Digital Minimalism: A review

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!

26 thoughts on “Digital Minimalism: A review

  1. I am looking forward to reading the book but I think that’s one of the challenges of time management literature, particularly when written by men. Your Home Depot rule is a good one, even with one kid. My 18 month old calls our Home Depot equivalent B&Q ‘B and cute’ which indicates how frequently they visit. They tend to run their errands, stop into the coffee shop for a snack, and come home via the play park which gives me time for deep work or efficient housekeeping of my own.

  2. Thanks for this review. I actually googled “Deep Work gendered” after reading the last book. As a college professor, I very much identified with the need to carve out time and space for research that Newport advocates, but I was dismayed by the obvious gender disparities even in the descriptions of the work of a professor. It’s well documented that women in the academy are tasked with serving on more committees and taking on more menial administration and student support so the idea of not responding to email (in addition to being really unresponsive to students) struck me as impossible. I am a fan of your books, but also appreciate the fact that you don’t ignore the need to make decisions and compromises and adjustments in order to fulfill personal and professional goals. Maybe I will always respond to student email, but what else can I do to find more time to write? By the time I was 1/3 of the way through Deep Work and Marissa Meyer (negative example) and JK Rowling were the only examples of women who had cracked the code of Deep Work, I knew something was off.

  3. So poignant – my husband is uber handy and he prefers to spend weekends fixing things or gardening (it’s his stress reliever) but after having two kids that had to change because it meant I was forced to spend weekends constantly watching the kids. We have a similar Home Depot rule and also have hired out a few projects he would normally have undertaken. It’s definately easier now that they are older (5 and 6) but now the focus is on saving some time for fun and/or quality time on the weekends.

  4. I have been looking forward to this title, so thanks for the reminder to go buy it! (In paper, because I am already making a concerted effort to avoid devices when not at work.) My personal anecdote about gender, children, and concentration: Recently my children (12 and 15) and their two dogs decamped to the grandparents for the weekend. For the first few hours after they left, I found myself going through this loop of wanting to check to find out what was wrong to make it so quiet, then remembering they were all gone, then wondering what was wrong, lather rinse repeat. It was in that moment that I realized just how much background mental energy is going into monitoring the household, even with largely self sufficient beings.

  5. Thanks for this review. I had a problem with how Newport didn’t really think about the difference between women’s and men’s career experiences in his career book (So Good They Can’t Ignore You) and have mostly skipped his work since, because it feels like he isn’t talking to me. It sounds like he’s gotten at least a bit better in this regard, so maybe I’ll check this one out. My own approach to the online world is to try to use these things in ways that I think add value to my life – I try to keep Twitter curated to keep me informed on things I care about and mute the things that just annoy me, and I’m experimenting with using Instagram as a way to remind myself to notice things more.

    But: I’m only on Instagram because my older daughter wants it and I need to understand it before I can decide what the rules for her are if she gets it…. And that actually ties into your point about how couples divide up leisure time. One of us needed to figure out Instagram and it just naturally fell to me since I’m the one who does other social media. This was maybe not the best division. We as a couple gain value from one of us being on Facebook (to be in the loop on some school things and see updates from our friends in Australia and New Zealand), but my husband won’t do it, so I’m on Facebook. I don’t like it and keep it to a minimum, and I don’t consider it leisure. It is a chore.

    And don’t get me started on the hours of time he spent “fixing” the dishwasher last weekend and how he decided to tear apart the kitchen right at the time I was heading in there to make scones for our daughters’ weekday lunches! I am with you – the disconnect of him just taking time to go do a chore like that without thinking about how it impacts the rest of the weekend schedule has led to some of our biggest arguments. He thinks it is all good because he’s doing something that needs to be done. I am angry because I also have a list of things that need to be done and need the space and time to do them. I don’t think we’ll ever solve this one, though, because it occurs much less frequently now that the kids are older and require less supervision. We divide up weekend kid shuttling duties ahead of time, and that is the best we’re going to do, I think.

  6. “But if this discussion happens in the Newport house, he never mentions it.” This is 100% the problem I had with Deep Work, and it’s frustrating to hear that he’s acknowledged it’s a blind spot of his but didn’t really do much to correct it with this one.
    .
    I have to give household credit where it’s due – my husband’s errand default is to drag the two kids with him (mine, too, as I agree with you that there’s no point doing things without kids that you can do with them – save the kid-free time for kid-free activities). Granted, his job is much more demanding and even makes lots of demands on me and my time, but when he’s home, he’s the primary parent. Probably because when our kids were tiny, I would hand him the baby and disappear when he walked in the door, ha.

  7. Have not read the book but had to (HAD TO) respond to the weekend project/Lowes comment. YES. Me too. When our youngest was a baby, a “one weekend project” stretched out to several months, including evenings and every Saturday. It about killed our marriage. I was venting to my sister and she said “just tell him the next time he goes to Lowes he has to take the baby. I bet his trips will be faster and less frequent.” She was right.

    We agreed to hire out any project that will take longer than one day. That stupid shed project is still a running joke among our friends…

    1. @Katherine – you know, enough people are mentioning this in the comments that I think I’m going to suggest the “Lowe’s Rule” as a way to keep a happy marriage 🙂

      1. Seriously. It’s a good rule.

        Once my sister said it, it was so obvious. But- truly- did not occur to me prior. Instead I was just seething and asking how much longer and did he truly need another trip to Lowes… Ah, those early years of marriage when I didn’t quite know how to speak up for what I needed. I do not miss them.

  8. Insightful review–I’m looking forward to reading this book (and Deep Work is in the to-be-read pile). Although I feel I have a pretty good grip on my digital technology use–reading is my main leisure activity and tends to crowd out a lot of mindless phone scrolling.

    I think this type of planning is part of the mental load for a lot of women, whether their leisure time was planned first or not.

    Another thought–some people consider tinkering and home projects to be leisure time, but some do not. So one person may spend time on a repair project and then want leisure time in addition to the time spent repairing. Another tricky aspect is that there isn’t always a definite time frame with tinkering type projects–the non-tinkerer can get frustrated waiting for a project to be completed.

  9. Hi:
    Thanks so much for this review!
    I’m a huge fan of Cal Newport and I think I found your work through of review of his a few years ago. After reading his book “So good They Can’t Ignore You” I decided to go back to work after being home for 11 years with my children. With a masters’ degree already in statistics I was able to reenter the workforce more easily than I thought – I had a job within a month making $20K more than when I left. What I’ve found harder are those issues you mention about gender and leisure time. My husband is very supportive and helpful but there are still things that seem to not cross his mind. Tinkering on a home improvement task for hours is much more satisfying that many other tasks. And I find my husband seems amazed for example that we have to purchase almost an entirely new wardrobe every 6 months for our quickly growing teens – someone has to do this work (the boots and swimsuits from last season simply no longer fit) and now that I’m working full-time and don’t particularly enjoy shopping I don’t really choose to do this – I’d rather watch the you tube videos and do the home improvement task or mow the lawn – much more satisfying to me personally. Personally my job has really changed from commuting to working from home – that’s awesome in many ways but doesn’t necessarily mean now that I have 2 extra hours a days (which previously I used to read and socialize) that I want to spend those on household tasks since I’m readily available. My husband and I work on this together, but it’s still a struggle mostly managed by me. I think your bringing up the gendered issue of leisure time is spot on. I look forward to reading Cal’s latest book which arrived yesterday through that lens. Thanks for your thoughtful review!

    1. @Jenny- glad you liked the review, and nice work on your re-entry into the workforce. Having a specialized, in-demand skill is helpful! Your hiring manager probably couldn’t believe her luck.

      I don’t like shopping for kid clothes either. I find that when things break or get lost it really bothers me — not because of the expense, but because of the time it often takes to replace them.

  10. *raises hand* as a weekend-projects-victim and also as not enjoying the (small per part but big as a total) (virtual) errands related to keeping kids fed and clothed and the roof on the house, as opposed to taking a kid to Lowe’s (that’s an outing and one-on-one time!)

    1. also, this is why I, as a “thinking” woman, consume less and less media composed by men, making me estranged from the world according to some… but what’s a girl to do. And since there’s around 50% of the population of us (women, I mean)… who’s estranged anyway?

  11. The main conclusion I come to over and over again, is that we need more female voices and less assuming that a male voice can speak to everyone.
    When women write books (on many topics) they are discussed as books “aimed at women”, but when men write books on the same topics they are viewed as suitable for all. Well clearly, they are not.

    1. Completely agree! This is exactly why I’m such a fan of Laura’s books and recommend them to everyone. “I Know How She Does It” was the first work/career type book I had ever come across that felt like it was written for me (a thirty something mom with a career but not endless amounts of money). It felt like a revelation. More female voices please!

      1. @Rachel W – aw, thanks! Glad you found me 🙂 To be clear, I like Cal’s book and think it makes a great point. I’m just pointing out a little blind spot that would matter to readers of this blog. It’s a common oversight in the book world — but since it can’t be an oversight for me personally, at this stage of my life, I’m very aware of it.

  12. So awesome to see this review! I love Cal Newport’s ideas and books overall, and pre-ordered this one.

    I am going to cut him some slack – I noticed the lack of women/family logistics in “Deep Work” and was happy that he even addressed it at all in this book with that mention of Woolf. I do remember one of his examples from So Good They Can’t Ignore You was a female software engineer, so I am super happy about that, especially given that it was written a while ago 🙂

    I am curious about whether he has a SAH wife. I have found that my experience with even enlightened men at work my own age or younger, those with a SAH partner simply do not worry about logistics on the level that those with a working partner do. Their arrangements seem to be that that stuff is mostly “her job” and while they participate in “family life” more so than someone of my own dad’s generation, they still don’t regularly get into the nitty-gritty of childcare arrangements, clothing and shoe purchases when stuff is outgrown, meal planning, making sure homework gets done, etc. It’s more of a “helper” role than a shared parenting role. I think that causes a blind spot by default because they just don’t SEE the logistical work or carry that same mental load as the parent who is doing that stuff. It happens in 2 working parent families too, but it seems less likely than happens with my colleagues with SAH wives.

  13. Thank you for this review! I had the exact same problem with Deep Work (and many other Good Reads reviewers did too!), and unfortunately it sounds like I’ll be similarly frustrated with this book, even though I like his concepts in theory.

    I *think* Cal has talked in the past about having a stay at home wife. Or at the very least, his career clearly comes first in their marriage. I get so annoyed when men (like him) pat themselves on the back for being great “family men” and all the “dedicated time” they spend with their family. And it’s like – great! That’s important! But a) one might think that to be the default so it doesn’t need to be bragged about, and b) if all the time you spend on your family is focused play time…who is doing the logistics? Who packs their lunches, picks up their toys, coordinates the doctors’ appointments and play dates…etc? The list goes on and on. And yet again it’s always the woman doing the invisible work/mental load tasks, and we continue to laud men for doing the bare minimum. ENOUGH! Sorry, had to get that rant out of my system!

  14. Perhaps you and Sarah could invite Newport to be on Best of Both Worlds to answer some of these questions? If not him, maybe his wife would do it! I think that it would be an interesting discussion.

  15. Thank you so much for this critique! When I read Deep Work I also felt like Cal missed the mark re: his very specific type of work. Academics network in very different ways than equally skilled creatives or other collaborative professionals. As a single mom, I can’t make the networking events like happy hours or extended conferences because child care becomes prohibitively expensive, but I can spend an hour during soccer practice on social media building connections. And I’d heard the poker game anecdote from this book: a three hour game plus travel time would be a $50 investment for me which just isn’t feasible. But after my child’s early bedtime I can choose to read a book in a hot bath for 40 minutes!
    I like Cal’a work but it reinforces to me that I really have no use for the work of privileged white men who don’t explicitly acknowledge things like a spouse that stays at home. Your work has been helpful to me, Laura, because you talk about how your family makes a higher income and can afford to have an extra adult in the form of a nanny or how certain things don’t work because your youngest is so young! That context makes your work approachable and relevant in a way that Cal’a isn’t.

    1. @CR- thanks for your comment. I think there are a lot of great ideas in here, and Newport is a thoughtful person. I just wanted to raise some issues that I think matter for people who are the primary (or only) parent for their children. These issues increase the complexity of certain leisure time calculations. They don’t change the larger point, but it can sometimes feel like the difference between covering 2 miles by car or 2 miles by foot. Both are very doable, but they’re different levels of effort.

      You raise an interesting point on how social media has been a boon for single parents and others who might not be as easily able to access in-person networking opportunities. I think this is quite valid and should be included in any critique of relying on social media.

      And thank you for your kind words about my work. I do sometimes feel like I expose myself to all sorts of criticism because I do rely on professional childcare, housekeeping, and other such things. But I feel like it’s more authentic to talk about it than to pretend that these things happen by magic, or happen by the “magic” of a stay-at-home spouse. I don’t have that, and many other people don’t too. There are upsides to that (two incomes!) and there are complexities.

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