Review of Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Most of us are accustomed to a maximalist approach to technology. As long as it’s new and has some value to us, we adopt it. But according to Cal Newport, that sets the bar way too low and is leading to all kinds of negative consequences.

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has written several books about what it means to do valuable work in ways that don’t lead to burnout. In his latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Newport focuses on how our approach to technology needs to change.

Newport calls his approach: digital minimalism. The digital minimalist doesn’t reject technology—Newport still has an iPhone—but chooses his or her tools carefully and optimizes them. As he puts it, digital minimalism is

“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.”

Like Marie Kondo, Cal Newport, is helping us to understand that there’s a cost to having things that clutter up our lives. Even though digital things may not take up much physical space, they still require a lot of mental and emotional space. Digital minimalism is, in part, about becoming sensitive to the cost of our digital tools.

Digital Minimalism, is not all philosophy though. The book also offers lots of practical advice on how to become more focused and reduce “the hum of low-grade anxiety”—or worse—“that permeates [our] lives”.

For example, Newport believes that we use digital distractions to try and fill our true need for high-quality leisure, like eating a bowl of mints, one after another, when what you really need is some homemade chicken noodle soup. And these low-quality leisure activities tend to exhaust us instead of refresh us. They tend to make us feel less human and more lonely. I believe distraction has its place, but learning the difference between low-quality and highly-quality leisure is important. Newport gives examples and suggests ways to incorporate more high-quality leisure into your life.

He also gives this helpful advice: make sure you find high-quality leisure activities before you start “decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life”. Why? Because removing these distractions without filling the need first “will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worse.” (UPDATE: An article on his blog explains this and gives some examples of people who have followed this advice.)

Sanely, Newport never promises that if you adopt digital minimalism that everything in your life will be perfect, the kind of overpromising that is common in self-improvement books like this. But he does think that digital minimalism will make a difference for the better. And he’s right about that. Being a digital minimalist hasn’t saved my soul but it has decreased my anxiety, increased my productivity, and improved my focus. It has helped me be a better husband, father, and pastor.

I’ve been on the path of digital minimalism for a few years now. Amoung other things, I’ve canceled or discontinued use of most of my social media accounts. I’ve reduced the number of podcasts, RSS feeds, newsletter subscriptions, etc. to about 15% of what it was. And I’ve optimized my phone to limit its ability to distract me. But the pull to a maximalist or reactive approach to technology, or life in general, is strong for me. So I appreciated the way Digital Minimalism strengthened my resolve and suggested new ways to grow.

I highly recommend you read this book and consider this approach for yourself.

Find Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World via WorldCat.

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