Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Digital Minimalism, High Quality Leisure, and Real Life

So I just read Cal Newport's latest book, Digital Minimalism. I had recently finished Deep Work and loved it, so I was expecting to enjoy this one as well but I gotta say that while he had some good ideas about the role of social media in modern life, he completely lost me in the second half of the book in which he expounded on what you could (should?) be doing with all the free time you've gained back from not scrolling and posting and what-not, this "high quality leisure" concept.

While he did put one tiny line in their about mothers and kids, it really struck me that his key audience was the young and childless. While I completely agree that life can be better by opting out of the intrusion and competition and mindless time suck of most social media, I am not suddenly going to have hours and hours of free time to need help filling.

He was inspired by frugal living/early retirement bloggers (the most annoying ones, in my book) and urges us to "fix something every week" and waxes poetic about 3 glorious weekend hours spent repairing the bathroom fan. Cal advocates that this was a noble use of his time and we should all do something like this every weekend. Sure, its satisfying to fix something yourself, and to learn some new skills while doing so, but what Cal doesn't clarify is what his wife and 3 children were doing in those 3 hours. Or more importantly, when did SHE get to spend 3 hours fixing something in the house with no kids underfoot? Furthermore, the thought of fixing something as a leisure activity seems a bit masochistic to me. There may be a certain kind of person who enjoys that, but not all of us would. I wish he'd been more broad in his advice---the idea of "learning a skill" or "trying something new" sounds much more appealing to me. This could include a yoga position, a knitting stitch, a recipe, a language, a craft---possibilities are endless and don't need to involve studying YouTube videos of appliance innards.

Other recommendations for filling your time: joining groups (social activity too!), journaling, enjoying "slow media", walking, etc... These are all great! I do most of these things. I also read a lot, do puzzles, exercise, and occasionally enjoy an intentionally selected "high quality" TV show. My free time is full. Should 3 additional hours open up in the middle of a Saturday I will consider finding something to fix but more likely I will take a nap (or play a really long Monopoly game with my children, which is how I spent Sunday afternoon).

I was also turned off by the dismissal of digital communication as a tool to strengthen relationships. The argument (illustrated by the bizarre example of a rock-paper-scissors tournament) is that humans are built to discern social cues conveyed by tone, body language, and other subtle nuances that can only be transmitted in person or, at least partially, on the phone. So texting/emailing is a very weak social connection and may actually hurt your relationships since you can use this to avoid actually picking up the phone and navigating the tone and tenor of a true conversation.

OK, maybe this is true, but for an introvert like me, the thought of actually calling someone to talk after a full day of complex and emotionally charged face to face interaction sounds awful. I would never ever ever do it. I will, and regularly do, have long back and forth texts with my sister about our kids, work, lives, whatever. I've revealed a LOT more in those texts than I ever would in person, and I do think our frequent texting is making us closer. We certainly do try to get together when we can, but those visits are full of logistics, kids, and spouses and one-on-one conversation is sparse.

My dad texts us regularly, we have an ongoing family chat (that I have silenced notifications for, so I only look at it at the end of the day usually---I know they will call for emergencies) and we share practical things and random tidbits of our lives. I do call my parents, we talk about once a week, but those phone calls tend to be short and interrupted by my kids.  My mother-in-law doesn't text, she prefers phone calls. You know how often I call her? I can count on one hand. Sure it'd be NICE of I called her more, but...in the absence of me or her having a personality change...at least SOMETHING would be better than NOTHING.

All that said, I did have some useful take aways from the book. I appreciated and agree with his overall argument that the urge to scroll continuously is not due to laziness or personal failing but the purposeful machinations of tech companies to commodify our time and attention by making their product addictive (or "sticky" as they say). And I really liked the re-framing of avoiding any platform as the default (rather than the reality---that everyone is on it and if you're not, you're the odd one) unless you can find a compelling benefit that outweighs any potential cost to your time/productivity/mental health. Since I finished the book, I deleted IG and the news app from my phone and I decided to stop listening to podcasts while I walk so that I can use that time to think and reflect (I'll still listen in the car or while doing chores!) I've already been (mostly) off FB for a while now, I log on now and then to post things or buy nothing or double check event details (because I can't convince my neighborhood/school group/book club, etc... to move off FB). Its only been 2 days, I'll have to report back after a month or so to see if its helped.

Have any of your read Digital Minimalism, and what did you think? Any suggestions for how to stay up to date on the news (I tried and disliked The Skimm and the NPR UpFirst podcast)


  1. I just deleted the News app from my phone after reading this. I burn SO MUCH time on there and it’s not good. It doesn’t make me happy, in fact it makes me bummed out, but opening it is second nature at this point. I just do it. So I deleted it. I hope I can hold strong and keep it off.

    I really like Talking Points Memo for my news. I actually get their stuff right in my reader (I still use Feedly). It’s an easy way to keep up to date on the news without all the bullshit on the News app.

  2. I LOVE THIS REVIEW. I am also skeptical about people who dismiss texting as a "deep" or "meaningful" mode of interpersonal communication. As someone who was physically trapped in an operating room 80 hours per week for the last 5 years of my life, I would have had literally zero communication with the outside world without texting. I also hate talking on the phone and am certainly too tired to do so on most days after work. I would also far rather spend 3 hours on a Sunday (ok, maybe not 3... 1? 2?) mindlessly scrolling than doing any sort of soul sucking home improvement. But anyway.

  3. It annoys me when anyone dismisses digital communications. I'm a total introvert, and I haaaate the phone. I even get anxious talking to people I know in real life. Texting (and Facebook and online dating) have totally transformed my social life, as they've allowed me to make connections with people under low-stress conditions, and they make planning real life outings much easier.

  4. Yes--I thought Deep Work was better in some ways than Digital Minimalism. While I agree with introverted commenters about texting vs. phone calls, I am *still* quite minimalist. I just really started texting within the past year and only for practical reasons like setting up playdates. I've never been on facebook or instagram, and now only use twitter for work-related things (very minimally!!). I do like the blogs though :)

  5. I found this review from Shu Box and it's great! I own both of Cal's books and think I'll start with Deep Work.

    I enjoy the Left, Right and Center podcast a lot for keeping up on the news. It's once a week and so they pick out the most important issues to discuss. You get commentary from both sides and the host, Josh Barro, does a great job moderating and is extremely smart.

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