The Appeal of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism

First post! For this one, I wanted to talk about why I deleted all of my social media accounts—people usually ask about this when they find out, and every time I try to answer, I struggle to capture in words my motivation for doing what I did. Since my motivation is deeply rooted in Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, I figured I would go back, read it again, and write something down here so that I have a better understanding of my motivation. I also just wanted to write about this book because it’s so good.

Why is the book worth your time? I think one important thing it does is that it brings up an interesting point about trade-offs when it comes to using apps and services. Cal Newport begins this discussion by talking about Henry Thoreau, who began a wilderness lifestyle experiment in 1845 and wrote about it in his famous Walden book. Among other things, Thoreau was interested in examining not money but time as the unit of measurement for economics, and in his views, the cost of a thing was the amount of “life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

For instance, Newport explores the following situation: working one acre of land as a farmer earns you $1 a year in profit, while working sixty acres earns you $60. Which option would you take? Even if $1 was enough to meet all of your basic needs, common sense would have you take the option that nets you $60 in profit.

Thoreau, though, would argue that you are leaving out the cost in life required to achieve that extra $59 in monetary profit—working a large farm would require “large, stressful mortgages, the need to maintain numerous pieces of equipment, and endless, demanding labor.” Doesn’t really sound appealing, and he describes farmers working these large farms as “crushed and smothered under their load.”

And what would the benefit of that extra $59 even be? Slightly nicer stuff, the author suggests. He then asks: why would you go for a “lifetime of stress and backbreaking labor” for slightly better stuff?

It’s this idea, that clutter can be costly, that is at the foundation of digital minimalism. Take a look at what Cal Newport says in applying this idea to social media apps and services (feel free to replace Twitter with Tik Tok or Instagram):

“When people consider specific tools or behaviors in their digital lives, they tend to focus only on the value each produces. Maintaining an active presence on Twitter, for example, might occasionally open up an interesting new connection or expose you to an idea you hadn’t heard before. Standard economic thinking says that such profits are good, and the more you receive the better. It therefore makes sense to clutter your digital life with as many of these small sources of value as you can find.”

Thoreau’s idea, though, “demands that you balance this profit against the costs measured in terms of ‘your life.’ How much of your time and attention, he would ask, must be sacrificed to earn the small profits of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter? Assume, for example, that your Twitter habit effectively consumes ten hours per week. Thoreau would note that this cost is almost certainly way too high for the limited benefits it returns. If you value new connections and exposure to interesting ideas, he might argue, why not adopt a habit of attending an interesting talk or event every month, and forcing yourself to chat with at least three people while there? This would produce similar types of value but consume only a few hours of your life per month, leaving you with an extra thirty-seven hours to dedicate to other meaningful pursuits.”

Further, “these costs, of course, also tend to compound. When you combine an active Twitter presence with a dozen other attention-demanding online behaviors, the cost in life becomes extreme. Like Thoreau’s farmers, you end up ‘crushed and smothered’ under the demands of your time and attention, and in the end, all you receive in return for sacrificing so much of your life is a few nicer trinkets, many of which, as shown in the Twitter example above, could probably be approximated at a much lower cost, or eliminated without any major negative impact.”

I love this idea. I initially signed up for social media apps and services for some vague ideas on what I wanted from them, never taking the time to think about what I would be losing. By using these services, or perhaps by being used by these services (I’m thinking of Social Dilemma), I would be losing a few things important to me.

For instance, the quality of my experiences. When I used to have Instagram, I felt this need to “show off” whenever I did something interesting or went to a cool place—not realizing that, by thinking about sharing the moment to an audience, I would not be fully present in the moment itself. Traveling with family members, seeing a concert with close friends—these are moments that I want to be fully present in, and I would hate to feel the need to capture my experiences for someone else that’s not there, that’s not important. Is it so bad to enjoy that moment with only the people I’m with?

Also, my attention would suffer for no good reason. I’m a believer in Deep Work (another fantastic book by Cal Newport), which argues that high-quality focus and work are…well, amazing for us. You’re more likely to produce your best outcome, be it your schoolwork or your workplace task, if you are intentional in your focus and set aside other distractions. Distractions are costly (I’m thinking of studies showing that it takes a full 23 minutes to recover your focus after a distraction), and what are social media apps if not that? Constant pings and notifications, mostly about things I don’t care about.

Due to the filter of not having social media accounts, when I receive messages now (through text or email), they’re usually from people that I truly care about and would like to hear from in the first place, people I want to put my attention to and prioritize in my life. Eliminating the noise from social media accounts allows me to be more intentional in how I’m spending my time, and with whom. I’m no longer constantly pinged by notifications about people that I somewhat knew in high school, and therefore getting distracted for no good reason—instead, when I am notified, it’s from someone that matters to me, someone I am happy to hear from and wouldn’t mind setting aside time to get back to, no matter what I was doing.

There are other things, too, but for the sake of keeping this post short, I wanted to stop here. Time and attention. Those are the costs that we all pay when we use these apps and services, and I was in a lucky position where those services weren’t absolutely necessary for my career or personal life. After reading Digital Minimalism, along with other books, I came to the simple conclusion that I was paying a disproportionate cost by maintaining those accounts.

I may get back to one of those services in the future if there is a good reason to, and if the cost is reasonable. For now, though, I am surprisingly doing well without them—I think I’m doing better.

We’ll see.

That’s it for this post. I’m hoping that I did a good job summarizing the book’s point about trade-offs, particularly when it comes to your time and attention. Are you paying a proportionate cost for what you want from social media, or are you paying a disproportionate cost?

Hoping that we all pay our attention at a reasonable cost.