Recommendation Digital Minimalism (Newport, 2019)

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.
Newport (2019)

Digital Minimalism (Newport, 2019) is a very interesting book. It provides a philosophy of technology use, esp. regarding smartphones and social media. I give a short summary below, using mostly verbatim extracts.

While Newport sees the usefulness and convenience of digital technology, esp. for logistics and information (incl. maps), they are also devastating to personal autonomy. The amount of notifications and «required» interaction is exhausting. Combined as a whole, they destroy the value any app or social media service might have had. We now have a nervous habit of checking the device («the new smoking») — which shreds the uninterrupted time and presence that is needed for an intentional life. Overall, it leads to a loss of control, undermined values, and manipulated mood.

These problems apply even more to social media, incl. that the curated social media profiles led to feelings of inadequacy and that darker emotions attract more eyeballs (reinforced). Social media went from unexpected and unplanned effects of features (like the «Like» button) to engineered ones. The companies make revenue via the attention economy. They make money by gathering consumers’ attention and then repackaging and selling it to advertisers. Given its wide spread usage it is often seen as illiberal and unsocial not to be on social media, but in effect you just outsource your attention to an attention economy conglomerate.

He is skeptical of individual hacks or even a digital shabbat. The problem is not how to deal with the hundreds of notifications, but why you have so many apps/notifications in the first place. Essentially whether your current use is more a habit or even an addiction, which is not necessarily in accordance with what you value in life. This is the reason for the focus on first identifying one’s values, before deciding how to use digital technology.

This look behind the symptoms for the deeper causes is very interesting. And he is right that for many people, the digital noise is a way to numb the deeper void, the lack of meaning. A bit like the loud sounds in Harrison Bergeron.

Thus, he looks beyond hacks and recommends Digital Minimalism:

I used the image from Newport’s book, although I got to ask, why a cut USB-A cable? Not only is USB-A rarely used to go online (okay, when you tether a smartphone to a MacBook it could be used), but also why is it cut? He’s not a luddite. Cutting would be a bit harsh.

The Core Principles of Digital Minimalism are:

  • Principle #1: Clutter is costly.
    Costs attention and time — and you pay in lifetime. All these small interruptions swamp the usefulness of individual apps. What do you adopt?
  • Principle #2: Optimization is important.
    Usage comes with diminishing returns. How do you use what you adopt?
  • Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying.
    Amish attitude to technology, i.e., try out and discern the ultimate impact of the technology on the things the community values most. Intention trumps convenience. Control the role technology plays in your life. Why is this the best way to support your values?

He recommends a 30-day digital decluttering process, given that hacks only make sense once you have determined what brings joy and meaning in your life. And yeah, that’s hard to swallow, but detox takes times. And this goes beyond a simple detox, after all, what is the use of abstaining from something, only to jump right back into it afterwards? It’s a first step in transforming your relationship to technology.

So the idea is that values lead to technology use, not vice versa. You have to declutter first, only after you have determined your values can you select and optimize your technology use.

He recommends the following three step process:

Step #1: Define your Technology Rules

Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. To do so, first identify optional technologies, then set operating procedures for non-optional technologies and critical use cases.

Identify Optional Technologies

  • Optional Technologies: Its removal does not harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life. Careful, do not confuse convenient with critical.
  • Usually everything that uses attention design (apps, websites, computer/mobile screen) incl. computer games. Look at screen time, that might help.
  • Also includes podcasts and music — headphones alienate us from our own minds.

Set Operating Procedures for non-optional technologies/critical use cases

  • Operating procedures are clear rules if and when to use the largely optional technologies.
  • Write them down and put them where you see them very day (clarity is crucial).
  • Examples: Messages without notification but VIP Alerts, use only during certain activities, or use only with friends.
  • Too many operating procedures become unwieldy, but most need few nuanced constraints.

Ways to deal with dealing with digital technology/social media

  • Remove it.
  • Selective remove it (e.g., delete from mobile devices).
  • Operating Procedures (e.g., one post per week).
  • Replace it (e.g., curated collection, more balanced news site).
  • Replace it with other tools (dumbphone, paper notebook).
  • Reduce input (e.g., only VIP Notifications, reduce number of «friends»).
  • Remove triggers (e.g., wear a watch to avoid getting sucked into phone use when checking the time).
  • Avoid attention economy vortex (e.g., bookmark Facebook events page).

Step #2 Take a thirty-day break

Explore and (re-)discover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.

  • You are used to distractions, so it will feel unpleasant for a week or two (detox takes time). Unpleasantness means the declutter process is working. You notice what you became addicted to.
  • Confront FOMO — don’t mind missing out on small things and go for large things that make life good.
  • You will have a quantity of time, you needs to make quality time. Aggressively explore higher-quality activities. Find strenuous activity and experimentation.
  • Find clarity on what you value, (re-)discover the type of activities that generate real satisfaction.

Indicators you are doing it right

  • Surprise on degree to which digital lives have cluttered with reflexive behaviors and compulsive tics.
  • Huge amounts of time available.

Possible Fails

  • Mostly because technology restriction rules were too vague or too strict.
  • Not planning what to replace them with, which leads to anxiety and boredom. It is crucial to explore high-quality activities.
  • Only temporary detox without (re-)discovering what you value, which leads to same behavior as before.

Step #3 Reintroduce Technology

At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

Select and Optimize to make technology a means to your end(s):

  1. Does this technology directly support something I deeply value?
    Potential and vage promise of usefulness is not enough.
  2. Is the technology the best way to use technology to support this value?
    If it’s not, replace it with something better (e.g., instead of following on social media, call/visit).
  3. How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?
    Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it. Using social media without clear goals means you get swept away.

Indicators you are doing it right

  • Critical and differentiated use of technology instead of a binary yes or no. Combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to support things you deeply value.
  • Unintentional digital habits suddenly seem frivolous when you are intentional about time.
  • Leisure time is now filled with better pursuits, many of which will exist primarily in the physical world. Digital technology is helping you to set up or maintain your leisure activities, but not acting as the primary source of leisure itself.

Update: I tried to condensate it into a flowchart (first version, might go over it again):

Flowchart of the digital decluttering process (based on Newport, 2019). Click on the image to see a larger version.

Overall, this is a very interesting approach. I’ll probably try it out soon. While I have managed to remove many low-quality activities (among others, I am no longer on Twitter, have no social media apps on my phone, am usually not surfing with mobile devices, etc.), there are a few services on which I might lurk a bit too much. And yeah, I have already dumbed down my devices (or rather: optimized them for the things I value, e.g., A quieter iPad Home Screen).

He also provides a few practices, which are valuable even independently of digital minimalism.


He refers to Kethledge & Erwin’s (2017) definition of solitude: Solitude is the subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. Solitude is needed to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. Humans are not wired to be constantly wired — we need to move between state of solitude and connection. Digital technology and esp. social media led to solitude deprivation.

Recommended Practices

  • Leave your Phone at Home: Smartphone usually does not matter or makes things only slightly more convenient. Can keep it reachable but not on you.
  • Take Long Walks: Can be used to simply enjoy the weather, think about issues, or emotional regulation. Walk without Music/Podcasts/using smartphone apps, otherwise it is not solitude.
  • Write Letters to Yourself: Keep a Journal or Notebook. Capture ideas, values, clarify issues (writing itself is key).


We need free time to think about social connections and to understand them. A «Like» is the lowest level of information you can get/give. As «Likes» are easier and we are biased towards short-time pleasure even in the face of long-term hard, it crowds out higher level interactions. We do not need connection (low-bandwidth interactions), but conversation (much richer, high-bandwidth communication that includes nuanced analog cues). We need targeted input from people we know well. Social media is great for logistics (on your desktop computer), but conversation has to be face-to-face or video chat with all cues. Will reduce number of friends as conversation takes time.

Recommended Practices

  • Don’t Click Like: Makes social media a digital slot machine, instigates mere connection, and provides social media companies with information for targeted advertisement. Don’t leave comments either. Instead call or visit. Might want to inform your circle about your changed behavior first.
  • Consolidate Texting: Use a VIP List and schedule time to dealing with other texts. Consequence: 1. more present for this practice; 2. improves relationships — you keep advantages without the pernicious effects. Again, inform your circle first.
  • Hold Conversation Office Hours: Inform others when they can call you, e.g., at 5:30 p.m. on weekdays or where to find you (e.g., in a café). Read during the time as backup activity.


Active, high-quality leisure is needed with activities for their own sake (instead of only problem solving). Many distract themselves with digital noise to fill the void of meaning. Voluntary, strenuous activity useful as it doesn’t cost money, provides physical exercise, and is good for mental health.

  • Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption. The value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested, so strenuous leisure is best.
  • Leisure Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. Argument for Craft, i.e. any activity where you apply skill to create something valuable. Is an unambiguous demonstrations of skill, esp. when it is a physical product (working with hands).
  • Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions. Social leisure activities: 1. require you to spend time with other people in person, 2. provides some sort of structure for the social interaction. Look for high-bandwidth interactions (e.g., playing physical boardgames face-to-face, group sports).

Recommended Practices

  • Fix or Build something every Week: Handiness — repair, learning, or building projects. Use YouTube videos to learn.
  • Schedule your Low-Quality Leisure: Will need these interactions, at least in the beginning. Takes off pressure to know you can still do it. Using diminishing return curve and go for 20-40 minutes per week.
  • Join Something: Live a socially active life by finding or creating a community (schedule online, spend time with them off-line).
  • Follow Leisure Plans: High-quality leisure needs planning. Seasonal Leisure Plan: Objectives and specific habits (reasonable and balanced) with incentives (e.g., a fixed appointment when you show others what you have done). Weekly Leisure Plan: Remind yourself of what you want to achieve and schedule it (fight for leisure opportunities).


Combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures. Mindset in dealing with social media: Zero-sum antagonism. You want something from their networks, they want to undermine your autonomy. You need to be prepared and ruthless.

Recommended Practices

  • Delete Social Media from your Phone: Social Media on Smartphones is deadly. Turns into a crutch to avoid bigger voids in life. Using it only on a desktop computer often first step in quitting them.
  • Turn your Devices into Single-Purpose Computers: They are powerful general purpose machines, but they have to single purpose machines when you use it. Otherwise you are too easily distracted.
  • Use Social Media like a Professional: Careful plan on how to use different platforms.
  • Embrace Slow Media: Break ritualistic consumption habits and focus on a few high-quality sources or analog media.
  • Dumb down your Smartphone: They are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy. They are a safety net for modern life and there are cases in which you need them. But often a dumb phone is enough.

The only criticism I have of the book is that exploring and (re-)discovering what you value comes a bit short. Or rather, there were categories and examples, but I was wondering about questions you could ask yourself. While he points out the use of craft and gives examples of high-quality leisure activities, finding out what you value (beyond a superficial level) is rather difficult. But I guess that would make a good book in itself.

Hmm, and thinking about it, I wonder whether digital minimalism might lead to a re-establishment of what we had before, but not something better. A bit like Steve Jobs’ «Computers are bicycles for the mind.». While there are suggestions to use digital technology/social media to improve yourself (e.g., facilitating logistics, learning from YouTube videos), I would suspect that there is lots of potential in that direction. Exploring how computers can help people to become more than they otherwise could be, instead of (mainly? just?) removing the digital noise.

Also, for the number of pages, it was rather slow to read. Not because it was badly written, on the contrary. But it was rather dense with information, which is a good sign. It’s a steak, not a Cheeseburger.

Overall the book is excellent and highly recommended.


Source: Newport, C. (2019). Digital Minimalism. On Living Better with Less Technology. Penguin Business.