Digital Overload? Try Digital Minimalism this summer

Book Review: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport, 2019

As I was walking out of the rec center today after a morning swim, I observed a dad and his two kids walking in. The first kid was running ahead of his kin, looking very excited. Second kiddo was tagging along ready to join in on the joy. Dad… checking his phone, calling ahead, Wait son, wait for me…

The scene reminded me of this book’s main point – that life is going by but often the screen is getting all the attention. Relationships of all kinds suffer from the “furtive glances” and distractedness that the love of screen time creates. This urge to check what’s become our appendage, often takes advantage of human psychology, and not in a good way. To address this, Cal Newport applies the concept of minimalism – “the art of knowing how much is just enough” – to technology today.

Newport’s not the originator or the first adapter in this wave of digital minimalism, but he’s gone beyond the realm of hacks that suggest taking Sunday off media is enough. He studied success for years, first supporting student success (while he was one himself) in his 2007 blog Study Hacks. Perhaps due to this study, he himself does not really use social media and has developed great focusing habits. He does writes essays/blogs you can access on his website,

A husband, father of three, and an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Newport is the author of six books. After the most recent one, Deep Work, (see Soul Savvy review here) he started to hear from readers about their colossal trouble with focusing in the face of today’s digital options and demands.

Demands is one way to describe it. Dopamine-fueled behavioral addictions is another. Newport shares some accounts from Silicone Vally whistle-blowers. Evidently human psychology is easy to take advantage of, especially when it comes to that urge to connect. We want to belong, to be “like”d, and find it upsetting if we’re rejected or ignored. The social media dance, described by Facebook as intending a world that’s open and connected, often leaves more stress and disconnection in the end. It’s also just damn distracting, but has become pervasive and accepted.

Newport does a great job of building the case for slowing way down, and backing up a bit, when it comes to the ubiquity of social media and digital tech. No, he’s not saying toss it out completely, but examine the cost of each new app that’s supposed to be game changing. Is it really the best way to do the thing it does? And how does this connect to your purpose and values?

From Thoreau’s economics to Amish combo digital/analog hacks, and other powerful minimalist stories, Newport illustrates solutions and better usage of silicon valley’s products. And yes, as Seth Godin notes, to Silicon Valley, you’re not the user, you’re the product. Every minute you spend scrolling increases their profits. Some of the best and brightest minds today create this tech, and it’s engineered to keep your attention, and keep you buying.

The price to your life is the most expensive cost though. One heavy toll is evident in those born after ’95, who grew up with smart phones. Anxiety and suicide rates show very steep jumps in the graphs for this group. Researchers note they’ve not seen anything like this steep jump before.

Where else does the digital world fall short? It turns out that not only have we evolved in small groups, and are wired to be social – a lot of our social genius happens face-to-face in those groups. Humans are highly experienced and skilled to track facial expressions, vocal tones, to intuit emotions and all kinds of nuances in order to communicate and express. Just imagine how much of this genius is left out in digital communication. No wonder emails can get so misinterpreted at times – especially when emotions, conflict or complexity are involved.

Newport has a good idea for how to work with the digital challenge today. Try a 30 day digital detox and drop everything that’s not absolutely necessary. During this time, and this is key: aggressively pursue activities in areas you care about. Once clear of the automatic and dopamine-addled reflexive use of media, examine what you do wish to keep. Then check to make sure it is the best way to achieve that end.

Media can be streamlined to take less constant attention and time. There are ways to consolidate texting, for example, and the newsfeeds you follow. You can schedule this for a certain time of the week. And there is a strong case for being proactive about the best methods for checking social media – not on your phone, it turns out! Industry profits soar if you use your phone to check social media. You’ll be less of a mark if you check it from your desk top.

Part of the research for the book came from a beta test Newport invited his readers to try, where he road tested the 30 day detox method. He was hoping to get 30 or 60 people – it turned out 1600 joined up. The book is peppered with stories of their struggles, and their relief and positive discoveries. Newport learned what worked best, and shares these steps and methods in the book.

Whether you follow the entire detox process, join the “attention resistance”, and/or become a more informed user able to leave your phone at home at times, this book is an important read. Yes, there may be some withdrawals (purportedly minimal), and you’ll have to face boredom anew, but within a short time, you’ll get back on the trail to what you really do care about. As you recalibrate back to using technology for the benefit it was initially designed for, you’ll be back to creating a stronger ability to focus and be present. This life is way to0 precious, isn’t it, to be drones of the digital profit margins?

Readers, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 low, 10 highest, how distracted are you by digital media (from work, from life goals, from loved ones, etc.)? What are your biggest regrets or experiences about this? Is this an issue for you? Leave your comments below.

About Denise Barnes

Licensed Therapist, Life Coach and Spiritual Counselor, Denise has an office in Boulder CO and is a certified Telehealth provider.
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