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Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

·11 mins
Book Notes Nonfiction Productivity Self Help Minimalism
Table of Contents

⭐ Rating: 4.5/5.0



  • In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity—a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.
  • Andrew Sullivan meant when he lamented: “I used to be a human being.”
  • What you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

A Lopsided Arms Race (WE DIDN’T SIGN UP FOR THIS)

  • It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy.
  • We seem to have stumbled backward into a digital life we didn’t sign up for.
  • “Philip Morris just wanted your lungs,[but] the App Store wants your soul.”
  • How coincidental connections between you and another person can impact how you feel about each other.
  • A study that showed aggressively drunk inmates at a Seattle naval prison were notably calmed after spending just fifteen minutes in a cell painted a particular shade of Pepto-Bismol pink, as were Canadian schoolchildren when taught in a classroom of the same color.
  • When the American Psychiatric Association published its fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013, it included, for the first time, behavioral addiction as a diagnosable problem.
  • First, our new technologies are particularly well suited to foster behavioral addictions. The second thing that became clear [to Alter during his research] is even more disturbing. Just as Tristan Harris warned, in many cases these addictive properties of new technologies are not accidents, but instead carefully engineered design features.
  • I want to briefly focus on two forces- how tech companies encourage behavioral addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
  • Intermittent Positive Reinforcement: Michael Zeiler’s famous pecking pigeon experiments from the 1970s that rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern. Something about unpredictability releases more dopamine—a key neurotransmitter for regulating our sense of craving. The original Zeiler experiment had pigeons pecking a button that unpredictably released a food pellet. As Adam Alter points out, this same basic behavior is replicated in the feedback buttons that have accompanied most social media posts since Facebook
  • The Drive for Social Approval: “We’re social beings who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us.” This behavior, of course, is adaptive. In Paleolithic times, it was important that you carefully managed your social standing with other members of your tribe because your survival depended on it. In the twenty-first century, however, new technologies have hijacked this deep drive to create profitable behavioral addictions.
  • We signed up for these services and bought these devices for minor reasons—to look up friends’ relationship statuses or eliminate the need to carry a separate iPod and phone—and then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel, and how we behave.

Digital Minimalism (A MINIMAL SOLUTION)

  • Three core principles: #1: Clutter is costly, #2: Optimization is important, #3: Intentionality is satisfying.
  • Optimizing how we use technology is just as important as how we choose what technologies to use in the first place.
  • THE LESSONS OF THE AMISH HACKER: Amish lives are anything but antitechnological. In fact, on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselvers. They are often, surprisingly, pro-technology.”
  • Approaching decisions with intention can be more important than the impact of the actual decisions themselves.
  • Be in the world, but not of it.
  • The very act of being selective about your tools will bring you satisfaction, typically much more than what is lost from the tools you decide to avoid.
  • When you mindlessly sign up for whatever new hot service emerges from the Silicon Valley venture capitalist class—is the opposite of freedom, and will likely degrade your individuality.

The Digital Declutter

  • Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.
  • “In a nutshell, I only lost touch with people I didn’t need (or, in some cases, didn’t even want) to be constantly in touch with.”
  • The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards.
  • Once a technology passes this first screening question, it must then face a more difficult standard: Is this technology the best way to support this value? If a technology makes it through both of these screening questions, there’s one last question you must ask yourself before it’s allowed back into your life: How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?
  • The Minimalist Technology Screen To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must: Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough). Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better). Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.


  • Lead Yourself First: The book summarizes, with the tight logic you expect from a federal judge and former military officer, the authors’ case for the importance of being alone with your thoughts- A precise definition of solitude. Many people mistakenly associate this term with physical separation—requiring, perhaps, that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on any sort of a regular basis.
  • Solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.
  • “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal famously wrote in the late seventeenth century.
  • Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
  • When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.
  • Walden was the ability to move back and forth between a state of solitude and a state of connection. He valued time alone with his thoughts—staring at ice—but he also valued companionship and intellectual stimulation. He would have rejected a life of true hermit-style isolation with the same vigor with which he protested the thoughtless consumerism of the early industrial age.
  • The pianist Glenn Gould once proposed a mathematical formula for this cycle, telling a journalist: “I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents I don’t really know . . . but it’s a substantial ratio.”
  • “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” To underscore his esteem for walking, Nietzsche also notes: “The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit.”
  • Nietzsche began to walk up to eight hours a day. During these walks he would think, eventually filling six small notebooks with the prose that became The Wanderer and His Shadow, the first of many influential books he wrote during a decade powered by ambulation.
  • I use these walks for multiple purposes. The most common activities include trying to make progress on a professional problem (such as a math proof for my work as a computer scientist or a chapter outline for a book) and self-reflection on some particular aspect of my life that I think needs more attention. I sometimes go on what I call “gratitude walks,” where I just enjoy particularly good weather, or take in a neighborhood I like, or, if I’m in the middle of a particularly busy or stressful period, try to generate a sense of anticipation for a better season to come. I sometimes start a walk with the intent of tackling one of these goals, and then soon discover my mind has other ideas about what really needs attention. In such instances, I try to defer to my cognitive inclinations, and remind myself how hard it would be to pick up these signals amid the noise that dominates in the absence of solitude.
  • I wrote an entry titled “The Plan,” underneath which I put a list of my values in life, falling under the categories of “relationships,” “virtues,” and “qualities.”

Don’t Click “Like”

  • There’s a particular set of regions in the brain that consistently activate when you’re not attempting to do a cognitive task, and that just as consistently deactivate once you focus your attention on something specific.
  • Humans are naturally biased toward activities that require less energy in the short term, even if it’s more harmful in the long term—so we end up texting our sibling instead of calling them on the phone, or liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of stopping by to visit.
  • Conversation-centric communication requires sacrifices. If you adopt this philosophy, you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people with whom you have an active relationship. Real conversation takes time, and the total number of people for which you can uphold this standard will be significantly less than the total number of people you can follow, retweet, “like,” and occasionally leave a comment for on social media, or ping with the occasional text.
  • Facebook didn’t invent the “Like” button. That credit goes to the largely forgotten FriendFeed service, which introduced this feature in October 2007. But when the massively more popular Facebook introduced the iconic thumbs-up icon sixteen months later, the trajectory of social media was forever changed.
  • The human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery.
  • The reason I’m suggesting such a hard stance against these seemingly innocuous interactions is that they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation.
  • Conversation office hours strategy: Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversation. Depending on where you are during this period, these conversations might be exclusively on the phone or could also include in-person meetings.
  • Reclaim Leisure- #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption, Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world, Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions,
  • The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First, they require you to spend time with other people in person. The second trait is that the activity provides some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal.
  • The philosophy behind a Mouse Book is that it can fit into your pocket next to your phone. Whenever you feel the urge to pull out your phone for a quick hit of distraction, you can instead pull out the Mouse Book and read a few pages of something deeper. The company describes their goal as “mobilizing literature,” and likes to point out that their portable entertainment devices “never run out of battery life, their ‘screens’ never crack, and they don’t ring, buzz, or vibrate.”
  • I suggest you strategize this part of your life with a two-level approach consisting of both a seasonal and weekly leisure plan.
  • The boundary between habits and objectives is porous.
  • The “attention economy” describes the business sector that makes money gathering consumers’ attention and then repackaging and selling it to advertisers. This
  • “In the early years, I used to accept friend requests from anyone,” they said. “But I don’t think we’re really supposed to be connected to so many people so frequently.” Jennifer now tries to keep friend engagement* below the Dunbar Number of 150—a theoretical limit for the number of people a human can successfully keep track of in their social circles.


  • The key to sustained success with this philosophy is accepting that it’s not really about technology, but is instead more about the quality of your life. The more you experiment with the ideas and practices on the preceding pages, the more you’ll come to realize that digital minimalism is much more than a set of rules, it’s about cultivating a life worth living in our current age of alluring devices.

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