Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology by Cal Newport

Rating: 8/10

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Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology by Cal Newport

Rating: 8/10

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High-Level Thoughts

A useful book for reducing your addiction to and reliance on technology, while increasing the benefits you derive from it. Good for being mindful about controlling your tech, instead of letting it control you.

Summary Notes

They downloaded the apps and set up accounts for good reasons, only to discover, with grim irony, that these services were beginning to undermine the very values that made them appealing in the first place: they joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends across the country, and then ended up unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table.

The key to thriving in our high-tech world, they’ve learned, is to spend much less time using technology.

The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.

the notification symbol for Facebook was originally blue, to match the palette of the rest of the site, “but no one used it.” So they changed the color to red—an alarm color—and clicking skyrocketed.

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.

minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.

The average Facebook user, by contrast, uses the company’s products a little over fifty minutes per day.

Principle #1: Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists 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 individual item provides in isolation.

Principle #2: Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

more often than not, the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.

The Digital Declutter Process Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful. 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.


The first step of the declutter process, therefore, is to define which technologies fall into this “optional” category.

My general heuristic is the following: consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.

Don’t, however, confuse “convenient” with “critical.” It’s inconvenient to lose access to a Facebook group that announces campus events, but in a thirty-day period, this lack of information won’t cause any critical damage to your social life, and it might expose you to interesting alternative uses for your time.


During this monthlong 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.


The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards.

To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must:

  • Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
  • Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better).
  • Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

Rebecca transformed her daily experience by buying a watch. This might sound trivial to older readers, but to a nineteen-year-old like Rebecca, this was an intentional act. “I estimate that around 75 percent of the time I got sucked down a rabbit hole of un-productivity was due to me checking my phone for the time.

The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds.

Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

As I’ve learned by interacting with my readers, many have come to accept a background hum of 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.

humans are not wired to be constantly wired.

What Thoreau sought in his experiment at Walden was the ability to move back and forth between a state of solitude and a state of connection.


in 90 percent of your daily life, the presence of a cell phone either doesn’t matter or makes things only slightly more convenient. They’re useful, but it’s hyperbolic to believe its ubiquitous presence is vital.


“Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” To underscore his esteem for walking, Nietzsche also notes: “The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit.”

Take these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone. If you’re wearing headphones, or monitoring a text message chain, or, God forbid, narrating the stroll on Instagram—you’re not really walking, and therefore you’re not going to experience this practice’s greatest benefits.


This practice asks you to embrace this well-validated strategy by making time to write a letter to yourself when faced with demanding or uncertain circumstances.

Holly Shakya identified a likely suspect for this factor: the more you use social media to interact with your network, the less time you devote to offline communication.

The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship.

Anything textual or non-interactive—basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging—doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection.

if you adopt conversation-centric communication, you’ll still likely rely on text-messaging services to simplify information gathering, or to coordinate social events, or to ask quick questions, but you’ll no longer participate in open-ended, ongoing text-based conversations throughout your day. The socializing that counts is real conversation, and text is no longer a sufficient alternative.


it’s worth noting that refusing to use social media icons and comments to interact means that some people will inevitably fall out of your social orbit—in particular, those whose relationship with you exists only over social media. Here’s my tough love reassurance: let them go.


When your friends and family are able to instigate meandering pseudo-conversations with you over text at any time, it’s easy for them to become complacent about your relationship.


Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversation. Depending on where you are during this period, these conversations might be exclusively on the phone or could also include in-person meetings.

When someone instigates a low-quality connection (say, a text message conversation or social media ping), suggest they call or meet you during your office hours sometime when it is convenient for them.


I call these joyful activities high-quality leisure.

The more I study this topic, the more it becomes clear to me that low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness.

Harris felt uncomfortable, in other words, not because he was craving a particular digital habit, but because he didn’t know what to do with himself once his general access to the world of connected screens was removed.

A good leisure pursuit, in Bennett’s calculus, should require more “mental strain” to enjoy (he recommends difficult poetry).

One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.

We might tell ourselves there’s no greater reward after a hard day at the office than to have an evening entirely devoid of plans or commitments. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began.

Leisure Lesson #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.

My core argument is that craft is a good source of high-quality leisure.

Leisure Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.

People are more eager than ever before to play Scrabble with neighbors, or trash-talk co-workers over poker, or line up in the Toronto cold for a table at Snakes & Lattes.

Playing games also provides permission for what we can call supercharged socializing—interactions with higher intensity levels than are common in polite society.

Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.


Changing your own car oil Installing a new ceiling-mounted light fixture Learning the basics of a new technique on an instrument you already play (e.g., a guitar player learning Travis picking) Figuring out how to precisely calibrate the tone arm on your turntable Building a custom headboard from high-quality lumber Starting a garden plot

Almost every modern-day handyperson I’ve spoken to recommends the exact same source for quick how-to lessons: YouTube.

My suggestion is that you try to learn and apply one new skill every week, over a period of six weeks. Start with easy projects like those suggested above, but as soon as you feel the challenge wane, ramp up the complication of the skills and steps involved.


You can’t, in other words, build a billion-dollar empire like Facebook if you’re wasting hours every day using a service like Facebook.

The premise of this chapter is that by cultivating a high-quality leisure life first, it will become easier to minimize low-quality digital diversions later.

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 goes. If you want to binge-watch Netflix while live-streaming yourself browsing Twitter: go for it. But outside these periods, stay offline.

schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure.


Few can mimic the energy Franklin invested into his social leisure, but we can all extract an important lesson from his approach to cultivating a fulfilling leisure life: join things.


I suggest you strategize this part of your life with a two-level approach consisting of both a seasonal and weekly leisure plan.

If you’re already in the habit of creating detailed plans for your week (which I highly recommend), you can just integrate your weekly leisure plan into whatever system you already use for planning.

I want to underscore the foundational argument delivered throughout this chapter: doing nothing is overrated.




There’s now a solution for this scenario as well: the tethered dumb phone. These products, which include, notably, a Kickstarter darling called the Light Phone, don’t replace your existing smartphone, but instead extend it to a simpler form.

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