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Cal Newport’s new book is a great distillation of what I’ve come to believe is the right, sustainable, healthy approach to social media, and technology more broadly. Browse less, make the best of it, and live more.
(Note: Some of my notes are distilled from James Stubber’s much more extensive summary)
Social media (and often other modern technologies - streaming, messaging) can be a huge sink of time, energy, and attention. It makes us anxious, stressed, it develops compulsive behaviors in us… and in the end… what’s the benefit? It is there! But we have fixed 24 hours in a day, and limited energy and attention. So we must choose the best of it, and happily miss out on the rest.
Digital Minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
Here’s why Minimalism (not just digital minimalism) is good:
- Clutter is costly. Having a great amount of stuff around you is truly overwhelming, and trumps the sum of all the tiny benefits from each extra thing
- Optimization is important. Some things have big bang for your buck, others don’t. With minimalism, you extract the greatest value possible. (E.g. mindless browsing of the news → RSS + curated newsletters → extra filtering)
- Intentionality is satisfying. Hard to explain, but it feels amazing to be the master of your life, and choose to do this and not the other thing, instead of taking in everything out of fear of missing out.
Dealing with digital clutter
Mere hacks and tips&tricks are not enough. It’s better to go cold-turkey.
Go on a digital declutter. Take 30 days off ALL optional technologies. (All social media, all social messaging, streaming, browsing of blogs, etc.). This is not the final step, but it is a necessary one.
For required technology (e.g. some messaging, stuff we need for work), write specific operating procedures for when, and how exactly you’ll use the technology (only for the required task).
During the digital declutter, focus on (re-)cultivating high-quality leisure life (more on that later).
After 30 days, slowly reintroduce technology into your life, but for each thing, ask yourself these questions first:
- Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value?
- Is this technology the best way to support this value?
- How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?
The digital declutter is necessary, because this is the only way to give yourself enough distance from your usual habits to see clearly what’s truly important and has value, and what only seems important because you’re doing it every day.
If you treat the declutter as a temporary thing, not a step towards a permanent life change, you will likely fail.
Some things worth practicing in this informationally busy and overwhelming times:
- Spend time alone. Solitude is good for mental health
- Leave your phone at home. At least sometimes. This is to train yourself not to be anxious at all times and be okay with missing out.
- Take long walks.
- Journal (Write letters to yourself). This is necessary for self-discovery and self-improvement regardless of digital minimalism.
- Don’t click like, ever. It has no real value, just trains your brain to seek the tiny dopamine hit whenever you do.
- Consolidate texting. Instead of always being available to reply to texts, reply, say, one, or twice, or three times per day in a batch. Here’s the thing: conversations trump connection. You’re not really missing out on social connection by being less available through texting and social media, because social connection does not really satisfy our social needs — conversation does. Use the time you save by digital minimalism to schedule real conversations (in person or otherwise) with people you care about.
- hold conversation office hours. Good hack for daily commuters — tell everyone you’re available for phone calls every day at 5pm for an hour, and prefer this mode of communication.
- delete social media from your phone. No-brainer. If you’re going to do social media, consolidate it into once per week (or once per day, if you must) batches on a single device (and not your phone)
- turn your devices into single-purpose computers. Dedicating, say, your desktop computer for work, a phone for navigation/communication/emergencies, a tablet for digital leisure (if you must) is a good way to separate those things mentally so you aren’t distracted by constant switching between those.
If you’re going to cut down on social media, and other digital leisure activities, you’ll find a big hole of time in your life, that you can now fill with higher-quality (and simply different) leisure.
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- Demanding activity trumps passive consumption. It’s a misconception that human brains need a lot of rest (they’ve got 8 hours a day for that!). After 8h of work you don’t need to be passive in front of TV for the other 8. Brains actually like activity, but need variety! So a much better way to rest after 8h in front of a computer is to do demanding, but non-screen activities.
- Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. We’ve evolved to live in the physical world and manipulate real objects. Digital world is incredible, but given the need for variety, it’s extremely satisfying to many people to make physical things. Fixing things around the house, renovating, carpentry, fixing your car, tinkering with electronics are great hobbies.
- Seek activities that require real-world structured social interactions. We’ve also evolved to be social animals (even total introverted nerds like me). Board games are a very satisfying leisure activity. So is social fitness.