He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
— FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
Maybe you hear a mischievous little voice in your head that whispers ‘jump!’ every time you walk across a bridge, or lean out over a balcony. In a similar way, I have recurring fantasies of shutting down my social media profiles, deleting this website, and generally trying to erase my presence from the Internet.
I’m uncomfortable sharing my life in public. I thought it would get easier over time, but it hasn’t. Social media in particular is losing its appeal. Snapchat is a distant memory. I hardly ever use Facebook. I do like Instagram, although I only post something once in a blue moon. This blog is at risk of becoming the last bastion.
And so, I need to read a book called Digital Minimalism like a depressed person needs a lecture on antinatalism.
Of course, I read it anyway. It’s not often that I’m excited enough about an upcoming book to mark the release date on my calendar, but Cal Newport is one of my favorite authors. His writing has had a major impact on me, especially Deep Work, so I asked him for an advance copy. I figured some of you would be interested, too.
Now the book is out publicly, and I’ve had enough time to digest it, I can report the following:
Digital Minimalism makes a solid case for cutting down on technological distractions and enjoying the benefits of an offline life. It contains detailed case studies, suggested strategies, an outline of a 30-day digital declutter, and all the careful caveats you might wish for. I was nodding my head like a metronome all the way through.
While it didn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor as Deep Work, I’m not sure if my experience is representative.
A lot of this stuff is already common knowledge, and I might be unusually obsessed with it. Everyone is at least vaguely aware that too much screen time can be harmful, that tech companies are competing to strip-mine our attention, and using all sorts of creepy tricks to do so. I’ve seen the interviews with Tristan Harris—the ex-Googler dubbed “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”—written about the various Facebook scandals, and coincidentally happened to be re-reading Thoreau, who features prominently throughout Cal’s book.
In short, Digital Minimalism is not only preaching to the choir; I’m standing in the front row furiously doing jazz hands. I could try to summarise the main points, but that wouldn’t be any fun. If you want detailed arguments, you can read the book.
Instead, I want to use this review as a jumping-off point to sketch out some broader stuff I’ve been thinking about lately: on tradeoffs, personal identity, and following through on good intentions.
A Parallel Universe in Which Twitter is Joyous and Wholesome
Digital connection has done great things for me. On balance, it’s a huge net positive—just like being alive is generally better than being dead. So I don’t pay any mind to the intrusive thoughts telling me to disappear off the grid, any more than I do the voice that whispers to me to jump off of tall things. I actually want to use social media more, and connect with more total strangers.
I recently came across some threads by people I trust arguing that Twitter was not in fact a deranged hellsite, but a wondrous place to workshop interesting ideas. I was skeptical, but intrigued. So I decided to create a list of folks who were using the platform in a particular way: no dunking, a minimum of hot takes, less relentless waging of the culture war. It took me a solid hour, and I ended up with a curated list of 70 people.
At the top of my pristine new feed, I saw a post from someone I admire very much, but had never thought to engage with directly. So I replied. Within seconds he hit me back, then posted one of my more obscure blog posts out to his half a million followers, which generated a wave of interesting and positive replies and interactions. I couldn’t have asked for a more instantaneous validation of the new strategy.
OK, now I’m too scared to ever tweet again, but the lesson is there. I want to spend time interacting with people who will make me better. I want to say ‘thank you’ more often, and not just to established Important People. I know how crucial it can be to receive a few words of encouragement at the right time. But it’s hard to do all that without extracting myself from the muck and the mire.
Beyond Good and Evil
As might be expected of a computer science professor, Cal Newport is no technology-hating luddite. One of the things I appreciate most about Digital Minimalism is the care he takes in unpicking the various tradeoffs involved.
For example: Facebook produced some studies demonstrating that social media is good. Other researchers find that it’s bad. Who’s right? Cal wades through the mess, and concludes that the value of any given tool depends entirely upon how we use it.
You might as well ask if a hammer is good or bad. It’s good if we use it for building treehouses; less good if we use it for bashing in the skulls of our enemies.
All these years, I was using Twitter straight out of the box. I’d never managed to get past the default setting (snark + tearing things down) to customise it in a way that aligned with my actual aspirational values (sincerity + building cool stuff). But that was because until recently, I didn’t really know this second set of values existed. It’s pretty hard to make deliberate tradeoffs if you don’t have anything to optimize for.
And so, when Cal signed up a bunch of his readers for a 30-day digital declutter experiment, lots of them didn’t fare so well:
[One] mistake was not planning what to replace these technologies with during the declutter period— leading to anxiety and boredom. Those who treated this experiment purely as a detox, where the goal was to simply take a break from their digital life before returning to business as usual, also struggled.
If you want to take steps to cut down on screen time and digital connection, the first question to ask is: what’s on the other side of the trade?
Gazing Into the Abyss
Nothing at all. Being alone with your thoughts. Cal calls it ‘solitude’. You can experience solitude in a crowded subway car, so long as you’re not plugged into anything. By the same token, being alone in a cabin in the woods is not ‘solitude’ if you spend every waking moment reading or engaging with some form of media.
Cal points out that our state of constant connectedness is very unusual by historical standards. As recently as the 1990s, there’d be all sorts of occasions throughout the day where you had nothing to do but twiddle your thumbs and think. It’s only when you don’t have any external inputs that the ‘default network’ part of your brain switches on.
So what happens when we’re alone with our thoughts, exactly?
[Social psychologist Matthew Lieberman] realized that this background hum of activity tends to focus on a small number of targets: thoughts about “other people, yourself, or both.” The default network, in other words, seems to be connected to social cognition.
Uh…that doesn’t sound good to me. I don’t think I want any more of that.
If ‘solitude’ involves long, rambling walks where you come up with brilliant insights about computer science or your next book project, fantastic. But I suspect that for many people, it looks more like endlessly ruminating on how Gary from marketing is a backstabbing son of a bitch, and fretting about the overdue payments on your credit card, and the persistent fear that everyone will find out you’re an impostor.
Eliminating the constant distractions of digital life only opens up another void. Stare into it long enough, and there’s no guarantee you’ll like whatever stares back.
What if you really are your own worst enemy? Spending more alone time in the company of the one person who drags you harder than anyone else on earth doesn’t seem like such a great idea. Maybe you’re genuinely better off mindlessly scrolling through puppy videos and dank memes, or arguing with strangers on the Internet.
Solitude isn’t inherently better than the digital connection it trades off against. It’s good if we use it for building mental treehouses; not so good if we use it for fantasising about bashing in the skulls of our enemies.
Gazing Into Your Navel
The ‘building mental treehouses’ kind of solitude includes things like meditation, journaling, CBT-style exercises, hiking in nature, and other forms of useful introspection.
Cal talks a lot about the benefits of writing in particular, which I am very much sold on. I am lucky because this practice is baked into my life already. Every day I wake up and gaze at a blank page that demands to be filled. This is the only way in which I’ve been able to figure out what I actually think about anything. I’m doing it right now!
I’ve written before about the benefits of self-authoring, and adding an evening journaling session has been helpful in working through personal issues.
Of course, there’s only so much time you can spend meditating, writing in your gratitude diary, and generally inspecting the contents of your own navel. If your digital declutter frees up several hours a day, that still leaves you with a whole lot of void to fill. What to do?
Other than the good-kind-of-solitude, the main options seem to be:
- Deep work
- Hobbies and crafts
- Real-life social interactions
Digital Minimalism makes a case for why each of these things is worth pursuing. I think they’re more-or-less self-evident; if you think otherwise, you can read Cal’s arguments.
But even if you know what’s good for you—and most people do—that’s not the same thing as actually acting upon those intentions.
Levels of Action
My own book project was originally going to be a hand-picked selection of my ~300 Sunday News columns, lightly edited and organised by topic area. I’m really glad I didn’t release that version. Most of the tips are on the most basic level of action: don’t buy expensive coffees, save for your retirement, etc. Everyone knows most of this stuff already.
If more information was the answer, as Derek Sivers put it, “we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs”. It’s putting it into practice that’s hard.
If you step away from the basic level, you can set up systems and meta-strategies that compound your daily efforts. This is the difference between having a vague desire to cut back on browsing Facebook, and using a tool like Freedom to block yourself from accessing it during certain hours.1
But that’s not good enough either, in the long run. You might have to get even more meta, and step up to the third level of action: Why am I doing this? What values am I trying to fulfil? Is this aligned with my sense of identity?
A reader recently recommended me a book that her husband had used to quit smoking (thanks K!). Honestly: it’s poorly-written and grates in various ways. But it works, where all the cute hacks and tricks so often fail.
The insight that the author stumbled upon is that you have to dramatically change your conception of who you are. Reading the reviews, the book seems to act as a mild form of self-hypnosis. You’re not ‘trying to quit’. That’s an admission of defeat, right out of the gates. You’re a non-smoker. Change your sense of identity, and it’s that much easier for everything else to fall into line.2
The only domains in which I’ve managed to achieve any mastery over myself—say, finances and fitness—are the ones in which it’s become a core part of my identity. I never have to force myself to exercise, or refrain from buying stuff, because it’s just part of who I am now. There’s no internal conflict.
I’m always striving to do better, but I don’t care about being a millionaire, or getting down to a certain body fat percentage. It’s enough to just live out my values, day by day. Instead of being fixated on an end result, I can enjoy the process. My only ambition is to eventually have no ambitions whatsoever.
In other domains of my life, this is absolutely not the case. My experience suggests that willpower and ‘grit’ and self-flagellation are wildly overrated. Instead of constantly fighting against yourself, you have to find some way to bring all three levels into alignment, so that your actions, environment, and values are pulling together in unison.
Shopping For a New Identity
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: it’s really cool that Cal wrote Digital Minimalism with a focus on the importance of starting with the ‘why’, rather than the ‘how’ or the ‘what’:
What all of us who struggle with these issues need […] is a philosophy of technology use, something that covers from the ground up which digital tools we allow into our life, for what reasons, and under what constraints. In the absence of this introspection, we’ll be left struggling in a whirlwind of addictive and appealing cyber‑trinkets, vainly hoping that the right mix of ad hoc hacks will save us.
I want to co-sign this 100 times over. But doesn’t it also suggest a ‘digital declutter’ is kind of futile? After all, some of Cal’s guinea pigs treated it as a temporary detox to endure before they went back to their regular lives. There was nothing to fill the void; no intention or broader design at play.
This fits in the same category as Dry July, the 30-day pushup challenge, giving something up for Lent, etc. There’s no such thing as ‘going on a diet’—there’s only figuring out a sustainable way of eating you’ll be able to stick with for the rest of your life.
And yet, I’m still a fan of these kinds of vague experiments. For one thing, you might end up reverse-engineering or rediscovering your existing values, entirely by accident. In casting around for something to fill the void, some of Cal’s test subjects rekindled a forgotten love for coding, or poetry, or painting, for example.
Secondly, you can try on new identities or value systems for size, and see how they feel. You get to experience what it’s like to be a teetotaller, or a minimalist, or a vegan, or a fitness junkie.
Even if there’s nothing on the other end of the trade but solitude, it frees up enough mental bandwidth to do some of that harder Level 3 navel-gazing: what would a good day look like? What kind of person do I want to be?
The Ultimate Question
All of this sounds kind of wanky, and very much in the realm of first-world problems. From the book:
After a moment of hesitation, she adds: “It makes me feel a little smug at times.”
What Laura describes modestly as smugness is almost certainly something more fundamental to human flourishing: the sense of meaning that comes from acting with intention.
‘Minimalism’ brings to mind insufferable hipsters who like, don’t even own a TV, man. As for ‘frugality’, I love it more than just about anyone, but it still conjures up faint associations of stealing ketchup packets from Burger King.
I recently ran some surveys on how people felt about these terms, along with ‘lifestyle design’, ‘intentionality’, and ‘deliberate living’, because I’m trying to figure out which one to go with (take my poll and let me know how you feel!). So far, none of them have come out smelling of roses.
This is interesting and a little bit sad, because these used to be considered the noblest virtues. You have limited time, attention, money, and other resources. What could be important than figuring out how to allocate them, and towards what purpose?
You’d think that the question of how to live would be more urgent today than ever before. The Enlightenment and ensuing boom in science and technology has done amazing things for us, but also created something of a vacuum. God is dead, and we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves?
Poor old Nietzsche went stark raving mad. His horrible and mind-melting realization was that there is only ever the abyss. You can search the universe until the sun goes cold, and you will never find a solitary molecule of ‘meaning’.
But you can choose which part of the abyss you gaze into. There are better and worse monsters down there. When you find one you like, make firm eye contact. You have to choose something; you might as well choose deliberately.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World is available on Amazon and presumably, in old-timey bookstores.
- ‘Levels of Action’ is stolen from this great essay by Alyssa Vance, which helped prompt this shift in thinking. I’m using the model a bit differently to the way she described it, and I don’t want to misrepresent her, so I recommend reading the original piece.
- Paul Graham says you should keep your identity small: “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” I think this is true, but it’s only important in certain domains. Not choosing is also a choice: you’ll end up roughly taking on the characteristics of the people around you, for better or worse.