Serious reading for a meaningful digital relationship.
Reviewed in the United States on 7 February 2019
The reading is compelling, instructional, and practical. I couldn’t put Digital Minimalism down, and ended up "consuming” it in only 4 sits. Because of that, I feel compelled to share a review before you make any commitment.
Let me divide this review into 3 parts. First I'll share reasons why I chose to read the book and some personal takeaways. Next, a summary of the book including short excerpts I highlighted while taking notes. Last, I'll suggest a few complementary readings.
I probably pre-ordered this book because I’ve been intrigued by how the overused of modern technologies—specially social networks and social media—have influenced our societies during the last 10 years. This latest wave is actually recent, and being in my early 30s I still remember clearly how life was during high school and early days in college before this explosion.
We all acknowledge the wonders of technology, how the development of new tools has helped the prosperity of our societies in many dimensions. However, the opposite is equally important—consequences that deserve to be understood and evaluated. Besides the social, emotional and psychological aspects, which are the main focus of Digital Minimalism, I also care about the impacts on our physical health caused by technology overexposure. Not only how the devices shape our physical posture for worst over the years but also the detrimental effects of electromagnetic fields to our overall health.
That said, I’ve been trying to be mindful about technology use during the last 4-5 years. I still have social network accounts, but I feel quite odd among my peers because I’ve been checking these accounts less often than ever—about once a month—but I rarely post pictures or comments. It brings a deep sense of freedom and calmness. In terms of smartphone use, I keep it on airplane mode for around 80% of the awake time, and I often try to go on adventures up in the mountains to be away from signal access for days or weeks at a time. This desire to be unreachable has grown over time and, although it makes me feel grounded and present, I admit that can be quite selfish of me towards loved ones.
Reading this book helped me better understand the forces behind addictive technologies, exposed me to pragmatic ideas to implement the minimalism philosophy, and supported my previous thoughts on how we can better handle digital overexposure.
[Intro] Digital minimalism, according to Cal Newport, is a philosophy where we focus our online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that support the things we value. We learn how the author got interested in the topic after receiving feedbacks from his previous book.
[Chapter 1] Cal starts with a refresher—bringing back to the early and “potentially innocent" days of Facebook and the iPhone—then, he soon shows how these new technologies took the lead by dictating how we behave and how we feel by pushing us to overuse their products for as long as possible. Interesting story about how NYU professor Adam Alter shifted his research topic after getting “trapped” for 6 uninterrupted hours playing a game on his phone during a cross-country flight. Cal then explains 2 of the main forces used by technology companies to encourage behavior addiction:  Intermittent positive reinforcement.  The drive for social approval.
[Chapter 2] Here is a primer on digital minimalism. We learn that "to reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.” Cal explains why digital minimalism works through 3 principles:  The first principle argues that, when we clutter our time and attention with many apps, social networks, and services, we create an overall negative cost compared to the benefits of each individual item in isolation. I was absolutely delighted to read his arguments by sharing Henry Thoreau’s decision to live for two years in a cabin near the Walden Pond. Thoreau's book, Walden, has actually impacted my life tremendously when I first read as a freshmen in college.  The second principle says that besides choosing a technology that supports our values, we should also think how we should use them to extract full benefits—optimizing, therefore, the returns. Here Cal shows how “the law of diminishing returns” can be directly correlated with potential negative effects when technology usage surpass the benefits they can generate.  The last principle shows that being more intentional about how we engage with new technologies is one way to become sincerely satisfied. For that, the author illustrates the Amish's approach toward technology: “they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to their values.”
[Chapter 3] In this chapter Cal shares a system for digital decluttering by transforming our relationship with technology. He encourages us to apply a rapid transformation: “something that occurs in a short period of time and is executed with enough conviction that the results are likely to stick.” He divides the process in 3 steps:  The first one is to establish which ones of the new “optional” technologies we can step away from without creating major problems in either our professional or personal life.  The second step is to take the leap and give ourselves a 30-day break while we rediscover the activities that generate real satisfaction without being attached to our devices.  The final step is the reintroduction, building it from the scratch, following the principles previously explained in chapter 2 by choosing carefully the apps/tools and using them with a deeper sense of purpose.
[Chapter 4] This is most probably my favorite chapter, where we learn the value of solitude. Cal starts by sharing an interesting story of President Lincoln’s decision to reside in a cottage during months at time, communicating back and forth to the White House on horseback. The author then shares the benefits of solitude such as being a prerequisite for original and creative thoughts, as well as a deeper appreciation for interpersonal connections when they occur. He then shifts gears toward the impacts of solitude depravation, showing, for example, that the rise in anxiety-related problems among students coincide with the use of smartphones and social media. At the end of the chapter we learn 3 practices to foster more solitude moments in our daily lives:  To leave our phones and devices at home.  To go on long walks.  To spend time journaling.
[Chapter 5] Now we jump to a chapter rich in social psychology lessons. We first learn how our brains evolved to desire social interactions, but differently than the rich face-to-face encounters, during the last decade or so we have been bombarded by digital communication tools, encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks. At the end Cal offers practices to develop meaningful “conversation-centric communication.” They range from avoiding clicking the “like” button all the way to holding more meaningful conversations during office hours.
[Chapter 6] Now we jump to an empowering chapter. We learn to cultivate high-quality leisure time at the same time we declutter the low-quality digital distractions from our lives. They both, in fact, work together in order to create a more purposeful habit. This chapter is filled with real life examples of successful stories where helpful lessons are drawn at the end of each example. Like in the previous chapters, Cal doesn’t share only examples, but also practical ways to adopt his claims. My favorite suggestion is about scheduling in advance the time we'll be spending on low-quality leisure.
[Chapter 7] The final chapter is about building a more resistant mindset to avoid the power of the attention economy—which is “business sector that makes money gathering consumers' attention and then repacking and selling it to advertisers." Practices are provided when further discipline is required to avoid exploitation:  Delete social media from our phone to remove the ability to access them at any time. If we're going to use social medial, we should access them through a web browser.  Turn our devices into purposeful tools, diminishing the number of things they enable us to do. In Cal's own words “I’m not talking about occasionally blocking some sites when working on a particularly hard project. I want you instead to think about these services as being blocked by default, and made available to you on an intentional schedule.”  To use social media like a social media professional does.  To embrace the slow media consumption by maximizing the quality of what we consume.  Making the hard choice to switch from smartphone to a “dumb” phone.
Well, it doesn’t matter where in the spectrum we fall as long as we vow to move the needle towards a more meaningful and intentional technology use, diminishing our “natural” tendency to become dependent on digital devices. While reading Digital Minimalism I thought about book titles that could complement the content.
 Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, is definitely the one that comes to mind first. It helped me focus on less but more important tasks, giving clarity to what matters most.
 Originals, by Adam Grant, helped me see the world of creativity through a different angle by being more true to who I'm.
 Atomic Habits, by James Clear, has already influenced me to build better and more meaningful habits during the last 3 months. It can be an extremely helpful source to apply the lessons suggested in Chapter 6.
 Last, if you'd like to learn a bit more about electromagnetic fields and how we can minimize the dangers, look no further than The Non-Tinfoil Guide to EMFs, by Nicolas Pineault.
Take good care,
586 people found this helpful