Digital Minimalism Review

Posted on Sun 04 August 2019 in Book Reviews

Recently I picked up Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. It was a great read, but I want to talk about some things that I took from this book. Below are some takeaways I had for this book. As he mentions about writing on pg 125, “it’s the act of writing itself that already yields the bulk of the benefits.”

  1. I thought Newport made a fascinating point on a well-developed leisure life

… You’re more likely to succeed in reducing the role of digital tools in your life if you cultivate high-quality alternatives to the easy distraction they provide. For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.

Moreover, it’s true! I think about how many people don’t relax with purpose. They get home from work, sit in front of the tv without making an active choice. For me, this helped solidify the idea that I always want to be making an active choice. If I’m relaxing, that’s fine, but it has to be with a purpose. (pg 71)

  1. Additionally, I loved his point on finding solitude through walking. He has a bunch of great quotes (Nietzsche’s “Only thoughts reached by walking have value” is particularly fantastic), but overall showing how people don’t spend time by themselves. By being able to be alone with your thoughts, it’s productive to getting the good work done. Also, it’s an excellent form of exercise! (pg 117)

  2. I also thought that his point on not liking things on Instagram was super smart. He mentions how humans take that as a stand-in for actual friendship; I thought it was an exceptional point. Instead of calling your friends, you like their pictures and call it a day. I often find that friends engage in friendship likes - if you’re my friend, you’re going to love this regardless. (pg 153)

  3. To combat this exact reaction to people feeling like they’re disturbing you, he mentions the idea of having “office hours.” One VC, in particular, has let his family know that they can call him when he is driving home ~5:30 pm. I’m a big fan of this idea, as well as extending it to having your home. If you always chill on a Saturday, why not let your friends know? (pg 161)

  4. One other thing that Newport mentions (starting on page 179) is the idea of doing leisure in the physical space. By keeping it hands-on, it lets you avoid the lack of realness that’s present in the virtual world, common in the knowledge work industry. He has a great quote from Matthew Crawford, Ph.D. regarding the unique satisfaction of physical spaces

They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on…”

There’s a lack of clarity that comes with building something invisible; the woodworker points to the table he made, while the coder can only point to Sublime Text and a well-organized directory. While modern knowledge work will never go away (we can’t all be woodworkers, can we?) having a hobby that builds something physical is a nice touch indeed.

Newport goes on:

In a culture where screens replace craft, Crawford argues, people lose the outlet for self-worth established through unambiguous demonstrations of skill. One way to understand the exploding popularity of social media platforms in recent years is that they offer a substitute source of aggrandizement. In the absence of a well-built wood bench… you can instead post a photo of your latest visit to a hip restaurant hoping for likes… Craft allows an escape for this shallowness and provides a deeper source of pride.

It is a great section; while somewhat trite (arguing photos don’t matter is not a hill I’d like to die on), I think the broader point stands. Having a physical leisure activity and building things is ultimately what makes us human, and what we’re missing in this new digital age. (pg 180 on)

Overall, I found it a great read in 2019. I wouldn’t consider myself particularly dependent on my phone, but more often than not, I find myself mindlessly scrolling Instagram. I’m going to take the lessons in this book to heart and be more purposeful in how I spend my time.