Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

A leisurely time writing at Needmore Coffee

The introduction to this book struck me, but like a lot of Newport’s work the first half is like beating a dead horse from an argument standpoint—because that’s his training as an academic. But the second half is filled with helpful suggestions. The introduction, however, is argumentative gold. He uses early modern and modern sources and ancient. There were a lot of notes:

If you can’t read my notes, here’s what it says. “I call it digital minimalism, and it applies the belief that less can be more to our relationship with digital tools.” Obviously, the less can be more aspect of things is exactly what I’m talking about.

He goes onto quote Henry David Thoreau (“simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”) and Marcus Aurelius. “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?” 

Newport argues that the key to living well in our connected world is to spend less time using technology. When I read that line, I left the Political Science advising office at IU Bloomington and as I walked the mile to my car I counted how many IU students were walking and staring at their screens, or listening to earbuds rather than talking with each other. In the book I left a count in the margin after the above line—28 students versus 8 that were either talking with peers and two just being in the world. Looking around. Most of the latter were probably freshmen. Still in wonder at the place they found themselves. 

Newport ends his introduction with a quote from Henry David Thoreau from Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…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. (Newport XVIII)” This applies not just to my digital life, but my personal one as well—my horrible, debilitating pattern.

Most of the first half is pretty standard academic arguments, but the biggest part that struck me was in the Digital Declutter chapter. It asks: 

“How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?” 

He follows with the Minimalist Technology Screen. 

So I asked myself in the margins of these pages how will I use these digital tools like Twitter, Instagram, this website, and my newsletter. What won’t I use and who will I follow? It came down to this: 

1. Twitter is to share my blog posts and links and stories that I find interesting, basically just fodder for the newsletter. It’ll mostly be a collection of links. I’ll only use it four times a year and if something occurs to me to share it on there I’ll use Twitter for that. Like getting a short story published. I’ll follow writers and creators that I’ve actually read and enjoy. That’s about 75 people. That’s it. I’ll only look at it in the evenings, about 8pm. 

2. I’ll use Instagram as a kind of visual diary for the same amount of time as Twitter. Both apps will be on my phone for one week and totally blocked from use from 4am to 8pm during the blogging opening of each season. Both apps will be removed after the week is over. 

3. My website will be about all that I learned the previous season and the newsletter, a kind of seasonal review of what I learned. Like a Sunday New York Times—the season in review. And after the season’s blogging opening, I’ll use the newsletter for basically what I used to use Twitter and Tumblr for but instead, more like a letter from me to you and less time spent online and more time spent writing things that matter to me. 

Finally, I came up with a philosophy:

Marginalia translated: my phone is for taking photos, talking to friends, hearing interesting stories (podcasts) and making notes about my own writing in Bear. So why do I need an ipad?

Later in the book, Newport talks about Zadie Smith who uses the app Freedom so I thought, while reading this book, that I would try it. “Zadie Smith, who thanked Freedom by name in the acknowledgements of her critically acclaimed 2012 bestseller, NW, crediting the software for “creating the time” needed for her to finish the manuscript. Smith is not alone. Freedom’s internal research reveals that its users gain, on average, 2.5 hours of productive time per day.” (226)

I started using it, and I block the websites that distract me. Especially Newport, Austin Kleon, and Warren Ellis’s websites. I could wander around in those websites all day and not get anything done. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc of course. Including Google News and other websites. I don’t know how much time it saves me from being distracted, but it does help me be more deliberate with my time and if I can’t distract myself with websites, well, it keeps me writing because otherwise—symptomatically—I’ll get distracted easily. It’s called Attention Deficit Disorder for a good reason.  

And here’s the biggest thing that I continue to take from Newport: boredom is okay. As someone who suffers from ADD, being bored is hard for me. I often say I’m never bored and it’s true, but that’s also symptomatic. So, the biggest takeaway is to cultivate solitude. I take long walks more, or runs. I don’t bring my phone and sometimes I don’t bring a notebook. And I ask a question before my walk and by the end of the walk I write out whatever thoughts came to mind, but I don’t stop the walk for those reasons to note what I see, because, I realize—the notebook is a crutch. Not every thought I have is worth something. They are just thoughts. They grow faster than weeds and most are just as useful. Depending on the day, I get that more than anything else. 

There’s a lot more I learned from this book and rather than list them, I’ll just give you a photo of my notes at the end of the book. 

The pigs were requested by Squibbish. “Draw pig!”

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