Practicing minimalism with your possessions has been a trend for the past decade, and it can be a worthy practice, as long as you use it as a means to greater efficacy outside your personal domain, rather than just an end in itself.
But there’s arguably a minimalism practice that’s even more effective in achieving that greater efficacy: digital minimalism.
My guest has written the definitive guide to the philosophy and tactics behind digital minimalism. His name is Cal Newport and this is his third visit to the AoM Podcast. We’ve had him on the show previously to discuss his books So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. Today, we discuss his latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
We begin our conversation discussing why digital tech feels so addicting, why Steve Jobs didn’t originally intend for the iPhone to become something we check all the time, and why the common tips for reducing your smartphone use don’t work and you need to implement more nuclear solutions instead. We then discuss the surprising lesson the Amish can teach you about being intentional about technology, how cleaning up your digital life is like decluttering your house, and why he recommends a 30-day tech fast to evaluate what tech you want to let back into your life. Cal then makes an argument for why you should see social media like training wheels for navigating the web, how to take those wheels off, and why you should own your own domain address. We end our conversation exploring what you should do in the free time you open up once your digital distractions are tamed, and the advanced techniques you can use to take the practice of digital minimalism to the next level.
I think you’ll find this a tremendously interesting and important show.
- The problems people are having with their smartphone and social media habits
- How connecting online isn’t the same as connecting in “real” life
- Steve Jobs original vision for the iPhone
- When, why, and how did apps become so irresistible?
- Why the “like” button has changed the entire ecosystem of the internet (and why to stop!)
- How your brain reacts to social media feedback (and how it’s been hijacked)
- Why modest tips and “hacks” for curbing our phone use don’t work all that well
- Why Cal advocates for a bigger fix
- Cal’s 3 principles of “digital minimalism”
- What Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond can teach us about clutter (even of the digital variety)
- Why the costs of social media need to be weighed against their benefits
- Optimizing social media so that it works for you rather than against you
- What the Amish can teach us about adopting new technologies
- Decluttering your digital life
- What 30 days off of modern internet tech does for your life and brain
- Reintroducing social media into your life after decluttering
- Why you should keep strict rules regarding your social media and phone use
- The value of strenuous, active leisure time
- Advanced tactics for implementing digital minimalism
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Cal Newport’s website
- My first show with Cal about the myth of following your passion
- My second show with Cal about the value of deep work
- The Complete Guide to Breaking Your Smartphone Habit
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- Reclaiming Conversation
- Cal’s NY Times articles: “Steve Jobs Never Wanted Us to Use Our iPhones Like This“
- 5 Concrete Ways to Develop a Healthier Relationship With Your Smartphone
- My interview with Adam Alter about why modern devices and software are so addictive
- Tristan Harris
- Sean Parker Says Facebook Was Designed to Be Addictive
- Fighting FOMO: 4 Questions That Will Crush the Fear of Missing Out
- The Joy of Missing Out
- IndieWeb Movement
- 75+ Hobbies for Men
- Churchill on hobbies
- Why You Should Plan Your Weekends
- Why You Need a Reading Plan
- My interview with David Sax about the revenge of the analog
- My interview with Mr. Money Mustache
- The Strenuous Life
- Freedom app
- Light Phone
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Practicing minimalism with your possessions has been a trend for the past decade and it could be worthy practice as long as you use it as means to greater efficacy outside your personal domain rather than just an end in itself. There’s arguably a minimalism practice that’s even more effective in achieving that greater efficacy, digital minimalism.
My guest has written the definitive guide to the philosophy and tactics behind digital minimalism. His name is Cal Newport and this is his third visit to the AOM podcast. We’ve had him on the show previously to discuss his book, ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ and ‘Deep Work’. Today, we discuss his latest book, ‘Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life in a Noisy World’. We begin our conversation discussing why digital tech feels so addicting, why Steve Jobs didn’t originally intend for the iPhone to become something we check all the time, and why the common tips for reducing your smartphone use don’t work and why you need to implement more nuclear solutions instead.
We then discussed the surprising lessons the Amish can teach you about being intentional about technology, how cleaning up your digital life is like decluttering your house, and why he recommends a 30-day tech fast to evaluate what tech you want to let back into your life. Calvin makes an argument for why you should see social media like training wheels for navigating the web, how to take those wheels off, and why you should own your own domain address. We end the conversation exploring what you should do in the free time you open up once your digital distractions are tamed and the advanced techniques you could use to take the practice of digital minimalism to the next level.
I think you’ll find this a tremendously interesting and important show. After it’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/digitalminimalism.
Cal Newport, welcome back to the show.
Cal Newport: Brett, always a pleasure to be on.
Brett McKay: The last time we had you on was a few years ago to discuss your book, ‘Deep Work’. In that book, you made the case that the ability to do really hard, deep thinking for long periods of time is a competitive advantage in today’s world. You got a new book out, ‘Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World’. How is this book a continuation of your thinking in ‘Deep Work’?
Cal Newport: Well, one way to think about ‘Deep Work’ is that it was about some of the unexpected consequences of technology in people’s professional lives. We introduced these new technologies into the workplace and it ended up severely diminishing people’s ability to focus and this had all sort of consequences but also opened up interesting opportunities. I released that book and I was out on the road talking about it and one of the most common pieces of feedback I started getting was people saying, “Okay, maybe we buy your premise about what technology’s doing to our professional lives, but what about our personal lives?”
Arguably, it seemed like this was an even more urgent issue for a lot of people. That sometime, maybe the last two years or so, I really started to notice and they really started to notice a change. People had begun to shift from making self-deprecating jokes about how often they check their phones to starting to become actually worried, to actually thinking, “The digital things in my personal life are starting to actually substantially degrade the quality of my life and something has to change.”
I was hearing this shift, this increased urgency, this increased concern from my readers and so that really turned my attention pretty quickly to, “Okay, what’s going on here? How are these technologies affecting people’s personal lives?” More importantly, what’s really the right way to get out of a lot of these issues? That’s where these ideas came from.
Brett McKay: What were people saying that how technology was detrimental to their personal life?
Cal Newport: Well, one of the things I noticed in these conversations is that it was not about usefulness. If you take any one of these technologies that people use in their personal life and look at it in isolation, it’s not useless. They’ll be some value to it. There’s some reason to use it. It’s not like cigarette smoking or something where they just say, “There’s no value to this, I just wish I wasn’t doing it.”
The problem people were having was the cumulative impact of all of these things combined. They were finding that they were using their devices and looking at screens more than they knew was useful, more than they knew was healthy, often to the extent in which it was starting to significantly keep them away from things that they knew was more valuable, and it there was also this rising fear that they felt like things like how they felt or what they believed, their emotions, were being manipulated. That they’re starting to be manipulated in some weird, sort of obscure, algorithmic way into what they were thinking about and how they felt and what they were believing.
There’s was just this overall sense of creeping lack of autonomy. I’m losing out on things that are more important. I’m starting to get manipulated. This is shifting from, “Hey, isn’t this fun or funny how often we look at our phones,” to, “Uh-oh, something actually bad is going on here.”
Brett McKay: Right. I guess another issue that comes up too is that one of the things that technology can get in the way of your personal life is actually connecting with other people, like really connecting. I think you have a section there by the book like, “We’ve replaced conversation with connection. We think it’s the same, but it’s not.”
Cal Newport: Yeah, this was actually an interesting paradox you see in the research literature that if you spend time really trying to read a bunch of papers about, let’s say, social media and people’s well-being, you start to see that there’s these two parallel tracks. They’ll be these papers out there that say, “Social media use makes people happier.” Now, I should point out, almost every one of these papers has at least one Facebook data scientist on the list of co-authors. You have those papers, but then you have these other papers that are by very serious scientists, university scientists, that are saying, “Using more socials media’s making people more lonely and depressed and unhappy.”
So, what’s going on? How could both of these things be true? It turns out what seems to be happening is it’s not so much that the specific thing you do when you’re using a social media app makes you unhappy, it’s that the usage of these apps is keeping you away from real-world communication. It’s reducing the amount of time you spend doing old-fashioned conversation, talking to someone in person, spending time with someone, being on the phone with someone, actually hearing the subtle nuances of their voice, reading their body language, actually making some sort of real sacrifice of your time to actually spend time with someone.
This is a big problem. The reason why using more social media is making people feel more lonely is that it’s pushing out old-fashioned interaction. Old-fashioned interaction is something that we crave and we need and our brain more or less doesn’t accept the digital equivalent as a reasonable, comparable action. We think that we’re being very social because we’re clicking ‘like’ a lot and leaving comments on people’s social posts. Our brain, though, formed through hundreds of thousands of years of social evolution doesn’t think that’s socializing at all so it just feels lonely.
That’s how we get that paradox that you think you’re being really social because you’re on your phone all the time always swiping on things and tapping on things and hitting hearts and clicking little thumbs up, but our brain doesn’t see any of that as real socialization, so we end up actually more lonely than before.
Brett McKay: How did we get here? I thought that was really interesting how you talk about the history of how we got to this moment in 2018 where we’re communicating in memes, we show our connection with people with a thumbs up or pressing a heart. It’s interesting because back in the 2000s when the iPod came out, it seemed there really wasn’t an intention by Silicon Valley to create this new, social ecosystem. It sort of happened by happenstance in a lot of ways.
Cal Newport: It’s a lot more recent than many people think as well. Even when the iPhone came out, this was not at all the intention. I actually went back and talked to one of the original project leads on the iPhone, back when it was originally released to the public in 2007, and what he emphasized is that Steve Jobs’ vision, like with lots of Steve Jobs’ visions, was taking something that people already really valued and saying, “I can make the experience even better.”
The idea behind the original iPhone was two-fold. It’s going to be a better iPod than we’ve ever had before and two, the phone features are going to be better than other phones. The way this engineer said is Jobs said that this was supposed to be a phone that played songs. He just wanted to do those two things better and these were things that had long been established as things that people liked to do. People liked to listen to music, people liked to make phone calls. Jobs said, “I wanted to take these things that we love and make the experience better.”
If you actually go back and look at the original keynote address where Jobs introduces the iPhone, it’s not until about 30 minutes into it that he even starts really talking about the internet features or the communication features. The first 30 minutes are really focused on the iPod features and the phone features because that’s what he had in mind. There was no App Store when the iPhone was released. This engineer confirmed to me that Steve Jobs was very worried about the idea that you would let people’s third-party apps run on the phone. He didn’t want to sully the phone with third-party apps. It was supposed to be a very, very, good phone and a very, very, good music player.
Even as late as 2007, this idea that we would be constantly checking a screen didn’t exist. That was not on anyone’s radar screen. It wasn’t really until the large social media giants figured out how to make money from people looking at an iPod or iPhone screen that we really saw this drastic shift towards the world we see today in which people are just constantly engaging with technology.
Brett McKay: As I imagine, Facebook was the first company that really figured that out.
Cal Newport: Yeah, Facebook, they had an IPO pending. They weren’t making a ton of money off of their browser-based platform, so they said, “We have to get a lot more aggressive about trying to monetize our users.” That’s when they realized the shift to mobile would be the way to do it because people had their mobile phones with them all the time. They could get, in theory, a lot more engagement, which they needed because if you’re using it more, they get more data about you. If you’re using it more, that’s more time to show you ads.
The key was how can we get people to take Steve Jobs’ beautiful phone and iPod out of their pocket 85 times a day and click on our app and look at it. The realized, “Okay, what we’re going to have to do is actually engineer in moderate behavioral addiction into our service.” That’s where you start to see these apps really take off with features that were created mainly to exploit psychological vulnerabilities in its users to try to get people to obsessively and compulsively check this so that they could create the revenue numbers that originally Facebook needed to show investors for its IPO to be a success.
It really was Facebook, which is why anyone who was an early user of Facebook, has this split experience where they have an old memory of Facebook being something they would sometimes log onto on their computer and check on some things and then they have this new memory of them obsessively and compulsively using it. What happened in between there is that Facebook figured out, “Okay, we can attention-engineer this thing to be compulsive, and we’ll make a lot more money.” Then, once they had that idea, everyone else sort of jumped on the bandwagon as well.
Brett McKay: What were some of these tactics that Facebook pioneered and other apps use now to keep people constantly checking their phone?
Cal Newport: Well, they really were interested in sort of social-related, psychological vulnerabilities. A lot of this, by the way, comes from in part the research of the NYU professor, Adam Alter, who’s really looked into the psychological hooks, but also from Tristan Harris, who is a former Google engineer who became a whistleblower and started writing about, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. This is what’s happening at these various attention companies.”
What was revealed through this whistleblower researchers like Tristan and Adam is that hijacking the social apparatus in your brain is a good way to get people to keep looking back. One thing they’ll do, for example, is they introduced a lot more social approval indicators into these apps. A social approval indicator is some way that someone else can indicate to you that they thought about you or were thinking about you. The original structure of social media didn’t have a lot of this, it was more you would post things and then people could see it. So, here’s a baby picture and people could see the baby picture.
When they added things like the ‘like’ button, there was a reason for that because now, the ‘like’ button meant that’s a lot more social approval indicators. It’s very easy for people to indicate to you that they were thinking about you. They added more and more of these things. Tens of millions of dollars were invested, for example, to figure out how to do the facial recognition required to do auto-tagging on photos so that when you take an Instagram photo, it can say, “Hey, our algorithms looked at this photo, and we think this person in the photo is so and so. This is Brett, do you want to tag him? Click a button to say yes.”
Why did they spend so much money to solve that really, really hard computer science vision problem is because it was another stream of social approval indicators. They’re always looking for ways that people can easily indicate that they were thinking about you because human psychology says if clicking on this app might reveal new social approval indicators, it’s almost impossibly irresistible to do so. That if I click on this app, I might see an indication that someone was thinking about me. That’s very, very, hard to resist.
Once they added those social approval indicators, usage minutes of the app skyrocketed because now, instead of it being something you signed on to once a day to see what was going on, you had a constant reason to keep checking. Maybe there’s a new indicator. Maybe there’s a new indicator. Then, you add onto that intermittent reinforcement. Sometimes when you click, there is nothing, and sometimes there is. Now, you’re becoming sort of almost impossible to avoid. Intermittent reinforcement is something that Las Vegas casino gambling has taken a lot of advantage of in the design of their games like slot machines.
You put those types of things together, which are all engineered. This didn’t exist in the original social media. It’s not necessary for a social media experience to be what it is. All of that makes clicking on these apps really, really difficult to avoid.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we had Adam Alter on the podcast a while back ago and one of the things, the tactics he talked about that Instagram uses with that intermittent reinforcement is that sometimes when you check, there’s no likes. But, they’ll build them up so when you check again, you have 20 likes. Even though someone was probably liking it already when you checked the first time, they don’t show you that right away because seeing that there’s 20 hearts is a lot more like, “Oh, man, I want to check again the next time.”
Cal Newport: Yeah, and it’s important to emphasize that we think about liking is what you do on social media, but it’s really, really arbitrary and it really was not in the original design of social media. It was not there in Web 2.0. This notion of liking things is entirely invented and spread to make the app irresistible. We’re so used to it now like, “Well, that’s what you do on social media,” but actually, if you just step back and are objective, that’s kind of weird. Clicking on this thing and it just sends a one-bit. It just has a little counter of how many people clicked this thing. Why is that there? Objectively speaking, it’s kind of weird, but it made these companies billions of dollars.
Brett McKay: The other thing it gives these companies is information about you that they can then sell more targeted ads at you.
Cal Newport: Exactly. What are you clicking on? What are you not? What do you like? What do you don’t like? We can feed that all into machine learning algorithms, digest you, to use Jaron Lanier’s term, into essentially a gadget that can then be put into our ad-making machinery.
Brett McKay: Besides these other whistleblowers that you mentioned, even Shawn Parker, who is the president of Facebook in the early days, he even came out and said, “Yeah, we designed this thing to keep you coming back again and again and again so we could make more money.”
Cal Newport: Yeah. There’s a lot of this going on. I spoke on a panel recently with Roger McNamee who was one of the original mentors of Mark Zuckerberg, who brought Sheryl Sandberg onto Facebook. He wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post saying, “I wish I hadn’t mentored Mark Zuckerberg,” even though the company probably made him a lot of money. There’s a lot of this going on where people are having second thoughts about what they’ve wrought.
Brett McKay: Yeah, as we can see, this could cause a lot of anxiety and angst in people ’cause you’re constantly checking things for social approval and if you don’t get it, well, then you feel terrible about yourself because someone didn’t arbitrarily like something for whatever reason. It causes you to post another thing hoping that someone will like that thing. It becomes this weird arms race with yourself to get these digital status boosts.
Cal Newport: Yeah, it’s playing with fire too because the social aspects of our brain are incredibly powerful. There’s a massive amount of our neural processing goes towards social processing because it’s such a big part of our species’ survival is being able to cooperate and work together in social groups. Our brain really, really cares about these things so it’s very dangerous to start toying with it. Our brain knows nothing about digital technology or social media. You bring these apps that are born out of incubators in Northern California by 20-year-olds in hooded sweatshirts or whatever, you bring these apps and put them into your world and they start manipulating and messing around with the social circuitry of your brain, it can cause a lot of problems because that’s a very sensitive and powerful portion of the brain.
Just like when in the 20th century we were able to refine really pure chemicals. We figured out how to do the chemistry of this. It created drugs that our brains couldn’t handle because it was hijacking very sensitive, powerful parts of our brains once we could have purified opioids or these types of things, so we’re really playing with fire. You start messing around with something as fundamental as our drive to be social and you start messing around with that in a completely novel context like a digital screen and doing so for purposes of whatever manipulation, there could be a lot of really big consequences. It’s a really a dangerous thing to mess around with.
Brett McKay: Yeah, one consequence, we had another guest a few years ago, a psychologist talking about social status and things. One of the research that came out that suggest that whenever you get a status boost, serotonin, I guess, increases whenever you feel a sense of status, parts of your prefrontal cortex basically shut down. You think less. You think less critically because you’d rather have the serotonin boost then do the right thing.
He suggested that this might be why some people just post crazy stuff that they probably … If they just took a step back and think, they wouldn’t have posted it, but they did it because they knew it would give them some sort of status boost. They post some sort of outrageous thing that will get lots of engagement and likes and comments and things like that.
Cal Newport: Yeah, well, you certainly see that on Twitter, for example. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, very active, sort of well-known, blue-check-verified, Twitter-style users who will tell the story that there’s this weird drive towards extreme versions of whatever you believe. That’s probably the underlying mechanism going on is that your serotonin system is being hijacked by these little visual retweet and heart counts. I want more. I want more. I want more.
You look up three days later, and you’re like, “Wow, this is whatever. I’m completely trashing this person or saying I’m going to come after your kids or have some really extreme version of my view or say if you don’t agree with this you’re Hitler or something.” It pushes you so quickly to extreme places because, again, these systems are very, very powerful. You start messing around with them, you’re going to have consequences.
Brett McKay: This is why you’re starting to see people take a step back and say, “I’m not liking how social media is affecting my personal life. I don’t feel like a good person when I’m on social media.”
Cal Newport: Yeah, so you get those two things. One is I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I don’t like the way I act. I don’t like how I express myself on it. Then, you add to that just the more general thing is, I don’t like how much I’m using this. I’m here trying to give a bath to my kid and I can’t help but look at my phone. The kid wants my attention. You know that it’s much more important to be paying attention to your kid in the moment and yet you’re still looking at the phone. There’s are the types of things that I think have led people in the last couple years to say there’s got to be a better way.
Brett McKay: All right, so there’s the problem. Let’s talk about the solution. For a lot of people who want to concentrate more and be less distracted and have social media have less of an influence on their life, you argue that they typically resort to modest hacks and tips to reduce the amount of time they spend on social media. What are some examples of those? Then, the follow-up question to that is why don’t you think those are enough?
Cal Newport: This is certainly been the initial response to people recognizing that this is a problem, has been hacks and tips. You’ve probably heard a lot of these like turn off notifications. Turn off the notifications on the phone, you’ll be a lot better. Or, take a digital Shabbat. Have a day each week in which you don’t use your technology. That will help. Or, try to find something you do each day where you don’t bring your phone with you, some sort of assorted tips and tricks.
These aren’t working. It’s not working. It’s completely underestimating the scope of the problem. The appeal, the irresistibility of what’s in your pocket on this phone, the social pressures, the cultural pressures are so strong that just a handful of these tips and tricks is not going to create the reform in what your everyday life is like that you’re looking for. I think a really good analogy is health and fitness. We saw in the second half of the 20th century a big rise of the processed food industry in the West, especially in America. We had all this processed food that was not healthy for us and so, of course, we saw obesity went up, diabetes went up, heart disease went up, there’s a lot of negative health consequences.
What we discovered is that simple common sense tips like, “Hey, you should move more or try to eat healthier,” didn’t work. This wasn’t taking people who were having huge problems with obesity or diabetes or something and suddenly they’d be really healthy. It was too small given the powerful appeal of these foods, the cultural pressure to go to fast food. What did end up working, think about anyone you know who’s really healthy, almost certainly they have some sort of strong, aggressive named philosophy, lifestyle philosophy that they live by.
Maybe they’re vegan or they’re paleo or they’re a CrossFit fanatic or whatever it is, but they have a really strong, internally-consistent philosophy about how to live and it’s built on clear values and has its own internal logic. Only that is really strong enough for them to resist all these urges. Almost certainly, that’s what we need in the digital space is people have to treat this problem more seriously and instead of just tips and tricks, have actually a strong philosophy for this is how I manage my digital life.
Brett McKay: All right, so your philosophy is digital minimalism. What is that philosophy?
Cal Newport: Digital minimalism says that you should essentially wipe the slate clean of all these different things that are pulling at your attention in your digital life. Wipe the slate clean. Ask what is really important to me? What are the things in my life that really matter, the things I want to spend time on? Then, for each of those say, “Okay, what’s the best way to use technology to support these things?” Let the answer to that question be the technologies you let back into your personal life.
You’re essentially decluttering all of the junk out of your digital life and starting from scratch and very intentionally and carefully putting back in a few digital behaviors that give you huge wins, huge benefits. It’s very intentional and it’s very selective. It’s a lifestyle that you know what technology you’re using, why you’re using it. You’re almost certainly going to be looking at screens much, much less than most of the people you know, all the while still getting huge benefits from a lot of these new innovations.
Brett McKay: Let’s dig into these three principles a little bit more. The first principle is, clutter is costly. I loved how you talked about how Thoreau and his experiment at Walden Pond can highlight or give us insights about the cost of digital clutter. Can you talk about that a bit?
Cal Newport: Yeah, it’s an important point because, in any sort of minimalism movement, the objection that people worry about is that the things they’re saying ‘no’ to seem like they have some value. So, maybe they’re leaving value on the floor. It’s very worrisome. This idea that you just focused on, a small number of really important things to the exclusion of everything else, people get very worried about, “Well, what about all the little bits of value? Wouldn’t I be better off doing the important things and adding these other sources of value as well?”
The core idea behind why minimalism works is that actually, the clutter itself of having too many things in your life has such a big cost that you’re better off not having all those small things. This was essentially what Thoreau was trying to explore when he went to Walden Pond. I’m a big fan of Thoreau. I’ve been studying him for years. Walden often incorrectly characterized as a nature book. It’s an environmentalist book, that it’s about nature and the importance of nature.
It’s actually mainly making a pretty aggressive and interesting economic argument. What Thoreau what trying to figure out is how much do I actually need to satisfy my basic needs of a human? How much money do I need? That’s why he went out to Walden and kept very careful tabulations of exactly how much he spent on the nails he used to make his cabin, the food that he had to buy and consume. He kept track of all of this and then he figured out, “Okay, at my skill level and the going labor rate, how much would I have to work to support these basic things?” He figured out it was about one day a week.
He was figuring out this baseline of, “Okay, it takes about one day a week of labor to support my basic needs.” The reason he was out there observing nature was to try to indicate that hey, once your basic needs are met, you can actually have a pretty interesting life as long as you’re willing to, like he is, stare at ice for an hour and look at his different properties. Then, he makes this really big argument about where people get pushed awry when thinking about bringing stuff into their life like I want a nicer cart. He talks about, “I want a nicer copper pot.” The farmer that mortgages more land so they could make a little bit more money to get a cart or something like this.
He says, “They only think in terms of what’s the value I’m going to get from this new thing, but they don’t think about what am I going to have to give up in terms of my life in order to acquire this thing.” His experiment was, “Okay, it only takes a day of my life to meet my basic necessities, so everything else I’m giving up time I don’t have to give up. So, what’s actually worth giving up time of my life for?” His basic calculation is that most of the stuff that most of the farmers he knew around him in Concord, Massachusetts were toiling so hard to afford, was not worth the amount of their time and life that they had to sacrifice to get it.
His clever example was getting a wagon for taking your produce to the market. His calculus was, “Okay, taking the wagon instead of walking to the market might save you an hour because it’s faster, but if you actually do the math, it’s costing you about three or four hours of extra work a week to afford it.” Actually, you’re way worse off. You’ve lost a lot more time trying to support this wagon than if you didn’t have it at all. So, the way that he thinks about things where you say you can’t just think about what’s the value I’m going to get from having this thing or using this thing, but you also have to say, “What’s the price I’m paying in terms of my life force into exchange to get this thing?” You have to put both of those things into the equation.
That’s what’s happening with a lot of these digital behaviors. Yeah, they all bring you some benefits, but they also are bringing you harm. They’re taking your time and attention away from other things that could be more valuable. They’re fragmenting your time and day so you get less satisfaction of other things. There is actually a really big cost to this clutter that’s hidden behind this sort of topline headlines about isn’t this a nice little benefit you get from having this app.
Brett McKay: Right, what this principle is, think about the opportunity costs with your attention and your life force, if we can call it that.
Cal Newport: Yeah, he was sort of the original person that really emphasized these opportunity costs really matter. Don’t ignore them.
Brett McKay: Going on to that, the second principle is understanding the importance of diminishing returns. At a certain point, your social media use or whatever, it has some benefit, but at a certain point, you don’t get any more out. In fact, it starts going down.
Cal Newport: Yeah, this is another key point to minimalism, which is that you don’t just ask the binary question, do I use this service or do I don’t? You also ask the more specific question, how do I use this service and why? Minimalists are always trying to optimize. How do I get the biggest ROI on the time required to use this thing? A lot of people in the digital space don’t do this. They’ll have some reason to use Facebook.
Let’s say there’s a community group that’s important to them and this group organizes using a Facebook group. Then, they’ll allow that justification to then be the reason that they’re on their phone on Facebook two hours a day. ‘Cause it was just a binary question of, do you use Facebook or not? A minimalist says, “No, no, no. You have to optimize. If you optimize how you use these things, you get much, much bigger bang for your buck.”
The minimalist might say, “They only thing I want to do on Facebook is check on this Facebook group for this community organization I care about. How am I going to do that? Wednesday and Sunday night, on a desktop, not on my phone. It takes 20 minutes. I have a big complicated password that’s on a Post-it, so it’s kind of a bit of a pain to do. Now, I’m getting most of the benefit that I need out of Facebook and it has a minimal footprint on my life.” Optimization of how you use the things you choose to use is almost as important as just the binary decision of what’s on your phone and what’s not.
Brett McKay: That leads to principle three which is to be intentional. I love the example of the Amish, how the Amish can teach us how to be intentional with our technology. Because often times we think the Amish are just complete Luddites. They don’t incorporate any technology, but that’s not true.
Cal Newport: Yeah, the Amish are an interesting case study. People do incorrectly think that they just froze their technology maybe in the late 18th century or something like this and it’s not true. The way the Amish actually function is that they have a really core principle, which is the community matters above all else. The strength of their community matters about all else. So, when new technologies come along, they go through a decision making process. Is this going to make our community stronger or is it going to make our community weaker?
If it’s going to make it stronger, then we can adopt it, and if it’s not, we’re not. Often the way they’ll do this is they’ll test it. They’ll essentially the Amish equivalent of an alpha geek use it. Great. Here’s a cell phone came along. Use a cell phone for a while. Let’s watch it. Let’s see what happens. Here’s a car. Great. Someone buy a car. Let’s watch. Does this make things better or worse in terms of the thing we really care about which is community strength?
That’s why if you study actual old-order Amish communities, you see all sort of interesting technologies. You’ll see diesel engines and solar panels and really complicated fertilizer systems. You’ll see disposable diapers for sure. All this is really modern stuff, but you won’t see phones in people’s houses, automobiles, or connection to the electric grid. What’s going on is their evaluating what strengthens our community and what weakens it. Disposable diapers are really great and they don’t weaken the community so, of course, we’re going to use those. But, having a phone in the house, maybe then I’m not going to actually go visit my neighbors. I could call you on the phone and it could weaken the community, so maybe we don’t want that.
The automobile, they’re really worried about because then people can leave the community and go other places and it really hurts the community cohesion, so they’re really against automobiles. But, tractors, they’re fine. Often times, they’ll take the pneumatic wheels off the tractors so that it’s fine to drive through the fields but it would be difficult to use as a car. They do this really complicated calculus.
There’s a lot of inconveniences to the Amish because they don’t use a lot of things that are convenient like the electric grid or cars. But, somewhat surprisingly if not bafflingly, this order has existed for 300 years. It’s not like they’re in isolation in North Korea somewhere where they don’t know there’s a better way. They’re riding their buggies next to McDonald’s in Lancaster. They all spend at least a year living in the normal world during Rumspringa. It’s not like they’ve been hidden from the real world, but this community has persisted.
My argument is that this is in part because the positive power of being very intentional about what you do in your life, so in their case, really trying to support their community, can really far outweigh the conveniences you lose by making those intentional decisions. The Amish have introduced lots of inconveniences into their life by being wary about a lot of modern technologies, but they persist in part because of the value they get out of being really intentional about how they live their life.
This is a big reason more generally of why minimalism is powerful is when you’re very intentional about what you want to do in your life and you focus your technology only on these small number of things, it’s true that you’re probably missing out on a lot of little things that could be convenient, but my argument is that’s okay. Because the positive return you’re going to get by being so in control and intentional about your life is going to far outweigh the inconvenience of not having whatever latest app might have been useful in the moment.
Brett McKay: All right, let’s recap that. Basically, digital minimalism is being intentional about your digital technology use, thinking about the opportunity costs that come with having digital clutter, thinking about the return on investment you get from using these things, and then setting some rules for yourself and following those rules and being happy even if you miss out on some stuff because you don’t use social media as much as other people.
Cal Newport: Yeah. I’ve never had a social media account. I’m sure there’s any number of little things that you could list like, well, you don’t get this benefit and you miss this benefit, but as a true digital minimalist, I don’t care about missing out on those little things because I’m much more interested investing more time in the things that I already know for sure are really important to me. That if you want to look at the net happiness and satisfaction you have in your life, investing in the things that you already know give you huge returns is almost always going to be the better strategy then instead dissipating that energy around a lot of things that give you small returns. The big return things dominate.
I would say the quick summary on how you operationalize these digital minimalist ideas is you really want to think about it like you’re decluttering a house. You clear all of the stuff out of you’re digital, personal life. We’re talking about your personal life. Work is a different thing. You clear all the optional technology out of your personal life, and you start from scratch and say, “Okay, if you want to make it back onto my phone or onto my computer or onto the regular rotation of things that I check on my web browser, you’ve got to make a really strong case. There has to be a really strong case that you’re very important for something I really value.”
When you do this decluttering process, you are almost certainly going to end up with much, much less things in your digital life and you’re almost certainly going to actually be getting more value out of the technology in your life than before. It’s this interesting paradox. You’ll be looking at screens much, much less, but you’ll be getting much more value out of the time you do spend with your devices.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about that declutter. Brass tack advice, one thing you talk about in the book is you start off with the 30-day technology break, and you basically just say, as you said, clear all the stuff off your phone. What do you think the 30 days staying away from it before you start reintroducing does to make this process, I don’t know, more seamless or just make it work better?
Cal Newport: Well, you need two things that the 30 days give you. The first is a detoxing process. In my experience, and, again, I’ve run about 1,600 people plus through this process so far, it takes about one to two weeks just for your mind to detoxify enough that it doesn’t have this strong craving for … Especially the more engineered addictive services you spend time with. You want your mind to actually get a detox experience.
Then, you have a couple more weeks to actually spend time exploring and rediscovering what it is that you really value. This is worth serious thought, this sort of rediscovery of, okay, when I’m not just looking at my phone and my tablet all evening, what do I really do like to do? What really is important? I really encourage people to take this 30 days, not just as a detox process, but also a period of discovery to return to the type of analog activities. To use a terminology that’s relevant to your audience, the type of traditionally manly activities that people used to spend their leisure time with, and rediscover and re-experience what’s valuable, what you really like, what really gives you satisfaction.
When it then comes time to do the reintroduction, you know what matters. You know, okay, this doesn’t matter. This doesn’t matter. Oh, I can use this tool in a way that’s really going to make a difference. You need some time to actually rediscover what it’s like to live a real meaningful life.
Brett McKay: Yeah, one of the things I noticed when I’ve taken extended breaks from social media is that when I do come back to it, I realize I just don’t like this. Because I think when you’re doing it all the time you think, “Okay, it’s just habit and it’s something you do,” but then you take a break and you come back and you realize, boy, this is really dumb.
Cal Newport: Yeah.
Brett McKay: You just go away from it again.
Cal Newport: Yeah, there’s a lot of arbitrariness that you kind of miss out on when you’re using it all the time. You’re like, “Oh, this is just what people do.” Then, you step away from it. You turn around and you’re right, it looks really weird. This is a common experience with digital minimalists is because they look at their screens so much less than most people, everyone around them thinks they’re weird, but then the digital minimalist always have this Matrix-type moment where they look around and they’re like, “Wait a second, what other people are doing is incredibly weird. I’m not the weird one that I’m sitting here reading a book. I think the weird one is that everyone around me is looking at this little thing and tapping at it with their finger.” The digital minimalists are not the weird ones. I think it’s the rest of the culture that’s kind of gone into the unusual territory with their behavior.
Brett McKay: You take the 30-day break. How do you go about reintroducing the digital services so that you don’t go back into your old ways?
Cal Newport: A good way to think about it is, don’t even use the term break. Think of it as a decluttering. If you really want to clean out your house, the way you think about it is not, “All right, I’m going to take everything, all this junk out of my house and then after 30 days, I’ll put it all back in.” You’re not taking a break from your junk. You’re getting it out of your house. Then, after those 30 days, when you find that, oh, I’m really missing whatever, my potato peeler. Let me go get that out of storage and bring that back in my kitchen.
It’s sort of the same thing with a digital declutter. You’re decluttering all the stuff out of your life and then you can step back and see what do I really miss? Where am I finding, hey, not having this thing in my life is really having a big negative consequence? It’s keeping me from something that’s really important or diminishing the benefit I’m getting from something that’s really important. As you discover these real needs for the things you’ve taken away, then you can reintroduce that particular thing back.
When you do, the key advice is don’t just bring it back, put some rules in place. All right, here is how and why I’m going to use this thing. It’s just like the classic minimalist house decluttering trick. You pack up the whole house and then you only bring back the things that you realize you need. When most people do that, they find that 90% of their possessions they actually didn’t need. That should be the same experience you have when you do this with your digital life as well.
Brett McKay: Let’s get to those rules. What are some examples of rules that you apply whenever you bring a digital service back into your life?
Cal Newport: You should think about when and how I’m going to use it and for what purpose? On what occasions or on what timing am I going to use this and when I use it, what am I going to do with it? Let me be clear about what’s the underlying reason. A lot of digital minimalists that I’ve worked with have particular needs to use particular social media platforms. Almost always when they apply these rules, they’re not using it on their phone. They almost always determine that it’s much better to have it on their computer. If it’s on their phone, they’re going to use it for other reasons. They usually have a schedule on which they’re going to use it.
Another thing you see when people do these when and how and why type rules is that it changes their behavior. I’ve met several artists for example who get an important, professional, creative inspiration from Instagram. That, at the moment, I guess in the art community, it’s a place that a lot of people share works in progress or things they’re working on and creative inspiration’s very important if you’re an artist. A lot of artists that become digital minimalists, for example, will say, “Okay, that’s important to me. Creating art and being inspired is important. This is a source of inspiration that technology has brought into the life that wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
They realize that maybe the way they’re using Instagram before is that in addition to these artists, they’re following lots of people in comedy and they were looking at it 90 minutes a day. They might, when they’re looking at the when and how, they might say, “Okay, I’m going to be very restrictive about who I follow.” That’s a common how rule, that I’m going to reduce who I follow down to the 10 artists who are most inspiring to me at the moment. Then, the when rule might be every evening after dinner that’s when I look at this for 20 minutes.
It can mean different things, but basically, when I use it, how I use it and reiterating the reason why you’re using it. That’s the key when you realize you want to add one of these things back.
Brett McKay: One of the rules that you talk about that could seem like crazy for a lot of people because you’re just disrupting the way that social media works today is people should stop liking things on the internet.
Cal Newport: Yeah. Yeah, I recommend you don’t click ‘like’ and you don’t leave comments. It does seem kind of disruptive, but what’s going on here is it goes back to what we talked about earlier in the interview which is the notion that researchers are finding that that type of digital interaction really does not satisfy our human drive for sociality. One-bit indicators like, hey, someone clicked like, or peer text indicators like someone says, “Hey, great,” or, “Congratulations,” or, “I’m rooting for you,” or whatever. These don’t activate most of the social areas of our brain. They’re expecting instead a very rich analog stream of voice tone and modulation and body language, the type of things that we expect from social interactions.
We do not get a lot of social satisfaction out of these lightweight, social connection-type things. One of my strategies I advise to digital minimalists is consider changing your mindset so that you say from a social perspective, the primary purpose of things like social media or text messaging is logistical. It is here to help support an old-fashioned, analog social life.
Text messaging is very valuable because it could help me when I’m trying to meet my friend, “Hey. No, I’m over at this bar, not that bar,” or something. It’s helping facilitate an old-fashioned, analog social interaction. Social media in this context just may be useful because I can find out that, hey, this person I knew for a long time is going to be in town and now I can set up a get-together with this person. I wouldn’t have known they were going to be in town if I didn’t see them on social media but now I do. Seeing these tools as logistical. It’s to support my analog old-fashioned interactions and it’s not a substitute for those interactions is probably the healthier way to look at it.
Once you’ve stopped counting social media and text interactions as real interactions, you’ll realize that oh, I’m not really that social. When’s the last time I talked to someone? When’s the last time I was on the phone? When’s the last time that I was getting coffee with someone? You’ll feel that urge to actually get out there and do the things that really satisfy our human drive for sociology. When I say don’t click ‘like’, what I mean is change your perspective. These digital connection tools, think about them as logistical things that makes it easier for you to do the same type of old-fashioned, face-to-face, or voice interaction that for centuries has been at the core of our drive for human interaction.
Brett McKay: How do you explain that to friends and family? Because that’s the weird thing about social media. There’s this weird etiquette that’s developed. Well, if I like your stuff, you’ve got to like my stuff. If you don’t like it, then that signals some sort of rift in our relationship.
Cal Newport: You just tell them, I don’t use social media much anymore. If you think about it, you usually know some people that are like that. There’s probably a couple Cal Newports in your life who aren’t on social media or they are but they really haven’t used it in a while. Basically, you step away from that particular attention marketplace. It’s a little bit more difficult with text messaging. This is what I’ve found. This is the feedback I’ve been getting. When people really expect you to respond, with text messages, it could be a little bit harder, but basically, you essentially teach people I often don’t have my phone with me, so I’m not always able to respond right away. People just learn and they adjust and then, they’re usually more or less okay with it. Sometimes people get frustrated.
The biggest thing you lost when you step away from thinking about social media as actually counting as social interaction is that you are going to lose probably some weak-tie social friendships that were maintained exclusively through social media interaction, but I think that’s fine. Actually, as human beings, this idea that we need to maintain well above the Dunbar number of weak-tie social interactions with people we barely know or knew a long time ago, there’s no actual evidence that that’s important for us thriving as humans or feeling socially connected or valued. Yes, you will lose those when you step away from social media as an actual means to socialize with people, but I don’t think there’s any actual loss to the strength of your social life or your happiness by doing so.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. The other upside to stop liking things on the internet, the social media companies know less about you is another benefit. Also, I think you had an article about this not too long ago about how social media encourages really crappy stuff on the internet because it’s all based on vanity metrics and not really on quality. Maybe if you stop liking crappy stuff because everyone else is liking it, you will start getting better stuff on the internet.
Cal Newport: Yeah, I definitely think that’s true. More generally, I think there’s a, not to get technical, but there’s an important distinction to make here that I’ve been writing about quite a bit recently, which is there’s a difference between the social internet and social media. The social internet is just the idea that you can use the internet to connect with people, express yourself, and discover interesting information. This is an incredibly powerful, paradigm-shifting innovation that we got along with consumer access to the internet in the 1990s, in particular, the rise of the world wide web and the associated protocols among other things.
The idea of the internet as a force for these types of things is very, very, powerful and I’m a huge booster of it. The thing that I’m less a fan of is this notion that we need to consolidate the social internet behind the walled gardens of these massive, private companies. That’s really where the problems start to happen. When you have massive companies like Facebook say, “Hey, look. You guys are too dumb to enjoy the social internet. It’s too complicated for you. We’ll make an easier-to-use version of it. We got to get everyone to sign on to our easier-to-use version of the internet, but we’ll give you a really clean interface.
“You don’t really have to go discover things, we’ll just kind of show you things. We’ll watch you and see what you like. You can just sit there like the people on the spaceship in that Pixar movie Wall-E. Just sit there and we’ll just kind of feed you things that will make you happy and you’ll like it. Don’t worry about it. The internet’s too difficult for you to actually go out there and engage with.” This movement of let’s take this social internet, which is wild and decentralized and wonderful and disruptive and something I love, and let’s consolidate it into a small number of private companies. That’s where all the problems are happening.
Almost everything that people are upset about with social media today is because we thought that the social internet has to exist on the private servers of two or three companies. I like the social internet. I don’t like social media. I think if you leave the walled garden of social media and go back out to the wild web, you can find interesting things. You can connect to interesting people. You could express yourself in interesting ways and you can do it in a way that’s just so much healthier because you don’t have these algorithmic forces trying to push you into weird extremes, or to pacify you, or to get you upset, or to get you mollified or whatever’s going on that’s necessary to get revenue up at these private companies.
When you go back out to the wild social internet, it’s such a better experience. This is why I’ve been a blogger for a long time. I think the blogosphere, though weirder and harder to navigate, is, for example, a much better repository of expression and information than say Facebook or Twitter is. This is definitely a movement I’ve been making is that Facebook wants us to think that it’s fundamental. I think it’s more like what AOL was in the 1990s. It was the world wide web with training wheels for people who didn’t know how web browsers work.
Facebook is just the social internet with training wheels for people who don’t want to actually take the time to go out there and explore actual websites and different protocols and more peer-to-peer-type stuff. I want to make that distinction clear because I don’t want it to seem like I’m curmudgeonly on these technologies. I just don’t like the idea of consolidating all this stuff into these big companies that really is the source of most of the problems.
Brett McKay: Maybe a digital minimalist rule would be delete your Facebook page, get a blog with your own domain name and start posting stuff there.
Cal Newport: Yeah. There’s this exciting movement out there. It’s called the Indie Web Movement. That’s basically what it’s saying. It’s like you need to own your own domain. Have your own domain. It’s a server that you’re renting from a local hosting company. You own it. You own all the content. Actually, what we’re seeing in the Indie Web Movement, which I think is kind of exciting, is that they’re saying the way that the social internet should work is that everyone has their own domain, they have their own information.
What people can offer, smaller companies can offer social frontends where you can point your feed towards one of these companies. Then, when you log into their interface, they can make it easier for you to find people and follow people or whatever, but the actual content is on people’s individual servers, on their own blogs. They own it. They can point it towards however many of these services they want. This idea that everyone has to be in the same service and that service has to own all of their things and own all their data, it’s just not necessary for there to be a vibrant, social web.
Brett McKay: Let’s go back to another tactic that you’ll have to implement as you do this declutter. You said earlier once you get rid of all this stuff on your phone, you’re going to realize you have a lot more free time on your hands. That’s a catch-22 because the reason why people go to their phones is because they’re bored and they have a lot of free time on their hands. What can people start doing to figure out what to do with their new found freedom or new free time now that they’re not checking their phone all the time?
Cal Newport: This is a really important point and something that really became clear especially as I worked with people who were going through this transition into minimalism, which is the notion that we have a human drive, among other things, for quality leisure, things that we do just for the sake of doing them. I go all the way back to Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics where he talks about this. As far back as then, he really talks about the importance of activity that’s pursued just for the activity’s sake, just for its intrinsic qualities.
We have this drive. You write a lot about this on Art of Manliness. You see there’s a reason why these old, manly hobbies of woodworking and being an expert at this or that, there’s a reason that resonates so much is because it’s quality activity. You’re mastering a skill for the sake of being good at something. We want that. We hunger for that and if we don’t have that in our life, we tend to feel a void. There’s a large void.
One of the problems with this sort of very recent, modern state of persistent digital distraction is that we can be distracted enough that you can paper over that void, just enough that it’s tolerable. You’re like, “Okay, I can avoid having to actually develop real manly qualities, skills, and pursuits, and hobbies in my life. If I can just look at my phone and my tablet enough, I can tolerate not having that thing that I really crave. The issue, as you point out, is that when you then rip the bandaid off, let’s say you do the 30-day digital declutter, it can be really unconformable and disconcerting because now you have to confront that void in your life of what do you do in your time outside of work.
If you haven’t taken the time to actually develop, high-quality leisure pursuits, you’re going to feel bad and you’re going to be adrift and you’re going to be sort of itchy and wanting to look at things. I often advise people, if you’re really, really into screens, you might want to take the time to develop these sort of old-fashioned, analog, high-quality leisure pursuits before you even attempt a digital declutter so that when you do rip these things out of your life, you have something waiting to fill that void.
Because I was surprised to the extent by which this was disconcerting to people when they tried to step away from their technology. They didn’t realize how much they were missing in their life by not actually having high-quality leisure and they were so thrilled to discover how much meaning it gave them once they actually put in the time to reintroduce it.
Brett McKay: Another thing I’ve noticed too is that when you use screens a lot, you often forget how to develop that high-quality leisure. That’s a skill that you develop ’cause it takes practice. When you stop using it you’re like, “Well, how do I get started? What do I do?” Because you haven’t exercised that skill in maybe years.
Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s why I get really instrumental in the book. It’s like, okay, let me give you some actual tactics. This is something that our grandfathers would think is crazy that we would even talk about this. What do you mean you need tactics for how to have high-quality leisure? What else would you do with your time if you weren’t building a canoe in your woodshed or what have you or running a big community organization, the Rotary Club or whatever? Yeah, we have to go back to tactics.
In the book, I get down to some basic things. I give out a plan about okay, use YouTube how-to videos and systematically work up the complexity of things that you’re fixing with your hands. It sounds almost trite, but it’s a huge mind shift. Just this notion of I’m going from my hands are basically used to manipulate digital screens to my hands manipulated something in the physical world. It didn’t work and now it does.
Your brain, it’s like fireworks go off once you do that. They’re like, “Yes! This is what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be confronting the world physically and changing the world in ways that’s positive. We’re supposed to be holding the piece of wood and feeling the grain. We’re supposed to be seeing the metal bend. We supposed to be confronting the world.” Our brains get really confused by all I’m looking at is glowing LEDs all day. This is not what I’m used to from our evolutionary history.
I also talk in the book about building leisure plans. Maybe this is just sort of hyper Cal Newportonian productivity stuff here, but some people need this. These are some leisure activities that I’m working on. This is what I’m working on each week. This is what I’m working on each day. Systematically building yourself a schedule of doing high-quality, analog leisure and building up what you’re comfortable with.
All of this is so important. It sounds like optional, superfluous, like well, whatever hobbies, but you need this. Especially if you’re going to go minimalist on your digital life, you need to go much more intentional on your analog life that replaces it. It can be pretty hard.
Brett McKay: Right, that system. That’s why we develop the Strenuous Life last year on the Art of Manliness. Just providing the structure for people. It’s like, “Well, I don’t know what to do.” It’s like, well, do these things.
Cal Newport: Yeah.
Brett McKay: They get going and it greases the wheels and they find a new hobby and they delve deeper into that. That’s been really cool to see.
Cal Newport: Yeah, I’m surprised that it’s been popular. I think what’s happening in the digital world is actually making the appeal of the analog world so much stronger. Again, in a way that would be completely mystifying to our grandfathers. Just the idea that you would do anything else with your leisure time of these types of activities would make no sense. You would have been doing it in every spare moment since you were four years old. For our generation or younger, it can be completely novel.
That’s why I think the Strenuous Life is a great … That program is great. It’s not about is it really important that you learn to do this particular thing. It’s, no, no, no. It’s the fact that you’re out there doing analog things have for the sake of doing them, just for the sake of mastery, just for the sake of adventure. It’s so important. I think this also, you would know better, but it explains, I think, a lot of the growing Renaissance in some of these virtuous, manliness movements like you’re a part of or why characters like Ron Swanson resonate so strongly with people even though he was supposed to be a comic character is because we miss these things and we feel it. We know that, I don’t know, just swiping at this tablet just doesn’t feel right.
My shoulders are hunched over and I’m in the back of the café and I’m swiping on this and clicking on emojis. Something about that just doesn’t feel like this is what … I’m a grown man, this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my time. It just doesn’t feel right. We know there’s something wrong here. When we get back to using our hands, engaging in our community, spending real quality time with our family, being an active dad for your kids, all of this type of stuff that resonates. We know in our gut it’s the right thing to do. We feel it and I think we’re feeling it stronger at the same time that the attention economy conglomerates are trying to distract us from it as hard as possible.
Brett McKay: I love that. Let’s talk about last minute, last thing. What are some next-level, advanced-level tactics in implementing digital minimalism? So far we’ve talked about, okay, you get rid of everything and you slowly introduce things that you’re actually going to use. You set rules for how you’re going to use those things. Let’s say someone’s like, “Man, I just … I’m tired of it.” What can they do to take this to the next level?
Cal Newport: The most hardcore digital minimalists, one of the things you’ll see is they don’t use smartphones. That’s actually a lot more common than you would think. I just read an article in the Guardian, so this came out around New Years, it was on the second or third of January, and the reporter, she’s a literary critic. She read the book and she’s like, “That’s it. I’m done with my smartphone.” She writes about how switching over to what they call feature phones, but basically, old-fashioned phones with buttons and you can’t touch the screen, how it’s really improved her life. She’s bored more and just present more and doesn’t feel that crushing weight.
That’s something you see a lot of. People will go away from their smartphones. You’ll also see people being pretty aggressive about taking their computers and transforming them back into more like single-tasking machines. They’ll use internet blocking software like Freedom very aggressively. Okay, I can’t access the web, for example, during this five-hour period or there’s only a two-hour period at night where I can even see social media. They really, really hamper down, really tamp down when they have access to things.
A lot of digital minimalists like me just leave social media altogether. They like the social internet, maybe they have a blog or maybe they say, “I don’t care. I have good friends that I see every week. I call my family on the phone and I’m part of a community group. I don’t need a computer screen to be social. Definitely the more extreme digital minimalists you see that. Finally, you see much more aggressive engagement in analog activity. Minimalists, once they get away from these things that are papering over that void I talk about, they extreme digital minimalists tend to become much more extreme in their analog activity.
You get Mr. Money Mustache-style, I’m out there renovating a building in my town or learning how to weld and building a rack for my truck, this type of stuff, really a lot of time doing really highly-skilled, analog-type activities. These are what the black belt minimalists, that’s the type of things you’ll see. No smartphone, really severely locked down computers, no social media, really big, almost old-fashioned, analog presence in their life.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s funny. The market’s responding to this. There’s Strenuous Life, you mentioned us. You mentioned Mr. Money Mustache. There’s all these analog things like communities, in-person stuff you can do now. Even the devices, there’s this new phone, the Light Phone 2.
Cal Newport: Yep.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s a phone. You can listen to music. You can text and do directions but that’s about it. There’s no social stuff, which I think is genius.
Cal Newport: Yeah, and there’s also phone tethering too. The original Light Phone before the Light Phone 2, the original idea there, I write about it a bit in the book, is you have your normal smartphone, but then you have this second really simple phone that’s like the size of your credit cards. People can call you and that’s about it. What you can do is basically put your phone into a mode where it all transfers to the Light Phone. Then, you can go out and say, “I have the Light Phone with me, so if there’s an emergency my wife can still reach me or whatever. I can call the police or something if my car’s stolen, but I don’t have any of the social stuff,” but you still have your real phone. What’s happening is things are getting forwarded to the Light Phone so you don’t have to keep two separate numbers.
That’s another thing that you see out there is this sort of tethering or just, in general, this notion … I really get into this in this book, this idea that you have to have your phone with you all the time, is really recent and really unnecessary. I do this a lot and this is a growing movement among people where they really change their relationship with their phone and they think, “There’s sometimes I need it for specific purposes, but it’s not by default.” It’s not, wallet, keys, phone. It’s wallet, keys, and sometimes phone. They’ll spend much more time without a phone at all. You’ll definitely see that as well. Yeah, so the market is responding for sure.
Brett McKay: Well, Cal, it’s been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?
Cal Newport: You can find the book anywhere books are sold. Also, my website, calnewport.com. I’ve been blogging there, a die-hard blogger for over a decade. If you’re just curious, maybe dipping your toe in these type of ideas, you can also probably spend a little bit of time there as well.
Brett McKay: And, you can subscribe to them via RSS feed, which I do.
Cal Newport: Which is awesome or old-fashioned emails. As I like to say, since I have no social media presence, if you have any complaints about the books or any diatribes you want to give or insults to me, I highly recommend that you share those, but you do so on social media.
Brett McKay: There you go. Well, Cal, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Cal Newport: Great, thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Cal Newport. He’s the author of the book Digital Minimalism. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check out his website calnewport.com and while you’re there, subscribe to his blog. It’s one of my favorite blogs. Been following it for years. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/digitalminimalism where you’ll find links to resources or you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. If you want to check out the Strenuous Life, Cal and I talked about it during the podcast, check out our strenuouslife.co. You can see what it’s all about, what we’re trying to do with it, what happens when you sign up. While you’re there, make sure you get your email on our waiting list for our next enrollment which will be around the end of March first of April. It’s the strenuouslife.co. Check it out.
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