Digital Minimalism Tech tips from Cal Newport

Not using computers for one day a week is fine as far as it goes, but it can’t go particularly far when you earn your crust within the confines of the information economy.

So what are we to do the other 6 days a week?

After devouring the excellent Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I’ve been flush with ideas.

I’ve written before about what I call minimum viable technology, but Cal puts it nicely:

‘The power of a general-purpose computer is in the total number of things it enables the user to do, not the total number of things it enables the user to do simultaneously.’

I found Cal’s most effective recommendation was using an app called Freedom to set boundaries on the multi-tasking powers of my technology.

With Freedom I can set an automated schedule of when I’m able to check email and Whatsapp, the two major distractions from focused time in my life.

Rather than slavishly checking for superficial social interactions every five or twenty minutes, I can corral those messages into fenced-off playgrounds of digital distraction. But the playground is only open for an hour in the afternoon.

The app works across devices as well. Using Freedom I can turn my smartphone in to a single-use dumb phone at the touch of a button. I can even have the smartphone capabilities turned off by default.

The feeling is indeed one of liberation; no wonder the app is called Freedom.

If you have any sense that your devices are distracting you from the deep work that you value, I urge you to give Freedom a whirl. It is free to try, but a year’s subscription is only £13 if you use the code FOCUS40.

5 Ideas from Digital Minimalism

1. Swap phones.

When you’re with a friend, swap phones so neither of you can be lured away to the dreaded ‘third place’. Your phones are still there in an emergency, but the embarrassment of asking for your device just so that you can crush some candy will be too much.

2. Spend time alone.

Solitude is vital to our emotional balance and too little time alone leaves us feeling anxious. Finding solitude doesn’t mean ship-wrecking yourself on a desert island; you can find solitude in a busy coffee shop. Solitude is simply time spent without input from other minds. Leave your phone at home. Take a long walk. Write.

3. Use digital to facilitate real world comms.

Social media, email and messaging is not an adequate replacement for social interaction, but our brains can be fooled into thinking it is. Set up a meeting on the phone or in person.

4. Hold conversation office hours.

Tell your friends and family that you’re always free to speak on the phone at X o’clock – and be available at that time. When someone ‘pings’ you a text message or email, invite them to call you at X o’clock any day of the week. Alternatively, set up a regular time for taking coffee or a walk and invite anyone and everyone to drop by.

5. Prioritise strenuous leisure activities over passive consumption.

Activity gives you more energy, not less. When you’re tired, simply switch task. Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. Become ‘handy’. Join or set up a club, community group or meeting.

One more thing…

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No Computers And my new favourite day of the week

I have a new favourite day of the week. It’s the day that I don’t use my computer.

To be fair, it’s only been two weeks now, but still. On my first day of No Computers I went for a long bike ride with friends, and then spent the evening reading and listening to the radio.

Last week I went for a long walk before eating my bodyweight in falafel and falling sound asleep. Tomorrow, I’m going to a day-long conference on the brain with my dad.

No wonder I look forward to these days!

But what’s No Computers got to do with it? Couldn’t I have a great day while still allowing access to those gleaming bits and bytes?

I suspect not, and my results over the last fortnight seem to concur. With my computer by my side, I find it hard to switch off – literally.

My humble Acer is a gateway poison: the one keystone habit that supports (what feels like) all the stress in my life.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I am able to work at any time and from anywhere. Thanks to the wonders of late stage capitalism, it feels like I always should be.

Remove the keystone, however, and the arch comes tumbling down. Sorry, but I can’t log on, I can’t publish, I can’t reply to your email. I am not available.

It’s not like I’m bereft of technology on my No Computer days. I can use anything else from my panoply of devices:

  • My smartphone for internet, email, messaging, music, radio, camera, podcasts, maps and yoga.
  • My digital radio and MP3 player for auditory entertainment, and my speaker system for amplification.
  • My Neo typewriter for distraction-free writing.
  • My GPS watch for tracking my runs.
  • My stop watch timer for meditation, saunas and HIIT exercise.
  • My clock, thermometer and hygrometer for tuning in.

As you can see, it’s not like I’m limited in what I could do. But the tool selection changes everything.

I really don’t like responding to email on my phone, except really short replies, and I don’t like browsing the web on my phone, except really simple, factual searches.

Without preventing me from addressing anything that’s really urgent, the tool selection gently pushes me into doing other things, like getting out of the house, listening to music, or reading a book.

I can still do the type of work that really nourishes me, like writing and thinking, but I can’t do work that’s draining, or straight-up unproductive.

No Computers has been such a relief that I’d like to expand it to two days a week. Older readers might remember these kind of regular breaks – they used to be called ‘weekends’.

I’d like to end by quoting from a long article I read this week that’s consonant with these ideas: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen.

We didn’t try to break the system, since that’s not how we’d been raised. We tried to win it.

I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them.

Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

Switch off.

One more thing…

If you liked this post, you’ll almost certainly enjoy my newsletter. You can check out the most recent issue here Or subscribe below: