Study Hacks Blog

Digital Minimalism and God (Or, is Social Media Undermining Religion?)

April 8th, 2019 · 27 comments
Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels

Those who know Martin Luther King Jr.’s story well, know that January 27, 1956, was a pivotal date for the young minister.

Only one month earlier, still a newcomer in town, King, to his surprise, was elected to run the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) formed in response to Rosa Parks’s arrest.

As King’s Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David Garrow recalls, King “mistakenly presumed that the boycott [organized by the MIA] would be relatively brief,” but he was wrong. A series of tense negotiating sessions made it clear that the city was reluctant to give up any ground.

As the bus boycott dragged on, and more attention was turned toward its leader, the situation became tense. According to Garrow:

“The increased news coverage had brought with it a rising tide of anonymous, threatening phone calls to his home and office, and King had begun to wonder whether his involvement was likely to end up costing him, his wife, Coretta, and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, much more than he had initially imagined.”

On January 26th, King was arrested and jailed for supposedly driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. The next day, after his release, he received another round of anonymous threatening phone calls. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so he returned to his kitchen table to make a cup of coffee and confront his mounting anxiety and fear.

As King recalled in a sermon given a decade later at the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church:

“And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”

Then, clarity:

“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.'”

Garrow describes this scene as one of the most important moments of King’s life.

* * * *

I first encountered this story in a book by Mike Erwin and Raymond Kethledge about solitude, and then expanded on it in Chapter 4 of Digital Minimalism, where I discuss what’s lost when we deploy devices to avoid every moment of time alone with our own thoughts.

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The Arizona Cardinals Now Give Their Players Phone Breaks

March 27th, 2019 · 22 comments
Photo by Skitterphoto.

Earlier this week, at the NFL owners meetings, Kliff Kingsbury, the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, revealed a new rule for team meetings: “cellphone breaks.”

As reported by ESPN, Kingsbury introduces these breaks every 20 – 30 minutes during team gatherings. As he explained:

“You start to see kind of hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix, so we’ll let them hop over there and then get back in the meeting and refocus.”

Many concerned readers sent me this article, and with good reason. It’s an extreme case of a techno-philosophy that I facetiously call the kids these days mindset, in which parents, educators, bosses and (it now seems) coaches shrug their shoulders when confronted with the impacts of highly addictive technology on young people.

This football example is useful because it so clearly highlights the shortsightedness of this strategy.

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Mike Trout Doesn’t Care About His Online Brand. He Just Made $430 Million.

March 20th, 2019 · 33 comments
Photo of Mike Trout from 2013 by Keith Allison.

Mike Trout, the center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels, is finalizing a $430 million contract extension with his team. This is the largest deal in the history of professional sports.

One of the surprising elements of Trout’s story is that he’s reached these unprecedented heights while remaining, to quote Tom Boswell from today’s Washington Post, “a quiet, understated player, who has never tried to brand himself.”

I got in some hot water a few years ago for writing a New York Times op-ed in which I argued that young people needed to spend less energy desperately trying to build their online presence, and more energy quietly developing unambiguously valuable skills. (I even wrote a book about this.)

Trout represents this philosophy pushed to an extreme. When you average 9.0 WAR over six seasons, you don’t have to worry about your Instagram followers.

Trout’s talent, of course, approaches mythological levels, which made his commitment to fundamentals a safe bet. But as with any good myth, it conveys a deeper truth. In almost any professional endeavor, developing unambiguously rare and valuable skills trumps an amorphous commitment to cultivating followers or strengthening an online brand (with a small number of well-publicized exceptions).

It also helps if you can turn on a major league fastball thrown down and in.

Digital Minimalism and Ancestral Health (Or, Would Grok Tweet?)

March 16th, 2019 · 28 comments

The ancestral health movement argues that over long periods of time, evolution adapts species to their environments. It follows that when it comes to human well-being, we should pay attention to how we ate and behaved throughout the vast majority of our evolutionary history.

Like most lifestyle movements, ancestral health has spawned its share of hucksters and extremists, but the underlying logic seems self-evident, and the success stories can be compelling.

After recent appearances on Paleo Magazine Radio and Mark Hyman’s podcast, and my embrace of Mark Sisson’s advice to help stay lean and energized on book tour, I’ve begun to think more about the natural intersection of digital minimalism and ancestral health.

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On Heidegger and Email

March 11th, 2019 · 25 comments
The hut near the edge of the Black Forest where Martin Heidegger developed his philosophy of Being.

I was in California last week promoting Digital Minimalism. One of the books I brought to keep me company was Sarah Bakewell’s insightful, and surprisingly entertaining, At The Existentialist Cafe.

In the third chapter, I came across a nice piece of focus porn concerning the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

During Heidegger’s first academic appointment, which was at the University of Marburg, his wife Elfride used an inheritance to buy some land near the Black Forest town of Todtnauberg. The plot overlooked “the grand horseshoe sweep of village and valley.”

As Bakewell elaborates:

“[Elfride] designed a wood-shingled hut to be built on the site, wedged into the hillside…Heidegger spent much time working there alone. The landscape criss-crossed by paths to help him think…in evenings or out of season it was silent and tranquil…when alone there, Heidegger would ski, walk, light a fire, cook simple meals, talk to the peasant neighbors, and settle for long hours at his desk, where…his writing took on the calm rhythm of a man chopping wood in a forest.”

Heidegger, of course, went on to become a controversial figure due to his later involvement with the Nazi party, but it’s hard to overstate the intellectual impact of his book Being and Time, which was written during this Marburg period, and helped shatter the rapidly ossifying structures of German phenomenology, ushering in a torrent of philosophical innovation.

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Digital Minimalism for Parents

March 1st, 2019 · 25 comments

One of the more interesting things about being on the road promoting Digital Minimalism is encountering readers and learning how they’re making use of these ideas.

One such group that’s particularly interesting to me is digital minimalist parents. I’m a parent, but the oldest of my three boys is only six, so I haven’t yet directly grappled with the serious issues surrounding kids in an age of smartphones, making me eager to hear from those who are waging this battle now.

As I’ve talked with more of these parents, a consistent reality has emerged:

  • Smartphones and social media are a major problem for adolescents. To ignore it with a “kids these days” shoulder shrug is becoming increasingly unacceptable. (For more on this, see my somewhat infamous interview with GQ where I speculatively compare teenage smartphone use to teenage smoking.) 
  • Any successful attempt to instill in your kids a healthier relationship with technology has to start with modeling this relationship in your own life.

This latter point is one that we parents sometimes don’t want to hear, but it keeps coming up in my conversations: if you carry your phone with you at all times, checking it constantly, it’s difficult to convince your kids not to do the same, no matter how many rules you set or warnings you deliver.

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On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate

February 19th, 2019 · 64 comments
Photo by Sam Harris.

A few weeks ago, on his podcast, Sam Harris interviewed the actor and comedian Stephen Fry. Early in the episode, the conversation took a long detour into the topic of mindfulness meditation.

Harris, of course, is a longtime proponent of this practice. He discusses it at length in his book, Waking Up, and now offers an app to help new adherents train the skill (I’ve heard it’s good).

What sparked the diversion in the first place is when, early in the conversation, Fry expressed skepticism about meditation. Roughly speaking, his argument was the following:

  • Typically when we find ourselves in a chronic state of ill health it’s because we’ve moved away from something natural that our bodies have evolved to expect.
  • Paleolithic man didn’t need gyms and diets because he naturally exercised and didn’t have access to an overabundance of bad food.
  • Mindfulness mediation, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be replicating something natural that we’ve lost, but is instead itself a relatively contrived and complicated activity.

Harris’s response was to compare meditation to reading. They’re both complicated (read: unnatural) activities, to be sure, but they’re both really important in helping our species thrive.

Fry, who is currently using and enjoying Harris’s meditation app, conceded, and the discussion shifted toward a new direction.

I wonder, however, whether Fry should have persisted. Rousseauian romanticism aside, there’s an important application of evolutionary psychology undergirding his instinctual concern.

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Minimalism Grows…

February 8th, 2019 · 33 comments
Me speaking about Digital Minimalism at Company HQ in New York City on Monday Night.

I only rarely write administrative posts, but because this is the launch week for my new book, I figured I’m due a break on this rule. With this in mind, I want to share a few more interesting pieces of news coverage on Digital Minimalism.

Before I do, two quick notes:

  • First, if you live in the Washington, DC area, come see me at Politics & Prose at 3:30 on Saturday. I’ll be taking questions and signing books.
  • Second, if you’re pretty sure you’re going to buy the book, but haven’t yet, I want to nudge you to do so soon. (For various technical reasons, sales made before Saturday night are very useful from a bestseller list perspective. Okay, last time I’ll mention that…)

On to the publicity updates:

Many of you have been asking me to create a running list of all of my podcast appearances, interviews, and articles. We’re working on it, stay tuned…