Transcript of How to Become a Digital Minimalist
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John Jantsch: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch, and my guest today is Cal Newport. He is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of six books, including the one we’re going to talk about today, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Cal, thanks for joining me.
Cal Newport: John, it’s my pleasure to be back.
John Jantsch: Writing a book with the title minimalism in it makes you have to say that word a lot, and, I don’t know about you, but that word’s hard to say sometimes.
Cal Newport: I didn’t realize that until the press tour started because when you’re writing it, hey, it looks nice on the page, but then when you have to say it a hundred times at interviews you realize it’s a bit of a mouthful.
John Jantsch: I know the answer to this, but I’m sure you’ve been asked, is there any irony in the fact that a computer science professor is talking about minimizing your digital footprint?
Cal Newport: I actually think there’s a lot of logic to it. I mean obviously technologies play a massive role in our daily experience and the way our culture unfolds. It seems to me that one of the voices we need in this conversation are the people who actually work on those technologies themselves. To me it was natural that as a computer scientist I’m one of the people that’s involved in discussing what role should tech play, how do we get the value out of it, how do we sidestep the negatives as well.
John Jantsch: Essentially the book is about reducing the time we spend online, focusing on a small number of activities to support the things we deeply value. When did we lose that?
Cal Newport: Well, that’s a good question. We’ve always struggled with technologies, but I think we’re in a particular state of unease that’s really emerged, let’s say, in the last few years when people begin to notice it. I think the core of this unease is about the amount of time so many of us are spending looking at these little screens in our hands. If you talk to people, the issue is not utility. It’s not necessarily what they’re doing when they look at their screen is in itself worthless or bad. That’s not really the grounds on which discussion is happening.
Cal Newport: The thing that seems to be making people uneasy is autonomy, the idea that they’re looking down at these screens way more than they know is useful, way more than they know is healthy to the exclusion of things they know are more important. It’s their sense of I’m losing control over what I’m doing with my time and attention, and as a result my actual humanity is diminished or the enjoyment of my life is going down. I think that’s the crisis that I’m trying to respond to with this book.
John Jantsch: I’m like a lot of people, I mean the book resonates with me tremendously. That’s my job is to be online sort of, and so I find myself like a lot of people really drawn to it. I also find myself sometimes going, “No. Put that thing down. What are you doing?” It’s almost become a chemical reaction.
Cal Newport: That’s the issue that’s going on is that these services have utility. There’s a reason why we signed up for it. The reason why we’re upset is because especially in the case of, let’s say, social media and other attention economy conglomerates, the experience was subtly re-engineered, after most people actually signed up for it, to try to get us to look at these screens way more than we actually were before, and way more than we need to be looking at them, so that the revenue numbers could go up.
Cal Newport: I think that’s the thing that’s getting to people. It’s also why this conversation is so complicated is that we’re used to these type of things being cut and dry, like with cigarettes, where people say, “I don’t want to smoke cigarettes. There’s no benefit to smoking cigarettes. I will do whatever it takes to stop smoking cigarettes.” Cut and dry. Much more complicated now.
Cal Newport: What we have here is network technologies that have deep innovations underlying them and real utility, and yet at the same time our relationship with them has really mutated over time to be something that’s unhealthy. It’s a more complicated net that we have to untangle here.
John Jantsch: For example, I mean it’s easy to say you’re scrolling through Facebook, that serves no purpose usually. I could get on Medium all day long and read stuff that’s really good and maybe useful. It’s still consuming my day.
Cal Newport: Exactly. These are the type of dynamics that are out there. It’s this mix of usefulness with compulsive behavior patterns that go beyond what’s useful and begin to take away from other values. To me this is why what we need is not just a little bit more self-awareness. This is why we need more than just tips or tricks. We really need a coherent philosophy. How do we make sense of all this tech and integrate them into a life well-lived, because if we just allow it to be out there and floating in this world, and just approach it in an ad hoc manner, we tend to get overwhelmed and the net cost-benefit ratio starts to skew too heavily towards the cost size.
Cal Newport: Digital minimalism is basically an attempt to outline a philosophy of technology use, a way to approach these tools with some care so that you can get big value out of it but avoid big losses at the same time.
John Jantsch: I’m sure you have statistics on this. In fact, I’m going to get to that part where you had your volunteers do an experiment. Does this behavior correlate with us just working more, period?
Cal Newport: Well, there’s two things going on here. When it comes to these unintentional consequences of technology, we have two areas we should care about. One is our work life, one is our personal life. I like to think that digital minimalism tries to focus a little bit more on what’s happening in our life outside of work. There’s huge issues about what’s happening in work in terms of the way technology, the role technology plays. They’re interesting. They’re also pretty complicated, and some of them are pretty unrelated to why we’re looking at our phone so much outside of work.
Cal Newport: Now, of course this all overlaps. The way I like to think about it is that digital minimalism is really about the amount of time you spend looking at your phone even when it’s not necessarily for work, even when it’s not about, “I’m trying to talk to a client or post something about my business,” but just you’re at home. You’re with your kids. You’re at the ballgame. You’re in bed, all these other times in which a life well-lived are crafted. The fact that we’re spending so much of that time voluntarily looking at a screen for even non-professional reasons, that’s the area in which I’m seeing a lot of concern, and I’m trying to address with the book.
John Jantsch: You had an army of volunteers, some 1,600 I think I read. Did I get that right?
Cal Newport: Yeah.
John Jantsch: That you put in an experiment. Explain that experiment or what you were trying to find there.
Cal Newport: The experiment was to step away from these type of technologies, these optional technologies in your personal life, so things like social media and online news and streaming media and YouTube, even podcasts, basically everything digital in your personal life. So, stuff you didn’t have to do for work, or it’s not vital to your day-to-day experience, to step away from it for 30 days. Then during these 30 days, more so than just like a detox. I have negative things to say about digital detoxes as being a standalone thing that are somehow useful. I have some real issues with that.
Cal Newport: During this 30 days, it’s about a lot more than just this detox experience of breaking your habit of compulsively using your phone. It also is about having some space to reflect and experiment and figure out what really is important to me. How do I really want to spend my time outside of work? Figuring out those values, figuring out what’s important to you, so that when the 30 days are over you can then rebuild your digital life from scratch, but now do it with a minimalist mindset of, “I want to selectively choose online behaviors and tools that are going to help these things that I really care about, and ignore everything else.”
Cal Newport: I had this idea that this 30-day process was probably an effective way to become a minimalist. I put the call out to my readers to say, “Hey, does anyone want to try this out?” I thought a couple of dozen people would sign up, but I was surprised when over 1,600 people said, “Yeah. I’m ready for that.”
John Jantsch: Everybody I mention this book’s title to says, “I need some of that.” Yet, we’re still having trouble breaking free. One of the things that I love, a topic in the book is that it’s not a matter of just taking more time. It’s high quality leisure. What does high quality leisure look like, that’s obviously lacking?
Cal Newport: Well, these are activities outside of work that you do and enjoy just for the sake of their intrinsic quality. If you get into cooking and you cook something really nice, and you do it just because you enjoy the process of building, cooking and eating good food. If you get really into woodworking, just you’re enjoying working on a piece of wood just because of the intrinsic quality of what you’re trying to do. If you’re into playing an instrument or listening to a certain type of music, that really you’re getting enjoyment.
Cal Newport: It’s not instrumental. It’s not to help you do something else, to help you accomplish something else or get something else. It’s just enjoying the activity for the sake of the activity. These type of activities are crucial. High quality leisure activities are crucial to a good life, a life that can be buffered against the unavoidable ups and downs and different turns of fortune. It’s what allows us to have some sort of meaning and gratitude even when other things are out of our control or spiraling in ways that maybe doesn’t make us happy.
Cal Newport: We know this from the ancients, that this type of activity is crucial. In an age of this really cheap, hyper-powered digital distraction, one of the huge casualties is people have pushed high quality leisure out of their life, because it has a high barrier to entry. It requires effort. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.
Cal Newport: Typically boredom, the feeling of boredom would push us to actually make those effort and do these activities, because it was better than being bored. We’re now hijacking that deeply human instinct, because as soon as you feel bored you can just look at this screen. A really powerful algorithm that’s reduced you to 10,000 data points knows exactly what to show you so that you can be a little bit interested in the moment.
Cal Newport: This is one of the huge unexpected casualties of this huge attention economy that we’ve formed, is that people are filling their time with the low-quality digital leisure. It’s a little bit easier than the high quality analog leisure. By doing so, they’re actually leaving a big hole in their soul in some sense. They’re missing from their life something that’s crucial to a thriving human existence.
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John Jantsch: I just finished a great book called A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s actually been out for a while. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book. The main character talks about something he calls idle hour. Essential his idle hour idea was that you should pretty much have anything that’s going to be serious done by noon and pretty much the rest of the day should just unfold as it unfolds.
John Jantsch: I think another thing that happens to us is, and I’m sure that these digital tools are somewhat to blame, but even when we have that time for leisure we’re packing it. The idea of just maybe taking the space to reflect has gone away.
Cal Newport: That’s why I say 30 days for my declutter process. If you think about it, it’s not self-evident that you need something like 30 days to do, let’s say, reset your digital life, because you might imagine you might approach revamping your digital life, minimizing your digital life, like Marie Kondo approaches minimizing your closet, you do it in a weekend. Put aside some time and make changes.
Cal Newport: I say you need 30 days. A big reason why is exactly what you just pointed out there, which is it actually just takes a while. It takes a while just having some time and having some space to really get back in touch with yourself and the world around you and to figure out, “Well, what do you really care about? What do I really want to do?” That’s not something you can schedule in for 4:00 to 5:00 today, I’m going to put in time and figure out what I care about and what do I want to do with my life. You actually need time and space.
Cal Newport: That’s why I have people spend a non-trivial amount of time away from these tools, because I think without a non-trivial amount of time it’s hard to come up with non-trivial insight.
John Jantsch: Sometimes the way to get rid of a bad habit, which I think some of this is, bad habits, sometimes you replace it with a good habit. Are there perhaps more positive habits that you recommend, or is it highly personal?
Cal Newport: Well, I think ultimately what tends to work with people who are feeling overwhelmed by the role of tech in their life is actually the rip-off-the-band-aid 30-day process we were talking about, where you really go down to nothing. You empty out the proverbial closet, take some time, and then rebuild it carefully. This tends to work a lot better than trying to work from the top down and just maybe tweak this habit there or that habit there, or maybe change your notifications or make your phone gray scale, or put on some tracking software.
Cal Newport: When you work from the top down trying to change things you don’t like bit by bit, it’s really hard to get sustainable change. If you actually empty out that closet, say, “Let’s start from scratch,” everything now has to re-earn its way back into my life and for a purpose, for something I really care about this tends to be really effective. Which is why I really push this 30-day process.
Cal Newport: Now, there’s a couple of things you can do just to get ready for that so it’s not as jarring. A simple habit that helps you get ready for something like that is just take off your phone any app in which someone makes money from your attention when you click on it. I’m not asking you at this point to quit these things. Whatever storyline you have about “I need it for X, Y, Z” is fine. You can still use them, just use it on your laptop or your desktop computer.
Cal Newport: That alone is going to help get your mind in shape for the bigger decluttering, because it’s going to just force you to be in situations commonly where you’re out and about and can’t easily look at your phone for a distraction. That’s helpful. Also, another helpful thing before you try the rip-the-band-aid-off approach is maybe try to get back into your life one or two of these high quality analog leisure type activities.
Cal Newport: Just reengage your taste for things that require more effort but return more reward in exchange, so that when you actually get to the 30 days, when you get to that first morning and there’s nothing on your phone, and you can’t look at the screen for distraction that you’re not just staring into the existential void. That you’re used to this. You’re used to being a little bit bored and you already have some options in mind for what you could do to fill the time.
John Jantsch: I read a lot of books, so correct me if I got this wrong, that it wasn’t in your book, but when you mentioned that idea of bringing in some high quality leisure, I think you wrote about replacing networking, like the typical chamber of commerce networking, with actually people you want to hang out with. Maybe they are work related, but go do something, volunteer together, go play golf together, go climb a mountain together. Am I making that up or was that part of your work?
Cal Newport: I think that was in there. There’s two related points there. First of all, I talk about the value we get out of just joining things and doing things with people. It’s just fundamentally different than talking with people digitally, and abstract virtual groups, to actually in my town I am getting together with these four people and we are doing this project together. It’s physical and I’m with people and I’m interacting with people.
Cal Newport: We crave that, makes us happy. Putting that in your life is really good. Then there was also a specific networking example where I was talking about the cost in time of various activities. I think I gave the example in there that some people talk about their Twitter use as a key way in which they meet interesting people. If you actually do the calculus, they’re losing something like 10 hours a week on Twitter.
Cal Newport: Where, on the other hand, if they just took two hours a month, let’s say, to go to some really interesting event or three hours a month and meet 10 people at this event, they would probably get similar benefit, but they’d have given up much less of their time. I use that example as a exposition on just actually Henry David Thoreau’s concept of don’t just look at the benefits a thing gets you, you always have to ask what’s the cost of those benefits in terms of hours of my life.
John Jantsch: Speaking of Thoreau, one of my favorite activities when I want to, in fact, I just make it a part of my life, is solitude. Once I’d like to say a month, it probably doesn’t happen once a month, I try to get a whole weekend all by myself. I do know that that has tremendous benefits, but also when I talk to other people, it scares them to death the thought of being alone with nothing but their thoughts. Why do you suppose that is?
Cal Newport: Well, we’re in this unique point in, I think, human history where finally with hundreds of billions of dollars of investment and some of the smartest minds in the world working on it, we figured out how to banish every last moment of solitude from our lives. It’s incredibly unnatural and incredibly hard to do. We had to build a worldwide, wireless, high-speed internet network. We had to build these devices you could bring with you every single place, and that at any moment powerful algorithms running on massive data centers could deliver to you perfectly timed content that’s going to capture your attention. I mean it’s a miracle. It’s also pretty radical.
Cal Newport: It’s become problematic, because it turns out we actually need on a regular basis time alone with our thoughts. We don’t need to be in a cave for months at a time. That’s going to make us lonely and unhappy.
Cal Newport: If in the course of a normal day you don’t have at least a few occasions where it’s just you and your thoughts, and you’re not processing input from some other minds, you’re not looking at social media, you’re not looking at your mentions, you’re not looking at news, you’re just there looking at the world around you and thinking, if we don’t have this on a regular basis even 10 or 15 minutes at a time we get anxious, and we get unhappy. We have a hard time generating business insights or self-reflection which all requires this sort of unstructured thought.
Cal Newport: I’ve become a big proponent, you got to get some of the solitude back into your life. You got to have some every day. It doesn’t have to be for a long time, but you cannot exist in a state of complete solitude deprivation. That’s just incredibly unnatural and causes unpredictable consequences.
John Jantsch: I don’t know if you’ve seen this or experienced this, but I hear people talking about it’s like quitting smoking for some people, if they hadn’t had that in their life. 20 minutes alone and they’re starting to go crazy.
Cal Newport: Could be terrifying for people, especially young people who really starting in their early adolescence have never been free from being bathed in algorithmically optimized input generated by other minds. It is incredibly scary, but it’s crucial. I think it’s just crucial for human thriving. You can do it baby steps at first. If it’s really scary, I mean you can do on 10 minutes at a time, “I’m going to go into the drugstore to get the prescription I’m picking up and come back to my car. I’ll leave my phone in the car while I do it.”
Cal Newport: Start small if you have to. It doesn’t have to be, “I’ve rented the cabin and I’ll be back in three weeks.” It can be smaller, “I’m walking the dog, I’m not bringing the phone.” You have to get used to it. That’s why I spend a lot of time in the book talking about solitude is because it’s completely underappreciated right now.
John Jantsch: Of these 1,600 volunteers, I’m sure, because you are a trained scientist, that you had some closure. Did you get some after the declutter 30-day feedback, and what did people experience?
Cal Newport: I got a lot of interesting reports. One thing I noticed that is interesting is that the people who succeeded with the whole 30 days and having lasting change after the 30 days, they really embraced the idea that this 30 days is about self-reflection, experimentation. That they were actively going out there and trying to figure out, “What do I really want to do with my time? What is the things I care about?”
Cal Newport: They were much more likely to end up with sustainable change. The group that had a much harder time was the group that just saw this as a “detox.” Like, “I just want to get a break from my technology. I’m just going to white knuckle it for 30 days. I’m really bored but this is good. I needed to take a break.” They had a really hard time even sticking with it for 30 days.
John Jantsch: I suspect that the first group saw it as an investment, as the second group saw it as a cost.
Cal Newport: Exactly. When you’re just white knuckling it, you’re like, “I’m trying to get away from this thing that is bad.” The problem is that’s not a strong enough motivation, that when you’re really bored and have nothing to do, to keep you away from it. You eventually say, “Nuts to this. I’m going to check Facebook.” If you’re coming at it from the perspective of positivity, “I am trying to rebuild my life to something much better,” you’re rebuilding your life on top of your values, then you’re much more likely to be successful.
Cal Newport: The other interesting thing I noticed from these reports is that maybe half of the people who sent me reports ended up after doing this process deciding they needed essentially no social media in their life. Half of the people decided, “I still need some social media in my life. It connects to things I really value.” Of that 50% that kept some social media in their life, almost none of them ended up keeping it on their phone. That was one of the biggest takeaways is that social media, it plays really interesting and complicated roles in people’s lives.
Cal Newport: Probably its importance is way overstated. There’s probably way too many people using it than really need to be. There’s also millions for which it’s useful. The need for it to be on your phone, and the need for it to be something that is a constant source of distraction, it came across clear as a bell in my studies that that tends to serve only a very small number of people, namely the major stockholders of a social media company. That there’s almost no reason for anyone to need to look at these things on their phone all the time. That struck me as interesting.
Cal Newport: Social media is not completely worthless. Social media on your phone is something that almost no one needs.
John Jantsch: Great point. Cal, where can people find more about the book and the movement, can we call them a movement, of …
Cal Newport: Fine by me.
John Jantsch: …digital minimalism, and anything else, anywhere else you want to send people?
Cal Newport: Well, you won’t be able to find me on social media, because in true digital minimalist fashion I’ve never had a social media account, which turns out that’s allowed. You can find out about me and the book at calnewport.com. I’ve been blogging there for over a decade, so there’s a lot to read. I also have a place where you can find all sorts of interviews and articles and videos I’ve done as part of the press tour for the book. You can also find the book itself in any of the normal places that you would buy books.
John Jantsch: Well, Cal, thanks for joining us. Great book, great message, and hopefully we’ll run into you out there on the road soon.
Cal Newport: Hopefully out there in the real world, participating in some high quality analog activities.
John Jantsch: Amen.