Digital Minimalism

The key to thriving in our high-tech world, [digital minimalists] learned, is to spend much less time using technology.


A Lopsided Arms Race

Facebook began as a novelty and the iPhone began as an iPod to make calls. We didn't sign up for what came next.

Techno-apologists miss the target by pointing out the feel-good utility of new tech. The problem is not the lack of value, but the loss of autonomy/control. 

"Social media is a slot machine", according to Tristan Harris, ex-Google engineer, current director and co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology

Adam Alter began studying social media after an addictive run playing a game non-stop on a cross-country flight. Alter's 2017 book Irresistible shows two reasons why social media is so addictive:

  • Intermediate positive reinforcement - what a Facebook engineer called "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure", much more pleasurable to the brain than consistent, expected positivity

  • Drive for social approval - The "Like" button fundamentally changed Facebook to the point that Leah Pearlman, FB product manager for the tool, now employs someone else to use it in her new business

Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable. What’s making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control - a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, 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.

Digital Minimalism

Articles about detox or small, temporary changes miss the point. We need a strong strategy and philosophy to fight back.

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.

  • cost-benefit analysis

  • work backwards from values vs. maximalism, add any potential value

  • As argued, our current unease with new technologies is not really about whether or not they're useful. It's instead about autonomy. We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons - to look up friends' relationship statuses or eliminate the need to carry a separate iPod and phone - and then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.

Some anecdotal experiments:

  • Tyler started using his newfound free time to start volunteering, reading, exercising 

  • Adam traded for a flip phone to be a better role model to his kids

  • Charles was a Twitter addict turned reader of curated online magazines


  • Clutter is costly - overall negative cost swamps small benefits

  • Optimization is important

  • Intentionality is satisfying

Argument #1: Thoreau’s New Economics

  • the forgotten portion of Walden where he was recording every cent he needed to survive and support his life in the woods. 

  • We now focus on benefit without considering the life offered to get it

Argument #2: The Return Curve - consider the economic law of diminishing returns, instead of sporadically reading from sites every day or you could organize through Instapaper and then batch read once per week

Argument #3: The Lessons of the Amish hacker - they are “demonstrations of a different form of modernity”. They don’t reject all new technology; they only accept what they believe will strengthen their community and values. For them, "intention trumps convenience."

Thoreau was able to satisfy all of his basic needs quite comfortably with the equivalent of one day of work per week. What these farmers are actually gaining from all the life they sacrifice is slightly nicer stuff: venetian blinds, a better quality copper pot, perhaps a fancy wagon for traveling back and forth to town efficiently.

When analyzed through Thoreau’s new economics, this exchange can come across as ill conceived. Who could justify trading a lifetime of stress and backbreaking labor for better blinds?

The Digital Declutter 

Newport prescribes a 30 day break from all optional tech. During this time, explore satisfying activities, and re-introduce optional tech by determining and evaluating your true values

  1. Define your tech rules - what’s optional for you? Tech is considered optional unless it temporarily removes harm from your life, don’t confuse convenient with critical. Keep your work email because you need it, cut out your own email.

  2. Take a 30 day break. Discomfort fades fast, spend your free time considering what’s important 

  3. Re-introduce tech. Only setting a detox is a mistake. Ask yourself, does this tech directly support something I deeply value? Have a way to constrain operating procedure - when and how will I use this tech?


Spend time alone

Newport visits Armed Forces Retirement Home in DC, where Lincoln often went for solitude. Why? During his presidency, Lincoln had no silence in the White House. Everyone was grabbing for him, asking for favors or jobs.

Kethledge and Erwin wrote the 2017 Lead Yourself First and they define solitude as your mind free from input from other minds. We are deprived of this solitude today.

Our obsession with connection is overestimated.

Walden was about the balance of solitude and connection.

Practice: Leave your phone at home
Practice: Take long walks
Practice: Write letters to yourself / journal

Writing in the 1980s, Anthony Storr complained that “contemporary Western culture makes the peace of solitude difficult to attain.” He pointed to Muzak and the recent invention of the “car telephone” as the latest evidence of this encroachment of noise into all parts of our lives.

Don’t Click "Like"

Opens with rock paper scissor championship and the social cues and psychological tricks involved in the game's strategy

1997 Washington University published papers that observed brain activity and found the default network. They eventually realized we are built to turn the default network on during any free time, we default to think about our place in the social environment.

Loss of social connection can feel the same as physical pain

The more you’re on social media, the less time you’re off-line, which is harmful to well-being. If off-line is better why don’t we do it? Because online it’s easier and quick

Connection is low-bandwidth interactions that define online social lives vs. Conversation which is richer high-bandwidth communication that defines real world encounters between humans

You can’t converse with everyone. You will lose some people.

Practice: Don’t click "Like" - replace it with conversations
Practice: Hold conversation office hours - make yourself available for calls or daily walks
Practice: Consolidate texting - do not disturb, use text like emails (check sporadically)

To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery.

Reclaim Leisure 

Newport outlines the financially independent (FI) community

Pete Adeney, or Mr. Money Mustache, does not own a TV or Netflix, works on projects outside

Liz, of the Frugalwoods website, moved to homestead, works collecting wood on our land

These two have virtues of the strenuous life or "virtuous hobbies".

Arnold Bennett, author How to Live in 24 Hours a Day, prescribed strained effort versus light leisure - our time and effort doesn’t tire like a muscle

Bennett principle - get value from effort

Leisure lesson #1 - Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption
"craft" - activity where you apply skill, use your hands versus your screen 

Leisure lesson #2 - Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world, super-charged socializing interaction with higher intensity levels than polite, common society, like CrossFit or boardgames

Leisure lesson #3 -  Seek activities that require real-world structured social interactions

Practice: Fix or build something every week
Practice: Schedule your low-quality leisure
Practice: Join something

How much time would you really need to spend in the typical week to keep up with your list of important Facebook activities? For most people, the answer is surprisingly small; somewhere around twenty to thirty minutes.

Join the Attention Resistance

In 1830, newspaper publisher Benjamin Day launched New York Sun and effectively fought for attention with mass interest stories, sparked tabloid wars. Fast forward to Google and Facebook juggernauts.

They are trying to be fundamental technologies, they want you to think of their service as binary but you can redefine "use" 

Practice: Delete social media from your phone 
Practice: Turn your devices into single-purpose computers, Freedom app
Practice: Use social media like a professional, do not use for entertainment, log on sporadically
Practice: Embrace slow media, requires full concentration
Practice: Dumb down your smart phone, use it for running then put it away, or investigate the Light Phone