Digital Minimalism has valuable lessons on technology and the good life, but was also a bit disappointing

This post is about the book’s really good core ideas, and then a brief section on where they were weaker. I originally wrote this a year ago when I first read the post, but I’ve sat on publishing it. It makes some good points, so I’m doing so!


I recently read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I was looking forward to this: Cal’s previous book Deep Work has had a huge influence on my professional life (as I’ve written about before) and I’m a keen subscriber to his blog posts.

The book was set up to be a home run, but it was simultaneously really good and a little disappointing. The core idea started very strongly and was packed with insight, but by the end it strayed too far from this core insight and was relyig on weaker secondary sources, ideas, and arguments.

I hope this is both a useful recap of the points which resonated most with me, and a useful intellectual critique of where the book went a little awry.

Digital Minimalism: sound core message, but feels bolted together

digital-minimalism

Cal Newport has been writing about productivity in knowledge work and critiquing social media platforms for the last decade, so is the perfect person to write this book.

Digital Minimalism argues we need to think much more intentionally about the digital tools and platforms we use, that we give up way too much time and attention in exchange for a small amount of value, and the conclusion from these should be to use digital tools and platforms significantly less. “Digital Minimalism” is a “named philosophy” for the above, in the same way “vegetarian” is a “named philosopy” of eating.

The core argument has more nuance than that, but that’s the core of it. I’d been hesitant to read the book as I got the impression it was mostly based on an expanded version of is argument, which Cal has been blogging about for a while, and the results of a reader survey he did early last year.

I eventually took the plunge, though, and did enjoy it. The core message isn’t too complicated, but I certainly do use my phone too much and sometimes with these things one just need to be told the same thing in lots of different ways. It does also attempt to develop a philsophical framework for the “digital diet” later in the book, which I’ll touch on again later.

I’ve covered the core idea, but there were a bunch of other sections which stuck out to me. I’ve collated a couple of these below:

  • You must replace “general looking at phone” with “high quality leisure time” for your digital minimalism to be successful.
    • This means reading, sports, art, and so on. Cal argues one should plan these leisure activities, and whilst this takes a bit more effort, it’s well worth it given the alternative.
  • “How much of your time and attention must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter?”
    • Cal makes the point Twitter is not useless, and that’s what makes making a decision about your usage of it so difficult: there are legitimate benefits, but Cal argues they’re occassional and do not correspond to the amount of time one spends collecting these benefits.
  • “If you must use [social media]… and you hope to do so without ceding autonomy over your time and attention, it’s crucial to understand that this is not a casual decision. You’re instead waging a David and Goliath battle against institutions that are both impossibly rich and intent on using this wealth to stop you from winning.”
    • This is a theme throughout the book. I understand a common objection (and indeed what I try and persuade myself I’m doing) is “oh but I can use it in moderation”. Cal argues no: you will ultimately lose if you do this. I assume in this analogy we’re ignoring that David did win.
  • “You don’t make a conscious decision about each of the sites and feeds you end up visiting; instead, once the sequence is activated, it unfolds on autopilot. The slightest hint of boredom becomes a trip wire to activate this whole hulking Rube Goldberg apparatus.”
    • Yes, absolutely. I have one of these: news, Twitter, and in a bad moment Slack, Facebook, and Messenger too. I’ve been at least noticing this and making vague attempts to stop it recently.

There are plenty more interesting points, and that’s the really good part. The little disappointing part is where the book does only an okay job of moving beyond its core message.

The chapter on solitude, for example, was very interesting but leans very heavily on Lead Yourself First for its arguments. It does a good job of summarising those arguments (for good measure I read Lead Yourself First after finishing Digital Minimalism and it added a bit more insight (but not a vast amount more), but there’s relatively little original insight from Cal here.

Side note, added a year after I wrote the rest of this blog post: Cal now has a podcast which I’ve been enjoying listening to. He’s talked about his writing process, which is one-month-per-chapter and heavy research to start with, followed by the writing. You feel that here: the solitude chapter in particular is interesting, but it’s low on original insight and feels disconnected from the other chapters. To be clear: it is interesting; I’m just such a fan of Cal’s work I’m holding it to a very high standard.

Indeed, Cal’s main problem is he’s writing a book about how to stop looking at your phone so much, when he’s never had that problem. As someone who’s never had a social media account, he can’t attest to the nuances involved; everything relies on the reader survey. At time’s it’s a little too “Reader A quit Facebook and within six weeks had painted seventeen masterpieces and hosts lavish dinner parties where their closest friends have deep conversations on the philosophy and the meaning of life every Tuesday.”

There is, surely, a step between Facebook and the dinner parties, and the reader survey does yield a lot of stories, but also self-selects to productivity nerds like me who really want to focus on this stuff and read Cal’s blog every week. Without having had to go through quitting Facebook himself, I feel Cal misses out on this a little.

It’s a weird mix of practical “self-help” with philosophy around work, creativity, and the good life bolted on. I don’t think that’s a criticism – I did enjoy the philosophical sections – but it does feel bolted on. One assumes Cal was working with fellow author Ryan Holiday’s book marketing agency – premsumably how you do end up doing interviews with provactive headlines like Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes – and one wonders if this also encouraged a more mainstream approach which resulted in bolting on this “how to” section. I’m searching around for explanations, but it certainly felt a bit weird to read.

Equally, one could counter the above by arguing Cal’s previous books were written for people especially interested in productivity like me, and Digital Minimalism was simply aimed at a wider audience. Maybe, but even if one takes this more generous interpretation, it does still feel bolted on.

I was a little disappointed, and went to the trouble of writing this, because I’ve enjoyed Cal’s previous writing so much. I gather there’s a new book in the works – I look forward to reading it.

Lessons in Stoicism: book notes, and commentary

My to-read list is long, and books can wait years to get read. I select a mix of interests, and try to make sure my reading is well rounded. It’s thus fairly unusual that I read Lessons in Stoicism quickly after finding it. I find the subject matter (modern takes on Stoicism) interesting but it’s also pretty short and I find the cover design extremely pleasing. Even the fanciest systems are undermined by the simplest things.

My reaction when I finished reading the book was that it was okay, but nowhere near as good as A Guide To The Good Life (aff link), which was one of the first of the modern Stoicism trends and remains one of the best. A Guide To The Good Life explores how to live according to Stoic rules at a deeply practical level. It’s a popular book: it’s supported by the original Stoic text but it’s very much a fresh interpretation.

Lessons in Stoicism is similar, but it’s much more rooted in the original texts. Indeed, looking back at my notes, I didn’t note much but what I’ve got down here is very good.

The most interesting section for me is covering Seneca’s essay On The Shortness of Life. The author extensively interprets the essay for the 21st century and it’s very good. My notes are below.

The other particularly interesting thing here is the analysis that’s missing. Stoicism is a philosophy popular with wealthy white men. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is true. Two of the most well known Stoic authors: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were exceptionally wealthy. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor and literally the most powerful man in the world at the time.

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Deliberate practice: a practical guide to practicing knowledge work

We learn enough to get by in our day-to-day lives, but once we reach that point, we seldom push to go beyond good enough. We do very little that challenges our brains… for the most part, that’s okay. “Good enough” is generally good enough. [But with deliberate practice] If you wish to become significantly better at something, you can.

– Anders Ericsson, Peak

Recently I discussed how we can think about applying deliberate practice to knowledge work, looking at Professor Anders Ericsson’s book Peak and thesis of deliberate practice, a theory of skill development which focuses on performance and how to improve it, rather than just knowledge for its own sake.

The first post discusses some of the challenges in applying deliberate practice to “knowledge work”. Ericsson’s focus is on areas with objectively defined expert performers and well-established training methods; think chess or tennis, not “knowledge work” like development or marketing.

As the post explores, there are ways of taking the key tenets of deliberate practice and applying these. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Identify the expert performers in the field
  2. Figure out what makes them so good
  3. Come up with training techniques to replicate the experts

This is what the first post discussed. Doing this would be a good start, but you’d miss out on the related skills you need to use deliberate practice in practice with your day-to-day.

How do you develop your “training techniques”? How do you make sure you stick with it and don’t quit? How do you self-monitor your progress?

Answering these questions is essential to actually doing deliberate practice. That’s what this post is about: how to actually do deliberate practice, in practice.

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Deliberate practice: applying the abstract theory to careers

On our recent trip to Morocco my Kindle tragically broke. It was a Kindle Keyboard 3G, and I’d had it since 2011. It featured a full sized keyboard and a 3G connection anywhere in the world, free! Unsurprisingly those features rarely came in useful, but it served me well. Sadly when I put the Kindle down when I sat down on the flight the screen broke. We were just taking off! The worst time to break a Kindle!

peak

I had changed my mind about bringing any physical books at the last minute, so when we arrived at our Riad (hotel) one of the first things I did was download the Kindle app for my phone and find something to read. I settled on Peak by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at Florida State University.

The subtitle is Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, and the book is about Ericsson’s work in researching “deliberate practice”, a theory of skill development which argues the most efficient way of learning is solo practice on specifically honing a part of your skill. Racking up the hours in general (the “10,000 hour rule”) is rubbished; instead it’s racking up the hours focused on specifically improving your skill.

This got me thinking, a lot: deliberate practice is most easily applied to “traditional” skill areas like music or dance or chess. What would a program of deliberate practice for my field of marketing – and indeed my career – look like? This post explores the parameters and options.

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WordCamp London 2019: an organiser’s perspective

Photo of Track A at WordCamp London 2019

This weekend was WordCamp London! By all accounts, it was a very successful event! People seemed to enjoy themselves, the talks were excellent, and everything ran smoothly. As mentioned last week I was on the organising team, and it was my first time doing so.

Nearly all of the team was new to organising, but fortunately with the same venue as last year we were able to build on the excellent work previous organisers have done. We focused on changing two things: content and sustainability.

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The pocket notebook, and capturing creative ideas

Almost no one claims to get their best ideas at work. – Michael Gelb

I’ve recently been returning to ideas around Deep Work, and re-evaluating my workflow now that I’m fully settled into life and a new office in Oxford. The vast majority of my work energy goes into running Ellipsis, and I squarely think of this as a creative endeavour and myself as a creative person.

Allow for Serendipity: Move outside your normal realm of comfort and interest, explore far and wide, while stayng open and avoiding jumping to conclusions. Let yourself be surprised and discover new opportunities. Keep a notebook with you at all time and record ideas as they appear to you.

One of the highest-impact things I’ve started doing in the last year is appreciating how important ideas and then following-through with these ideas is in running a creative business.

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Getting things done in the long run: think harder and further ahead

I found Sam Altman’s post How To Be Successful very interesting. Sam is President of Y Combinator, a startup incubator which has funded the likes of Dropbox and Airbnb, and thus spends his time talking to extremely driven – and in some cases – extremely successful people. This gives him a unique situation from which to judge, which is in part where this post comes from: “how to be successful”.

There’s a lot packed into here, and if one wanted to I’m sure it would be possible to pad out each of the sections into a successful business book.

I was struck by how much of this revolves around cultivating long term thinking, and then executing on that. Short term thinking is fun because you get the answer quickly, but we’d probably all do better to look into the future more.

The post breaks out eleven points, a third of which revolve around “think deeply about what you should be doing, look further into the future, and then get on with it”. Another third revolve around believing in what you’re doing, and not caring too much about what people think, and the final third are miscellaneous points.

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Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, book notes and commentary

Let My People Go Surfing book notesI read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Let My People Go Surfing, by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, on a trip to Japan two years ago. This was the same trip where I read Deep Work for the first time, so clearly I chose my reading list well.

Indeed, I chose these two books because I was about to start working for myself full-time: I’d just graduated University, and after the Japan trip would be starting my entrepreneurial journey.

Both Deep Work and Let My People Go Surfing have been influential on my work since. Deep Work has largely informed how I work, and Let My People Go Surfing has informed why I work.

This was the first time I read something which so clearly laid out the possibilities for using business as a real force for good, both in the way one conducts one’s business, and the potential impact one can have by sharing ideas and talking about how businesses are run. This latter point – the potential impact – wasn’t something I’d really thought was possible before, and has since inspired how we do work at Ellipsis.

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Getting Black Friday right for WordPress products

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have the opportunity to be some of the biggest profit generators all year for WordPress products.

Hopefully you’ve been profitable all year and this isn’t – as with traditional retail – the sale event which makes you profitable, but it’s still a great opportunity and over the last couple of years I’ve seen the Thanksgiving period consistently provide a nice boost to WordPress business’ earnings.

Yet, it’s important to get Black Friday right. You need to create an offer which works for you, is attractive for your customers, and does not impede your ability to make money in the long term.

You shouldn’t take those three points for granted; this post gets into the how and why, and how to get Black Friday right for WordPress products.

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Marketing channels, and how to think about marketing your WordPress business

Having the right marketing channels for your WordPress business is the difference between having a thriving WordPress business, and a struggling one.

You can make a great product or service, but if you’re not able to effectively get it in front of people who need and will pay for it, that’s not too much use. Despite all the hours that go into making a great product, having it thrive or not can be decided by choosing – or not choosing – the right marketing channels.

Thus, you must have the right set of marketing channels. You must be able to connect your offering with potential customers who can and will pay you.

But what are marketing channels? What constitutes a “channel”? How do you pick the right channels? This post gets into all of this! We’ll show you the channel-based marketing philosophy, and aim to give you a clear framework on how to think about marketing your WordPress business.

 Let’s talk about marketing channels

Marketing channels are categories of marketing activities. This part isn’t complicated: there are around twenty channels which cover the vast majority of marketing work.

Here’s a sample of five of these channels. These apply to every industry, not just WordPress products:

  1. Content marketing
  2. Paid search ads
  3. Sponsoring conferences (like WordCamps!)
  4. PR stunts!
  5. TV ads

You get the idea: these are broad categories, and some are more appropriate to certain markets than others (you almost certainly, for example, by TV ads to market your WordPress business unless you’re Automattic, in which case test it carefully).

There are a handful of go-to channels for WordPress businesses. Sponsoring, attending, or speaking at WordCamps is a good one for getting started. Content marketing and affiliates can be good fits for the right kinds of products. Partnerships, community building, and SEO can be good too.

You get the idea: these are all marketing channels. Let’s now talk about how this channel-based philosophy of marketing works in practice.

Why the channel-based philosophy works so well

The channel-based philosophy of marketing works so well for two reasons:

  1. It forces you to test and find out what works.
  2. It forces you to focus on what works, and abandon everything else.

You start off by brainstorming and identifying three, four, or five possible marketing channels. The channels I mentioned above would certainly be a good start, but given getting the channels working is so valuable, you may wish to get a professional opinion. Ellipsis does this, and we’d be happy to help – get in touch.

Identifying and testing your marketing channels

However you go about getting your initial channels, the process from then onwards is the same:

  1. You identify your possible channels, doing small tests to see if they work.What constitutes “small tests” depends on which channel you’re trying: paid search ads get results very quickly, so one month might be sufficient. Content marketing can take longer, so you might need to stick with it for three months. An industry newsletter – like MasterWP – might need three months to see if the idea works, and then another nine months to see if it can get good traction.Screenshot of the MasterWP websiteWhichever channels you look at, you must set success criteria and a timeframe before you start. Once underway make sure you can track the results from each channel – for example by using UTM codes – and make sure you stick to the channel for the duration of the test. By the end, you should have a good idea of what can work and what can’t. One or two working channels is a perfectly good outcome here.
  2. Once you have one or two working channels, you just focus on these.When it’s clear what’s going to work, double down on what works. Just focus on the one or two marketing channels if you’re just getting started, or three, four, or five if you’re further down the line.You want as few marketing channels as possible, and each channel working as hard for you as it can. This means really focusing on doing everything to maximise your channels!
  3. Only when a channel is working and “full” do you then turn your attention to new channels.You find your new channels by testing out a couple of ideas again! And, you say no to everything which doesn’t fit in the channels you’re focusing on. This latter part is especially important, as I’ll touch on again in a moment.

This makes for an incredibly efficient marketing strategy! You find what works, and then only focus on those things that work, getting as much value as possible out of them. If a channel wanes or is at maximum capacity, then you can turn to new channels. That’s it. You don’t do anything else.

The channel philosophy makes it easy to say no

Furthermore, the value of being forced to focus on a working marketing channel shouldn’t be underestimated: once you do start getting customers, marketing opportunities will start springing up. You’ll be asked to sponsor content, conferences, and all sorts. A lot of WordPress business owners I speak to have a really difficult time choosing between these opportunities:

  • What constitutes a good opportunity?
  • Should you copy what other people are doing?
  • What sounds like a good idea, and what is a good idea?

With the channel-based marketing philosophy, it’s easy to filter these opportunities: if something fits with the channel you’re focusing on, do it. If not, don’t do it.

The philosophy is also extremely elegant for us when working with clients: it lets the Ellipsis team build a focused marketing strategy from scratch if that’s what the client needs, it lets us tweak and fit into an existing strategy, or it lets us take care of one channel for clients who already have other parts in place. This works for WordPress businesses of literally all sizes, from startup plugins, to the very biggest SaaS companies. It also intuitively makes sense, so you can certainly get a barebones version of this running for your WordPress business.

Quick case study: Envira Gallery’s marketing channels

Here’s a quick example of this in action, from a WordPress product we have no affiliation with: Envira Gallery. This is a gallery plugin for WordPress which was acquired for multi-million dollars in late 2017. In an interview with The Plugin Economy, owner Nathan Singh mentions the following:

Our continued success has been a healthy mix of Facebook retargeting, laser focused content marketing, industry affiliate relationships, and listening to our customers by delivering updates that matter to them. If you haven’t yet, send surveys to understand what they want.

Screenshot of the Envira Gallery website

We’re taking “build a great product” as a given, so if we take that out we see a three-channel marketing strategy:

  1. Facebook retargeting
  2. Content marketing
  3. Affiliates

You might even argue that this is a two-channel marketing strategy, with the Facebook retargeting merely increasing the effectiveness of channels the other two channels, which are the ones bringing people to the site.

Envira Gallery is a multi million dollar business, and it’s using two marketing channels; this shows you it really is true that you want as few marketing channels as possible, and you want to get them working as efficiently as possible.

Now you’re ready to choose your marketing channels!

Having the right marketing channels for your WordPress business is the difference between having a thriving WordPress business, and a struggling one. This post has shown you how to make use of the channel-based marketing philosophy to build a winning marketing strategy.

It’s conceptually very simple, and that’s part of the beauty: you want to test a couple of channels, choose the one or two that work, and then just focus on them.

There is, of course, more to building a winning marketing strategy than saying “let’s do content marketing”; there are plenty of ways of doing content marketing. Some of these will be good and some of these won’t; you do have to be specific. Note how, for example, Nathan Singh referred to “laser focused content marketing” above. And, whilst this is a simple process, it’s an open-ended one; you always want to be on the look out for new possibilities.

I’ll endeavour to get more into building out winning marketing strategies in a later post. If you can’t wait for that, or if you want an expert opinion from the start, then get in touch with Ellipsis, and we’ll be happy to look into this for you. We do this as the initial work for the vast majority of our clients, and have an excellent track record of uncovering a winning way forwards.

I’ve turned on comments for any queries: ask below, or tweet me! Thanks for reading, and enjoy your winning marketing strategy.