This book is hard to read.
Not in the conventional sense of being boring or poorly written. It’s hard to read because you know a lot of what Cal Newport is saying is true, and you should be making a lot of the changes he suggests to your life. I’d feel bad picking up this book sometimes because it really made me question some of the ways I use technology.
It felt very much like a Jim Collins’s idea of the Stockdale paradox (confront the facts of reality, but have faith in the big picture) from Good to Great. The facts of reality: my technology habits, both seemingly bad (constant texting, perusing Twitter, Reddit, or ESPN when I’m bored) or seemingly good (texting with old friends, listening to podcasts, reading books), all probably have some detrimental consequences on my well-being, mental health, and productivity. The big picture: improvements to my relationship with technology will lead to drastic improvements in my creativity, mental state, and productivity.
This book will challenge you to get there. Sometimes hearing that message is hard.
Focus on what’s important.
In the book, Newport points out that you wouldn’t be able to build a Facebook or Twitter if you spent all your time on those services. Building these billion dollar businesses involved intense focus that ironically these services make difficult.
There goes that concept again: focus on what’s important (your declaration, your calling, your hedgehog concept) and cut out the distractions.
I want all my friends to read this book.
It’s not an easy book to read. It challenges a lot of what you probably do right now. It probably forces you to face some uncomfortable realizations about how you use your phone. But I think moving from text conversations to Facetime calls, from Instagram stories to paying attention to what’s around you, from going on Reddit or Twitter when a conversation dies down to just saying nothing, relationships will be stronger.
As humans, we default to what’s easy, whatever takes the least energy. Going on our phones is easy. Sending a text is easy. Unfortunately, developing a true friendship is hard. We can all do better to be present with what’s around us, especially with the people that mean the most to us.
Pete Adeney, Liz Thames, and Theodore Roosevelt all provide specific arguments for their embrace of strenuous leisure, but these arguments all build on the same general principle that the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested. We might tell ourselves there’s no greater reward after a hard day at the office than to have an evening entirely devoid of plans or commitments. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began. As Bennett would tell you—and Pete, Liz, and Teddy would confirm—if you instead rouse the motivation to spend that same time actually doing something—even if it’s hard—you’ll likely end the night feeling better.
A subtler effect is the way that digital communication tools can subvert the offline communication that remains in your life. Because our primal instinct to connect is so strong, it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend or bath time with a child—reducing the quality of the richer interaction right in front of us. Our analog brain cannot easily distinguish between the importance of the person in the room with us and the person who just sent us a new text.
Cal Newport defining solitude:
Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.
I think this is the biggest takeaway from the book by far: we rarely, if ever, spend time alone with our thoughts just thinking and doing nothing. Listening to music or a podcast on a walk doesn’t count. Reading a book or an article doesn’t either. Unwinding over a Netflix show isn’t solitude either.
Solitude is taking a walk with no Airpods, looking up, not down at your phone. It’s sitting on the subway without pulling out your phone. It’s sitting on your couch with nothing in hand. But those times are now filled with the phone. There’s never a moment of boredom.
How are we supposed to figure out what matters to us, what our original thoughts are, what emotions we feel, how we feel about our friends, if we never have time to think?
This book challenged me to be better about my relationship with my phone. It’s a great tool, no doubt. I have instant access to podcasts from some of my favorite bloggers and VCs. I can read a book anytime or browse Twitter and ESPN. But that crowded out my time to think.
In the week since reading the book, I cut my screen time down more than in half to about an hour. I’ve turned off all my notifications, set strict screen time limits on sites and social media I use often like the Ringer, ESPN, Twitter, and Reddit. In turn, I replaced that time with reading a book. I started journaling my thoughts down, another recommendation from the book. I’ve done walks without my headphones on.
That’s what digital minimalism is about: making space for your mind to think and reflect on what matters to you. Then, replace the time that was spent on your phone with something or someone that you find meaningful.
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