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Book:  Digital Minimalism

Author:  Cal Newport

Purchase:  Print | eBook | Audiobook

Citation: Newport, C. (2019). Digital minimalism : choosing a focused life in a noisy world. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. A college senior who set up an account on in 2004 to look up classmates probably didn't predict that the average modern user would spend around two hours per day on social media related messaging services. Similarly, a first adopter who picked up an iPhone in 2007 for the music features would be surprised to find that the average modern user compulsively checks his or her device eighty-five times a day. (pg. 6)

  2. Technologies are specifically designed to trigger addictive behavior. Compulsive use is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan. (pg. 24)

  3. Digital Minimalism is 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. Digital minimalists: 1) recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each item provides in isolation, 2) believe that when they start a particular technology they think carefully about how they will use the technology, and 3) derive significant satisfaction from their commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. (pg. 28)​


Other Key Ideas:

Technology and social media dictates how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities. A large part of how this happened is that many of these new tools are not nearly as innocent as they might first seem. People don't succumb to screens because they're lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable. (pg. 8)

Growing evidence suggests that behavioral addictions resemble substance addictions in many domains. When the American Psychiatric Association published its data in 2013, it included, for the first time, behavioral addiction as a diagnosable problem. The behavioral addictions connected to technology tend to be "moderate" as compared to the strong chemical dependencies created by drugs and cigarettes. On the other hand, these addictions can still be quite harmful to your well-being. If the app is only one tap away on the phone in your pocket, a moderate behavioral addiction will make it really hard to resist checking your account again and again throughout the day. (pg. 16)

Rewards that are delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern. This basic behavior is replicated in the feedback buttons that have accompanied most social media posts since Facebook introduced the "Like" icon in 2009. When people post to Facebook, etc. they are essentially "gambling" every time they post something on a social media platform: Will you get likes, or will it languish with no feedback? The outcome is hard to predict, which, as the psychology of addiction teaches us, makes the whole activity of posting and checking maddeningly appealing. (pg. 18)

We're social beings who can't ever completely ignore what other people think of us. Consider social media feedback buttons. This feedback concerns other people's approval. If lots of people click the little heart icon under your latest Instagram post, it feels like the tribe is showing you approval - which we're adapted to strongly crave. The other side is that a lack of positive feedback creates a sense of distress. This is serious business for the Paleolithic brain, and therefore it can develop an urgent need to continually monitor this "vital" information. A similar drive to regulate social approval helps explain the current obsession among teenagers to maintain Snapchat "streaks" with their friends, as a long unbroken streak of daily communication is a satisfying confirmation that the relationship is strong. It also explains the universal urge to immediately answer an incoming text, even in the most inappropriate or dangerous conditions (think: behind the wheel). (pg. 21)

When people consider specific tools or behaviors in their digital lives, they tend to focus only on the value each produces. However, you must balance your profits against the costs measured in terms of "your life." How much time and attention should be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter? It's easy to be seduced by the small amounts of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resource we possess: the minutes of our life. Treat the minutes of our life as a concert and valuable substance - arguably the most valuable substance we possess - and always reckon with how much of this life we trade for the various activities we allow to claim our time. (pg. 41)

A common trick that digital minimalists use is the remove social media apps from their phones. Because they can still access these sites through their computer browsers, they don't lose any of the high-value benefits that keep them signed up for these services. By removing the apps from their phones, however, they eliminated their ability to browse their accounts as a knee-jerk response to boredom. The result is they drastically reduced the amount of time they spend engaging with these services each week, while barely diminishing the value they provide to their lives. (pg. 47)

The "Digital Declutter" focuses primarily on new technologies, which describes apps, sites, and tools delivered through a computer or phone. You should probably include video games and streaming video. Take a thirty-day break from any of these technologies that you deem "optional" - meaning that you can step away from them without creating harm or major problems in either your professional or personal life. In the end, you're left with a list of banned technologies along with relevant operating procedures. Clarity in what you're allowed and not allowed to do during the declutter will prove key to its success. (pg. 68)

You will probably find the first week or two of your digital declutter to be difficult. These feelings will pass. During this month long process, you must aggressively explore higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you're avoiding. This period should be one of strenuous activity and experimentation. You want to arrive at the end having rediscovered the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life - one in which technology serves only a supporting role. (pg. 74)

Everyone benefits from regular doses of solitude, and, equally important, anyone who avoids this state for an extended period of time will suffer. Solitude is about what's happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, solitude is defined as a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. (pg. 92)

The iPod provided for the first time the ability to be continuously distracted from your own mind. The iPod was pushing us toward a newly alienated phase in our relationship with our own minds. This transformation didn't reach its full potential until the release of its successor, the iPhone, or more generally, the spread of smartphones. The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest bit or boredom, you can now glance at any number of apps or websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It's now possible to completely banish solitude from your life. (pg. 100)

Solitude Deprivation is a state in which you spend close to zero time along with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation the quality of your life degrades. (pg. 103)

A 2015 study by Common Sense Media found that teenagers were consuming media - including text messaging and social networks - nine hours per day on average. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety. Everyone suddenly suffered from anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. When a scientist was asked what she thought caused the change, she answered that it had to do something with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that persistent communication was somehow messing with students' brain chemistry. (pg. 105)

Young people born between 1995 and 2012 called "iGen" exhibited remarkable differences as compared to the millennials that preceded them. One of the most troubling changes was iGen's psychological health. "Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed," with much of this seemingly due to a massive increase in anxiety disorders. "It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades." These shifts in mental health correspond "exactly" to the moment when American smartphone ownership became present. iGens are paying a price for not remembering a time before constant access to the internet. "Much of this mental health deterioration can be traced to their phones." (pg. 106)

People have come to accept a background hum or low-grade anxiety that permeates their daily lives. We need solitude to thrive as human beings, and in recent years, without even realizing it, we've been systematically reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives. Simply put, humans are not wired to be constantly wired. (pg. 109)

Notebooks or journals provide me a way to write a letter to myself when encountering a complicated decision, or hard emotion, or surge of inspiration. By the time I'm done composing my thoughts in the structured form demanded by written pose, I've often gained clarity. I do make a habit of regularly reviewing these entries, but this habit is often unnecessary. It's the act of writing itself that already yields the bulk of the benefits. Writing a letter to yourself not only frees you from outside inputs but also provides a conceptual scaffolding on which to sort and organize your thinking. It's a simple practice that's easy to deploy, but it's also incredibly effective. (pg. 125)

Social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that's massively more valuable. The more you use social media, the less time you tend to devote to offline interaction, and therefore the worse this value deficit becomes - leaving the heaviest social media users much more likely to be lonely and miserable. The small boosts you receive from posting on a friend's wall or liking their latest Instagram photo can't come close to compensating for the large loss experienced by no longer spending real-world time with that same friend. (pg. 141)

Consider using the Do Not Disturb mode on your phone. This will turn off notifications when text messages arrive. When you're in this mode, text messages become like emails: if you want to see if anyone has sent you something, you must turn on your phone and open the app. This allows you to be more present when you're not texting. Once you no longer treat text interactions as an ongoing conversation that you must continually tend, it's much easier to concentrate fully on the activity before you. This might also provide some anxiety reduction, as our brains don't react well to constant disruptive interaction. (pg. 157)

The most successful digital minimalists tend to start by identifying what they will do with their free time before getting rid of their worst digital habits. When the void is filled, you no longer need distractions to help you avoid it. (pg. 169)

The value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested. We might tell ourselves there is no greater reward than to have a day fully devoid of plans. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began. If you instead spend that time actually doing something you'll likely end the day feeling better. (pg. 176)

Schedule in advance the time you spend on "low-quality leisure." That is, work out the specific time periods during which you'll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything (Netflix, Twitter, etc.) goes. But outside these time periods, stay offline. (pg. 200)

I conjecture that the vast majority of social media users can receive the vast majority of the value these services provide their life in as little as twenty to forty minutes of use per week. Once you start constraining your low-quality distractions and filling the newly freed time with high-quality alternatives, you'll soon wonder how you ever tolerated spending so much of your leisure hours staring passively at glowing screens. (pg. 202)

Consider deleting social media from your phone. The smartphone services of these services are much more adept at hijacking your attention than the versions accessed through a web browser on your laptop or desktop computer. The difference is due in part to the fact that you always have your phone with you, and every occasion becomes an opportunity to check your feeds. (pg. 222)

Consider trading in your smartphone for a basic flip phone. It might take you a week or so to overcome the urge to constantly check something, but soon you will pass that hurdle. You will feel better and your mind will feel less cluttered. The main inconvenience is your inability to Google something on the go, but how great the feeling is without a smartphone way outweighs the need to Google. The dumb phone movement is gathering steam, and the tools available to support this lifestyle change are improving. If you're exhausted by your smartphone addiction, it's not actually that hard to say "No more." (pg. 243)

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