'Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World' (Book Review)

©. Cal Newport

Author Cal Newport argues that it's time to make hard decisions about our digital lives and embrace a 'philosophy of technology use.'

Four days ago, I deactivated Instagram and Facebook. It's a radical step that, a week ago, I never would have dreamed of taking. In fact, I would've laughed at anyone who made such an absurd suggestion and gone back to scrolling through my friends' Insta stories. But that was before I knew who Cal Newport was and before I'd been profoundly moved by the first few chapters of his book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Portfolio/Penguin, 2019).

In this highly readable book, Newport acknowledges the struggles that so many people have with achieving balance in their social media use. Rather than blaming themselves for lack of self-control, he points out that humans are ill-equipped to fight back:

"Vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape – the addictiveness of their design and the strength of the cultural pressures supporting them are too strong for an ad hoc approach to succeed."

Instead, Newport proposes embracing a philosophy of technology use that is "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 philosophy he proposes is called digital minimalism and it is founded in the belief that less is more when it comes to new digital tools.

The book is divided in two parts, the first of which is an explanation of the philosophy, an examination of the forces at play that are making digital tools so irresistible to people, and an argument for how unplugging will actually improve relationships. The second is a toolbox of practical suggestions for how to regain control over digital habits and which lifestyle changes are conducive to this.

Cal Newport headshot

© Cal Newport – The author, who is also an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University

While the book is packed with fascinating facts, examples, and ideas, Newport makes two points that I've been thinking about ever since I read them. First, he argues for the necessity of a 30-day 'digital declutter', when you go off all optional social media for a month in order to "wean yourself from the cycles of addiction that many digital tools can install." His argument is so convincing that I immediately started my own 30-day declutter.

During that decluttering period, however, a person must aggressively pursue analog, high-quality leisure activities in order to fill the inevitable void. This leads to the second point that fascinated me – the importance, and even necessity, of humans to use their hands to feel profound meaning in life.

"Why you use craft to leave the virtual world of the screen and instead begin to work in more complex ways with the physical world around you, you're living truer to your primal potential. Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate in other (dare I say) less hands-on activities."

Newport goes on to cite philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford who suggests that the urge to post photos to Instagram is a "digital cry for attention" in the absence of tangible accomplishments, such as "a well-built wood bench or applause at a musical performance."

Relationships, hobbies, and general quality of life will improve as we cease to fill the quiet, empty moments of our lives with mindless scrolling and begin to question the actual benefits that these social platforms offer us. For example, would you not be better off meeting a friend for coffee once a month or calling a relative for a half-hour each week than spending that time observing their posted photos and clicking 'like' as a means of staying in touch?

Meanwhile, I am still in the early days of my own digital declutter and, while the idea is to reintroduce the social media platforms at the end of the month in such a way that I control them, rather than the other way around, I am already surprised at how little I miss them. I am just as surprised at how often I reach for my phone for no reason other than to scroll, and then have to redirect myself.

If your phone usage, Netflix habit, or Twitter addiction has ever caused you concern, then you should read this book. It's written precisely and engagingly, with Newport briefly recapping his points at the end of each chapter and offering lists of takeaway practices or lessons. But be forewarned – you might just find it so inspiring that, like me, you'll do the impossible and hit that 'deactivate' button.