Digital Minimalism
by Cal Newport

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Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism – by Cal Newport

There is a war going on for your attention and the way to get it back is to embrace Digital Minimalism.

When Facebook started it was interesting, but didn’t seem like something which we would spend a large amount of time. A college senior who set up an account in 2004 to look up class mates probably didn’t predict that the average modern user would spend around 2 hours a day on social media and related messaging service. Similarly, an early adopter who picked up an iPhone in 2007 for its music features would be less enthusiastic if told he could expect to compulsively check it 85 times a day.

In this episode we include the best ideas from all of Cal Newport’s closely related books, ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’, ‘Deep Work’ and ‘Digital Minimalism’.

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Digital Minimalism (dot point) Summary

Newport published Deep Work in 2016

  • People agreed about the office distractions
  • But were even more distressed by the way new technologies that seemed to be draining meaning and satisfaction from their time spent out of work
  • Almost everyone you speak to believes in the powerd of the internet
    • And recognized that it can and should be a force to improve their lives
    • No one wants to give up Google Maps or abandon Instagram
    • But they also felt that their current relationship with tehcnology is unsustainable
  • As demonstrated by the 2016 election and its aftermath, online discussion seems to be accelerating people’s shift towards emotionally charged and draining extremes

Part 1 – foundations

Ch1 – a lopsided arms race

  • When Facebook started it was interesting, but didn’t seem like something which we would spend a large amount of time
  • A college senior who set up an account in 2004 to look up class mates probably didn’t predict that the average modern user would spend around 2 hours a day on social media and related messaging services
  • Similarly, an early adopter who picked up an iPhone in 2007 for its music features would be less enthusiastic if told he could expect compulsively to check 85 times a day

How did we get ourselcves into the mess

  • Most people who struggle with the online part of their lives are not weak willed or stupid
  • They’re instead successful professionals, striving students, loving parents, they are organized and used to pursuing hard goals
  • Yet somehow the aps and sites beckoning from behind the phone and tablet squeen – unique among many temptations they resist daily
    • Managed to succeed in metasising unhealthily far beyond their original roles

Tobacco farmers in T shirts

  • Bill Maher in 2012 looked into the camera and said
    • ‘the tycoons of social media have to stop pretending they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world And admit they’re just tobacco farmers in t shirts selling an addictive product to children
      • Because let’s face it – checking your likesis the new smoking
      • Philip Morris wanted your lungs. The app store wants your soul

Slot machine

  • Former google engineer Tristan Harris calls it a slot machine
    • Every time I check my phone I’m playing the slot machine to see what you get
    • They’re programming people and not apps


  • Addiction is the condition in which a person engages in use of a sustance or behviour for which the rewarding effects provide compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences
    • Until recently it was assumed addiction only applied to alcohol or drugs
  • How tech companies encourage behavioral addiction
    • Intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval

Intermittent positive reinforcement

  • Something about unpredictability releases dopamine
    • A key neurotransmitter for regulating your sense of craving
    • The original Zeiler experiment that proved this has pigeons pecking at a button that unpredictably released a food pellet
    • The same basic behviour is replicated in the feedback buttons that have accompanied most social media posts since Facebook introduced the Like icon in 2009
      • What began as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive
      • Users are gambling every time they post on the social media platform
        • Will you get likes, hearts or retweets
        • Or will it languish with no feedback
  • Sean Parker in 2017, the founding president of Facebook, spoke about the attention engineering by his former company
    • The thought process that went into building these platforms was
      • “how do we consume as much of your tmie and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit once in a while, because someone liked or commented on your post or whatever”
  • Consider again social media feedback buttons
    • It concerns other people’s approval
    • If lots of people click the little heart icon under your latest Instagram post, it feels like the tribe is showing you approval 
      • Which we’re adapted to strongly crave
  • Leah Pearlman, the product manager who developed the ‘like’ button for Facebook has become so wary of the havock it causes now
    • As a small business owner, she hires a social media manager so she can avoid exposure to the services’ manipulation of the human social drive
    • Pearlman says
      • “whether the notification is good or not, it doesn’t really feel that good
      • “whatever we’re hoping to see, it never quite meets the bar
  • Another innovation was the ‘do you want to tag….’?
    • It takes almost no effort on your part, but to the user being tagged, the resulting notification creates a socially satisfying sense that you were thinking about tthem
    • It’s a social validation feedback loop
      • Sean Parker
        • “Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in the human psychology
  • A lopsided arms race
    • We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons
      • To look up friends’ relationship status or eliminate the need to carry a separate iPod and phone
      • And then found ourselves years later completely dominated by their influence
      • Allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel and how we behave
  • As Plato’s famous chariot metaphor
    • Our soul can be understood as a chariot driver struggling to rein two horses
    • One representing our better nature and the other our baser impulses
    • When we increasibly cede automony to the digital, we energize the latter horse and make the chariot driver’s struggle to steer increasingly difficult
      • A diminishing of our souls authority


Chapter 2 – digital minimalism

Digital Minimalism

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time ona  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 a cost benefit analysis
  • If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion of trivial convenience, the minimalists will ignore it
  • Even when a new technology promises to support something the minimalist values, it will need to pass a stricter test
    • Is this the best way to use technology to support this value?
    • If the answer is no – then use the better option
  • By working backward from deep values to their technological 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
  • It’s full curation of tools to deliver massive and unambiguous benefits


  • Some people replace the iPhone with a flip phone
  • After embracing minimalism, one guy Dave reduced his persistent social media use down to only one service, Insttagram
    • He felt offered significant benefits to his deep interest in art
    • Rather than just use it – he thought how he can best integrate it into his life


Principles of digital minimalism

  1. Clutter is costly
  • 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 indivudal item provides in isolation
  • You should balance the profit of things in balance to the cost of your life
    • How much of your time and attention, must be sacrificed to earning the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by a significant presence on twitter?
    • If twitter is taking 10 hours, there needs to be a massive benefit
  1. Optimisation is important
  • 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
  • Law of diminishing returns
    • Investing in the improvmeent of production processes, at a high level, more resources into a process cannot indefinitely improve it’s output
    • Eventually you reach a natural limit and start experiencing less and less extra benefit from continual investment
    • Once we look at the devices as personal technology processes through the perspective of diminishing returns, we’ll be able to adopt the minimalist attitude
  1. Intentionality is satisfying
  • Minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies
    • Amish for example aren’t anti technology
    • They ask – is this going to be helpful or detrimental?


Ch3 – the digital declutter

  • How to adopt this techno minimalist ifestyle?
    • Gradually changing habits doesn’t usually work very well

Digital declutter process

  1. Put aside a 30 day period where you’ll take a break from optional technologies in your life
  2. During the 30 day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviours that you find satisfying and meaningful
  3. At the end, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you introduce, determine what value it serves you in your life and how specifically you will use it to maximise it’s value


Step 1 – define your technology rules

  • During the 30 days of your digital declutter, you’re supposed to take a break from optional technologies in your life
    • A borderline case is television, or streaming netflix and it’s equivalents
    • Consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the dialy operation of your professional or personal life


Step 2 – take  30 day break

Step 3 – reintroduce technology

TO come back in your life, the technology must:

  1. Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit isn’t enough)
  2. Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better)
  3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it


Part 2 – practices

Ch4 – spend time alone

  • You can enjoy solituude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or sitting on your lawn
    • So long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts
    • 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
  • The iPhone was the first technology with the ability to continuously distract you from your thoughts
    • The smartphone provided a new technique to banish the remaining slivers of solitutde
      • The quick glance
      • At the slightest hint of boredom, you can glance at any number of apps or mobile adapted websites that have been optimised to provide you a satisfying dose of input from other minds

Solitude deprivation

  • A state which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input of other minds 
  • Young people born between 1995 and 2012, the group called iGen
    • Have very poor psychological helth
    • Rates of teen suicide and depression have sky rocketed
    • The only factor that has increased is the number of young people owning their own smart phones

Practice – leave your phone at home

  • Take long walks
  • Write letters to yourself


Ch5 – don’t click like

Practice – don’t click like

Ch6 – reclaim leisure

Leisure lesson 1 – preiori


Ch7 – join the attention resistance

  • Embrace slow media
  • Dumb down your smart phone

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