Tony Wolski

Digital Minimalism - Cal Newport

Another timely and compelling piece by Cal Newport. There’s a reason the author is one of only two writers’ blogs to which I’m subscribed. Lots of great research into how our inability to disconnect affects our mental health, our ability to concentrate, and the connection we feel to the community around us.

My notes

The key to thriving in our high-tech world, …, is to spend much less time using technology.

Me: Theme I’m seeing. The more we do something the more we fall in love with it. Think Polgar sisters. A life others thought (think) would be horrible for a child, they loved. Learn to love the tought things. Learn to love the things others dread.

In Walden, Thoreau famously writes: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Less often quoted, however, is the optimistic reminder that follows in his next paragraph:

They honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

… before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade. Me: This is key. Working out what we really want. You only know through iteration.

What’s making us uncomfortable… is this feeling of losing control… such as when we tune out with our phone during our child’s bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience.

The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirs selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

Me: Wow! HIt the nail on the head. Same for advertising.

Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences.

… rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern. Something about unpredictability releases more dopamine… Me: Could this be used to cultivate good habits?

Many people have the experience of visiting a content website for a specific purpose — … — and then find themeselves thirty minutes later still mindlessly following trails of links, skipping from one headline to another… Every appealing headline clicked or intriguing link tabbed is another metaphorical pull of the slot machine handle.

“We’re social beings who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us.”

Me: Do we need two different channels: critical and everything else. We’re having to decide this (do the filtering) ourselves. Dual SIMS?

Compulsive use, in this context, is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan.

What all of us who struggle with these issues need — is a philosophy of technology use, sommething that covers from the ground up which digital tools we allow into our life, for what reasons, and under what constraints.

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.

Principle #1: Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.

Principle #2: Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (Walden)

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” — Fredéric Gros on Thoreau’s “new economics.”

This new economics offers a radical rethinking of the consumerist culture that began to emerge in Thoreau’s time. Standard economic theory focuses on monetary outcomes. If working one acre of land as a farmer earns you $1 a year in profit, and working sixty acres earns you $60, then you should, if it’s at all possible, work the sixty acres — it produces strictly more more money. [New paragraph] Thoreau’s new economics considers such math woefully incomplete, as it leaves out the cost in life required to achieve that extra $59 in monetary profit. As he noted in Walden, working a large farm, as many of his Concord neighbors did, required large, stressful mortgages, the need to maintain numerous pieces of equipment, and endless, demanding labor. He describes these farmers as “crushed and smothered under [their] load” and famously lumps them into the “mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation.”

“I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, house, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired thatn got rid of.” — Thoreau

Again on Theoreau… He asks us to treat the minutes of our life as a concrete and valuable substance — arguably the most valuables substance we possess — and to always reckon with how much of this life we trade for the various activities we allow to claim our time.

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm that good with respect to these values.

Me: Something I’ve encountered repeatedly: intention trumps convenience.

… the very act of being selective about your tools will bring you satisfaction, typically much more than what is lost from the tools you decide to avoid.

… it’s the commitment to minimalism itself that yields the bulk of their satisfaction. The sugar high of convenience is fleeting and the sting of missing out dulls rapidly, but the meaningful glow that comes from taking charge of what claims your time and attention is something that persists.

“Stepping away for thirty-one days has provided clarity I didn’t know I was missing… As I stand here now from the outside looking in, I see there is so much more the world has to offer!”

With this in mind, for each optional technology that you’re considering reintroducing into your life, you must first ask: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? This is the only condition on which you should let one of these tools into your life. The fact that it offers some value is irrelevant — the digital minimalist deploys technology to serve the things they find most important in their life, and is happy missing out on everything else.

On solitude… they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.

Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences — wherever you happen to be.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” — Blaise Pascal

“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” — Edward Gibbon

… regular doses of solitude, mixed with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being.

While many people admit that they use their phones more than they probably should, they often don’t realize the full magnitude of this technology’s impact.

Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

As most parents or educators of this generation will attest, their (young people born after 1995 — the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet connectivity) device use is constant.(The term constant is not hyperbole: a 2015 study by Common Sens Media found that teenagers were consuming media — including text messaging and social networks — nine hours per day on average).

Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety… everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders.

“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed,"… with much of this seemingly due to a massive increase in anxiety disorders. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

A college student he interviewed at a residential anxiety treatment center put it well: “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without that’s making us crazy.”

When an entire cohort unintentionaly eliminated time alone with their thoughts from their lives, their mental health suffered dramatically. … These teenagers have lost the ability to process and make sense of their emotions, or to reflect on who they are and what really matters, or to build strong relationships, ….

… we need solitude to thrive as human beings, and in recent years, without even realizing it, we’ve been systematically reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives. Simply put, humans are not wired to be constantly wired.

“I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents I don’t really know… but it’s a substantial ratio.” — Raymond Kethledge

… in 90 percent of your daily life, the presence of a cell phone either doesn’t matter or makes things only slightly more convenient.

… it’s completely reasonable to live a life in which you sometimes have a phone with you, and sometimes you do not. Indeed, not only is this lifestyle reasonable, but it represents a small behavior tweak that can reap large benefits by protecting you from the worst effects of solitude deprivation.

“Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” Friedrich Nietzsche

… Nietzsche began to walk up to eight hours a day. During these walks he would think, eventually filling six small notebooks with the prose that became The Wanderer and His Shadow

… Thoreau labels this activity [walking] a “noble art,” clarifying: “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise… but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”

… it’s exactly this absence of reaction to the clatter of civilization that supports all of these benefits. Nietzsche emphasized this point when he contrasted the originality of his walk-stimulated ideas with those produced by the bookish scholar locked in a library reacting only to other people’s work: “We do not belong,” he wrote, “to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books.”

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. — Thoreau

These notebooks… provide me a way to write a letter to myself when encountering a complicated decision, or a hard emotion, or a surge of inspiration. By the time I’m done composing my thoughts in the structured form demanded by written prose, I’ve often gained clarity. … It’s the act of writing itself that already yields the bulk of the benefits.

… make time to write a letter to yourself when faced with demanding or uncertain circumstances. … The key is the act of writing itself.

When given downtime… our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.

… when users received “targeted” and “composed” information written by someone they know well (e.g. a comment sent by a family member), they felt better.

The more time you spend “connecting” on these services [social media like Facebook], the more isoloated you’re likely to become.

.. we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being.”

Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.

Anything textual or non-interactive — basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging — doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection.

Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation, it’s instead its supporter.

Phones have become woven into a fraught sense of obligation in friendship… Being a friend means being “on call” — tethered to your phone, ready to be attentive, online.

… many people fear that their relationships will suffer if they downgrade this form of lightweight connnection. I want to reassure you that it will instead strengthen the relationships you care about most.

“The best and most pleasant life is the life of the intellect. This life will also be the happiest.” — Aristotle

As Aristotle elaborates, a life filled with deep thinking is happy because contemplation is an “activity that is appreciated for its own sake… nothing is gained from it except the act of contemplation.”

… a life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.

If you begin decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life before you’ve convincingly filled in the void they were helping you ignore, the experiences will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worse. The most successful digital minimalists, therefore, tend to start their conversion by renovating what they do with their free time — cultivating high-quality leisure before culling the worst of their digital habits.

Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption

… “virtuous hobbies”… activities that can seem like work actually offer multiple levels of benefits.

What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change, not rest, except in sleep. — Arnold Bennett

… the general principle that the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested.

" People have the need to put their hands on tools and to make things. We need this in order to feel whole.” — Gary Rogowski

Leisure Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.

The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First, they require you to spend time with other people in person. … The second trait is that the activity provides some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal.

Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.

In this new state, digital technology is still present, but now subordinated to a support role: helping you to set up or maintain leisure activities, but not acting as the primary source of leisure itself.

It’s too easy to be good intentioned about adding some quality activity into your evening, and then, several hours of rabbit hole clicking and binge-whatching later, realize that the opportunity has once again dissipated.

Here’s my suggestion: schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes… But outside thes periods, stay offline.

Without a well-considered approach to your high-quality leisure, it’s easy for your commitment to these pursuits to degrade due to the friction of everyday life.

Even the small extra barrier of needing to log in to a computer was enough to prevent them from making the effort…

… the rapid switching between different applications tends to make the human’s interaction with the computer less productive in terms of the quality and quantity of what is produced.

Crucial to this news consumption habit is the ritualistic nature of the sequence. You don’t make a conscious decision about each of the sites and feeds you end up visiting; instead, once the sequence is activated, it unfolds on autopilot. The slightest hint of boredom becomes a trip wire to active this whole hulking Rube Goldberg apparatus.

…consider limiting your attention to the best of the best when it comes to selecting individual writers you follow.

I recommend instead isolating your news consumption to set times during the week.

The key to embracing Slow Media is the general commitment to maximizing the quality of what you consume and the conditions under which you consume it.

Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance. This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy.

Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value — not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins. Just as important: they’re comfortable missing out on everything else.