If you can point to someone that says they don’t feel the pull of social media then you’re also most likely pointing to a liar. Oh sure, there are some that don’t feel the unescapable desire to dive into social media every few minutes but it’s a very small percentage. We all want to identify as this stoic person that doesn’t get distracted easily. We want to be able to say that we don’t have a problem checking our devices during any lull in the activity we’re engaging in. The reality is that few of us are being truthful with ourselves and most of us are that person that feels phantom vibrations in their pocket even when our phone is charging across the room.
This brings up a number of problems for people who want to be effective in their day.
First, it’s can be hard to identify the items that are holding us back from the goals we want. Many people wouldn’t identify the distraction of messages in their work environment as the thing that holds them back.
Second, once we do gain the self-awareness to identify the problems, it can be hard to figure out a suitable solution because our working environments are designed to enable the things that are holding us back.
Third, we end up comparing our lives to the carefully curated lives of people on social media.
The constant exposure to their friends’ carefully curated portrayals of their lives generates feelings of inadequacy — especially during periods when they’re already feeling low — and for teenagers, it provides a cruelly effective way to be publicly excluded.
I’ve seen this evidenced by the growing needs at the local college I’m involved in, as our mental health services are seeing huge jumps in usage. Low grade anxiety is on the rise and it’s difficult to hire fast enough to keep up with the increasing demand. My local college is not the only place dealing with this problem, a 2018 study found that between 2007 and 2017:
The only decent stat in the report is the decrease in the stigma around receiving mental health support. All the other stats show that mental health needs are on the rise. While the study does not draw this connection, it seems to me that this need coincides with some of our first generations that were raised with easy access screens everywhere.
Fourth, it’s hard for us to focus on any one thing for too long. Stop and think about the last time you were able to have a conversation with a friend without feeling the pull to pick up your phone. It’s been a while hasn’t it? This doesn’t just extend to the conversations with friends, when was the last time you could spend an hour lost in a book without diving for some device or watched a movie without looking for extra information with a device?
While Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport, doesn’t specifically address the first two problems, it does touch on them with its 30 day detox found in Part 1. The book as a whole is designed to help us get a handle on our digital lives (problems 3 and 4) so that we can get back to the long periods without distraction Newport identified in Deep Work.
The purpose of Digital Minimalism is to advocate for living a life that limits the inputs of digital distraction in our days. That’s not just social media, but text messaging, and any other way that our devices can call for our attention when they aren’t the appropriate focus of attention.
It breaks the topic up into two sections. Part 1 introduces the concept of Digital Minimalism along with Newport’s 30 day detox from optional digital tasks. Part 2 gives us tools, ideas, and practices to form a new relationship with our devices after our 30 day detox experience so that we can create a digitally minimal life.
In many ways, Digital Minimalism, is a continuation of the line of thought that Cal Newport introduced in Deep Work so it will help if we have a cursory understanding of some of the core concepts in that book first.
The core of Deep Work is built on this hypothesis.
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive. - Deep Work
Newport argues that if you want to succeed in almost any field, then you need to have the option of long periods of attention so you can focus on your work. Not only do you need to have the option of attention without distraction, you need to have the ability to focus without distracting yourself. While he doesn’t focus only on the digital life we lead, that is the focus of Digital Minimalism, Newport does advise that these devices with their myriad distractions are a strong cause for our lack of long periods without distraction.
Add our own distraction addictions like Instagram to corporate messaging apps and companies that expect near instant responses to any message that we are tagged in. Throw in open offices where we are constantly bombarded by distraction, and we have a recipe for never having the option of being alone with our thoughts. Further, the limited times we do have the option to be alone and focus, we have trained ourselves to seek out any other distraction possible.
Newport says that we got here in part by using the “Any Benefit” method as we looked at technology.
The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it. - Deep Work
I think this goes far past network tools as we look at almost every opportunity through the “any benefit” lens. We throw children into 9 sports because one of them may be the one and they all, in theory, build up to have benefit for our kids. We try all networking events just in case this next one has the vital contact to help our business launch into the stratosphere.
Because we might maybe see some possible benefit to any activity we can throw ourselves into, we embrace them all. Then in the dark of night as we fall into bed feeling stretched thin we wonder how we got to be so busy.
One of the final big ideas in Deep Work is the opposite of the any benefit principle.
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
This is what the core of Digital Minimalism is examining. How to divorce ourselves from technology long enough that we can stand back and take a hard look at the digital lives we’ve built for ourselves and then make a decision about those lives and the actual benefit they bring us.
Now that we have an introduction to the ideas that Newport is building on, let’s dive into part one of Digital Minimalism.
The goal of the first part of Digital Minimalism is to set up the foundation for Part II, where Newport provides practices to renegotiate our interactions with technology. This starts by recognizing that we are in an arms race for our attention, and the other side has so much more in the form of resources than we do as we try to keep our attention focused on things that we deem as worthwhile.
This started in the form of little optimizations in our life for minor annoyances, but in the words of Newport:
We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life.
There are many engineers being paid well to appeal to two keys in behavioural reinforcement, and the first is intermittent positive reinforcement. This is when you get a like on your post, but not every time you open Facebook. In early 2018 a Globe and Mail report said:
Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it's common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding "likes" from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it'll show only a fraction of the likes you've received on a given post at first, hoping you'll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two.
While Instagram has denied this, they have said in that same article that they try to strike a balance between sending to many notifications and being timely. It reads like two sides of the same coin in that one person’s idea of not bugging you too much is another person’s delayed notification so you come back. I have noticed in my on again and off again relationship with Instagram that if I don’t look at the service in a few days I start getting emails about what others are doing. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that they are trying to entice me to open Instagram again because I haven’t been “engaged” enough.
Digital Minimalism echoes this thought that the technology industry plays on our desire for positive reinforcement when it says:
The technology industry has become adept at exploiting this instinct for approval. Social media, in particular, is now carefully tuned to offer you a rich stream of information about how much (or how little) your friends are thinking about you at the moment.
We’ve already seen the second key that makes so much of technology addictive, our drive for social approval. Our desire for social approval isn’t bad, in fact it’s good. We want to be liked so as we interact with people and see that our actions have caused them distress, we build empathy.
Human’s learn empathy and understanding by watching their actions affect other people. - Irresistible
The problem, which is examined in more depth in Irresistible, is that online interactions don’t provide us with immediate feedback. We don’t get to see the facial expression of the person that we are interacting with. When they’re clearly in emotional distress because of something we’ve done, we never feel the pain of that because we don’t see their face and body language. This makes it so much easier to be heavily negative without dealing with any of the consequences of that behaviour on the person we’re treating poorly.
We can see this evidenced in “doxxing”, which started as a term to describe hackers publishing private information about their target. It was considered a particularly cruel attack, and the “doxxer” was divorced from all consequences as they sat behind their screen somewhere, never interacting with the real world damage they caused.
Recognition of these two issues, intermittent positive reinforcement and being divorced from real world positive social interaction, is what has brought about Newport’s definition of 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 Minimalism has three core principles.
One of the prime examples of these principles for Newport is the Amish. Contrary to popular belief, Newport says, they don’t automatically say no to technology. The have an “alpha” nerd that wants to try out new stuff. They get approval to try it out and the community watches.
After a trial period the council decides if the technology provides more benefits than harm. They also decide in what capacity the technology can be used. This is why you’ll see electricity in the barns, but not in the house. It’s much easier to keep the livestock warm and safer to work, but electricity makes it much too easy to spend the night not sleeping.
Newport ends Part 1 of the book with his digital declutter, which contains three steps.
Step 1: Define Your Technology Rules
You start by taking a look at the technology you use and decide what is simply an optimization. You cut it’s use unless it will cause serious harm to your daily work or social life.
In practice this may mean you are allowed to check Facebook for updates from your child’s school, but not to check in with distant connections from high school.
Newport cautions us to not make the easy mistake of confusing convenient with crucial. Yes, it may be easier to order your coffee online, but you will suffer no negative consequences by giving up the online ordering of a coffee and instead walking into the store and ordering it. Conversely, you could justify the use of the coffee card on your phone if you use it as a monthly budgeting tool and not doing so will mean you spend much more than you should on coffee.
Step 2: take a 30 day break
With your personal rules in place, it’s time to enforce them and take a break from all non-essential technology. You can’t just take your rules and use them to define your new relationships because in the midst of your current technology use it will be fare to easy to differentiate what is crucial.
A major reason that I recommend taking an extended break before trying to transform your digital life is that without the clarity provided by detox, the addictive pull of technologies will bias your decisions.
During this time away from technology, you need to be intentional about what you’re doing. Find activities that matter to fill the void you’re leaving in your life.
Shawn Blanc did a mini-version of this by deciding that for a month he would delete social media on his phone and put it in Do Not Disturb mode during evening family time. He has found freedom in his lack of instant distraction from social media. His evening routine felt harder as he felt compelled to search stuff online in the evening to answer some trivia question that was talked about. He came to this uncomfortable conclusion:
In those moments — with my phone in another area of the house — I grew more aware of just how prevalent my smartphone is within my family’s day to day life. And, honestly, its a prevalence that I’m not comfortable with. - What it Was Like to Go a Month with No Social Media on My iPhone
Step 3: Reintroduce Technology
The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards. It’s the care you take here that will determine whether this process sparks lasting change in your life.
The final step of your 30 day detox is letting technology back into your life, but only as you ask these three questions.
Question 1: Does this tech support something I deeply value?
Question 2: Is this the best way to support this thing I value?
Question 3: How do I use this tech to maximize the benefit and minimize the harms?
These mirror the three core principles of Digital Minimalism that Newport introduced us too earlier.
In early December of 2017, Newport asked his mailing list to participate in this process as he worked on this book. He had around 1600 people sign up and out of that one of the biggest issues he found was that those people that looked at the break as a sabbatical from tech went back to their old “distracted” relationships with their devices.
If you’re going to succeed in redefining your relationship with technology, then you need to not look at this as merely a sabbatical. It’s a break so that you can reset and redefine your relationship with technology. You’re trying to build a new healthy relationship, not run back to an old damaging one.
Newport says early in Part I that quick screen time hacks is not what we need. He says that we need to redefine our relationship with technology and then build a new philosophy for dealing with any technology that we let into our lives.
While I can agree that so many screen time hacks are little more than a panacea for the root problem, I feel that many of the hacks in the right hands can help with curbing the time you spend looking at a screen. In fact, as you’ll see when we dive into Part II, many of the quick hacks we’re going to look at now are repeated by Newport.
In a recent YouTube video, Matt D’Avella advises a 30 day digital detox, and the gives us six actions to take to help us realize the poor relationship between attention and technology and to help us start on a more controlled foot.
D’Avella recommends RescueTime, but there are a myriad of other applications. Even your iPhone now can provide a weekly Screen Time report to show you where you’ve been spending your time and how often you’ve been interacting with that device. Since I’m iOS first in my work, I don’t choose to match Screen Time tracking across devices. That would show hours a day on my iPad for work, and then minutes a day on my iPhone. My numbers would be skewed, but time tracking is still an excellent way to get a proper handle on your social media time.
I first encountered RescueTime in the early days of my business when I started to think that my hours worked far exceeded the income I should be earning for that time. I quickly found that I spent near 40% of my day checking in on what might be happening on Twitter. While I don’t use RescueTime day to day anymore, it is still one of the things I recommend you use to set up your Mac or PC for focused work.
D’Avella’s second recommendation is to turn off notifications. I’ve already mentioned the phantom vibration in the pocket that we’ve all encountered. I admit to feeling a phantom vibration through my keyboard and feeling the need to check my phone sometimes while writing. This is especially interesting, and terrible, because my phone is on a shelf out of sight and powered off most of the time I’m writing. It gets worse when I acknowledge that most of the time for the last year my phone is in Do Not Disturb mode.
That means in a few years of owning an iPhone I am still battling addictive tendencies despite being years out of actually providing a pathway for those interactions with my phone.
Another interesting idea to reduce the compulsion to use your phone is to turn it to greyscale. While I have been unable to find research to support this as an effective method of breaking the addiction loop, there are many anecdotal reports confirming that taking the colour out of your phone reduces it’s pull on your attention. At the very least, it removes the urgency from those red badges that tell you something needs your attention.
I’ve already mentioned my on again, off again, relationship with Instagram. What usually happens is I want to share a photo from my phone and so I install Instagram. Within a few days I realize that I’m spending a bunch of time scrolling through the never ending browse section of the app on my phone and I delete it.
Then rinse and repeat a few weeks or months later. I’ve had the best luck sharing photos without getting sucked down the rabbit hole of Instagram when I use it on my iPad because their iPad app is terrible.
You may ask, why I don’t just stop using Instagram all together? I suppose that it falls into a “small benefit” category for me. A number of my readers enjoy seeing the posts about my family and I enjoy seeing some of the stuff that’s on Instagram. The question I need to do a better job of asking myself is, does the harm (wasted time) outweigh the small benefits I get? I certainly don’t find myself stressed if I haven’t posted in a few days, so on that front I would feel confident saying that I’m not reliant on the low quality social validation that Instagram can provide.
In The Art of Focus, I talked about building a device that is suited to the work it should be doing. If your phone is mostly supposed to be a phone, then only put phone stuff on it. If you have an iPad for writing like me, then only writing stuff should be on it.
You accomplish this focused device mode by deciding up front what a device is for, and then only allowing software onto that device which helps you accomplish a task. Maybe even going as far as having a “media” only device and putting rules around when you’re allowed to use that consumption device. This would also mean that you have to remove media consumption apps like Netflix from your primary working device.
Matt’s fifth recommendation is to block distractions with an app like Freedom or SelfControl. You can accomplish something similar in iOS by setting Screen Time limits for categories of applications. I have a 5 minute social media limit on my iPhone and a 30 minutes limit on my iPad.
Unfortunately your Screen Time limits on iOS are easy to bypass unless you get someone else involved to set a password for Screen Time that you don’t know. In moments of weakness I’ve found myself continually choosing the option for just 15 more minutes so I can browse more photos of people I don’t know on Instagram.
The final device hack that D’Avella recommends is to leave your device at home. You’ll see this idea echoed by Newport shortly. I have experienced the freedom of this a number of times in the last months. Most recently I went to volunteer at the hot lunch day for my daughter’s school without my phone. I took a pen and paper for anything that might need to be recorded.
Within 5 steps of my house I was already feeling a great sense of calm knowing that my phone wasn’t with me. This seems amazing to me because my phone is almost always muted anyway.
If leaving your phone at home isn’t an option, hop on the subway with your phone buried in your bag where it’s not accessible. Make sure that it’s silent in that bag as well so you’re not drawn to it for every little alert. Maybe make Sunday a no screen day and simply turn your phone off.
My in-laws have purchased a cordless phone set that connects via Bluetooth to their cell phones. This allows them to leave their phones out of reach and still get important calls. At my house it would let me leave my phone in my office so it doesn’t distract me, but I wouldn’t miss the rare call.
As I mentioned, Newport says that simple screen time hacks won’t serve us well in the long term. He wants us to redefine our relationship with technology, and that is what Part II of Digital Minimalism is supposed to help us do.
Part II is where Newport wants to help us develop a wholistic operating system for dealing with technology. Not just a quick fix for some issues with our phones, but a way to make decisions about any new technology. A way to develop rules about our interactions with the devices that are around us.
Newport’s first point is that we need to spend time alone.
Solitude requires you move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences — wherever you happen to be
I know this is hard for pretty much everyone. Take a look around at the grocery store line at the number of people that wait for 2 minutes and pull out their phones. Two minutes might even be a gracious number, it’s probably more like two seconds before you have a desire to pull out your phone and stop even a moment of boredom.
At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds.
Newport suggest three practices to help find more time without the thoughts of other bombarding us. First, leave the phone at home or in the glove box of the car. A marginal third choice is to bury it in a hard to access place.
His second practice is to walk around without headphones in. Be out enjoying what is around you instead of immersed in your own world consuming the thoughts of others.
Finally, Newport recommends we write letters to ourselves. Yup that’s by hand. I continually find that writing by hand brings out thoughts I would never have stumbled on without the slow method of processing that handwriting brings.
I’ve already mentioned that to develop empathy we need to see the immediate reactions of the people around us to our behaviours. We crave this deep social interaction, but Newport’s next point is that clicking a “like” button doesn’t provide deep social connection.
Oh sure, the instant hit makes us think that it’s providing the deep social interaction we need, but it’s a pale comparison of a shadow of proper interaction with people. These social media text based methods of interaction are like fast-food according to Newport. It’s food and all, but it’s not that good for you and it lacks something vital we need.
But app designers know that we crave interaction and, as we’ve discussed, withhold likes so that we keep coming back to see if someone provided validation for us.
Because our primal instinct to connect is so strong, it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend or bath time with a child — reducing the quality of the richer interaction right in front of us.
Again, Newport has three practices we can use to help combat the quick hit of clicking like.
First, don’t click the silly button. If you’re concerned that people will be upset when you don’t click like, schedule a coffee date with them. Maybe go visit your friend to meet their new baby instead of worrying about clicking like on their baby photo on Instagram.
The second practice that Newport suggests is to consolidate the time you text with people. Don’t check in with your text messages every few minutes to see if something new came in, schedule a time to deal with your text messages and leave your phone silent the rest of the time.
If someone gets annoyed that you take “too long” to respond, tell them to call you. If they’re not willing to expend that extra effort, then the communication with you couldn’t have been that important.
Newport’s third practice is to hold conversation office hours. These would be set times during the week that you’re open for conversation. Any low quality text based conversation should be directed to this high quality face-to-face or phone time. He even suggests going to the same coffee shop every week at the same time and leaving it as an open invite for others to join you and talk.
The root of this idea is that text based conversation doesn’t count as conversation, its mere superficial connection. Yes, this takes more effort on your part, and the part of your friends. Yes your social circle will contract, but remember conversation is the good stuff. You’re trading the superficial connection for meaningful connection.
A life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.
As I coach people a recurring theme is that we find them more productive time so they’re not working all hours, only for them to fill those evening and weekend hours with work again. It’s an ever increasing quest to get more done. Newport convincingly argues that leisure away from a screen pays us back in so much more energy later.
We might tell ourselves there’s no greater reward after a hard day at the office than to have an evening entirely devoid of plans or commitments. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began.
He says that instead of mindless binging on Netflix or scrolling through feeds, we should be doing something hard physically or mentally with our time off work. Maybe that’s building furniture, or learning to draw, or reading a classic book that outside your understanding currently.
You’re not doing it to become some master and monetize your off hours, you’re working at this hard thing just because it’s pleasurable to accomplish something. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance digs much deeper into this idea, that craftsmanship is hard won and brings us more fulfillment than simple scrolling ever could.
Now, many people ask about the “hard” digital leisure of learning a new programming language. Does that count? Not according to Newport, because it’s missing a crucial element, something tactile in the form of feedback. Newport wants us to stick to a “strict” definition of leisure which has nothing to do with a screen.
The first of Newport’s three practices for doing leisure activities is to build or fix something every week. He contends that there was a time not to long ago where most people were handy. If you’re just starting out, start small and as you get better take on more ambitious projects. He recommends YouTube as a way to learn, but cautions that it’s easy to turn YouTube into a rabbit hole of “leisure learning” when it’s anything but. You must take what you learn and apply it in a real way that week.
Second, schedule your low-quality leisure times. That means you only allow yourself on Facebook between certain times of the day. This can be accomplished with Freedom, SelfControl or Screen Time as we’ve already discussed.
Third, join something if you want to build quality interactions. Newport cites Benjamin Franklin who joined or started many groups and quickly went from being unknown to being a go to person in the city.
Finally, Newport asks us to build a leisure plan. This idea is exactly like the quarterly or weekly goals we set for work and productivity reasons, just applied to leisure. Maybe in a quarter you learn to play all the songs on an album, or learn to build a table. Then monthly, weekly and daily you have smaller goals that are designed to build up to the bigger goal of the quarter.
The final chapter of Part II is all about being even more critical about how you allow your attention to be directed. The practices cover a bunch of stuff we’ve already talked about like:
As many have discovered, the rapid switching between different applications tends to make the human’s interaction with the computer less productive in terms of the quality and quantity of what is produced.
Many of the points that Newport makes exactly resonate with why I use an iPad as my primary computer. It makes quick switching between tasks harder, thus I do less of it. I focus on the task at hand because it’s harder to have a bunch of distracting windows layered all over that might maybe have something for me to pay attention to.
Outside of some things we’ve already addressed, Newport takes a look at ways to use social media well. First, he recommends using social media like a professional getting paid to run a social campaign for a client. They’re not endlessly scrolling, they’re heading into social accounts with a purpose. They’re using filters to find relevant information.
Newport also says that we should embrace slow media, instead of the “breaking” reports that dominate so much of online media today. We should be limiting our attention to only the best of the best. That means we need to ask ourselves who the best curators are of the content we find valuable? Dave Pell of NextDraft has built a solid business being a curator.
Other sources of slow media are newspapers and magazines. Their print schedules means that the “breaking” news they show us has had more time to be digested before being published.
Newport also recommends that we try to combat confirmation bias by being intentional about finding sources that disagree with our opinion. This can be hard in our world that is hell bent on using algorithms to make sure we are seeing exactly what we want, and confirming our biases all the way. That means you need to be very specific about searching out the counter points to your beliefs and being open to researching them.
According to Newport, if you can follow these practices and build a solid foundation for deciding how you’re relationship with technology will work, you’re going to have more chance of success. Pulling an idea from his prior works, you’ll have this larger chance of success because you have more opportunity for Deep Work and distraction free thinking.
Digital Minimalism has one core concern going through it, that we can’t predict the long term outcomes of the technology we’re using. Long ago people said cocaine was awesome because it helped people stop using morphine. Then we found out that cocaine was just as addictive and bad for you as morphine ever was.
Newport is concerned that much of the tech and devices we use today are going to be bad for us in the long run. We just don’t have the data yet to support this so as he says:
We eagerly signed up for what Silicon Valley was selling, but soon realized that in doing so we were accidentally degrading our humanity.
Newport wants to help us become a Digital Minimalist, which doesn’t mean that we say goodbye to all technology. Instead:
Digital Minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value — not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective ways that yield big wins.
If you’re looking for help divorcing yourself from your devices, then Digital Minimalism has a number of methods that are going to help you.