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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