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Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World Hardcover – February 5, 2019
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“I challenge you not to devour this wonderful book in one sitting. I certainly did, and I started applying Cal’s ideas to my own life immediately.” —Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism
“You’re not the user, you’re the product. Hang up, log off, and tune in to a different way to be in the world. Bravo, Cal. Smart advice for good people.” —Seth Godin, author of This is Marketing
“This book is an urgent call to action for anyone serious about being in command of their own life.” –Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way
“Cal Newport has discovered a cure for the techno-exhaustion that plagues our always-on, digitally caffeinated culture.” —Joshua Fields Millburn, The Minimalists
“I hope that everyone who owns a mobile phone and has been wondering where their time goes gets a chance to absorb the ideas in this book. It’s amazing how the same strategy can work for both financial success and mental well-being: Put more energy into what makes you happy, and ruthlessly strip away the things that don’t.” —Peter Adeney, aka Mr. Money Mustache
“Cal’s call for meaningful and engaged interactions is just what the world needs right now.” —Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind
"What a timely and useful book! It's neither hysterical nor complacent - a workable guide to being thoughtful about digital media. It's already made me rethink some of my media use in a considered way. " —Naomi Alderman, New York Times bestselling author of The Power
“Digital Minimalism is a welcome invitation to reconsider how we want to use our screens rather than letting the screens (and the billionaires behind them) make the call.” –KJ Dell'Antonia, author of How to be a Happier Parent
"Simple, insightful, and actionable, this philosophy provides a sorely needed framework for thriving in the digital age. It will transform many lives for the better, including my own." —Ryder Carroll, New York Times bestselling author of The Bullet Journal Method
About the Author
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Let me divide this review into 3 parts. First I'll share reasons why I chose to read the book and some personal takeaways. Next, a summary of the book including short excerpts I highlighted while taking notes. Last, I'll suggest a few complementary readings.
I probably pre-ordered this book because I’ve been intrigued by how the overused of modern technologies—specially social networks and social media—have influenced our societies during the last 10 years. This latest wave is actually recent, and being in my early 30s I still remember clearly how life was during high school and early days in college before this explosion.
We all acknowledge the wonders of technology, how the development of new tools has helped the prosperity of our societies in many dimensions. However, the opposite is equally important—consequences that deserve to be understood and evaluated. Besides the social, emotional and psychological aspects, which are the main focus of Digital Minimalism, I also care about the impacts on our physical health caused by technology overexposure. Not only how the devices shape our physical posture for worst over the years but also the detrimental effects of electromagnetic fields to our overall health.
That said, I’ve been trying to be mindful about technology use during the last 4-5 years. I still have social network accounts, but I feel quite odd among my peers because I’ve been checking these accounts less often than ever—about once a month—but I rarely post pictures or comments. It brings a deep sense of freedom and calmness. In terms of smartphone use, I keep it on airplane mode for around 80% of the awake time, and I often try to go on adventures up in the mountains to be away from signal access for days or weeks at a time. This desire to be unreachable has grown over time and, although it makes me feel grounded and present, I admit that can be quite selfish of me towards loved ones.
Reading this book helped me better understand the forces behind addictive technologies, exposed me to pragmatic ideas to implement the minimalism philosophy, and supported my previous thoughts on how we can better handle digital overexposure.
[Intro] Digital minimalism, according to Cal Newport, is a philosophy where we focus our online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that support the things we value. We learn how the author got interested in the topic after receiving feedbacks from his previous book.
[Chapter 1] Cal starts with a refresher—bringing back to the early and “potentially innocent" days of Facebook and the iPhone—then, he soon shows how these new technologies took the lead by dictating how we behave and how we feel by pushing us to overuse their products for as long as possible. Interesting story about how NYU professor Adam Alter shifted his research topic after getting “trapped” for 6 uninterrupted hours playing a game on his phone during a cross-country flight. Cal then explains 2 of the main forces used by technology companies to encourage behavior addiction:  Intermittent positive reinforcement.  The drive for social approval.
[Chapter 2] Here is a primer on digital minimalism. We learn that "to reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.” Cal explains why digital minimalism works through 3 principles:  The first principle argues that, when we clutter our time and attention with many apps, social networks, and services, we create an overall negative cost compared to the benefits of each individual item in isolation. I was absolutely delighted to read his arguments by sharing Henry Thoreau’s decision to live for two years in a cabin near the Walden Pond. Thoreau's book, Walden, has actually impacted my life tremendously when I first read as a freshmen in college.  The second principle says that besides choosing a technology that supports our values, we should also think how we should use them to extract full benefits—optimizing, therefore, the returns. Here Cal shows how “the law of diminishing returns” can be directly correlated with potential negative effects when technology usage surpass the benefits they can generate.  The last principle shows that being more intentional about how we engage with new technologies is one way to become sincerely satisfied. For that, the author illustrates the Amish's approach toward technology: “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 their values.”
[Chapter 3] In this chapter Cal shares a system for digital decluttering by transforming our relationship with technology. He encourages us to apply a rapid transformation: “something that occurs in a short period of time and is executed with enough conviction that the results are likely to stick.” He divides the process in 3 steps:  The first one is to establish which ones of the new “optional” technologies we can step away from without creating major problems in either our professional or personal life.  The second step is to take the leap and give ourselves a 30-day break while we rediscover the activities that generate real satisfaction without being attached to our devices.  The final step is the reintroduction, building it from the scratch, following the principles previously explained in chapter 2 by choosing carefully the apps/tools and using them with a deeper sense of purpose.
[Chapter 4] This is most probably my favorite chapter, where we learn the value of solitude. Cal starts by sharing an interesting story of President Lincoln’s decision to reside in a cottage during months at time, communicating back and forth to the White House on horseback. The author then shares the benefits of solitude such as being a prerequisite for original and creative thoughts, as well as a deeper appreciation for interpersonal connections when they occur. He then shifts gears toward the impacts of solitude depravation, showing, for example, that the rise in anxiety-related problems among students coincide with the use of smartphones and social media. At the end of the chapter we learn 3 practices to foster more solitude moments in our daily lives:  To leave our phones and devices at home.  To go on long walks.  To spend time journaling.
[Chapter 5] Now we jump to a chapter rich in social psychology lessons. We first learn how our brains evolved to desire social interactions, but differently than the rich face-to-face encounters, during the last decade or so we have been bombarded by digital communication tools, encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks. At the end Cal offers practices to develop meaningful “conversation-centric communication.” They range from avoiding clicking the “like” button all the way to holding more meaningful conversations during office hours.
[Chapter 6] Now we jump to an empowering chapter. We learn to cultivate high-quality leisure time at the same time we declutter the low-quality digital distractions from our lives. They both, in fact, work together in order to create a more purposeful habit. This chapter is filled with real life examples of successful stories where helpful lessons are drawn at the end of each example. Like in the previous chapters, Cal doesn’t share only examples, but also practical ways to adopt his claims. My favorite suggestion is about scheduling in advance the time we'll be spending on low-quality leisure.
[Chapter 7] The final chapter is about building a more resistant mindset to avoid the power of the attention economy—which is “business sector that makes money gathering consumers' attention and then repacking and selling it to advertisers." Practices are provided when further discipline is required to avoid exploitation:  Delete social media from our phone to remove the ability to access them at any time. If we're going to use social medial, we should access them through a web browser.  Turn our devices into purposeful tools, diminishing the number of things they enable us to do. In Cal's own words “I’m not talking about occasionally blocking some sites when working on a particularly hard project. I want you instead to think about these services as being blocked by default, and made available to you on an intentional schedule.”  To use social media like a social media professional does.  To embrace the slow media consumption by maximizing the quality of what we consume.  Making the hard choice to switch from smartphone to a “dumb” phone.
Well, it doesn’t matter where in the spectrum we fall as long as we vow to move the needle towards a more meaningful and intentional technology use, diminishing our “natural” tendency to become dependent on digital devices. While reading Digital Minimalism I thought about book titles that could complement the content.
 Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, is definitely the one that comes to mind first. It helped me focus on less but more important tasks, giving clarity to what matters most.
 Originals, by Adam Grant, helped me see the world of creativity through a different angle by being more true to who I'm.
 Atomic Habits, by James Clear, has already influenced me to build better and more meaningful habits during the last 3 months. It can be an extremely helpful source to apply the lessons suggested in Chapter 6.
 Last, if you'd like to learn a bit more about electromagnetic fields and how we can minimize the dangers, look no further than The Non-Tinfoil Guide to EMFs, by Nicolas Pineault.
Take good care,
Cal makes a great case for WHY to pursue digital minimalism. But I already know why -- my digital addictions are messing up my life. What I wanted to know is HOW.
On that, Cal doesn't have as much to say. A few tips -- mostly the "digital declutter," a 30-day moratorium on the digital services in your life -- are pretty useful. For one, it finally convinced me to buy Freedom, an app that regulates your internet use.
The rest of the book is thickly padded with anecdotes. They had me flipping pages, wishing we could get to the point.
$15 can either get you this book, or half of a year of Freedom. If I could roll back the clock I know where I'd put my money.
Given the fact that the fastest way to Optimize your life is to STOP doing things that are sub-optimal AND the fact that (for nearly all of us) our use of technology is the #1 thing that “Needs work!,” I think it’s SUPER important for us to figure out how to best use all the technology available to us WITHOUT becoming lost in a tsunami of inputs.
Enter: Our new philosophy of technology use: Digital Minimalism.
Enter: My strong recommendation of the book.
If you’ve been looking for a coherent approach on how to, as per the sub-title of the book, Choose a Focused Life in a Noisy World, I think you’ll love Digital Minimalism as much as I did.
With Digital Minimalism, I just want my time and money back. In this book, Newport explores a "new" idea (it's not) that social media use and technology are hurting us in ways we did not expect and that digital minimalism(!) is the answer. He had thousands of his blog readers experiment with a 1-month technology sabbath/abstinence and reported their findings because he himself has never used social media (e.g., never joined Facebook). I found it odd for someone like Newport to talk as if he knew the experiences and difficulties of technology addiction when he himself has never felt the helpless compulsion to check their smartphone when bored as most people are today. It's like someone who's never been overweight providing thoughts, practices, and strategies to a fat person on losing weight to -- it sort of just rings hollow. He poorly defends himself by saying that because he's not fallen trap to modern technologies, he has experience of seeing things from the other side.
The rest of the book is mostly things you probably already know or common sense stuff about technology addiction. There are a few useful tips on how to combat our overuse of technology, which is why I've given the book 2 stars instead of 1.
I would not recommend this book; for ~$15 and only 250 pages of fluff, your money is better spent elsewhere.
Top international reviews
My fault with the book, however, is that Newport is increasingly focusing on the niche. "So Good They Can't Ignore You" and "Deep Work" had a wide application. Anyone who wanted to improve at something, whether it's their job or writing poetry, could benefit from reading them. "Digital Minimalism" is more narrowly focused on those, essentially, with digital addiction.
Perhaps because my phone use is very limited as it is, I didn't find the text was very relevant to me. Where I was hoping for a thorough philosophical evaluation of technology's role in our lives - instead Newport offers a very practical and utilitarian manual for minimising using your phone use. Good for many, I expect, but I felt it wouldn't have the impact on my habits as much as his previous work.
There were sections I really enjoyed, especially on Thoreau and relating some classical philosophers' work for modern life. But even here, I felt the book was under-researched and lacked the academic punch of his previous work. It struck me as more blog-like. In many respects, this book seemed to be a departure from the world of MIT and into those of Ryan Holiday and Greg McKeown - whose quotes adorned the front page. That isn't a slight, just a discernible change of tack.
So buy the book if you're a digital addict looking for a way to stop staring at your phone - but otherwise, the book might prove a bit light weight and irrelevant.
The book takes a wider perspective on minimalism and life in general than an overview of the content suggests. Drawing on examples from history, from people who learned the value of managing time well, the power of solitude and other approaches to living well, the book sometimes feels a bit padded with self-help mantras before drawing these connections back to our over-reliance on smart technologies.
Overall, a thought-provoking read, but probably the people that need this the most won't go anywhere near it. Once you consider the idea of the smartphone as being a slot-machine you carry around in your pocket, it is quite difficult to view the device in quite the same life-improving way. Big tech companies know what they are about - wanting our attention to exploit it for economic gains - Newport offers ideas to fight back that are seriously worth some consideration.
I do recommend it
I give this book five stars because it was a page-turner that held my interest throughout. However, there were a couple of points that I felt could be improved upon:
The only section that was clunky was "Use social media like a professional". It discusses a social media expert who "prefers the pronoun they/their to she/her". Fair enough, but the confusion between singular and plural made it very difficult to understand who was being referred to, and I found it hard to read. This section should have been rewritten to use more direct quotes from the expert, to get around this.
Also, the summary of key points for this book would be quite short, and I wonder if it was a bit longer than it really needed to be.
Still, great work, and well worth a read.
The solutions presented are clear, logical, and perfectly reasonable both in scope and feasibility. I have already started my digital declutter.
It's rare that I settle down and spend an entire day reading a book from cover-to-cover. I did so with this one, and I recommend you do the same.
The writer isn't anti-tech but is concerned that society had become addicted to digital social media at the expense of normal social skills and that we're at the point of over dosing.
Still a worthwhile read and Deep Work is now on my list but, despite taking much from both the overarching thesis and the practical steps, it left me cold.