04(08): Notable snippets from a second read of Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism”

Nicholas Loh Avatar

Last night, I completed my re-reading of Cal Newport‘s “Digital Minimalism”. The book is incredibly relevant to practically every soul whose life involves the use of, to any extent, devices such as smartphones, computers, etc.

I realised that when I had read the book for the first time last July, I failed to note down some of my favourite snippets of text along the way for the entirety of the book. I had stopped halfway. As such, I recently decided to commit to reading the book again, and this time, I would note the snippets I found to be the most interesting and insightful (note that any bolded text and the capitalisation of whole words constitute emphasis which are mine), which I hope you can benefit immensely from:

PART 1: Foundations

1-1. A Lopsided Arms Race

Seemingly small environmental factors create large changes in behaviour:
– Wearing a red shirt on a dating profile will lead to significantly more interest than any other colour.
– If your name is easier to pronounce, you’d advance faster in the legal profession.

Tech companies encourage behavioural addiction via two ways:

  1. Intermittent positive reinforcement

As Harris notes, the notification symbol for Facebook was originally blue, to match the palette of the rest of the site, “but no one used it.” So they changed the color to red—an alarm color—and clicking skyrocketed.

2. Drive for social approval

1-2. Digital Minimalism

Digital minimalism may be defined as “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 so-called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit cost-benefit analyses. If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it.

Notice, this minimalist philosophy contrasts starkly with the maximalist philosophy that most people deploy by default—a mind-set in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention. A maximalist is very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone might miss out on something that’s the least bit interesting or valuable.

…the best digital life is formed by carefully curating their tools to deliver massive and unambiguous benefits. They tend to be incredibly wary of low-value activities that can clutter up their time and attention and end up hurting more than they help. Put another way: 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.

Digital minimalism works because of its three core principles:

Principle 1: Clutter is costly.

Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

When people consider specific tools or behaviors in their digital lives, they tend to focus only on the value each produces.

More often than not, the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.

Principle 2: Optimization is important.

An argument for Principle #2: The return curve

Principle 3: Intentionality is satisfying.

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

What Laura describes modestly as smugness is almost certainly something more fundamental to human flourishing: the sense of meaning that comes from acting with intention.

Pulling together these pieces, we arrive at a strong justification for the third principle of minimalism. Part of what makes this philosophy so effective is that the VERY ACT OF BEING SELECTIVE about your tools will bring you satisfactiontypically much more than what is lost from the tools you decide to avoid.

The sugar high of convenience is fleeting and the sting of missing out dulls rapidly, but the meaningful glow that comes from taking charge of what claims your time and attention is something that persists.

1-3. The Digital Declutter

A nontrivial number of people ended up aborting this process before the full thirty days were done. Interestingly, most of these early exits had little to do with insufficient willpower—this was an audience who was self-selected based on their drive to improve. More common were subtle mistakes in implementation. A typical culprit, for example, was technology restriction rules that were either too vague or too strict. Another mistake was not planning what to replace these technologies with during the declutter period—leading to anxiety and boredom. Those who treated this experiment purely as a detox, where the goal was to simply take a break from their digital life before returning to business as usual, also struggled. A temporary detox is a much weaker resolution than trying to permanently change your life, and therefore much easier for your mind to subvert when the going gets tough.

The three steps of the digital declutter process:

Step 1. Define your technology rules

Step 2: Take a 30-day break

– With this in mind, you have duties during the declutter beyond following your technology rules. For this process to succeed, you must also spend this period trying to rediscover what’s important to you and what you enjoy outside the world of the always-on, shiny digital. Figuring this out before you begin reintroducing technology at the end of this declutter process is crucial. An argument I’ll elaborate on in part 2 of this book is that you’re more likely to succeed in reducing the role of digital tools in your life if you cultivate high-quality alternatives to the easy distraction they provide.

– For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.

Step 3: Reintroduce technology

– …for each optional technology that you’re considering reintroducing into your life, you must first ask: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? This is the only condition on which you should let one of these tools into your life. The fact that it offers some value is irrelevant—the digital minimalist deploys technology to serve the things they find most important in their life, and is happy missing out on everything else.

– Once a technology passes this first screening question, it must then face a more difficult standardIs this technology the best way to support this value? We justify many of the technologies that tyrannize our time and attention with some tangential connection to something we care about. The minimalist, by contrast, measures the value of these connections and is unimpressed by all but the most robust.

– If a technology makes it through both of these screening questions, there’s one last question you must ask yourself before it’s allowed back into your life: How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?

– …many attention economy companies want you to think about their services in a binary way: either you use it, or you don’t. This allows them to entice you into their ecosystem with some feature you find important, and then, once you’re a “user,” deploy attention engineering to overwhelm you with integrated options, trying to keep you engaging with their service well beyond your original purpose

PART 2: Practices

2-1. Spend Time Alone

…solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.

Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.

Kethledge and Erwin detail many benefits, most of which concern the insight and emotional balance that comes from unhurried self-reflection.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal famously wrote in the late seventeenth century.

Harris is concerned that new technologies help create a culture that undermines time alone with your thoughts, noting that “it matters enormously when that resource is under attack.” His survey of the relevant literature then points to three crucial benefits provided by solitude: “new ideas; an understanding of the self; and closeness to others.

Harris argues, perhaps counterintuitively, that “the ability to be alone . . . is anything but a rejection of close bonds,” and can instead affirm them. Calmly experiencing separation, he argues, builds your appreciation for interpersonal connections when they do occur.

Even though iPods became ubiquitous, there were still moments in which it was either too much trouble to slip in the earbuds (think: waiting to be called into a meeting), or it might be socially awkward to do so (think: sitting bored during a slow hymn at a church service). The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance.

Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

For one thing, when you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships.

Three practices that you can engage in to spend more time alone: 1) Leave your phone at home; 2) Take long walks; 3) Write a letter to yourself

– The key is the act of writing itself. This behavior necessarily shifts you into a state of productive solitude— wrenching you away from the appealing digital baubles and addictive content waiting to distract you, and providing you with a structured way to make sense of whatever important things are happening in your life at the moment.

2-2. Don’t Click Like

He now believes “we are interested in the social world because we are built to turn on the default network during our free time.”

The problem, then, is not that using social media directly makes us unhappy. The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable.

PRACTICE: Don’t click “Like”
– Finally, it’s worth noting that refusing to use social media icons and comments to interact means that some people will inevitably fall out of your social orbit—in particular, those whose relationship with you exists only over social media. Here’s my tough love reassurance: let them go.

PRACTICE: Consolidate texting.
– This practice suggests that you keep your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default.
– When you’re in this mode, text messages become like emails: if you want to see if anyone has sent you something, you must turn on your phone and open the app.
– There are two major motivations for this practice. The first is that it allows you to be more present when you’re not texting. Once you no longer treat text interactions as an ongoing conversation that you must continually tend, it’s much easier to concentrate fully on the activity before you. This will increase the value you get out of these real-world interactions. The second motivation for this practice is that it can upgrade the nature of your relationships. When your friends and family are able to instigate meandering pseudo-conversations with you over text at any time, it’s easy for them to become complacent about your relationship. These interactions give the appearance of close connection (even though, in reality, they’re far from this standard), providing a disincentive to invest more time in more meaningful engagement.

PRACTICE: Hold conversation office hours

2-3. Reclaim Leisure

As the MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya expands in his modern interpretation of the Ethics, if your life consists only of actions whose “worth depends on the existence of problems, difficulties, needs, which these activities aim to solve,” you’re vulnerable to the existential despair that blooms in response to the inevitable question, Is this all there is to life? One solution to this despair, he notes, is to follow Aristotle’s lead and embrace pursuits that provide you a “source of inward joy.

The value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested.

Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.

In a culture where screens replace craft, Crawford argues, people lose the outlet for self-worth established through unambiguous demonstrations of skill. One way to understand the exploding popularity of social media platforms in recent years is that they offer a substitute source of aggrandizement.

In the absence of a well-built wood bench or applause at a musical performance to point toward, you can instead post a photo of your latest visit to a hip restaurant, hoping for likes, or desperately check for retweets of a clever quip.

Leisure Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.

Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.

PRACTICE: Fix or build something every week.

PRACTICE: Schedule your low-quality leisure.

– …schedule in advance the time you spend on lowquality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes. If you want to binge-watch Netflix while live-streaming yourself browsing Twitter: go for it. But outside these periods, stay offline.

– There are two reasons why this strategy works well. First, by confining your use of attention-capturing services to well-defined periods, your remaining leisure time is left protected for more substantial activities. Without access to your standard screens, the best remaining option to fill this time will be quality activities. The second reason this strategy works well is that it doesn’t ask you to completely abandon low-quality diversions.

2-4. Join the Attention Resistance

PRACTICE: Embrace slow media

PRACTICE: Dumb down your smartphone

One response

  1. 04(09): Evolving views on social media – Nicholas Loh

    […] without Twitter and social media in general in the long run. This is because we must be wary of the any-benefit mindset (a concept I elaborated on in a previous blog post where I shared my favourite s… that is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s […]

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