Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport | Arata Academy Summary 23
Do you feel tired? Anxious? Lacking focus? No patience to talk to the people in front of you for more than a few minutes without looking at your mobile phone? Have you been sleeping badly? Do you feel like there is a huge list of things to do and that you will never be able to do it all? You probably answered yes to many of these questions. How do I know that? It is very simple. These problems do not just affect you, they affect the entire society that has access to the internet and smartphones.
And the companies that create game and social media apps are especially to blame. All the functions on these apps are purposely designed to get you addicted and to get you to spend as much time as possible scrolling. Notifications that have a pleasant sound, feeds filled with interesting pictures and viral videos are the ones that get your attention the most. The “stories” that disappear the next day make sure you want to watch them before they are gone forever. This is the engineering of addiction.
The tobacco industry was already doing this decades ago, using chemical engineering to find the most addictive dose of nicotine to hijack your lungs. The more addicted you were to smoking cigarettes, the better. Nowadays, the tech industry also uses engineering to acquire and retain the most users for as long as possible. Specific features were added to make the apps extremely addictive to hijack your time, your attention and your soul.
That is why you need to protect yourself from digital addiction. You will learn how to do that in today’s Arata Academy Summary. In a practical way, we will explain the ideas from “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” [source: https://arata.se/book-dm], a book written by Cal Newport. Digital tools get you hooked on purpose.
Instead of using the tools, you are used by them. It is increasingly common to hear people say they are exhausted by the amount of content, notifications and other things that keep stealing our focus all the time, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. These apps use features that have been specifically designed so that you are always looking at your screen, always checking your phone, with that constant feeling that you might be missing out on something important. Do you wake up looking at your phone and go to bed with it by your side? You should know that it was not always like this. Both phones and apps were created for very different purposes than they have today. Mobile phones were created so people could make phone calls.
Facebook emerged as a website for university students, so they could know more about the lives of others. Even when the first iPhone was released in 2007, Apple described it as “the best iPod we have ever made”. In other words, those who have been using these tools since the beginning did not intend to become addicted to staring at their screens all the time.
However, gradually the business model in the digital industry changed, and it continues to change to this day. In the past, the predominant model was software sales, where people paid to unlock and install different programs, such as operational systems, text editors and spreadsheets. It was a time when only a few people could afford computers, so there were also few people who could afford to pay for software licensing (it was common to pay five hundred dollars or more for a program license, which came in a sealed box with several installation floppy disks or CDs). However, with the popularisation of technology, everyone has a smartphone and wants access to apps, but does not have enough money to pay for licensing. Therefore, companies have observed this and offer many different types of apps for free or at very low cost, but seek to profit by showing advertisements to users. Have you ever stopped to think about how you pay for free apps like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? You don't pay with money, but with your data and your attention.
That is why it is said that today we are in the age of the attention economy. Today, the big tech companies are basically trading data to whoever wants to buy your attention. Social media, apps, games, messaging and emails. All of that is being monitored to learn more about you, your usage patterns and your behaviour. Then, it is all sold to companies who want to advertise products or services or just simply change your behaviour to their standards.
Therefore, the more data generated, the better. This has led to a twisted arms race: tech companies created gimmicks such as the like button, amount of followers and other inventions that appeal to our need for social approval. These inventions are addictive, they mess with our brains in a dangerous way that even experts have not figured out yet. Digital Minimalism is a way of using only the good side of technology. Enjoy what's essential and cut out the rest.
To defend yourself against the strategies of big tech companies that want to keep us staring at a screen for as long as possible, you should try digital minimalism. Minimalism began as an art movement with a style that seeks to use only the essentials to convey the emotion that the artist wants to transmit. When there is too much, it is difficult to find and focus on what really matters. Therefore, “less is more”.
When there is less in front of you, it is much easier to focus. The idea that less is more eventually spread to other areas, such as minimalist product design. For the past few years, minimalism has also gained popularity as a lifestyle. People who seek to detach themselves from consumerism and live more simply adopt minimalism as their way of life. The idea of digital minimalism is to bring the “less is more” philosophy to technology.
Do not confuse minimalism with being averse to technology! It is not about abandoning your computer and going back to using a typewriter. On the contrary, the goal is to use the best that technology can offer us without getting addicted to the products from big tech companies. It is not enough to use quick solutions such as turn off notifications and uninstall a few apps.
Just silencing notifications will not stop your brain from wondering if you are missing out on something interesting. The purpose of digital minimalism is to make you reflect before you even start using technology, by asking yourself: does this website, app or service really contribute to the things that I value most in life in a way that no other thing does? The logic behind this question is to optimise the use of technology to maximise the things that you value most in life while wasting less of your time, energy and attention. What you eliminate should be decided according to your personal values and not a list made by other people. I always read all the comments you leave here and the ones you send by email using the contact form at https://arata.se/contact - obviously it is not me who answers everything directly because we have a Team to make everything more efficient.
But I read everything because that is how I understand your main requests and research the topics I believe can help in each situation. When I read the messages, there is one type of compliment that makes me particularly happy. It is a compliment that Arata Academy works differently. That it’s not more of the same. And especially that I do not keep imposing rules. For example, I personally do not use social media on a day to day basis because I am simply not interested.
I have never created an account on Periscope, Snapchat or Clubhouse for example, even at times when people would only talk about those social networks. However, I do not impose this as a rule and I fully respect your choice to use it in case it is valuable to you. You need to know yourself. You need to know what your values are. You are the only person capable of making conscious choices about what is best for you.
Each person is different and you need to reflect to put the digital minimalism ideas into practice. And please be very careful when you find motivational speakers who keep telling you to uninstall all of your social media accounts in order to be more focused at work. Is this really your case? Only you can answer that. When you reflect on digital minimalism, you may conclude that a social network contributes to the things you value most in life in a way that nothing else does.
In that case, keeping that social network is essential to you according to your personal values. This makes it clear that before you even think about deleting this or that app, you need to be very clear on your biggest personal values at the moment. This ordered list of things that you value most in life is one of the most important self-knowledge exercises you can do.
If you want to know more about how to make your own list of personal values, check out episode 122 of the Hello! Seiiti Arata series [https://arata.se/hello122]. Once you are clear about your values, you will be able to weigh the costs and benefits of using each website, app or service that you normally use. If the benefits are essential, greater than the costs, you can continue using it.
Otherwise, the best path is to stop using it. If you are in doubt, treat everything as an experiment. You can stop using a website or an app for a while, thirty days for example, and then see if your life has improved. Did you have more time to chat, read, exercise? Did you feel more focused at work? Were you less anxious? If you consider that these benefits are greater than what you are losing by not using that app anymore, then continue on without using it. Otherwise, start using it again. And remember that nothing is permanent.
In order to do this digital decluttering, analyse one by one all of the websites, apps and services that you normally use. For each of them, do the proposed reflection. Start by the ones that take up more time and attention and work your way down to the ones you use the least.
Digital Minimalism has 3 principles: Clutter is costly, optimisation is important and intentional use is satisfactory. When you evaluate whether something is worth it, you need to take into consideration not only the price, but also what having that item will cost you in your lifetime. This is called the opportunity cost.
What other things could you do instead? For example, if you buy a car, you cannot only take into consideration the price of the car, insurance and fuel. You also need to consider the time, effort and stress generated just by having to drive and maintain that car. Do all these costs add up to more than the benefit of having your own car? The answer to that depends on each individual person. The same logic should be used for each website, app or service that you decide to use. Signing up for everything, just because it is free or just because other people are using it, can cause clutter in your life.
And that clutter is costly. Also, when you are not mindful about what services you use, you end up missing out on the benefits of each one. In economics this is known as Law of Diminishing Returns, which says that if the quantity of one good increases and the quantity of other goods remains constant, total output per good will go DOWN and will not increase. For example, if you want to stay informed, you can follow one or two news sites. But that does not mean that the more news sites you follow, the more informed you will be.
What happens is the complete opposite: if you try to read too many news sites, you will end up with less information than if you only follow one or two. The reason is that if you read too many sources, there will be a lot of repetition. Therefore, you have wasted time that could have been used for more useful activities. In other words, there is no automatic improvement just by adding items. Learn to select less for more quality.
That is optimising the use of technology. Select websites, apps and services that work in synergy, with one enhancing the other. In the same way that clutter is costly, optimisation is important.
Ultimately, you need to intentionally use technology to achieve the satisfaction you desire. Think of intentional use as the opposite of distracted use. We often use technology in a distracted manner: we pull out our phone and we scroll through the infinite feed in social media, check the news headlines or text in group chats… A practical way to find out if you are addicted to the app is when someone asks what you are doing specifically. If the answer is something along the lines of “I’m just browsing” it is likely that there is no clear intention in using the app.
There is no conscious focus. Instead, try getting clarity on why you are using that app at that moment. Do you really want to see the news, the messages, social media? Why do you want to see it at that moment? Could it be that you are just distracting yourself and procrastinating from the work you should actually be doing? There is nothing wrong in distracting yourself, as long as you do it intentionally. The problem is when you are watching the news telling yourself that it is to keep yourself informed, when your intention is actually something else. When action and intention do not match, you can never get the satisfaction you seek.
It is subtle but this dissatisfaction builds up throughout the day and you always find yourself frustrated, anxious or unhappy. You can fight all this if you adopt the three principles of digital minimalism that you just learned: clutter is costly, optimisation is important and intentional use is satisfactory. Try 30 days without technology. Then reintroduce only what is essential. Cal Newport proposes a 30-day experiment away from technology as the best way to get you started in digital minimalism. You can use this period to interrupt the way you use technology and reset it at the end of the thirty days, reintroducing only essential websites, apps and services.
During the experiment, you should cut out all non-essential use of technology from your life. What is essential or not depends on each person. For example, if you use social networks for work, you cannot stay away from it for thirty days.
But be honest about what is actually essential to your life. Anything that is not absolutely essential to your life and work should be put aside for the next thirty days. Streaming videos and tv shows, YouTube, social media, chat groups, games, news sites… imagine staying away from all that for the next month.
One thousand six hundred volunteers took part in this challenge. For most of them, the beginning was really difficult. Just like any addiction, they felt withdrawal symptoms. But after a few days they had lost the habit of taking their phones out all the time. They stopped confusing necessity and convenience and they started using all that extra time and newfound attention, to do activities they had not done for a long time. One way to take advantage of this extra time is to reflect about your inner self and try to identify what is actually important for your life.
This way you can see which activities can fill the void left by the overuse of technology. At the end of the thirty days, you should not automatically go back to your old habits. In fact, what you should actually do is carefully reintroduce only the websites, apps and services that are proven to be essential to you, the ones you cannot work without. The ones that do you more good than harm. Especially those that help you take care of your personal values. To identify these essential tools, you need to ask yourself three questions, in this order: Does this technology help me with something I actually value? If the answer is no, avoid reintroducing that technology into your life.
If the answer is yes, ask yourself the second question: Is this technology the best way to take care of that personal value of mine? If the answer is no, find out what is the best tool for this. If the answer is yes, move on to the last question: How can I use this tool in a way that maximises the benefit and minimises the harm? I will give you a very clear example. Imagine you are a woodworker who highly values knowledge and you have gone thirty days without YouTube.
Now, you are wondering whether or not to reintroduce this tool into your life. To decide, you ask yourself if YouTube helps you gain the knowledge you value most. The answer is yes, so you move on to the second question: is this the best way to take care of that personal value? Do you really think and conclude that YouTube is currently the best place to find videos about woodworking? That can help you, in practice, to get more knowledge about your profession. With that, you move on to the third question about how you can use YouTube in a way that maximises the benefit and minimises the harm. For example, you can get a premium subscription to YouTube and therefore avoid being bombarded with adverts.
You can use extensions that hide comments and video recommendations. You can automatically limit your usage time so you do not spend too much time passively learning and too little time actively practising what you have learned. Quick solutions will not solve the problem, but they may help in the withdrawal period. There are many quick solutions, life hacks and other tricks to minimise technology usage. These solutions usually do not solve the problem because they do not tackle the root of the problem, which is our uncontrolled and unoptimised use of technology without knowing our intentions.
This does not mean that quick fixes should be left aside. They actually help you use technology less often. Some of them are well known: turning off notifications, leaving your phone on airplane mode when you want to concentrate or using devices that only do one function. But digital minimalism proposes other unknown hacks.
The first of these is to value solitude and silence, two things that technology has put to disuse. If you are around twenty years old, you have probably never experienced a time to really be alone and silent, away not only from other people, but also away from screens. Cal Newport recommends that you leave your phone at home and go for a walk alone. Use this time to think, look at the view, and observe what is happening around you.
Great thinkers used to do this exercise in the olden days, it helps the brain to come up with new ideas. Another solution is for you to never use the like button again. Our brain has evolved for thousands of years to express itself deeply and make complex social connections.
When we use the like button or leave a simplistic comment like "cool!", we are under utilising our brain and weakening our social connections. We pretend we do this to keep in touch with friends and family, but this is false. It prevents us from actually getting in touch with them to talk, hang out and have other real human interactions. The more elaborate your communication, the better. An elaborate comment is better than a like.
An email is much better. Calling the person, even better. Meeting in person to hang out and chat when possible is ideal.
In addition, try to arrange time for quality leisure activities on a daily basis. This should involve real physical activities with three-dimensional objects. This does not include activities such as watching movies, video chatting or playing games. It is ideal to make time in your schedule for these activities, otherwise other life demands and even laziness will prevent you from having this time.
Be part of the resistance. Use all necessary means and join forces in defence of attention. Digital minimalism is part of a global movement known as Attention Resistance [https://www.attention-resistance.com/]. Considering that most big tech companies today are part of the attention economy, this movement seeks to resist the transformation of our attention into a commodity.
You can choose to be part of the majority and waste your life looking at screens, or you can choose to be part of the resistance and intentionally remove yourself from the attention economy. At first the idea of using as little technology as possible may seem weird. Over time you may realise the benefits of getting your attention, your focus and your time back. Think of all the things you could do with more time, more focus and more energy. How would you evolve in your profession? How much more money would you make if you worked better? How much more quality time would you spend with friends and family? Would you be able to fulfill old dreams like getting in shape, reading more books or even learning a hobby? I know it may seem unthinkable to live these days without social media. But remember that nothing is definitive.
You can do the thirty-day experiment, reintroduce what is essential and test how you prefer to live your life: having your attention commercialised by big companies or adopting digital minimalism to use new technologies in an intentional and satisfying way. Digital Minimalism is a lifestyle that encourages reducing the use of technology and using only the essential. What is essential is up to each person, but the principles behind Digital Minimalism remind us that clutter is costly, that optimisation is important and that only the intentional use of technology brings true satisfaction. If you have taken an interest in the subject, do a thirty-day experiment away from technology. Then reintroduce only the websites, apps and services that are really essential to your life. In terms of attention and focus, this will bring huge gains to your day to day life.
By the way, if you suffer from lack of focus and concentration, I invite you to get to know the Focus course right now. In this quick course from Arata Academy, you will discover how to eliminate the lack of focus and increase your concentration. You can get to know the course by checking the link http://arata.se/focuscourse