Cal Newport has made a name for himself as the millennial (well, an older millennial) who doesn’t have any social media accounts. By day a computer science professor at Georgetown, he moonlights writing self-help books on building career capital (So Good They Can’t Ignore You) and developing the discipline to fend off distraction (Deep Work). Now he’s back with a new book on the philosophy of Digital Minimalism.
He had originally been planning to write something else, he notes, but when talking with people about doing deep work, they kept bringing up the difficulty of doing so. Many of us wind up unlocking our smart phones 100+ times per day. Some of this is work. Some of this is high quality connection with far-flung family and friends. A lot of it, however, is not. Much modern technology is designed to maximize our interaction with it. We keep with it if there is any benefit, rather than looking at the opportunity cost.
So Digital Minimalism covers a different way of approaching technology. Newport defines it as a philosophy 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.”
Of course, this is easier said than done, so Digital Minimalism describes how to get there. First, Newport recommends a 30-day fast (a “declutter”) from optional technologies. So yes, you answer your boss’s email, and yes, you respond to your kid’s text asking you to pick her up from soccer. But the rest can go. After 30 days, you figure out which technologies best support real connections or professional advancement, and take a pass on the rest.
So far, this is well-trodden ground. What distinguishes Newport’s book from a host of other literature scolding people to get off their phones is that he talks about what else you should do with your time. Social media and headline scrolling time is leisure time. It also tends to crowd out all other leisure. By thinking seriously about what else you’d like to do with your analog leisure time, and building this into your life, you can find Facebook less tempting even if you are not a font of willpower. You can commit to volunteering at a food bank rather than spending yet another weekend puttering around. You can visit a new parent rather than just posting “awww” on Instagram. Life will feel much more meaningful this way.
I think this is emphatically the right direction to approach this problem. Fill your life with the good stuff and the other stuff consumes less time.
Because this is so important, though, and because I think Digital Minimalism is such a great philosophy (feel free to take that as the thesis of the piece and go buy the book now!), I do want to address one issue that I think readers of this blog might find frustrating.
Long-time readers will recall that my experience of reading Deep Work ended with me thinking that yes, deep work is fulfilling and important and I should do more of it, but also scratching my head wondering if women were capable of doing deep work. Newport cites male example after male example (with the exception of JK Rowling). There are obvious historical reasons that men have wound up with more mental space to do deep work, but in Deep Work, Newport didn’t really talk about that, or how to strategize about your deep work time if you are the parent who, say, gets called by daycare to pick up a sick kid, or tends to cover snow days and the like.
I doubt I’m the only person who noticed this, and in Digital Minimalism he pays a lot more attention to this issue. He mentions the famous Virginia Woolf quote about women needing income and a room of their own to write.* He notes that women have often been denied the solitude necessary to create. While citing Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (which argues that people have 8 hours of leisure beyond their work day) he notes, with some mockery, that Bennett “ignores the possibility that some of this leisure time might be reduced by childcare or housework, as he was writing only for men, who in Bennett’s early twentieth-century middle-class British world, of course, never needed to bother with such things.”
So I know he thinks about these matters, and I also know Newport prides himself (as a point of identity) on spending a lot of time with his young family. That’s one reason he’s not on Twitter! But he also skims over the logistical challenges that are sometimes necessary for people with jobs, kids, and working spouses — or just spouses who have their own big time commitments — to make high-quality leisure time happen.
For instance, he recommends spending some leisure time fixing things, noting proudly that he’s used YouTube to teach himself how to replace a motor on a bathroom ventilation fan. This provided “the foundation for a satisfying afternoon of tinkering.” My immediate question: who watches Newport’s three small children while he gets out the tools to replace a motor? I ask because some of my husband and my bitterest arguments have been about him disappearing on weekends to do some yard project, which of course means I can’t do any projects because I’m keeping our youngest from spraying bug spray all over our shoes.** Ideally, spouses with young children have a discussion about how to split weekend tinkering time. At one point, my husband and I came to an understanding that if he was going to Lowe’s, he needed to take at least one kid with him. But if this discussion happens in the Newport house, he never mentions it.
Nor does he mention it when (another example) he describes a semi-regular poker game with some dad-buddies: “These sessions provide us an excuse to joke and chat and vent for three hours. When a player in our game runs out of chips early, he always sticks around for the rest of the game.” It sounds like a lot of fun, but it made me curious how these men make it happen to get there. There’s no discussion of “Dave’s wife Rebecca travels a lot for work, so his mom has agreed to come over on the Wednesday night we play if she’s out of town…” Or “John’s wife has actually arranged her shifts at the emergency room so she’s home on those nights…” Perhaps everyone’s childcare situation is so seamless they don’t need to think about it. I don’t know.
What I do know is that for me, the leisure logistics are reasonably complex. I sing in a choir that meets Thursday nights during the school year, and we sing in church every Sunday morning. Leave aside what I need to do on the work front to make sure I’m there (I’ve booked a lot of flights specifically to get me into PHL by 4:30 p.m. or so on Thursday). Since my husband often travels for work too, or can get home unpredictably, our nanny has agreed to stay late on Thursdays if necessary. But that’s not the end of the logistical fun! Through much of the winter, my 9-year-old has wrestling practice on Thursday nights. It ends after my 4-year-old goes to bed. So we need to coordinate a carpool if my husband is out of town, since even with a nanny working overtime, we still need another adult to help out.
I believe it’s worth it, both on the logistical and expense front, because I value my high-quality leisure time. I can also see that there are other people in my choir with jobs, kids, and working spouses, so one need not write books about time management to make it work. But there are things to consider. Since one reason people spend the bulk of their leisure time on screens is that screens require none of these logistics, it seems the who-watches-the-kids question deserves a mention.
That said, even if people won’t make it to a regular poker game or a choir rehearsal, they can use the time after kids go to bed to read, do a puzzle, call a friend, crochet, etc. rather than surf the web. These things are not either/or. Just because Twitter is easier and doesn’t make logistical demands of you doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Reading Digital Minimalism gives you a lot of food for thought on how to choose “a focused life in a noisy world.” Good leisure feels, well, good. Hopefully people reading this book will try it out and remember what such leisure feels like. I promise that it whets your appetite for more.
*Which, incidentally, is the realization JK Rowling came to. People were making noise in her house and she realized she could throw money at the problem. So she decamped to a “room of her own” in a hotel to finish the last Harry Potter book.
**He really, truly did this. The 4-year-old, I mean. He got mad at me for disciplining him for rolling a coffee table along the kitchen floor so he seized the opportunity when I was distracted by making breakfast to spray bug spray all over my favorite shoes. I think I salvaged them, but geez.
IN OTHER BOOK NEWS: A few more books out this week of interest! Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth A. Silvers, the team behind Pantsuit Politics, just released I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening). This book is about how to have better, deeper conversations in an era of polarization. Also, my friend Mollie West Duffy just came out with a new book, co-authored with Liz Fosslien, called No Hard Feelings: Emotions at Work and How They Help Us Succeed. If you’ve ever wondered if it’s OK to cry at work, this book offers some thoughts — in the form of many amusing cartoons. Please check both books out!