Digital Minimalism Summary (Cal Newport)

Is your online media consumption causing anxiety and overwhelm?

You’re not alone.

In his book, Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University (and successful blogger), Cal Newport, argues that we need a digital detox to restore emotional health and wellbeing.

So if you’re glued to your phone day and night, the Digital Minimalism summary is for you.

Let’s get started.


When the innocuous ‘like’ button emerged on FriendFeed in 2007 it was a portentous moment.

Soon it was defacto for social media, allowing companies to keep us hooked with endless notifications while gathering user preference data.

Finally people are becoming aware of the pernicious effects of online technology and beginning to push back.

Newport performed his own min-study which formed the basis of the book, in which 1,600 volunteers followed a month-long tech sabattical, providing valuable insights digital minimalism.


Current symptoms many of us experience while not engaged with our phone is one of disquiet, a nagging sensation that we need to check notifications, emails and texts.

How did this happen?

Indeed, the first iPhone and Facebook version were never designed to be addictive.

This came later, with the work of social media engineers.

One such method of attention manipulation was with the introduction of Facebook’s ‘thumb’s up’ button, exploiting our deep desire for tribal acceptance and social approval.

The philosophy

We need a way to protect ourselves from the damaging effects of online media while still enjoying the rewards.

Many advocate quick hacks, like disabling app notifications, but the author believes a more comprehensive approach is needed for behaviour change.

Enter digital minimalism – better living can come from less.

Like it’s physical counterpart philosophy, ask yourself: Does this website, app or service really support what I value in a way that nothing else can?

In other words, we need to optimise for the value with derive from this media while reducing the time and emotional burden involved.

If there is a certain application that is of professional benefit, what guidelines can you set around it’s productive use?

As one of the study participants discovered after purging his social media accounts, you’ll likely enjoy more quality time with your family and hobbies.

3 principles

The philosophy is rooted in three tenets:

  • Clutter is costly – drawing on wisdom from Henry David Thoreau and New Economics, ask yourself the true cost you’re paying with your actions. Thoreau argued that when buying a car, not to simply account for the cost, but also the time and energy to earn the money and the stress of upkeep. Ask yourself about associated costs with all digital media and decide whether you can manage that task via an alternative method.
  • Optimisation is important – taps into another economic principle: The law of diminishing returns. Going my no news to one newsfeed will be a big improvement, but when you keep adding apps, you continually derive less benefit. Instead, you need to optimise. By using an aggregator service, for example, you can condense your news sources for consumption on the weekend.
  • Intentionality is satisfying – many people assume that the Amish are anti-technology, but this is a falsehood. They will test new technology and are happy to accept it as long as it aligns with their cultural values and benefits the community. We should apply the same value based assessments to our own behaviour.

30-day declutter

If you’re interested by this approach, the first step is to try a 30-day declutter.

(Note: this isn’t a detox, with assumes you’ll return to your previous behaviour – rather it’s a method to find a new way forward.)

For 30 days, remove all non-essential technology from your life. At first it will be hard, but Newport’s study participants soon found their smartphone urges diminishing.

While you may think your apps are essential, they often aren’t. Instead of connecting online, the declutter may allow you to reach out over the phone or in person instead.

This is also a period for self reflection as you ponder where your interests and passions lie. Without excessive media consumption you’ll have more time to invest in meaningful pursuits.

After the 30 days, there is the re-introduction phase, including three questions:

  • Does this technology support something I deeply value? Yes? Move on to question two…
  • Is it the best way to support this value? Perhaps picking up the phone to call family is a better form of connection than Instagram
  • How can I use this tool in a way that maximises its benefit and minimises the harm it causes? This often involves setting utilisation guidelines to extract maximum value

Staying the course

Most life hack set you up with a new habit, but don’t promote sustainable change.

Digital minimalism therefore promotes accompanying (offline) activities to fill the media void.

Firstly, there’s solitude, which we’re severely lacking in our hyper-connected reality.

Indeed, researchers have discovered a huge surge in psychological issues in the screen-addicted iGen generation, in what they attribute to ‘solitude deprivation’.

This deprivation robs us of the ability to process our lives and gain emotional clarity.

The good news? It’s easy to regain:

  • Leave your phone at home the next time you go out
  • Go for long walks, a practice promoted by some of history’s greatest minds

Be alone with your thoughts!

Scheduling the socials

According the research, the more time you spend on social media, the greater the likelihood of feeling lonely.

Likes and comments just aren’t a valid substitute for true human connection, so aside from quick life administration texts or messages, simply stop these behaviours.

Tell friends that you’re stepping back from social media, which counterintuitively improve your social life as you meet with and talk to more people.

Adopt the approach of one Silicon Valley exec, by scheduling your social time. He says that he’s available for phone calls any day at 5.30pm, which prevents lengthy and needless online exchanges.

What in-person interactions can you routinely schedule?

Leisure time

There are two types of leisure activities:

  1. High-quality leisure – activities which we engage in for their own sake. Often activities involving strenuous effort, leaving us satisfied and energised. Engaging physically with the real world by applying our skills and creating value.
  2. Low-quality leisure – digital distractions and online binges

Obviously we want to optimise our lives for number one as much as possible.

Creating engagement deadlines are helpful. e.g. learning a guitar song in time for a friend’s gathering.

Going cold turkey can easily lead to relapse, so schedule short periods of low-quality activities, which should slowly become less appealing as we engage in high-quality leisure.

Attention resistance

Today we live in an attention economy, with the online giants profiting directly from advertisers by exploiting our human vulnerabilities.

This has led to digital minimalism, which is part of a growing movement labelled ‘attention resistance’.

There are certain methods utilised by its advocates:

  • Intentionally using an old featureless mobile phone
  • Switching to single-purpose devices by using old computers or harnessing ad blocking software

While it may appear that you’re missing out on the benefits of new technology, digital minimalism and attention resistance allows us to use older technology more effectively, focusing on what matters.

Digital Minimalism summary

Our eyeballs are now sold to the highest bidders, incentivising companies to harvest our data and distract us wherever possible…

Much to our detriment with regard to happiness and health.

So now is the time to examine our daily online interactions and decide where we derive the most value.

By embracing digital minimalism, rather than rejecting technology, we can consciously cooperate with it in productive and performance-enhancing ways.

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