Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

In Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work, he insisted that one could not both do meaningful work and have social media accounts. Newport himself has never had an online presence beyond a blog and email, and he insisted that this was the only way to be successful as a knowledge worker.

However, in DIGITAL MINIMALISM, Newport takes a more nuanced approach. He acknowledges that social media, Netflix, news sites, and video games are a part of life and not things that need to be banished entirely. He still thinks they’re bad, though, and explains why we’ll all be happier if we spend less time online.

We’re all walking around with powerful computers in our pockets, loaded with apps that invite us to use them any time we have more than fifteen seconds of downtime. These online services offer a mix of benefits and harm, but most people only think about the benefits—or the possible benefits, even if they can’t point to anything concrete they get out of scrolling through Twitter. These sites are addictive, using every psychological trick (especially the variable reward of the “like” button) to get you to stay on them longer.

However, interacting with a phone is not the same as interacting with a person. Moreover, dependence on the instant gratification of the online world is making our brains less capable of the sustained thought we need to get our creative work done. If every single moment is filled with entertainment provided by others, when will we think up our own ideas?

Newport doesn’t just tell you why you should use online services less, he also tells you how. There are many tricks and hacks out there, such as the “digital sabbath” or using internet blockers while working. However, Newport explains why simple tricks don’t work. It takes a mindset shift, because no habit can be changed long-term without an underlying shift in values.

Step by step, Newport shows you where to start, how to overcome temptation, how to deal with the expectation that you’ll be always “on,” and how to use the internet more thoughtfully. By taking a minimalist approach, Newport argues, you’ll find yourself still as connected as ever, but in a more meaningful way. The benefits of this approach are numerous, from reclaiming time, to decreasing stress, to redefining leisure.

I enjoyed Newport’s previous book, despite its flaws. However, DIGITAL MINIMALISM is better in every way. It gave me concrete tools for turning off the internet as well as a solid plan to use it more thoughtfully.

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DIGITAL MINIMALISM is available here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

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I used to scoff at people who needed an internet blocker while writing. If they were getting distracted by social media, maybe they simply didn’t love writing enough. Not anymore! Nowadays, I’m testing programs like Freedom and Cold Turkey and asking my friends which blocker works best.

Distractions are everywhere. Even worse, they are affecting our brains. The more we let ourselves get distracted, the more our brain trains us to be distractible. Computers and social media are so enticing (maybe even addictive) it’s no wonder we can’t concentrate anymore. Uninterrupted time is rare and becoming rarer. But concentrating deeply, being in “the zone,” is exactly what writers need to do. DEEP WORK has some excellent advice for writers who need to slow down, concentrate, and produce more books.

DEEP WORK is divided into two parts: theory and practice. In part one, Newport lays out why deep work is rare, valuable, and meaningful. He distinguishes between “shallow work” (things like email and meetings) and “deep work” (things like writing, computer coding, and inventing). Shallow work will make you look—and feel—busy, but only deep work truly matters. After all, nobody gets a promotion because they are great at email.

But a persuasive argument for deep work is no good without an action plan. Newport has advice for scheduling deep work, banishing distractions, and cutting out as much shallow work as possible. I found Newport’s suggestions extremely practical and not at all hard.

Newport also suggests cutting out all social media. This last one is probably not realistic for a writer, since social media is our main source of networking and fans expect to interact with us online. However, we certainly can all limit our use of social media, especially during prime writing time.

As much as I loved this book, I do think Newport has a blind spot. He cites numerous examples of men doing deep work, from Carl Jung to Nate Silver, but he quotes few women, and ignores gendered expectations. Women, especially married women, are expected by our society to take up domestic and childcare work, as well as emotional labor such as daily scheduling and managing the social life of the couple. Men are rewarded for ignoring all that and retreating into work in a way that women are not. You can’t do deep work when you’re interrupted all the time and women are most often the ones being interrupted.

DEEP WORK is not for everyone. I can’t imagine a nurse or a waiter or an electrician getting much out of this book, since their jobs are fast-paced and extremely interactive. Newport’s advice is for a certain kind of worker: a knowledge worker who works alone. In short, writers are the ideal audience.

Spending lots of time “in the zone” is crucial for writers, especially new writers without a book contract, who have to rely on their own willpower to get a book written. Without deep work, writers can drift from shallow task to shallow task, looking “busy” the whole time but never getting any of their books written.

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DEEP WORK is available here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.