Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport [Book Summary & PDF]

Digital Minimalism​ is an ideal read for entrepreneurs who have a hard time focusing on producing their best work because of distracting technology. It’s a wake-up call for the younger generation, who have grown up in the anxiety caused by the digital world. If you want to hold long conversations and enjoy life without checking your phone every minute, then this book is for you, too.

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INTRODUCTION

Who is this book for?

Digital Minimalism​ is an ideal read for entrepreneurs who have a hard time focusing on producing their best work because of distracting technology. It’s a wake-up call for the younger generation, who have grown up in the anxiety caused by the digital world. If you want to hold long conversations and enjoy life without checking your phone every minute, then this book is for you, too.

About the author

Cal Newport​ is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, the author of ​Deep Work​ and ​So Good They Can’t Ignore You​. He has also written three popular books of unconventional advice for students. His ideas and writing are frequently featured in major publications and on TV and radio.

In this summary

This book is truly exceptional. It showcases how our attention is being hijacked and exploited by new technologies, how the philosophy of digital minimalism can optimise the way we use our personal technology, and how to embrace all new innovations in a way that can support what we deeply value in life. One of the most life-changing books I’ve ever read. Let’s go!

BOOK SUMMARY

THE PHILOSOPHY OF DIGITAL MINIMALISM

Our current relationship with technology is broken. Yes, the Internet has significantly improved our lives. In isolation, no website or app can be considered as ‘bad’.

Overall, however, all these ‘shiny baubles’ draining our attention, addicting us to use them constantly (often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable), and manipulating our mood, can lead to exhaustion.

We Didn’t Sign Up For This

We signed up on social media to stay in touch with friends, and we read the news on blogs to stay up-to-date. Yet, we’ve ended up compulsively checking our pocket device 85 times a day!

How did we end up there? Is it because we’re lazy? No, this frantic use of technology has been engineered by tech conglomerates who make their fortunes exploiting your attention, with billions of dollars invested to make this outcome inevitable.

In other words:​ you signed up for usefulness, not for this loss of autonomy.

How Your Addiction Is Engineered

Tech companies encourage behavioral addiction in two ways:

  1. Intermittent positive reinforcement
  2. The drive for social approval

Intermittent Positive Reinforcement

Every time you post something on social media, you’re gambling: “Will I get likes (or hearts or retweets or comments), or will I get no feedback?”

The outcome is hard to predict, which makes the whole activity of posting and checking extremely appealing. Similarly, going to a news website to check the weather may lead you to still mindlessly skip from one headline to another 30 minutes later.

Most articles are rubbish, but occasionally you’ll land on a great one. With every appealing headline clicked or intriguing link tabbed, you pull the slot machine handle again. Add in the mix notification badges, finger swipes, and never-ending feeds, and you’ve got yourself an addiction formula that keeps you glued on the screen.

The Drive For Social Approval

Comments and heart and likes feel like the “tribe” is showing us approval, while a lack of positive feedback creates a sense of distress.

That explains the streak of daily posts on social media and the universal urge to immediately answer an incoming text: it is a satisfying confirmation that the relationship with a person or an audience is strong.

However, we miss an important detail: social-validation feedback loops have been crafted in boardrooms to serve the interests of technology investors, exploiting vulnerabilities in our human psychology.

A Solution: Digital Minimalism

Retreating to an earlier technological age is not the solution, of course.

Neither is small tweaks, like switching off the notifications from your phone. Cal Newport proposes a fully-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in our deep values, that prioritises long-term meaning over short-term

satisfaction.

In other words, ​Digital Minimalism​.

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

To transform technological innovations from a source of distraction into tools that support a life well-lived, digital minimalists must work backward from their deep values to technology choices – not the other way around.

PRINCIPLES OF DIGITAL MINIMALISM

1. Clutter is costly

How much of your time and attention must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas through an active presence on Twitter?

Cluttering time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services compounds to an overall negative cost that overwrites the small benefits that each item provides in isolation.

Explained brilliantly in Thoreau’s “new economics” in ​Walden​:

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

2. Optimisation is important

Decide that a particular technology supports something you value, and then think carefully about ​ how​ you’ll use this technology – not in the ‘default way’. For example: if your goal is to stay informed about current events, you can:

  • Keep an eye on the links that pop up in your social media feeds (default, not the best way to support your initial goal)
  • Identify and follow a set of trustworthy news sites (optimised, big returns, still room for improvement)
  • Collecting these articles on an app like Instapaper and reading them all on a Saturday morning over coffee, distraction-free (very optimised, more optimisation won’t bring additional value)

3. Intentionality is satisfying

Intentional engagement with new technologies is one of the biggest reasons why minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners. Approaching decisions intentionally, with the end goal in mind (not the tool) can be more important than the impact of the actual decisions themselves.

BECOMING A MINIMALIST

As we mentioned before, gradually changing your habits one at a time against the engineered attraction of the attention economy won’t work well. The author recommends a rapid transformation, called “the digital declutter”. The 3-step process goes like this:

  1. During a thirty-day period, take a break from ​ all ​ optional technologies in your life.
  2. In this break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviours that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, asking yourself what value they serve and how you could use them so as to maximise their value.

1. DEFINE YOUR TECHNOLOGY RULES

‘Which technologies are ‘optional’?’ This is your first question to answer before you start the 30-day break. Examples of optional technology could include:

  • Apps, websites, and digital tools, delivered through a computer screen or a mobile phone, meant to entertain, inform, or connect you.
  • Text messaging
  • Video games
  • TV & video streaming
  • NOT​ your microwave, radio, or electric toothbrush

The author considers ​ all​ technology optional unless its temporary removal would ​ harm​ or ​ significantly disrupt​ his daily professional or personal life. In other words, if removing certain technology just makes things ‘inconvenient’, then it’s definitely optional.

In some instances, you might have to specify a set of operating procedures that dictate exactly when and how you use the technology during the 30-day break (any exceptions etc.).

Write this list of banned technologies and operating procedures and put it somewhere where you’ll see it every day.

2. TAKE A 30 DAY BREAK

Fight the urge to use banned technologies; the discomfort will fade after a week or two. The goal of the 30-day break is not just to detox you from technology; you must also rediscover what’s important to you and what you enjoy outside the digital world. Figuring this out ​ before​ you reintroduce technology is crucial.

Cultivate high-quality, enriching alternatives to the easy distraction that the optional technologies provide. Go out, get your hands dirty, experiment!

At the end, you’ll have discovered activities that generate real satisfaction, leading to a better life, where technology serves only a supporting role.

3. RE-INTRODUCE TECHNOLOGY

After your 30-day break, reintroduce optional technologies back into your life. Only allow technology that passes the following strict standards:

  1. 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 – be happy missing out on everything else!
  2. Is this technology the best way to support this value?​ If not, replace it with something better. If yes, then you move on to the final question.
  3. How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximise its value and minimise its harms?​ In other words, how do you optimise the use of this technology? Use only features that serve you, nothing else.

Operating procedures should also still be in place. Instead of: ​ “I use Facebook because it helps my social life.” Be specific: ​ “I check Facebook each Saturday on my computer to see what my close friends and family are up to; I don’t have the app on my phone; I culled my list of friends down to just meaningful relationships.”

HOW TO PRACTICE DIGITAL MINIMALISM

Spend Time Alone

“Everyone benefits from regular doses of solitude and anyone who avoids this state for an extended period of time will suffer.”

Solitude is a subjective state in which your mind is ​free from input from other minds​ – it requires you to avoid reacting to information created by others and focus on your own thoughts and experiences. Influential poets, novelists, and composers practised solitude, which was important for both their happiness and productivity, with 3 crucial benefits: new ideas, an understanding of the self and closeness to others

However, new technology undermines time alone with our thoughts.

“Everyone benefits from regular doses of solitude and anyone who avoids this state for an extended period of time will suffer.”Click To Tweet

Solitude Deprivation

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

Without solitude, you miss the ability to clarify hard problems, regulate your emotions, build moral courage, and strengthen relationships. It started with the iPod: it provided for the first time the ability to be continuously distracted from your own mind!

However, it reached its full potential with the spread of modern Internet-connected smartphones. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now quickly glance at a huge number of apps and mobile-adapted websites optimised to provide an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds.

People born after 1995 (iGen), using their devices constantly, are especially prone to the worst effects of solitude deprivation: anxiety and depression. As the author says: ​

“Humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”

Practice: Leave Your Phone At Home

The phone has transformed from an occasionally useful tool to something we can’t live without:

  • Young people worry that they’ll miss out on something better to do,
  • Travellers need directions and recommendations for places to eat,
  • Workers fear the idea of being both needed and unreachable, and
  • Everyone secretly fears being bored.

The truth is: this urgency to always have a phone with us is exaggerated. You don’t need to banish your phone forever, just spend more time away from your phone & expose yourself to solitude.

Practice: Take Long Walks

Taking long walks is a high-quality source of solitude. The author cites different reasons why he walks regularly:

  • To make progress on a professional problem
  • Self-reflection on some particular aspect of life
  • “Gratitude walks,” where he just enjoys particularly good weather
  • Or just to let his mind wander

Of course, taking a solitude walk requires not checking your phone, wearing headphones, or having company.

Practice: Write Letters To Yourself

Writing a letter to yourself not only frees you from outside inputs but also provides a platform to organise your thinking when faced with demanding or uncertain circumstances.

By the time you’re done composing your thoughts, you’ll often have gained clarity. It’s easy to deploy, but also incredibly effective.

Don’t Click “Like”

We are hardly ever actually thinking about nothing. Even without a specific task to complete, our default network (the one that thinks about our social world – other people, ourselves, or both) remains highly active. Aristotle was right when he famously noted that “man is by nature a social animal”: our brains have evolved to be sophisticated social computers, performing social navigation and mind reading every day.

However, in the past two decades, the rich, face-to-face interactions (a cup of coffee with a friend) have been replaced by short, text-based messages and approval clicks (‘likes’ on a post). Why? Online interaction is both easier and faster than old-fashioned conversation, and many of these tools are engineered to hijack our behaviours and get us addicted.

This trade-off is detrimental to our well-being. Offline interactions require processing large amounts of information about body language, facial expressions, and voice tone, while the low-bandwidth online chatter leaves our high-performance social processing underused.

More importantly, there is a zero-sum relationship between online and offline interaction – the more you spend time on social media, the less time there is available for slower, real-life conversations.

Conversation > Connection

The book draws a distinction between ​ connection​ (online interactions) and conversation​ (high-bandwidth offline communication between humans).

Online ​ connection​ (a series of asynchronous tweets) doesn’t add up to a real conversation​, where we’re fully present, listen actively, develop empathy, experience the joy of being heard and understood, learn patience, and respond to tone & nuance.

To help digital minimalists rebalance, the author suggests the philosophy of conversation-centric communication​.

Conversation​ involving nuanced analog cues (a face-to-face meeting, a video chat or a phone call) is the ​ only​ form of interaction that counts toward maintaining a relationship. Anything textual or non-interactive (social media, email, text, instant messaging) should be categorised as mere ​connection​.

In this philosophy, ​connection​ has merely a logistical role:

  1. To help arrange conversation​, or
  2. To ask/transfer practical information (ie. a meeting location or time).

In other words, connection​ is not an alternative to ​conversation​; it’s a supporter. So long open-ended, ongoing text-based chats!

As the author beautifully (and brutally) highlights:

“Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.”

“Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.”Click To Tweet

Practice: Don’t Click “Like”

To replace rich social interactions with ‘likes’ is the ultimate insult to the social processing powerhouse within us. “It’s like towing a Ferrari behind a mule.”

“Likes” have turned social networks into digital slot machines dominating the users’ time and attention, and your information, preferences, and humanity into statistical slivers, mined to target you with better ads and stickier content.

For the sake of your social well-being, ​don’t click and don’t comment. Some people – those whose relationship with you exists only over social media – will inevitably fall out of your social orbit. Let them go.

Practice: Consolidate Texting

Nowadays, being a friend means always being “on call”, attentive, online. A compromise that respects both your obligation to be “on call” and your human need for real conversation: ​consolidate texting​.

  • Keep your phone in ​ Do Not Disturb​ mode by default (no notifications),
  • Adjust the settings so calls from a selected list (your spouse, your kid’s school) do come through, and
  • Schedule your phone to turn notifications on during predetermined times, consolidating sessions in which you go through texts you’ve received and respond as needed.

This way, you can be more present, because you’re not ‘on call’ by default, and you can upgrade your real-life relationships with people that really matter.

Practice: Hold Conversation Office Hours

Finally, put aside set times on set days, during which you’re always available for conversation – real-life (ie. in a coffee shop or office), on the phone or online (ie. during commute time). Then, promote them to the people you care about.

No more bothersome, unsolicited calls that disturb your productivity and attentiveness to what you really value.

Reclaim Lesiure

“How does one live a good life?” According to the MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya, 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 existential despair: ​“Is this all there is to life?” For Aristotle, ​

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

The author calls these joyful activities “high-quality leisure”. However, as work and life blend, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, people fail to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness.

This void is now easy to fill by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping. Digital minimalists, therefore, start by cultivating high-quality leisure, before cutting off their worst digital habits.

To escape the passive interaction with your screen as your primary leisure, use the Internet against itself: find communities related to your interests and access obscure information needed to support your real-life high-quality leisure.

Soon you will no longer need distractions to pass time.

Leisure Lesson #1

Prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption. Expending more energy in your leisure, The Bennett Principle tells us, can end up energising you more.

Leisure Lesson #2

Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. Craft, any activity where you apply skill to create something valuable, is a good source of such high-quality, energising leisure. Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate.

If you want to ​ fully​ extract the benefits of craft, seek it in its analog forms.

Leisure Lesson #3

Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions. The best social leisure activities require you to spend time with other people in person and the activity provides structure for the social interaction (rules to follow, insider terminology or rituals, or a shared goal).

Such examples include board & card games, recreational sports leagues, volunteer activities, working on a group project, or social work-outs.

Practice: Fix Or Build Something Every Week

To become more handy, learn a new skill, apply it to repair, learn, or build something, and then repeat. Learn and apply a new skill every week for six weeks. This will tap into our strong instinct for manipulating objects in the physical world. For quick how-to videos, use YouTube!

Practice: Schedule In Advance Your Low-Quality Leisure

Arrange specific times during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. This way, by confining the use of attention-capturing services to well-defined periods, your remaining leisure time is left protected for more substantial activities and you don’t have to completely abandon low-quality diversions.

Practice: Join Something

Join groups, associations, lodges, and volunteer companies. Few things can replicate the benefits of connecting with your fellow citizens – get up, get out, and start reaping these benefits in your own community.

Join The Attention Resistance

The compulsive use of our mobile phones is not an accident; it’s instead a fundamental chapter in the digital attention economy playbook.

In the “attention economy”, businesses make money gathering consumers’ attention, and then repackaging and selling it to advertisers.

To sustain this type of compulsive use, however, tech conglomerates cannot have people thinking too critically about how they use their phone.

They don’t want you, for example, to see their products as a variety of different free services that you can carefully sift through and use in a manner that optimises the value you receive. No, that would be too disastrous for them.

This is, yet, what pure digital minimalism suggests below!

Practice: Delete Social Media From Your Phone

If you always have the phone with you, every occasion becomes an opportunity to check your feeds. That’s because the social media apps are great at hijacking your attention. It’s no accident that almost 90% of Facebook’s revenue comes through mobile. 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. Through a web browser, after all, you can use specific features of these services, optimised to serve what you value (such as bookmarking the events page on Facebook, by-passing the distracting feed).

Practice: Turn Your Devices Into Single-Purpose Computers

To do that, block by default all distracting services and apps, only making them available on an intentional schedule.

Make a list of apps and websites that usually hijack your attention and block them with a service like ​ Freedom​ – it will force you to approach the digital world with more intention.

Practice: Embrace Slow Media

Focus only on the highest-quality sources. Breaking news and social media feeds are out.

For quality reporting and commentary, constrain your attention to a small number of people who have proved to be world class on the topics you care about – look for sources with different angles on the same subject, too.

This way, you’ll stay informed on current events and big ideas, without sacrificing your time and emotional health.

Practice: Dumb Down Your Smartphone

As a last step, buy a feature phone with oversize buttons. Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance.

Without constantly carrying a smartphone, you can reclaim your attention, feel empowered, and invest this value in things that matter more to you. After all: “Your Time = Their Money.”

Time to regain your autonomy.

CONCLUSION

Key takeaways

  • We eagerly signed up for what Silicon Valley was selling, but now we’ve realised that it’s degrading our humanity.
  • Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to support things they deeply value – not as sources of value themselves.
  • They are highly selective and intentional when it come to how they use technology, and they’re comfortable missing out on everything else.
  • Digital minimalism requires ongoing adjustments and digital declutter.
  • This philosophy doesn’t reject the innovations of the Internet age; it rejects the mindless way most people currently engage with them.

Further reading

Hooked by Nir Eyal.​ Is there a pattern underlying how technologies hook us? This book breaks down the 4-step Hook Model, discusses the morality of manipulation, and uncovers opportunities for innovation.

Atomic Habits by James Clear.​ This book reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

Guidelines is my eBook that summarises the main lessons from 33 of the best-selling self-help books in one place. It is the ultimate book summary; Available as a 80-page ebook and 115-minute audio book. Guidelines lists 31 rules (or guidelines) that you should follow to improve your productivity, become a better leader, do better in business, improve your health, succeed in life and become a happier person.

Action steps

  1. Follow the 30-day digital declutter and become a digital minimalist.
  2. Discover high-quality activities for your leisure time.
  3. Start having more conversations offline, strengthening your relationship with people you really care about.
  4. Download the complete book on Amazon.

This summary is not intended as a replacement for the original book and all quotes are credited to the above mentioned author and publisher.