Book Review: Digital Minimalism

In 2016 Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, published a book about cultivating habits of undistracted work. The premise was that while everyone else was getting distracted it provided an opportunity for those with disciplined focus. Cal got the praise and push-back he expected. What he didn’t expect was how many people wrote to him asking for a book applying the same principles to their time outside the office. That is just what Cal did. He wrote a book with a simple premise: You need to be intentional about your use of technology.

This is for several reasons. First, technology is not neutral. It is a product made by people who want to both enhance your life and make money. In the current technology market money is to be made by keeping your eyeballs locked on the screen in your hand. Our phones and their apps are designed to bring us in and keep us there as long as possible. While this isn’t some nefarious conspiracy, there is an illusion we have embraced. We know there is no such thing as a free lunch, but there is a free app. Facebook and Twitter are free. And so many games are free with the ability to purchase if you want to. While the apps may be free one sense, they are very costly in another. But only if you value your time.

Part 1 of the book deals with foundational arguments about the nature of technology and the need to get intentional about your tech use. Cal starts with the same recommendation for each of us:

Take a technology break

Not a detox. Not a week long fast. You need to take a break for thirty days. You read that correctly. A full month with technology use reduced down to only essential functions. No mindless scrolling through feeds, endless video playlists on YouTube or binge watching Netflix. Are you breathing into a paper bag yet? You need to recover things like boredom and silence. The idea is to do a digital reset. After thirty says you begin reintroducing the technology (apps, podcasts, social media) one at a time. As you do it is imperative to decide what you will use it for and how you will use it.

Get intentional about your habits

Part 2 gets into four practices for healthy life like embracing silence and time alone, refusing to like or comment on social media, reclaiming your leisure time. The book is so clear I am not going to list the chapters. Here is the summary of the book:

  1. We need to rethink how we are using technology.
  2. We need to do a digital reset.
  3. We need to intentionally fill our lives with the habits that will bring meaning and help us accomplish what we want.

Reflections

I have shared before about my struggle with my smartphone. Tony Reinke’s book moved me to take my phone habits seriously. I deactivated my Facebook account. I made some adjustments. But they weren’t enough. In January I began a week long break from social media, podcasts, etc. During that week I came across Cal’s book and immediately decided to extend it out for the full thirty days. What could happen?

It made a huge difference. Once you break away from social media, it bores you to read it. Instead I read/listened to something like eight books. I invested more time in exercise. I prayed more. I was more present with others. My Screen Time app reported I had reduced my screen time by 30% three weeks in a row. At that point I made a decision: I’m getting rid of my smartphone. And I did. I now have this bad boy. That’s right. It has a key pad. It has been a few weeks without my smart phone and everything is going well. No, I don’t think everyone should get rid of their smartphones. I just realized I didn’t actually need mine and it was actively making my life worse.

I still use Twitter, but barely. My blog and sermons publish to my account so I have a specific use for it. One mistake I made was with YouTube. I didn’t define how I would use it so it quickly became a distraction. I have since ceased from using it completely until I define how/when I am using it and what I am using it for.

Bottom Line

I don’t want to be the obnoxious guy telling everyone how they are doing it wrong. I’m not anti-technology. I’m trying to figure out how to use technology in a way that supports my life rather than takes it over. I want to be a faithful husband, father, and pastor. There are many obstacles along the way. Some have been put there by others. Many of them I put there by accident. I can work on those. Cal Newport’s book was really helpful for me. It pushed me over the edge to take action. I think it will help you too (even if you keep your smartphone!). It is a fast read and I highly recommend it.

What about you? What ways have you found helpful in using technology to benefit your life? Contact me here. Thanks for reading!

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