At the start of 2020, I committed to reading more non-fiction, the first book I read was Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport.

I’ve shared a book review of Cal’s previous classic, “Deep Work“. As that post explains, that book focusses on how to be less distracted so as to produce greater quality work. In Digital Minimalism, Cal turns his attention to our personal lives.

It seems fitting to be sharing this book review at a time when our theme is Values-Based Leadership. I say that because my coaching work confirms how many leaders want to protect more time. Time for deeper thinking & stronger relationships. This book might just be that opportunity.

Before I go any deeper, let me give you some background. Cal Newport is an associate professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University in the US. He’s the author of 6 books so far & lives with his family in Washington DC. You won’t find him on social media, as he has been a consistent voice calling us to challenge our use of those applications. However, many of his blog posts are worth reading.

The need for a change in our relationship with Digital

Cal starts the book by sharing many pieces of research that should give us all cause for concern.

These include whistleblowers who reveal how intentionally app companies are exploiting our behavioural biases. Their plans to keep us addicted to more & more screen time. Understanding what he describes as a ‘lopsided arms race‘ is key to recognising why you might need more than just good intentions to change your habits.

He then goes on to lay out his manifesto for Digital Minimalism. Each of these principles is supported by research & scientific studies.

The 3 Principles of Digital Minimalism

  1. Clutter is costly (do you clutter your time & attention with too many apps & devices)?
  2. Optimization is important (the need to get maximum ROI out of your apps by adapting your usage).
  3. Intentionality is satisfying (the greater enjoyment of only choosing to add back what genuinely improves your life).

Implementing these principles starts with what Cal calls a Digital Declutter. That is ruthlessly culling all non-essential apps from your different devices. This is harder than it sounds but can be a very enlightening process.

The book steps you through hints for then coping with a 30-day break from non-essential technology. Although similar to the idea of a digital detox, this is not as Luddite as that. It is more about detoxing for autopilot use of technology, so you can be more intentional.

Finally, in the first part of this book, Cal explains the process of slowly adding back applications that pass stringent criteria. These include:

  • It serves something you value deeply.
  • It is the best way to use technology to serve that value.
  • Establish a standard operating procedure (constrain when & how you use it).

There is more in this than first meets the eye, so the examples Cal shares from the experience of those who took up his challenge are useful.

Establishing new Practices to live this life

After Part 1 explains how to change your pattern of behaviour, Part 2 is focussed on practices to help you live a more fulfilling life. It is interesting to see that the majority are focussed on helping you reengage with other parts of your life. How to enjoy the real/analogue world afresh.

The first set of these practices focusses on spending more time alone, rather than constantly connected. Many reminded me of the advice Cal shared previously on how to improve your ability to develop Deep Work:

  • Leave your phone at home when you go out
  • Take long walks (ideally walking daily)
  • Write letters to yourself

Next, Cal turns his attention to the idea of more intentional uses, with better operating practices. He has these suggestions for practices to improve how you engage with apps (rather than just clicking like):

  • Don’t click like (communicate directly if something to say)
  • Consolidate your texting (fewer fuller messages)
  • Hold conversation ‘office hours’ (when you can be texted)

To sustain this more balanced lifestyle, Call encourages well-planned leisure time, rather than wasting it passively absorbing content. He shares these lessons for more fulfilling leisure time:

  1. Prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption
  2. Use skills to produce valuable things in the world
  3. Seek activities that require real-world, structured, social interactions

Finally, in a section called “Join the Attention Revolution” we are all encouraged to ‘stick it to the man‘ (in this case the Tech/Social Media giants). Cal shares some engaging ideas to resist being exploited:

What’s your experience of attempting Digital Minimalism?

Having read the book, I have now spent 30 days attempting to put these principles into action in my own life.

On the positive side, I have spent more time reading physical books & thoroughly enjoyed the change. I’ve also experimented with taking more walks & those without my phone.

On the negative side, I was not sufficiently brutal with my original Digital Declutter. There are still too many apps on my iPhone & I’m too often tempted to check (despite keeping in silent mode & limiting notifications to my Apple Watch. I can see behaviour change is going to take time.

That said, I strongly encourage other leaders to read this book. Waking up to this challenge and the need for us all to reclaim more of our valuable attention is timely & critical. I’d love to hear from any other readers who have attempted this challenge.