Stacy’s Book Note: Digital Minimalism

Author Cal Newport urges us to rethink how we use our digital devices, especially our smartphones. His sixth book is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (available on my Bookshop or Amazon*). In it, he describes a process he calls “Digital Decluttering,” on how we might do this. Even before the book’s publication, this method received a lot of attention.

Contrary to what your first impression, Cal Newport does not advocate abandoning all social media. He doesn’t recommend that we live like luddites or hermits. Rather, this Georgetown University Computer Science Professor makes the case for being intentional and selective when considering digital technology. He wants us to choose what best supports endeavors we want to undertake to make our lives better.

In other words, Cal Newport discourages us of mindlessly adding on new apps because they provide conveniences. He suggests, instead, that we first engage in high-quality activities. Then, adopt new technologies only when they serve those activities better than any other means.

In this Book Note, I want to highlight the three enriching analog activities. Cal Newport believes low-quality digital noise drown these out.

Solitude

The first is solitude, which is not physical separation from other people, rather “a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.” Cal Newport argues that the smartphone deprives us of being alone with our own thoughts:

“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. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.”

Interactions

The second high-quality and life-enriching activity is offline and face-to-face interactions. These are “incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone.” Cal Newport argues that:

“The low-bandwidth chatter supported by many digital communication tools might offer a simulacrum of this connection but it leaves most of our high-performance social processing networks underused—reducing these tools’ ability to satisfy our intense sociality.”

Leisure

Finally, Cal Newport urges us to reclaim joyful high-quality leisure. Summarizing Kieran Setiya’s modern interpretation of Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that:

“If your life consists of only 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?

He provides three suggestions regarding high-quality leisure:

  1. Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.
  2. Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.
  3. Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.

I hope you find this helpful. And, always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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