Book review of ‘Digital Minimalism’ by Cal Newport

When asked why we use social media, we have a reasonable answer. For example, we use Instagram to look up for our friends’ statuses. We signed up for these app services, and years later, we’ve become increasingly dominated by their influence. The apps control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.

Now, we have lost control over our digital usage. 

Cal Newport explained that most people who struggle with their digital lives are not weak-willed or stupid. They do not lose control because they are lazy, but because billions of dollars have been invested by businesses to make us stay longer on their apps.

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The current solution for this problem

The internet has suggested tips and hacks, such as switching off notification for all apps. Newport disagreed with this solution by explaining that it may sound simple to do, but it is hard to reform people’s digital life permanently. 

These tips are not enough to solve our issues with new technologies. It is because the addictiveness of the technology’s design and the strength of the underlying cultural pressures are too strong for such an approach to succeed. 

Newport argued that to re-establish control on new technology, we need to move beyond these tips and rebuild our technology relationship from scratch. We will do this by using our deeply held values as a foundation. Therefore, here comes his book – Digital Minimalism: Choosing a focused life in a noisy world. 

When I first read the book, I thought it was quite generic because everyone knows technology lives nowadays are a massive problem; many people know that technology companies are fighting for their attention as well. Newport does not have to explain these again. However, the most valuable part of the book comes next: the solution he provided for the problem. 

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Solution: Digital Minimalism

In this book, Newport contributed a digital philosophy, the Digital Minimalism. 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.”

 – Digital Minimalism –

The critical point is to use technology based on your deeply held values.

People who follow this philosophy are always conducting implicit cost-benefit analyses. For instance, the minimalist will ignore a new technology if it only provides a trivial convenience.

Notice, this minimalist ideology contrasts sharply with the maximalist philosophy, which is adopted by most people. Most people have a mentality in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using technology. This is exactly me! I will install any app that has certain potential of benefit to me but that I did not use it often. For example, the ‘BBC News’ app.

3 Principles of Digital Minimalism 

Newport then argued that the effectiveness of this philosophy depends on three core principles:

Principle 1: Digital clutter is costly 

Digital minimalists understand that they should not clutter their time with too many devices, apps, and services. It is because cluttering creates an overall negative cost that outweighs the small benefits each item provides.

Principle 2: Optimisation is important

Deciding which technology to use is only the first step. To indeed extract its full benefit, digital minimalists need to optimise it by thinking carefully about the way to use technology. 

Principle 3: Intentionality is satisfying

Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their intentional commitment to their chosen technologies and their way of engaging technology. 

With the three principles to back up his digital minimalism philosophy, Newport then recommended a rapid transformation: the digital ‘declutter’ that illustrates the 3 principles above.

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3 Steps of Digital Declutter 

The digital declutter focuses primarily on cutting out technologies. For example, apps, sites, or any tools that are delivered through a computer or mobile phone screen. You should also include video games and streaming videos in this category. 

It works as follows:

Step 1: define your technology rules

You will take a thirty-day break from optional technologies in your life. “Optional” means that you can step away from them without creating harm or significant problems in your professional and personal life.

You could either abstain from using the optional technology altogether or specify a set of operating procedures that dictate precisely when and how you use the technology during the process. 

In the end, you will have a list of banned technologies along with relevant operating procedures. A typical culprit, for example, is setting technology restriction rules that are either too vague or too strict.

Step 2: then take a thirty-day break

However, the goal of this month-long declutter is not merely to enjoy time away from intrusive technology. You must also aggressively explore and rediscover activities that you find satisfying and meaningful. This period should be a strenuous activity and experimentation. 

It is to replace the time left vacant by the optional technologies you’re avoiding. If not, you will feel anxious and boredom during the declutter period. 

Finding satisfying activity enables you to confidently craft a better life—one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.

Step 3: reintroduce technology

You can now rebuild it from scratch in a much more intentional and minimalist manner. Do not reintroduce all their optional technologies when the declutter ends.

The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only reintroduce technology that passes your strict minimalist standards. The technologies reintroduced will serve your values, instead of subverting them. 

To allow an optional technology to be reintroduced, it must: 

1. Serve something you deeply value. Offering some benefits is not enough.

2. Be the best way to use technology to serve its value.

3. Constrained by a standard operating procedure, which specifies when and how you use it.

With this step-by-step guide, Newport assures me that I could reform my digital life easily. In simple words, I just need to optimise and focus on a few useful and meaningful apps only. 

After Digital Declutter, what is next?

Newport also suggested some issues that are important to crafting a better digital life after the digital declutter. For example, the importance of solitude and the necessity of cultivating high-quality leisure to replace the time that is dedicated to mindless device use. 

He also provided an insider look at the attention resistance. He mentioned that individuals who are using high-tech tools should extract value from the products of the digital attention economy by having a strict operating procedure. Thus, they could avoid falling victim to compulsive use. 

He also provides a collection of practices, which are concrete tactics designed to help you act on these issues.

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We all know we need to change the way we treat technology and Newport’s book has explained ways to change it clearly. I strongly recommend this instrumental book to anyone who has used their digital device compulsively. It is time to regain our control over the digital live.

Written by Lua Yun Xin