Talk about the right book at the right time.
Two or three times a year I’ll read a book that I feel compelled to talk about with anyone who will listen: my husband before one of us starts snoring for the night, my children while they try to hide from me in their own virtual worlds, my friends while we eat lunch and wrangle children at co-op, the cashier at Publix while she is trying to ring up my groceries, my parents while they try to figure out how to work their tablets–you get the picture. This book had me sharing, sharing, sharing, and what’s more important, it had me looking for ways to implement Newport’s suggestions in my life stat.
First, the backstory: after hearing Cal Newport’s name here and there on the internet after his previous book, Deep Work, was published, and then especially after this one, Digital Minimalism, came out, an angelic choir practically appeared in the heavens when I first saw his name on my podcast feed. In retrospect, it really was quite possibly divine intervention. (In case anyone else wants to retrace my steps for him or herself, it was episode 176 of the Afford Anything podcast with Paula Pant that started this ball rolling. Highly Recommended!) I’m not even sure that I had finished listening to the podcast before I hopped over to Scribd to see if I could access Digital Minimalism. Yes! I promptly downloaded the audiobook and started listening.
I know it’s a powerful book when I can listen to it instead of read it and still blog about it without feeling the need to look up so much as a table of contents. This is one that sunk in and truly engaged my brain instead of just cluttering the airspace while I drove. Thus, what I’m sharing here are the salient points that I took away from this work, not an exhaustive look at what Newport has to say. In fact, it’s possible that I’ll put my own twist on some of what Newport says. Consider this a reflection rather than a summary or an actual review. (By now it should be obvious that I really recommend this title. Ha!)
Life-changing takeaway #1: the brain needs solitude. As an introvert, I have always known this, but Newport provides both the research and the stories to back up why this is true. It’s important to not always have other people’s thoughts feeding our brains, even if their thoughts are good ones. (My toes were stepped on here: I listen to audiobooks and podcasts 90+% of the time that I’m walking, driving, cooking, or cleaning, if it all possible.) He defines digital things that need to be decluttered from our lives as anything that comes to us digitally, not just social media. I tend to elevate some things over others, which Newport actually does, too. However, his point that our brains need solitude–no input, no matter how good–really hit home to me. He shares the story of Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Soldiers’ Home cottage to escape the constant busyness and stress of the White House during the Civil War. (It was here that Lincoln did the hard work of thinking through the challenges and difficulties our nation was facing and what he needed to do to meet these challenges. It was beneficial enough to him that he risked assassination –and was indeed fired upon– to travel to this retreat.) This chapter of the book made such an impression on me that I implemented it immediately: I took a walk to the end of our street sans audiobook! My mind felt restless, yes, but I did it! I am going to actively seek out ways to be completely still and silent. This alone is no small feat.
Life-changing takeaway #2 is this: by choosing to be very intentional about my own digital consumption, I might indeed miss out on something. In fact, it’s almost certain that I will miss out on something. Mostly this relates to social media, though it might extend beyond that to other things I consume, like the aforementioned audiobooks and podcasts. The benefits, though, will in all likelihood outweigh the importance of whatever I miss out on. Also, it might force me to find other ways to meet that need. This was my biggest holdup for a long time regarding Facebook: I didn’t like the power it held over my attention, but I felt like I “had” to stay connected in that way because of a few certain groups I was a part of. While those groups (most involving homeschooling) are still important to me, whether it’s information about local learning opportunities or the larger homeschooling community, the benefits I’ve received by not being distracted by it most of the time are worth what I’ve missed out on. I’ve found that usually, information about local activities is relayed to me through email or by friends. It all works out! I’ve since adapted this stance toward Instagram, having gone cold turkey off it a couple of weeks ago now. Because almost all of the accounts I followed were homeschool-related accounts, I find that now I’m not quite as distracted by “all the pretty things” and can be more focused on actually doing the homeschooling instead of thinking about ways to share it.
Life-changing takeaway #3 is that once I’ve detoxed from the digital world, I have to fill my time with what Newport terms “high quality leisure” activities. I take this to mean the things I actually want to do with my life if I’m not mindlessly scrolling it away. It’s no coincidence that my return to blogging has happened as I’ve read Digital Minimalism. Whether it’s important to anyone else or not, or whether anyone else would actually consider reading and writing leisure activity (ha!), it is important to me–in fact, I’d say it’s vital for my own mental and spiritual health. The fact that Newport really emphasizes that we MUST fill that time that digital media used to take up WITH something of quality makes the detox far more appealing. Look! I suddenly have an extra hour or two in my day every day. (Yes, this is embarrassing.)
Life-changing takeaway #4 is maybe the biggest one: the way to reintroduce some element of online involvement is by considering my machines as one-job machines. Well, actually, if I only consider my phone to be this, I think my battle will be mostly won. He shares that some people even go so far as to get rid of their smart phones, opting instead for a phone with only calling and text capabilities. Without going to that extreme, I think just a mindset shift for me will be most beneficial: my phone is for communication via calling and texting and for reading (when reading on a screen makes the most sense–I greatly prefer a printed book) and listening (podcasts, audiobooks, music) at certain appropriate times. If I need to do anything else, I can make an appointment for myself to do it on my computer.
Perhaps the best thing about Digital Minimalism is that Cal Newport offers action points his readers can take right now to embark on this journey. This book is part review of studies about the effects of being so distracted by technology, part anecdotes about people’s experiences, and part practical “let’s do this and make our lives better” guidebook. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (2019)