"Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport

Book Summary:

“Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” by Cal Newport takes the concept of minimalism and applies to personal technology. In an overstimulated world, this book will teach readers how to live a focused and productive life.

The book is similar to Newport’s last book, “Deep Work” but has a greater focus on how to properly use smartphones, personal tech and social media.

Newport identifies the common practices of digital minimalists and the ideas that underpin them. He shows how digital minimalists can rethink their relationship to social media, rediscover the pleasures of the offline world, and reconnect with their inner selves through regular periods of solitude.

He also shares strategies for integrating these practices into your life, starting with a thirty-day "digital declutter" process that has already helped thousands feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

Technology is neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you. This book shows the how.

Book Lessons:

1) How Social Media is designed to be addicting

Just as Tristan Harris warned, in many cases these addictive properties of new technologies are not accidents, but instead carefully engineered design features.
— Page 17

When the first iPhone was released in 2007, there was no App store, no social media notifications and no Instagram. Fast forward a decade and almost everyone who has a smartphone is addicted to it and social media.

The average modern user spends around “two hours per day on social media” and checks their phone “eighty-five times a day.” People text while driving, they cross the street while looking at Instagram and watch YouTube videos while using the bathroom–the addiction is widespread.

Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer and whistleblower of tech addiction, explains that minimizing distractions and respecting users’ attention would reduce revenue for companies such as Google. Since many tech giants operate on an attention driven model (the more eyeballs they get, the more ads they can sell), these companies don’t have much incentive to become less addictive.

So how do these companies design tech to grab as much of your attention as possible?

One way is by creating attention-catching notifications and making it easy to find the next interesting post.

The original Facebook notification symbol was blue to match the rest of the site, “but no one used it. So they changed the color to red–an alarm color–and clicking sky rocketed.”

Almost every social media platform has copied this concept and also added a news feed with infinite scrolling. Infinite scrolling allows users to see post after post for hours on end–it’s difficult to stop when there is no finish line and the fear of missing out (FOMO) on an interesting post is always in the back of your head.

Social media is also designed to encourage users to seek social approval.

“In Paleolithic times, it was important that you carefully managed your social standing with other members of your tribe because your survival depended on it.” Today, new technologies hijack this deep drive to create a behavioral addiction.

When someone shares a new post, they aren’t sure whether ‘their tribe’ will approve of it or not so they constantly monitor its progress. If the post gets a lot of likes, hearts or comments, people feel a surge of dopamine. If the post doesn’t do well or doesn’t get as many likes as the last post, people will often delete it.

As Sean Parker, the founding President of Facebook, once said that features like these are part of a “social-validation feedback loop...exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

2) Take a digital declutter

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.
— Page 28

Much like cleaning out a house that is filled with things that provide little to no value to one’s life, Newport suggests doing a digital declutter in which you clear away distracting tools and compulsive habits.

Here’s how:

  1. Take a 30 day break from optional technologies in your life.

  2. During that break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.

  3. At the end of the break, slowly reintroduce optional technologies in your life. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it to maximize this value.

Newport sent this declutter challenge to his mailing list and surprisingly, over 1,600 people signed up. Here are a few tips from for this challenge:

  • During the first step, remove social media, video games, video streaming and other technologies that aren’t necessary in your life–you can survive without Netflix or Reddit for a few weeks.

  • For the second step, focus on spending time on rediscovering what’s important to you and what you enjoy outside the digital world–try different hobbies, spend time playing sports, reconnect with old friends by meeting in person, read some books, etc.

  • The final step requires you to start from a blank slate and only allow the technology that greatly benefits you life to come back in–ask yourself, is this app, social media platform, video game, tv show...etc, really adding value to your life or not?

Lastly, here are 3 pieces of advice when considering whether to bring an optional technology back into your life, it must:

  1. Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).

  2. Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better).

  3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

3) Connect in the real world, not the digital one

Investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much more richer rewards.
— Page 212

The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real world socializing that’s massively more valuable.

Social media isn’t inherently bad, it’s like a knife– a knife can be used to cut open a watermelon for people to enjoy or as a weapon that hurts people.

This is why it’s important to know when and how to use social media so it’s used for good instead of something bad.

Studies show that people who spend more time on social media feel more lonely and miserable because they are spending most of their time online instead of offline.

The tiny dopamine boost a person gets from getting a lot of likes on their Instagram picture isn’t nearly the same as the dopamine wave one gets from spending quality time with a dear friend.

Instead of using your smartphone and social media to connect with people online, use it as a way to plan activities in the real world.

  • Plan a weekend basketball pickup game

  • Host a weekly poker night at your house

  • Meetup with old friends and reconnect at a local bar

  • Have a weekly game night with the family

  • Join a volunteer group to help improve the community

There are countless of activities that will result in deeper relationships and be much more meaningful than stay at home and scrolling through your newsfeed.

If you’re more introverted, find a craft that you enjoy and adds value to your life.

This can include:

  • Crafting a wooden table

  • Knitting a new sweater

  • Renovating your guest room

  • Creating a new song

  • Working on your jumpshot

  • Reading great literature

  • Writing a journal entry

All of these crafts provide a good source of high-quality leisure. “Craft allows an escape from this shallowness and provides instead a deeper source of pride.”

High-skill effort activities (like building your own coffee table) require more than than low-skill effort activities (like answering emails) but yield much more meaning. “Over time, you’ll soon begin to wonder how you ever tolerated spending so many of your leisure hours staring passively at glowing screens.”

Conclusion:

“Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport is a book that does exactly what it says, it shows readers how to have a focused life in a noisy world.

Social media apps may be free, but people pay for them with their most precious resources, their time and attention. With this book, readers will be able to fight against the tech giants and regain control of their lives, thus becoming aware of to properly use technology to your advantage, instead of tech companies using it to theirs.

By revealing the forces behind addictive technologies and introducing readers to a minimalism philosophy, readers will be well-equipped to thrive in an increasingly digital-first world. Anyone who owns a smartphone or uses social media for more than an hour each day should read this book.

Rating: 4/5

(Thank you Portfolio Penguin for sending over a copy of this book!)

If you’re interested in getting the book, click here or on the images below.


After reading 100+ books, here are the books I recommend reading.