imply, the more you use social media, the less time you tend to devote to offline interaction, and therefore the worse this value deficit becomes—leaving the heaviest social media users much more likely to be lonely and miserable.”

To succeed at digital minimalism, we have to develop conversation-centric communication.

Your conversations should take the form of face-to-face meetings including video chat so long as it incorporates nuanced analog cues such as the tone of voice and facial expressions.

Make the choice not to use social media as a tool for low-quality relationship nudges. Stop interacting with friends through likes and comments. Engage in deeper conversation with them.

Practice consolidated texting by scheduling what time to respond to calls and text messages.

Reclaim Leisure

“A life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.”

The Bennet principle: Engaging in laborious activities during our leisure time can be energizing. Find something that you can do with your hands during your leisure time. Leisure time can also be used to support rich social interactions such as playing games or joining clubs.

Join the Resistance

“If you’re going to use social media, stay far away from the mobile versions of these services, as these pose a significantly bigger risk to your time and attention. This practice, in other words, suggests that you remove all social media apps from your phone. You don’t have to quit these services; you just have to quit accessing them on the go.”

By removing your ability to access social media from your device, you will have more control over your life.

“If you don’t need social media for your work, for example, set up a schedule that blocks these sites and apps completely with the exception of a few hours in the evening.”

Use social media like a professional by avoiding the low-level distractions that are inbuilt in the services. You can also embrace slow media by being mindful of your media consumption. Check out this Ted Talk where Cal Newport talks about the benefits of Digital Minimalism.