Digital Spartan

Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism shows us how to break the spell our screens have cast

Published a year ago on Apr 13, 2019 Read

Around the time I started working on this chapter, a columnist for the New York Post published an op-ed titled “How I Kicked the Smartphone Addiction—and You Can Too.” His secret? He disabled notifications for 112 different apps on his iPhone. “It’s relatively easy to retake control,” he optimistically concludes.

These types of articles are common in the world of technology journalism. The author discovers that his relationship with his digital tools has become dysfunctional. Alarmed, he deploys a clever life hack, then reports enthusiastically that things seem much better. I’m always skeptical about these quick-fix tales. In my experience covering these topics, it’s hard to permanently reform your digital life through the use of tips and tricks alone. The problem is that small changes are not enough to solve our big issues with new technologies. The underlying behaviors we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture, and, as I argued in the previous chapter, they’re backed by powerful psychological forces that empower our base instincts. To reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.

The New York Post columnist cited above, in other words, should look beyond the notification settings on his 112 apps and ask the more important question of why he uses so many apps in the first place. What he needs—what all of us who struggle with these issues need—is a philosophy of technology use, something that covers from the ground up which digital tools we allow into our life, for what reasons, and under what constraints. In the absence of this introspection, we’ll be left struggling in a whirlwind of addictive and appealing cyber-trinkets, vainly hoping that the right mix of ad hoc hacks will save us.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I have one such philosophy to propose:

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.

The so-called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit cost-benefit analyses. If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it. Even when a new technology promises to support something the minimalist values, it must still pass a stricter test: Is this the best way to use technology to support this value? If the answer is no, the minimalist will set to work trying to optimize the tech, or search out a better option.

By working backward from their deep values to their technology choices, digital minimalists transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived. By doing so, they break the spell that has made so many people feel like they’re losing control to their screens. Notice, this minimalist philosophy contrasts starkly with the maximalist philosophy that most people deploy by default—a mind-set in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention. A maximalist is very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone might miss out on something that’s the least bit interesting or valuable.

This is an extract from Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism published by Portfolio