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Reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

As part of joining my first book club ever (I'm excited!) I've started reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

I thought I hadn't read anything from the author, but turns out I had read a "comprehensive" summary of one of his previous books: So Good They Can't Ignore You.


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I can't keep myself from commenting on the irony that was not being able to get a book called "Digital Minimalism" in a "minimal" format. My reading experience is already quite simple, I read PDFs highlighting excerpts and extract them to Evernote. I recently started reading a physical book after some years, and it hasn't been optimal for the reasons I just mentioned.

Many times, even if I buy a book, I'll end up downloading a PDF for reading. In this instance not only was it impossible, I also wasn't able to get it anywhere other than Amazon. So I ended up installing the Kindle app on my phone.

Maybe this happened because I don't usually read books as they come out, I'm always reading books that are at least some months old (if not years). I'll use this opportunity to learn what's the experience of reading on the Kindle app. But I don't think it'll go beyond this one experience, specially after seeing Exodus' privacy report.

The introduction parts from an interesting position from my point of view. The author asserts that we live in a society addicted to technology and social networks. To which I'd mostly agree. But I don't feel identified at all, quite the opposite. I am well aware that most of my peers are, but I'm proud to be the odd man out in that regard. At least that's how I see myself.

What is interesting about this is that the author seems to associate technology with addiction. And the solution seems to be geared towards minimizing the use of technology. But what if technology is just a medium? For me, nothing beats a whiteboard. But I am a developer, I love programming, and I obviously can't do that without a computer. So I see my existence as interlinked with technology.

But I don't use social networks much, and I don't fall to "the hype". I know I'm not addicted to technology because when I break from it, when I go hiking or on holidays, I don't feel any withdrawal symptoms.

Anyways, there is this blog post I've wanted to write for a while tentatively titled "Progressive self enhancement", and I have the impression that it may be related to what the book will talk about.

Am I already living in Digital Minimalism? We'll see.

The first chapter talks about the current situation we find ourselves in, arguing that we didn't sign up for this and it happened under our noses. As you may have deduced in my previous comment, I was judging the author's words too much from my perspective and that's why I challenged some of his assumptions. But now I think it's a better approach to see his discourse as a description of society overall, not from the perspective of individuals. Doing that I can get the benefit from the parts that apply to me whilst also appreciating the others parts (learning about society).

On his explanation of the current situation of "always-on" addiction to social media and technology, there is something he doesn't mention that I also believe is interesting to ponder. And that is the predominance of "free" products in the market. Yes, free as in beer. One of the underlining motives the author gives to the way of acting for businesses is that they do it to maximize revenue. And the thing is, I'm not against businesses making money. But the problem is how that money is made. And by farming people instead of giving them a valuable experience, they are also hurting the industry because society has become reticent to pay for technological products. This has got the point that paying 1€ for an app is sometimes frown upon.

The second chapter of the book introduces a formal definition of Digital Minimalism and exposes its 3 fundamental principles: "Clutter is costly", "Optimization is important" and "Intentionality is satisfying".

I can already tell that I'm not, as I was pondering, a Digital Minimalist. But my values do align with the philosophy and I was already headed in a similar direction.

I'd say I'm adhered to the first two principles, they are things that I generally try to keep in mind and pay attention whenever possible. But the third principle has been a useful reminder. I am aware of how important it is to be intentional in my actions and choices. But I get myself into more things than I would like. I Often fall into the trap of starting something out of curiosity, without previous examination. And I can see how that's lead me to a situation of overwhelm that I don't enjoy.

It was particularly interesing to learn more about the Amish. As the author says most people (me included) thinks of them as an anti-technology. But it's far from that, what happens is that they take intentionallity when chosing new technologies to an extreme. And, maybe not surprisingly, they have deemed a lot of the technologies we use on a daily basis as inappropriate after careful examination.

The third chapter introduces the best way to get started with Digital Minimalism: a Marie Kondo-esque Digital Declutter. Of course, he doesn't mention Marie Kondo, but that's exactly what it is. I agree with the idea that this kind of change needs to be done at once (although ironically I am doing my "progressive self-enhancement" slowly).

The concrete suggested approach is to take 30 days off of all non essential technology, use that period to learn what's more important to our life and then reintroduce the technology in a way that can help what we value the most.

One last thing I got from this chapter is a reason he mentions as to why people seem reticent to stop using some technologies. He says it may feel uncomfortable to drop some because we've become accustomed to the distractions, and they should be reevaluated with a clean slate that you get after 30 days of not using them. I fully agree with that, many times we have some opinions about something but it isn't until we see it from another perspective that we can truly assess our opinions.

The explanation and procedure is cool, although I'm not sure if I'll do it because I don't really feel that I have any technology that I need to drop. Something I didn't like about the chapter was the examples though. Too many of them and they seem to be there just to fill space. They would have done as annex to skim over.

Chapter 4 introduces one of the practices encouraged for Digital Minimalists: Solitude. The idea resonates a lot with me, since I actually struggle on the opposite (scheduling time to interact with others). If anything I would like to increase my time alone. Keeping in mind the definition from the author as "mental solitude", I associate it a lot to David Allen's concept of mental bandwidth.

Once again he gets into too many examples, so I guess this will be the norm for the rest of the book. I think it's worth it because I'm enjoying the content, but I wouldn't discard reading a summary instead if I'd known beforehand.

The point he makes about solitude is quite persuading, although most people may find it difficult to take into practice. One particular concept he introduces that I found very interesting is what he calls "Solitude Deprivation". He argues it's a problem most people of modern society is starting to suffer, and it's backed by a direct correlation with kids born after the appearance of the smartphone and a huge increase in teen anxiety.

He finishes by prospecting three specific things to do: Leaving your phone at home, taking long walks and writting letters to yourself. All are valuable, but I can't help but notice how all of these are too biased to his own personal experience. Which isn't necessarily bad, but I think he presents some things in an unoptimal maner. For example, I believe the whole point of taking walks could be accomplished by meditation and reflecting, that can be more doable for most people.

Chapter 5 goes into what forms of communication have appeared in the Internet age and how a Digital Minimalist should approach them. He distinguishes between conversation and connection, and says that we are losing conversations in favor of connections and they don't have the same depth for social interaction. Overall I agree with the ideas, but I'm not too keen on the practices he recommends.

The first one is to not click "like" in social media platforms, ever. I have a problem with that because I use likes primarily as acknowledgement. When I want to let someone know I've read their message but have nothing to say, I just click like. What he recommends instead is going completely silent, and that is something I cannot agree with. The part I agree with him and I'm already applying is not to use likes as part of a conversation nor social status.

The second thing he recommends is to consolidate texting, meaning not to be available 24/7 for texting and instead batching reading and replying to chats. This is something I do as well (I always have my phone in silent mode), but I don't agree with his assumption that people expect others to always be on call. I haven't had a problem with my aptitude, maybe it's because people already know me. But it's also true that sometimes I do have unscheduled real-time conversations over chat and I don't see a problem with that. I see where his point comes from, but I just think a person should be conscious enough to know when to talk real-time and when to batch conversations.

The last thing he introduces is having office hours for conversations. I think this is a great thing to do at work, as a way to discourage interruptions, but I don't like the idea to have them in my personal life. I cannot think of any time I have on a daily schedule where I wouldn't mind being interrupted (that's why I dread phone calls so much). Instead I think scheduling meeting with friends or a call is much better. That way when I don't have anything scheduled I can focus on whatever I'm doing and not be on my toes knowing that anyone is expected to interrupt me.

Chapter 6, this is starting to get a bit repetitive, but there is thankfully only one chapter to go. Again, I agree with the overall philosophy but not the practices he recommends. As someone in the book club pointed out, it's funny that he said how important it's to have a philosophy and not rely on "hacks", and this exactly what these practices are.

For my opinions on this chapter I'll instead say what I usually do myself. The chapter is focused on how to manage leisure and free time, and some of the things he recommends are doing manual activities. I actually tried doing that long ago, when I built a remote controlled car using DC motors, a raspberry pi and handcrafted parts (that's why I made this!). And the truth is it was cool but I dedicated too much time for what I got out of it. One of the reasons why he suggests it's important to do that is to be in contact with the physical world and get out of digital screens. But I already do that with other activities such as hiking, sport and cooking.

Something else he mentions is to join groups for doing structured social activities. That is something I actively avoid. I already have enough structure in my life, given that I rely heavily on timeboxing. And my social life is entirely based on meeting with friends and attending cultural or social events. Something that may not be so common in other countries, but I'm glad that happens here (Catalonia, Spain) is that there are many cultural and traditional events. Last week for example was Carnestoltes, known elsewhere as carnival, and there were a lot of events related to that. Now that he's dead, we have La Vella Quaresma and every Sunday there is an event for cutting one of her seven legs until Eastern arrives.

Finally he goes into suggesting to batch low-quality leisure such as social media. I actually have trouble doing any social media at all, and I already plan most of my high-quality leisure activities.

I just finished reading the last chapter of the book and the constant has continued. I have to say I'm a bit disappointed, the ideas and mental framework were great, but the specifics on how to achieve it are too biased and narrow. Which is not to say that I wouldn't recommend it, but I think it's better to read a summary first and go into the book only if you want to get more details.

There are two things that make me say this. The first one is that I'm already quite minimalist in my digital interactions, so most of the practices were different ways to achieve something I already do with my current workflow. And the second is that it seems like most practices are a remedy to overcome lack of willpower. For example this last chapter suggests trading your smartphone for a dumbphone in order to avoid the temptation of using social media. I believe discipline and intent are a better way to achieve it. Although I have to agree that for some people (maybe the majority) this has better chances of working.

I said in one of my early comments that I'd take this as informative for society overall, not only from my point of view. But that's something I wasn't able to do in the second part of the book, which is full of practices and things directed at the reader to take action.

I still have to read the conclusion so I'll be back for one last comment before completing this task, but my conclusion is that this book isn't for me.

I've read the conclusion and it didn't bring any new points to my attention, so I have nothing to add about the book.

Now, there were a couple other things I wanted to test while reading the book. One of them was to see what it's like to use the Kindle app. My conclusion is that yeah sure, the app works great, but the key features that I used were almost the same as reading PDFs (text highlight & extraction). So I'll continue avoiding buying Amazon ebooks if I can. If only because I don't like having to install their application; I prefer using an open format like PDF.

The other thing that happened while reading this book was participating in the book club! Quite frankly, it was better than the book. It's true that the participation declined a bit over the last weeks, but that's ok. I enjoyed getting different insights, especially things I hadn't thought about. I can sincerely say it upgraded my experience of reading the book.

And one of the highlights were Bryan Mathers' drawings! In each chapter, along with his opinions, he uploaded some doodles he did while reading the book. And I loved them :). Here's one of my favourites:

Bryan Mathers' drawing

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