Book Summary – Digital Minimalism (Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World)

These devices and apps can gobble up hours of your day. But wasting your time is only one of their harmful effects. Newport believes that when you succumb to the constant distractions of digital technology, with its ceaseless offerings of shiny objects and dopamine hits, you sacrifice the opportunity for extended focus on your tasks or deep contemplation of your thoughts. Social media channels, which promise to connect people and keep them connected, actively undermine relationships. Newport asserts that constantly checking digital feeds fractures real-life interactions.

At the root of these problems, he believes, is the dizzying speed with which these technological tools developed. They appeared – and people embraced them – so quickly that no one has had the opportunity to create a “philosophy” for their use or to determine how to adapt them. Newport argues that they should serve – rather than rule – people’s lives. But, he says, users have adapted their lives to the technology, and that works to their detriment. Now, a growing “attention resistance movement” is embracing the philosophy of “digital minimalism.” Minimalists have devised practices they can use to glean the benefits of technological tools while avoiding their providers’ attention traps. “Digital minimalists,” Newport explains, “see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value – not as sources of value themselves.”

The Roots of Compulsion

Newport cites social psychologist and business professor Adam Alter, who points out that digital tools are powerful attention magnets because they exploit two psychological mechanisms that regulate learned behavior:

  1. Intermittent positive reinforcement” – Psychological experiments have demonstrated that the most potent way to reinforce a learned behavior is to dispense rewards intermittently and seemingly at random instead of rewarding every occurrence of the behavior. In laboratory experiments, pigeons became more diligent about pecking a food-release lever when it dispensed food only some of the time. Researchers found that when rewards arrive unpredictably, they trigger a larger release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Alter explains that Facebook’s “like” button functions similarly to the pigeons’ levers. After you post an item, you check back repeatedly to see if your post received any likes, and how many. Sometimes you will get likes, and sometimes you won’t. This unpredictability reinforces your compulsion to check. A comparable dynamic occurs on nonsocial websites when you head down a rabbit hole of links: Most clicks lead to nothing interesting. But every now and then, you chance on a link that offers a satisfying emotional experience. And from then on, you keep clicking.
  2. The drive for social approval” – Likes serve as a reward, Alter maintains, because they feed the innate need to be an accepted member of your tribe. The failure to win them triggers “distress,” which you seek to ease by obsessively checking for signs of acceptance and approval.

Newport cites and agrees with Alter’s belief that technology companies have every incentive to bolster these addictive qualities. In 2017, the founding president of Facebook admitted that capturing attention by offering a “little dopamine hit every once in a while” was part of the company’s foundational business plan. Professor Alter notes that such “behavioral addictions” don’t exert the ironclad hold of chemical dependencies, but are pernicious to the individual nonetheless because it’s always so easy to find the fix you need. You carry an endless supply in your phone. The result is that people “joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends across the country, and then ended up unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table.”

Regain Control

Newport details how most personal efforts to reassert control over digital tools  take the form of small “hacks,” such as placing your phone out of reach when you go to bed or disabling notifications on your apps. However, he says, these changes don’t address the bigger problem of society’s almost total acquiescence to digital compulsion and business’s role in enabling it.

Newport holds that society needs a comprehensive “philosophy of technology use” that would allow users to enjoy the benefits of technology without falling into its attention-devouring black holes. Digital minimalism is one such philosophy.

Digital minimalists reject the common attitude that  adopting a new technology is worthwhile simply because it may offer some as-yet-unclear benefit. Minimalists, Newport explains, approach technology from the opposite direction: First, they consider their own values, interests and goals – and then they elect to use a technology only if they determine that it can further support their priorities. Moreover, he reports, they use only the features of that technology that are directly relevant to their values. Thus, Newport, points out, they avoid the features that offer mere distraction or encourage compulsive use.

The “Digital Declutter”

An effective plan for adopting a digitally minimalist lifestyle begins with a digital declutter – a 30-day abstention from most technological tools. “The goal,” Newport says, “is not to simply give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life.” During this break,  retain only the tech tools that are essential to your personal and professional life. When choosing those essential tools, Newport suggests you distinguish between those that are indispensable and those that merely make your life more convenient. By removing all the triggers for compulsive digital behavior, you open up a space in which you can learn about your own real-life values.

Newport urges to you to ask: What are your goals? What do you believe is important? What activities do you find most engaging and fulfilling? You may rediscover the joy you once found in reading books, interacting with other people in person, polishing your musical or artistic skills, or immersing yourself in family life. Fear of boredom is a prime trigger for technology abuse. But, Newport reminds you, boredom doesn’t feel as threatening when you live a fulfilling life.

The Practice of Digital Minimalism

Newport recommends these time-tested practices for cultivating meaning, personal satisfaction and a sense of delight outside of digital captivation:

“The Practice of Solitude”

For maintaining mental health and acuity, spending time alone is as important as connecting with other people. Newport asserts that periods of solitude can help you wrestle with your toughest problems, get a handle on your emotions, develop the courage of your convictions and strengthen your relationships.

In the modern world, with its never-ending connection to the digital hive, Newport reports that many people suffer “solitude deprivation.” Psychologists have been studying individuals born after 1995 because they make up the first group of people who have lived their entire lives in a world of “persistent connectivity.” Newport cites psychology professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University who  found that compared to preceding population cohorts, the teenagers of 2012 showed higher rates of depression and suicide and a large spike in anxiety disorders. Twenge traces this trend to their constant phone and social media use. She believes this has alienated them from their own emotions and values, and kept the social mechanisms of their brains in constant use.

Seeking solitude, Newport suggests, doesn’t require pursuing a hermit-like existence separate from the rest of civilization. He cites Lead Yourself First authors Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin who define solitude as simply giving your mind a vacation from the “input of other minds.” By this definition, the authors point out, you could find solitude easily in the midst of a crowd. On the other hand, a remote cabin might feel overcrowded with input from other minds if it has an internet connection. When you experience solitude, Newport says, you change from a mode of reacting to others to a mode in which you give yourself time for extended contemplation of your own thoughts.

“The Practice of Conversation”

Newport describes how, over millennia, the human brain evolved into a highly sophisticated instrument for analyzing social behavior. It can decipher the subtlest cues that transmit through the body, the face, and the pitch or timbre of the voice. For the brain, a face-to-face interaction offers a feast of verbal and nonverbal information.

Communication via social media or text messages, Newport asserts, is an information-poor interaction because it’s limited purely to the verbal. Restricting your interactions with other people to digital connections has the effect of starving your brain of the nuanced social information it craves. As a result, Newport maintains, people can feel deprived of social interaction even when they’re constantly connecting on social media. To compound this effect, heavy social media use leaves you with less time for face-to-face interactions. Frequently interrupting your in-person interactions to compulsively check social media can degrade the quality of your real-world socializing.

If you want to pursue the types of relationships your brain craves, Newport suggests considering MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s distinction between “conversation” and “connection.” In her model, conversation refers to information-rich encounters, while connection is what occurs in online interactions. A conversation can take place via technological means, but only if the medium can convey the nuanced cues of real-life interactions. Video chats and voice phone calls provide at least some of those nonverbal cues.

Conversation, professor Turkle explains, is the only type of interaction that is significant in cultivating and maintaining relationships. Technologies that eliminate nonverbal information from conversation – social media, email, text, instant messages – are merely connection mechanisms. Digital minimalists use these technologies primarily to schedule real-life interactions.

“The Practice of High-Quality Leisure”

To avoid longing for a quick fix of digital media, Newport recommends cultivating high-quality leisure. This means finding activities that stimulate your mind, develop your skills and exercise your creativity. Instead of killing time with passive pursuits – such as playing video games or watching sports on TV – minimalists devote the bulk of their leisure time to hands-on pursuits such as home improvement projects, gardening, playing a musical instrument, painting or woodworking. Certain digital pursuits can qualify as high-quality leisure if they are active, such as writing computer code. Newport says that the crucial element is applying your skills to produce something rather than merely acting as a receptacle for entertainment.

He suggests another ingredient in high-quality leisure: activities that support “rich social interactions.” These are pastimes you do in person with others. Look for activities that offer a structure that fosters interaction, such as playing non-video games, or participating in team sports or group fitness workouts. You can also join clubs and associations that focus on subjects that interest you.

“How to Select Your Tools”

When your 30-day digital-declutter period ends, Newport says you should begin determining which technologies you will allow back into your life. He advises selecting only the devices, apps or websites that support the real-life activities you’ve learned you value the most. For instance, you might decide that Twitter offers a good way to participate in a “grass roots movement” or to track emerging trends in your profession. Go a step further, and decide if Twitter is the best tool for these goals or if a better analog alternative exists.

For each tool that you admit back into your life, Newport urges you to devise an “operating procedure.” Decide the parameters and constraints you will impose on your use of this tool. For instance, one digital minimalist decided Facebook was the best tool for organizing the activities of a student organization she helped start. She lessened its time-wasting potential by limiting her friend list to the key people she interacts with as part of launching the organization. Other constraints might involve deciding not to put social apps on your mobile device or scheduling one time each week to check on your friends via social media.

A New Manifesto

In some ways, professor Newport’s call to action and to a return to human interaction seems almost late in arriving. In other ways, it seems perfectly timed. As generations reckon with the pyschological and social cost of vesting deeply in social media, methods for breaking its stranglehold have begun to appear. Professor Newport’s is among the most stringent. Newport is not a Luddite, but he advocates for the joy and nourishment of a more pastoral and less technological life. He doesn’t not fully explore what this might mean for those who work remotely or those whose careers depend on connectedness. But his assertiveness repeatedly makes the crucial unspoken point that you can keep social media from dominating your life. As social media addiction seems increasingly inevitable, this is a worthy message and Newport delivers it with heartfelt conviction.