Booktober 5th: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

[This is Day 5 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: Newport applies his principles of deep work and intentional excellence to the arena of our digital lives, and he proposes a countercultural approach to find freedom from screen-slavery while living in a digitally-obsessed culture.

Why You Should Read It: If you’ve ever complained about how much time you spend on social media or how lousy it makes you feel, this book is a must-read for you. I’ve written about it in more detail here, but to summarize: Newport’s prescription for how to tame the digital beast is hard to swallow for some and requires a great deal of intentionality and thoughtfulness, but it makes a lot of sense. As with any good, hard thing worth doing, putting it into practice is the challenge, but it’s plain to see that he’s on the right track here. Read this book, and let Newport help you take a step back and reassess your relationship with your gadgets and online life.

Rethinking My Feeds: Addict.

black and white blackboard blinds chairs
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Early last week, I put up messages that I was taking a few weeks off of social media. I wanted to do the “Digital Detox” thing that Newport recommends in Digital Minimalism. I logged out on Tuesday or Wednesday and said, “okay, that’s it for a while.” My plan was to stay off of social media for at least the next 30 days, maybe into the summer sometime.

I keep logging back in. 

On the plus side, more than half of the time, I will check for notifications, maybe peruse the first screens of items in my feed, and then log out. In other words, I haven’t been idly scrolling and losing all track of time, like I would sometimes do before this.

But I keep going back. I keep wanting just to check if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me on any conversations. I log in, hoping for the little dings and pings I’ve become so enamored of.

As much as I try to describe my use of social media in noble terms, as a way to connect with others and find edifying and challenging content, the diabolical truth of the matter is I use social media most often because I want attention. I want to be noticed.

Like a dumped boyfriend or a cut-off junkie, I keep lingering around the periphery of Twitter and Facebook, hoping to get a peek at what’s going on, hoping to be seen. Hoping to be missed. Trying to get just enough of a fix to take the edge off.

Okay, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s not as much of an exaggeration as it should be. See, I know something that none of you readers do: I know my heart. I know my sinful little self. And I know that I want to be known. (And I cringe to acknowledge it, but to my wicked heart, being known by the very Creator God of the universe doesn’t seem to scratch that itch, some days.)

So here I am, taking my seat at the table, cup of cheap coffee in hand.

Hi. My name’s Dave. I’m addicted to social media attention, and I need to change that.

Rethinking My Feeds: Sabbath.

architecture chairs contemporary decorations
Photo by Marianne on Pexels.com

(For the record, that is not my actual back porch. But, hey, #HouseGoals, right?)

I spent most of my Sunday screen-free.

I’ve been trying to do that more often, with varying levels of success. This past Sunday wasn’t perfect in that regard, but I’m getting better about it. I noticed throughout the day that I was getting tasks done, I was engaging with my family, and I was feeling more relaxed in general. Who would have thought, right?

While I’m not any kind of strict Sabbatarian, I see the value and blessing inherent in carving out Sunday as a day of worship, rest, and reflection. (And reading–LOTS of reading.) So it makes sense for me to try to make Sunday screen-free as well.**

Online commentary in recent years that examines or critiques our current screen-focused culture often recommends regular breaks from tech as a way of finding refreshment and gaining perspective. (Seriously, do a web search for “digital sabbath” or “digital detox”–ironically, you’d be staring at a screen for ages trying to read it all.)

One of the points that Cal Newport raises in Digital Minimalism is that removing a huge chunk of unproductive (or even harmful) screen-time isn’t enough. Something needs to fill the void, lest we go back to our old habits.

If you’ve been thinking about taking a break from your devices or distractions (whether for a few hours, a day, or even longer), here are a few recommendations for redeeming the time in your now-quieter weekend:

  • Sleep. Let’s get real for a second: you probably don’t sleep enough. I know I don’t sleep enough. There are all sorts of reasons we stay up too late (maybe related to our tech, maybe related to our anxiety, maybe related to our out-of-balance work-life). So if you make the choice to turn off the screens for a day or two in the near future, please take my advice: take a nap. That thing we all hated in kindergarten is now a thing of beauty and joy, and a gift to us from the God who never sleeps.
  • Enjoy some face-to-face time with your loved ones. When I stop reaching for my phone to scroll random folks’ text-only communication, I can hear my 20-month-old daughter better, as she learns new words, makes phrases and sentences I can actually understand now, and mixes in babble that she tells me very emphatically (which is seven different kinds of cute). I can talk to my wife about her day and the challenges of being a mom. I can spend time with family members or friends from church, and not be pulled away (mentally or optically) by pings and buzzes. These people, these faces, they mean something to me. I honor that when I give them my undistracted eyes and ears.
  • Spend time with God. It’s all too easy to be harried and distracted by my daily life so that a thousand petty annoyances crowd out time to read the Scriptures, pray, or read a good book of theology or church history. I’ve been trying to devote my Sunday reading time to things that feed my soul and not just my mind. (That said, I admit I still need to be more intentional about devoting time to talk to God and not just read about God.) Whenever I make the choice to focus my heart on Jesus and not on entertainment or distraction, I come away feeling more alive, not less. More human. More thankful.
  • Do something physically active. I’m a desk-jockey five days a week. I eat too much sugary food and drink too much caffeine. If you’ve seen me in the flesh, this won’t come as a surprise to you. So my goal for this next Sunday is to do something active. Take a walk. Play on the floor with my daughter. Maybe break out my workout mat and do a quick session with DDPY. (Does that involve a screen? Technically, yes. …What are you, the Screen Police? Never you mind.) I need to make the decision to be more active. No, not *just* on Sunday, but I think it’s a great time to celebrate the “rest” I have been given in Jesus by being active in a way that is refreshing and restorative rather than laborious.

I’m not good at making changes in my life. I’m lousy at consistency. I tend to talk a good game but not back it up well. But if nothing else, I am trying to attain “expert” status at being stubborn enough not to give up on things that I know matter in the long run.

My wife likes to remind me of the verse in Proverbs that says “A righteous man falls seven times and rises again…” While not the perfect contextual application, I think there’s merit in that reminder. Victory, change, and growth sometimes start with just getting back up and starting over (and over, and over, and over).

Sunday is five days away. Can I challenge you to make the decision now that your screens stay dark as much as possible? Then, come back to this post next week and let me know how that worked out for you.

 

 

** “Screen-free Sundays, even during football season, Dave?” Yes, I’m going to try to keep it up even during football season. That’s why the good Lord gave us radio.

The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.