In Marie Kondo’s books and Netflix show about tidying up, she encourages people to discard items that don’t “spark joy” to remove physical clutter from their lives. Now, imagine doing that with your digital use — and holding on to your books.
Cal Newport’s new book, “Digital Minimalism” (Porfolio, released Feb. 5), seeks to solve for the lost hours of scrolling, FOMO (fear of missing out) and anxiety — replacing it with meaningful leisure time.
It’s not just harmless time misspent, Newport, a Georgetown professor in computer science, argues — the mini-computer screens we glance at during each spare moment are addictive “slot machines in our pockets” and tech companies design for users to spend more and more time on their products. We’re less fulfilled, less focused and more anxious for it, he says.
His method to digitally detox: To abstain from all optional technologies in your life for 30 days. Start up something meaningful to replace the time. Then, after the 30-day period, reintroduce only the technologies that are of value and figure out how to get the most value out of your time spent.
For some people, that means reverting to a flip phone. For others, it could be setting up personal systems and rules for their own media consumption, from times to visit a select group of websites, subscribing to a handful of newsletters or more narrowly defining a social media feed.
We interviewed Newport, which has been edited for length and clarity, to learn more about his method.
Is it possible to dip your toe into making changes, and if so, where would you start?
I’m a pretty big believer that the right way to transition toward this healthy relationship with technology is to rebuild it from scratch. It’s similar to what Marie Kondo (author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and “Spark Joy”) talks about with your closet – you can’t just occasionally take something out you don’t like. You have to empty the whole thing, then just put back in what belongs.
That being said, there are some things you can do to help get prepared for when you do the wholesale clearing of the decks and rebuilding. Two things that might be helpful to do in the short term: Taking off of your phone any application where someone makes money when you touch it. The other thing is to start experimenting with alternative use for your leisure time that doesn’t involve you looking at a screen. Bringing back hobbies or organizations or other types of high-quality analog activities so that when you’re ready to completely rework your digital life you already have other options in place to fill that time.
Seeing the popularity of the Marie Kondo books and Netflix show, do you find that there’s a connection between people wanting to declutter their homes and people seeking declutter their lives?
There’s definitely a connection, because the underlying idea is minimalism. … The basic idea behind minimalism is that less is more. If you focus more energy on the things that are most important, to the exclusion of many other things that give you a little bit of value, you end up better off. So minimalism can be applied to many different areas, one of the areas where it’s been fruitfully applied is with your physical clutter. That’s where you see something like Marie Kondo’s (method), which says to focus on the things that make you really happy, because otherwise the clutter has a cost.
Digital minimalism is taking the same ancient idea and applying it to your digital life, which says if you focus your energy on a small number of tools that give you a big amount of value — and you ignore all the other tools that maybe give you a little bit of value or some slight conveniences — you’ll end up better off.
Since minimalism isn’t a new concept, why are people seeking to declutter their lives now?
In the digital space, it’s because the clutter is new. A lot of these consumer technologies, social media, are maybe six or seven years old. There’s a period of exuberance that followed the innovations when it was an experimental time, trying to figure out how we’re going to integrate this technology in our lives. … People downloaded a lot of things, signed up for a lot of things. Now they’re looking five, six, seven years later and saying: the proverbial house is now overflowing with clutter, I’m looking at the screen way more than I know is useful, way more than I know is healthy, it’s starting to take my time away from things that are much more important. Now I need to step back and reassess my relationship.
I noticed a lot of connections beyond digital life, such as personal finance. . Were there other areas of life you felt you needed to fit in or exclude?
One of the things that was surprising when I was working on this topic was how little it had to do with technology. Even though the whole idea is ‘I want a better relationship with my digital life,’ it turns out most of the factors that are relevant there have little to do with the specific technologies that you’re using and a lot more with ‘OK, what do you actually want to do with your life? What does it mean to build a life worth living?’ What are the inflection points where you can strategically apply technology and get really big wins from the perspective of ‘this gives me meaning, this gives me satisfaction, this gives me value.’
This is why there are all these broad connections in the book to all sorts of different aspects of life that in many ways are non-technological. The technology is only useful once you understand what you want outside of that, ‘this is what’s important to me, this is what will make me happy … now I can use these tools instrumentally.’
That’s a big surprise, and many readers had the same reaction.
You mentioned not completely letting go of email if your job requires it. What other trends with work life are helping or hurting with digital use?
The issues with the digital (uses) in professional life are really large. It’s something I’ve thought and written quite a lot about. They’re also in many ways quite separate from the issues people are having with digital in their personal lives. In both places, there’s a crisis.
What’s drawing us to email constantly at work, or a culture of always-connected Slack communication, these are very different forces than what’s driving us to look at our screens compulsively when we have a moment of free time, or why we have to look at our iPad the same time we’re watching a show at home. We can’t have our attention on one thing.
But one thing you can do is to try to have a clear divided line between those two worlds. Don’t let personal digital life lend into the work life and vice versa. For example, if your work requires some sort of social media engagement, don’t let that be an excuse to say ‘I have this on my phone and I use it all the time for all sorts of different things.’ Treat it like a professional. … Do so like a professional. Don’t let that engagement allow you to shift into this compulsive, passive consumer consumption mode with those types of tools.
iPhone gives a report of screen time, or you could go analog and manually track how much time you spend. Has that helped? Is that a useful exercise?
I think it has. One of the fun games people have played recently is to find someone who hasn’t yet realized this feature exists and see if you can be there the first time they actually look at their report. Almost always the reaction is jaw-dropping. I think it’s been really useful for people. It makes concrete this creeping unease that they feel. They know in some sense they’re probably using these things too much, but when you have to face, ‘What does that mean? It’s this many hours?’ And then you can start concretely thinking about ‘What else I could have done with five hours or six hours this week? Is that really how much time I want to spend looking at Instagram posts?’ When you make that concrete, the problem becomes really clear … (that) it’s way more time than I originally intended.
You talked about intentionally making time for conversation that isn’t just an easy text message. Are there other steps people can take to continue to build relationships long distance?
We know from the research when it comes from social interaction, analog components are key. If you can, say, have real-time conversations like over the phone, that’s much better than text. Now you can hear variations in voice tone, you can hear pacing, there’s a give and take. You can add a video component or maybe a Skype and now you can look at body language. You can look at small movements in the faces are conveying emotion, that’s even better.
What’s clear is that the social part of our brain, which is a massive portion of what our brain does, is evolved to expect an analog interaction, a rich stream of information about the individual you’re interacting with. When you’re just doing digital — just text or leaving a comment on a social media post — you’ve stripped out all of that rich feed your mind is expecting, so it doesn’t categorize the interaction the same way it would if you’re on the phone or if you’re looking at a video stream. You might think you’re being very social, because you’ve been sending text messages all day, but as far as most of your brain is concerned, you’re lonely, because you’ve had no actual conversations in a long time.
So for people who are important to you, who aren’t local, one of the great innovations of modern technology is that it’s easier than ever before to get these long-distance analog interactions, but the key is to emphasize the analog. That’s why in the book I tell people, when you’re thinking about your relationships, don’t categorize digital communication as a real conversation. If you’ve only sent text messages for the last week, in your mind, you should think ‘I haven’t talked to that person for the last week.’
Digital minimalists seem to read more books. Why do you think that is?
A lot of people kept reporting that, when we had 1,600 people going through the clutter process. Then they started sending me counts… seven books, eight books, and it was making them really happy. I think the reason why the minimalists rediscover some type of real meaning in old-fashioned book reading is because it puts you into this longform content-consumption mode. You’re actually diving deep into a world or an idea and spending sustained time there. If you’re reading nonfiction, you’re building up a new mental schema of new ideas. If you’re reading fiction, you’re simulating the world in your brain, you’re putting yourself into the mind of the character, you’re going to take on these different roles … these are all demanding and satisfying cognitive activities that feel very different than the experience of getting these quick hits of algorithmically generated information that you might have on the typical web surfing or social media session. You’re jumping from tweet to tweet to article. There’s such a contrast between spending two hours with a novel or a hard nonfiction book and spending two hours surfing.
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