It wasn’t long after finishing my piece on my social media cleanse that I saw a few people on Twitter raving about a book called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I had heard of Cal Newport before but never actually read any of his stuff (his book Deep Work has been on my To Read list for a few years now).
My expectations going into this book was that it was going to be largely focused on social media, but that wasn’t actually the case. It’s much wider in approach than that. Cal’s book makes you consider the role of technology, in particular mobile phone and social media use, in your life and whether the impact it’s actually having is of any real benefit. If it is having a benefit, is it actually worth the trade off required?
Maximalism vs Minimalism
There’s a line of thinking that’s popular with tech people that if an app makes life easier in any way, then the app should be used and integrated into daily life – More is more. That’s what Maximalism is all about. This line of thinking is especially popular in the Quantified Self community where the objective is to document every tiny little thing about yourself with the end goal of identifying patterns that you otherwise wouldn’t notice. As someone who uses Exist.io and various trackers for my sleep and my heart, I think the data that comes out of them can be helpful and really interesting. However it’s really easy to get sucked into capturing every single tiny detail to see whether there’s a pattern that you wouldn’t otherwise notice and often times once you have the data, it’s actual real world applicability to your daily life is limited. If the data doesn’t add any value to your day to day life, is there any point in capturing it in the first place?
Cal’s position extends beyond that to even if the data or app adds some value to your life, does the positives outweigh the negatives of using it? It’s easy to think that an app adds value to your life, but we don’t always consider the trade off required to use it. The trade off typically being time and presence in the real world. For example, Facebook may be a convenient way to stay in touch with friends or family, but in reality people get so hooked into social media that when they’re with friends or family they’re still engrossed in Facebook. People end up having lots of low quality connections rather than high quality conversations with people they actually care about.
This low quality connection versus high quality conversation was a really interesting distinction that I hadn’t really properly considered previously. When you think more deeply about it, it makes perfect sense. Loneliness and mental health issues are rising, despite people being more interconnected than ever before. People are yearning for high quality conversations with people they actually care about. However they have ended up trading that in to manage endless low quality connections with people they aren’t interested in, but feel the need to keep up this online persona.
It’s exceptionally difficult detaching yourself from social media and technology given how rooted it is in our daily lives. Thankfully the book provides a whole host of practical advise on detaching yourself from social media and technology. Some of my favourite examples were turning ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode on permanently. Having experimented with this for the last few weeks, I genuinely felt like the world had become a quieter place. I wasn’t being flooded with notifications all day – According to my screen time I was averaging about 150 notifications a day with Facebook Chat and WhatsApp being the worst culprits (I don’t have email notifications enabled on any of my devices by default, otherwise I would be getting 500+ notifications a day). I added a small list of exceptions to ‘Do Not Disturb’ which were my girlfriend and my close family. That way they could still reach me if they needed to.
Over the last week I have started enabling some notifications again, but I’m being really specific about what I allow access and why. I keep coming back to the question which is ‘What is the value of actually having notifications for this app?‘ If I don’t have a good reason I simply don’t enable it.
Another interesting idea was to have conversation office hours. The idea behind this is that for that defined period of time every day, anyone can reach you. Outside of that period of time, nobody can reach you unless it’s an emergency. The idea behind this isn’t to sit on Facebook or Instagram and message people the entire time, but instead to pick up the phone and speak to people you care about or even go out and meet them for that period of time, hopefully without the distraction of technology.
I think this book is a really interesting and thought provoking book. The book exists to raise questions and get you to think about the role of technology in your own life – Cal isn’t pushing you to become a Luddite but rather to embrace a healthier relationship with technology. This is something I think everyone should spend some time thinking about and this book is certainly a good aide to help you with that.