Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
Cal Newport

Ended: July 13, 2019

The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.
I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.
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-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.
Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.
In his 2017 book, Irresistible, which details his study of this topic, Alter explores the many different “ingredients” that make a given technology likely to hook our brain and cultivate unhealthy use. I want to briefly focus on two forces from this longer treatment that not only seemed particularly relevant to our discussion, but as you’ll soon learn, repeatedly came up in my own research on how tech companies encourage behavioral addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
We begin with the first force: intermittent positive reinforcement. Scientists have known since Michael Zeiler’s famous pecking pigeon experiments from the 1970s that rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern. Something about unpredictability releases more dopamine—a key neurotransmitter for regulating our sense of craving.
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.
minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.
The Minimalist Technology Screen To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must: Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough). Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better). Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.
He now checks once a day—a news site that covers the top stories, but for each story it neutrally links to three articles: one from a source associated with the political left, one from the right, and one from the center.
The goal of this chapter is to argue that the benefits Lincoln received from his time alone extend beyond historical figures or those similarly faced with major decisions. Everyone benefits from regular doses of solitude, and, equally important, anyone who avoids this state for an extended period of time will, like Lincoln during his early months in the White House, suffer. In the pages ahead, I hope to convince you that, regardless of how you decide to shape your digital ecosystem, you should follow Lincoln’s example and give your brain the regular doses of quiet it requires to support a monumental life.
Before outlining their case, however, the authors start with what is arguably one of their most valuable contributions, a precise definition of solitude. Many people mistakenly associate this term with physical separation—requiring, perhaps, that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on any sort of a regular basis. As Kethledge and Erwin explain, however, solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. You can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or, as President Lincoln discovered at his cottage, while sharing your lawn with two companies of Union soldiers, so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts. On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen. 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 famously wrote in the late seventeenth century.
Examples similar to those given above are voluminous and point to a clear conclusion: regular doses of solitude, mixed in with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being. It’s more urgent now than ever that we recognize this fact, because, as I’ll argue next, for the first time in human history solitude is starting to fade away altogether.
It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life. Thoreau and Storr worried about people enjoying less solitude. We must now wonder if people might forget this state of being altogether.
Solitude Deprivation A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
She told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change, she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students’ brain chemistry.
As Thoreau’s example emphasizes, there’s nothing wrong with connectivity, but if you don’t balance it with regular doses of solitude, its benefits will diminish. To help you realize this cycle in your modern life, this chapter concludes with a small collection of practices—each of which offers a specific and effective approach to integrating more solitude into an otherwise connected routine. These practices are not exhaustive nor are they obligatory. Think of them instead as a look at the varied ways that people have succeeded in creating their own metaphorical cabin by the pond in an increasingly noisy world.
In short, I would be lost without my walks because they’ve become one of my best sources of solitude. This practice proposes that you’ll find similar benefits by spending more time alone on your feet. The details of this practice are simple: On a regular basis, go for long walks, preferably somewhere scenic. Take these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone. If you’re wearing headphones, or monitoring a text message chain, or, God forbid, narrating the stroll on Instagram—you’re not really walking, and therefore you’re not going to experience this practice’s greatest benefits.
The default network, in other words, seems to be connected to social cognition. Sure enough, once scientists knew what to look for, they discovered that the regions of the brain that defined the default network are “virtually identical” to the networks that light up during social cognition experiments. When given downtime, in other words, our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.
Coffee shop hours are also popular. In this variation, you pick some time each week during which you settle into a table at your favorite coffee shop with the newspaper or a good book. The reading, however, is just the backup activity. You spread the word among people you know that you’re always at the shop during these hours with the hope that you soon cultivate a rotating group of regulars that come hang out. I first witnessed this strategy in a coffee shop in a town near where I grew up. There’s a small group of late-middle-aged men who set up shop on Saturday mornings and pull friends into their conversational orbit as they stop in the shop throughout the day. Taking a page out of the English cultural playbook, you can also consider running these office hours once a week during happy hour at a favored bar.
Here’s how Pete explains his leisure philosophy on his blog: I never understood the joy of watching other people play sports, can’t stand tourist attractions, don’t sit on the beach unless there’s a really big sand castle that needs to be made, [and I] don’t care about what the celebrities and politicians are doing. . . . Instead of all this, I seem to get satisfaction only from making stuff. Or maybe a better description would be solving problems and making improvements.
As Pete summarizes his leisure philosophy: “If you leave me alone for a day . . . I’ll have a joyful time rotating between carpentry, weight training, writing, playing around with instruments in the music studio, making lists and executing tasks from them.”
What interests me instead is a more timeless piece of Bennett’s argument, in which he fights the claim that his prescription of strained effort is too demanding to qualify as leisure: 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. This argument reverses our intuition. Expending more energy in your leisure, Bennett tells us, can end up energizing you more. He’s reworking the old entrepreneurial adage “You have to spend money to make money” into the language of personal vitality. This idea, which for lack of a better term we can call the Bennett Principle, provides a plausible foundation for the active leisure lives we’ve encountered so far in this section.
Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.
With these advantages established, we can now return to our earlier asterisk on the claim that purely digital activities can also be considered craft. There’s clearly an argument to be made that skilled digital behaviors generate satisfaction. I made this point in my book Deep Work, where I noted that a deep activity like writing a piece of computer code that solves a problem (a high-skill effort) yields more meaning than a shallow activity like answering emails (a low-skill effort). This being said, however, it’s also clear that the specific benefits of craft cited here are grounded in their connection to the physical. While it’s true that a digital creation can still generate the pride of accomplishment, both Rogowski and Crawford imply that activities mediated through a screen exhibit a fundamentally different character than those embodied in the real world. Computer interfaces, and the increasingly intelligent software running behind the scenes, are designed to eliminate both the rough edges and the possibilities inherent in directly confronting your physical surroundings. Typing computer code into an advanced integrated development environment is not quite the same as confronting a plank of maple wood with a handheld plane. The former misses both the physicality and sense of unlimited options latent in the latter. Similarly, composing a song in a digital sequencer misses the pleasures that come from the nuanced struggle between fingers and steel strings that defines playing a guitar well, while fast twitching your way to victory in Call of Duty misses many dimensions—social, spatial, athletic—present in a competitive game of flag football. Because this chapter is about leisure—that is, efforts you voluntarily undertake in your free time—I’m going to propose that we stick to the stricter definition of craft promoted by the above arguments. If you want to fully extract the benefits of this craft in your free time, in other words, seek it in its analog forms, and while doing so, fully embrace Rogowski’s closing advice: “Leave good evidence of yourself. Do good work.” This then provides our second lesson about cultivating a high-quality leisure life.
Leisure Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.
The secret to CrossFit’s success is probably best captured by one of the most notable differences between a CrossFit box and a standard gym: no one is wearing earphones.
You’re not allowed to do the WOD on your own. There are instead a small number of preselected times each day during which you can show up at your local box and execute the WOD along with a group of other members and a supervising trainer. The social aspect of the workout is crucial: you cheer on the group while they in turn cheer you on. This support helps push people past their natural limits, which is important; a core belief of CrossFit is that extreme intensity in a short period of time is superior to a large volume of exercise over a long period. The social aspect of the WOD also helps create a strong sense of community. Here’s how a former personal trainer turned CrossFit devotee describes the experience: “The camaraderie of other members cheering me on to finish strong as I fought for a few more reps during a WOD at [my CrossFit box] was an exhilarating feeling which I never have experienced at any other fitness facility.” Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s outspoken founder, captures the sense of rough-edged but intense camaraderie created by his fitness movement by famously describing CrossFit as a “religion run by a biker gang.”
Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.
Aristotle argued that high-quality leisure is essential to a life well lived. With this in mind, in this chapter I provided three lessons about how to cultivate these high-quality pursuits. I then concluded with the caveat that although these activities are primarily analog in nature, their successful execution often depends on the strategic use of new technologies.
Economists will also argue that specialization is more efficient. If you’re a lawyer, you’re better off, from a financial perspective, dedicating your time to becoming a better lawyer, and then trading some of the extra money you earn to people who specialize in fixing when something breaks. But maximizing personal and financial efficiency isn’t the only relevant goal. As I argued earlier in this chapter, learning and applying new skills is an important source of high-quality leisure. If you can achieve some degree of handiness, therefore, you can more easily tap into this type of satisfying activity.
Undeterred, he decided he would simply start the social organizations he desired from scratch. In 1727, Franklin created a social club called the Junto, which he describes as follows in his autobiography: I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.
Finally, in justifying this planning approach, I want to underscore the foundational argument delivered throughout this chapter: doing nothing is overrated. In the middle of a busy workday, or after a particularly trying morning of childcare, it’s tempting to crave the release of having nothing to do—whole blocks of time with no schedule, no expectations, and no activity beyond whatever seems to catch your attention in the moment. These decompression sessions have their place, but their rewards are muted, as they tend to devolve toward low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and half-hearted binge-watching. For the many different reasons argued in the preceding pages, investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much richer rewards.
The lopsidedness of this battle is a big part of the reason I never messed around with any of these services in the first place. To repeat a line from the New Yorker writer George Packer, “[Twitter] scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.” If you must use these services, however, and you hope to do so without ceding autonomy over your time and attention, it’s crucial to understand that this is not a casual decision. You’re instead waging a David and Goliath battle against institutions that are both impossibly rich and intent on using this wealth to stop you from winning.
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.