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.
Just wanted to mention I liked this article a bunch! I wish there was a like button or something haha. Big fan of your writing per usual.
I always wonder about the Big Five personality traits of the people I follow to see if your writing connects with me because our personalities are similar. I tend to like a non-comfortist crowd, Bryan Caplan, Nassim Taleb, Mr. Money Mustache, Cal Newport, and especially your stuff because you tend to incorporate all that stuff together. Jeez if only Taleb could stop trashing people for one second……
Anyways, I am wondering about this issue myself right now, I agree with you that too much solitude can definitely lead to rumination, I have been ruminating about quitting a job a couple months ago for perhaps the 1000th time (even though I got a much better one). Seeing friends, working out, and getting deep work done definitely can’t be replaced either. I am interested if there are some good practices on how to do solitude better? Usually after a certain amount of time, I count my lucky stars I was born in a western country with democracy and how that automatically places me in 1% of income worldwide. After I remind myself of that, my problems don’t seem that bad anymore.
P.S. Anyways, sorry NZ is making people pay to get back in the country right now, that’s really bonkers imo.
Thanks Jack, I always appreciate your comments.
I can’t remember my Big 5 scores exactly but I think I got high openness, super-high conscientiousness, medium extraversion, low agreeableness, and low-to-medium neuroticism. What are yours?
It’s interesting to consider Taleb as an example—I have never come across anyone whose ideas resonate more, but his personal style couldn’t be more jarring: I hate conflict to the point of avoiding it, always try to carefully hedge what I’m saying, and am generally a mild person. As much as I love Taleb, I think my model is the GMU crowd: they are reliable disagreeable, but in a pleasant and civil way.
At one point I had plans to run some kind of solitude/seclusion experiment, but now I don’t see that much value in it. I like being alone and uninterrupted while I do my ‘deep work’, but other than that I enjoy being around people. ‘Doing solitude better’ would presumably involve deliberate practices like meditation, or journaling, or other useful introspection. Let me know where you end up on it.
Yeah I’m high Extraversion, Super-Low conscientiousness, low agreeableness, medium neurtocism, high openess. I got a 0th percentile conscientiousness score, which kind of hurts lol. I am really not sure what to do with that information except to become financially independent maybe? idk… I liked Cal newports article on not to take your own personality so seriously though.
Jocko would probably just say no factor, and forget it. You’ve heard of jocko willink right?
I hate conflict to the point of avoiding it, always try to carefully hedge what I’m saying,
Yeah I like to debate personally , I like to pursue truth more than consensus. But there’s really no reason to be inpolite, doing your own thing is fine, but there’s really no reason to be rude.
I think a solitude expirement would be cool, like a certain amount of time at a monastery or something, but it’s really not realistic for most people. I think a pretty healthy heft of digital minimalism and daily walks /runs without headphones is good enough.
GMU crowd is very cool, but Bryan Caplan is my new favorite person. But it’s important not to have heroes you really don’t know what they’ll say or do lol.
Damn, yeah that conscientiousness score is rough. I wouldn’t put too much stock in it though—you seem to be doing well for yourself, and if I remember correctly conscientiousness is the one trait that increases a little as we age. Plus there are obviously lots of good strategies for constraining yourself, like Cal’s stuff.
I am definitely drawn towards ‘contrarian’ thinkers, and am also in favour of truth over social reality, but am becoming much less strident about it as I get older, which has been an interesting process. If you like Bryan Caplan, check out Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen too.
Yeah Tyler Cowen get’s brought up enough by everyone that I’ve seen a little bit of his work. Hopefully can find some of his books at the library. I just realized that Robin Hanson was behind the elephant in the brain book you recommended haha. Guess you’re ahead of the game!
Both of Cals books have been deeply influential in my life. You must read Deep work before Digital Minimalism to fully appreciate Cals perspective. Deep work will be very difficult unless you become acutely aware of the cheap thrills of social media.
I haven’t yet gone through the whole detox as suggested. But just removing the apps from my phone and shutting down all notifications have given me tremendous mindspace.
I recommend gifting both books as a bundle to anyone you see in dire need of this.
…Its “kinda” official.
I like you.
I guess I could have said …relate/respect/admire……..I dunno…..but nope…..
I like you.
Now know a couple of key points.
This feels like and echos how I define/found and picked…the love of my life.
So….not to worry.
I am head over heels very much in love!
I’m hooked up.
7 days away from 4.5 years
(I recommend it!)
AND….I like you.
A few things about myself which will connect the dots to why….
I like you.
(And perhaps be a bit attention getting.)
I am a Playwright.
I taught reading and writing to new incoming college students for 4 years.
I taught ESL to immigrants for 6 years.
I am Canadian.
I am fast approaching ..official “Old Fart” status.
(may have reached it.)
I think that’s enough of that.
I like you….and….
Willa Lynne Mitchell
Hello Willa Lynne Mitchell,
Congratulations on 4.5 years, and thank you for the kind words.
I like you too!
I was wondering if you know actually how to remove my online presence? I must of created hundreds of accounts etc over the years and i want to know how to find them and delete them? It makes me uncomfortable to know how much info i have put online…
Hey Nat, I don’t know if there’s any easy way, sorry. AFAIK you can purge everything on major social media sites, and run a script on e.g. reddit to delete all your posts, but on individual websites you’d have to contact the webmaster and ask them to do it. And even then, there might be archived versions that will exist forever. I am in no way an expert, so definitely do some research and see what your options are. all the best!
Here’s to hoping you stick around.
What a great article. Love the thoughts shared, and I will definitely hunt down this book to read lol
I went off social media for 5 months and for me it was the best decision ever. You dont know how much something has consumed up your time, until you leave it and I certainly found that during the 5 months I was off from social media. When I went back on social media after 5 months, I somehow realised how busy and how consumed everyone were about events going on around the world. I remember feeling so lost going back on fb and finding out that some people have passed away, some have just gotten married and some have moved overseas to different places. It was a surreal feeling, having to realize how cut off you can be, when you are away from something for so long but also so rewarding because during the unplug period, you had the time to focus on yourself and find real inner peace. Although it can feel like staring into an abyss as you rightfully stated, you also however find and realize that within the quietness and space, you have an opportunity to build something new and open new doors.
Hey Rez, thanks for sharing your experience. A five month break is impressive, congratulations! I would love to strike a balance between knowing what’s going on in the world, without feeling like I need to be constantly immersed in the daily minutia. Sounds like you found a lot of value in unplugging completely.
Your timing on this was excellent as I just stayed up way too late last night reading a good chunk of this book. While none of the ideas were new to me, I felt that the way he put them together added a lot of value. That, plus the fact that Newport writes well, made it a worthwhile use of my evening.
When you talk about the abyss, it made me think of a quote that I recently read in a book by Rachel Held Evans. I am paraphrasing terribly but the idea is that sometimes, as a Christian, it is worth continuing to go through the motions during seasons of doubt – doubt about the goodness of humanity, doubt about whether Jesus was the messiah, doubt about the Bible, doubt about whether God even exists – because, done properly, Christianity makes life so much richer. While Christians obviously do not have an exclusive on hope and faith and love (and some self proclaimed Christians seem to celebrate judgement and hate and make the rest of us look bad), her statement resonated with me. The abyss can be a really scary place and I can’t imagine staring at it alone.
Your thoughts on 30-day whatever were spot on. When I abstain from something for a period, it allows me to reset. Changing your behavior for a set amount of time also helps to avoid hedonic adaptation. A glass of wine feels like a treat again after I give it up for Lent, rather than just being something I drink when I am with friends. As you mentioned, it also lets you try on new behaviors to see if they fit. The set period, whether 30 days or Lent or whatever, forces you to give the new behavior a decent chance at working but the fact that it is finite prevents the panic that tends to set in when we tell ourselves that we are never going to do (or not do) a certain thing ever again.
Thank you for an excellent post.
Hi Debbi – snap! Glad the timing worked out so well. Honestly, I sometimes wish that I were a religious person for exactly the reasons you describe, and I increasingly think there is a ton of distilled wisdom in the teachings of Christ in particular. (There’s no way I’d mess with my identity to the degree of changing my actual metaphysical beliefs, even if it were possible, but it is kind of intriguing to think about.)
That’s a great point on hedonic adaptation too. I recently started doing periodic extended fasts, and after a few days, even the simplest food tastes obscenely good. Interesting to note that fasting/temporary self-deprivation is baked into a lot of religious practice – more distilled wisdom!
Thanks for your thoughtful comment- hope you enjoy the rest of the book.
Your most honest, soul searching article to date.
Hi Sharil. You might be right!
See also anything on Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle: first figure out the why, then the how, finally the what. And for people who like little kids’ picture books that put things in a nutshell – read The Wizard’s Cat, by Coin and Jacqui Hawkins. The cat doesn’t like being a cat, so tries being a whole lot of other things, then realizes his best chance at having a meaningful life is being himself.
Thanks, I’ve vaguely heard of Simon Sinek but haven’t checked out any of his stuff. I wonder if that’s where I subconsciously got the why/how/what taxonomy from.