During interviews for Digital Minimalism, I’m frequently asked whether I think our culture’s concerns about new technologies like smartphones and social media represent a fleeting moral panic.
The argument goes something like this: There are many technologies that were once feared but that we now consider to be relatively tame, from rock music, to the radio, to the telegraph famously lamented by Thoreau. Isn’t our concern about today’s tech just more of the same?
This is a genuinely interesting question that’s worth some careful unpacking. My main issue with this approach to the issues surrounding smartphones and social media is that it implicitly builds on the following logical formulation:
Something I’ve learned reporting on digital minimalists is that the definition of “minimal” differs greatly from person to person. As part of my effort to share more case studies about this philosophy, I thought it might be fun to visit someone who falls on the extreme end of this spectrum.
Robert (as I’ll call him) recently walked me through some of the major changes he instigated to reclaim his life from his devices. He summarized his reasons for this transformation as follows:
“I was lacking in enough time, energy, and attention to get the things done that I wanted or needed to do…I didn’t like getting insufficient sleep because I was browsing nonsense on my phone until the wee hours, or that I was stressed out with my professional work due to constant procrastination/distraction…or that I wasn’t exercising consistently because I’d happen to browse the same nonsense right when I was about to start.”
Driven by these somber realities, he came to a simple revelation: “life would be better if I cut back.” A decision, as it turns out, he took seriously.
In the first chapter of Deep Work, I argue that the ability to concentrate is important in part because it’s necessary to learn hard things quickly, and in our economy, if you can pick up new skills or ideas fast, you have a massive competitive advantage.
Some readers subsequently asked me how to best deploy their concentration to achieve these feats of accelerated autodidacticism. My answer has been to direct people toward my longtime friend, and occasional collaborator, Scott Young, who has spent years mastering the art of mastering things (c.f., his MIT challenge.)
In this book, Scott walks through his step-by-step process of breaking down a major learning project and pushing it through to completion much faster than you might have imagined possible. It’s important to emphasize that he provides no short cuts. If anything, he highlights the surprising hardness — in terms of concentration and drive — required to succeed with these endeavors; a point I’ve been underscoring since my early books on study habits.
But if you’re willing to invest the energy, and are looking for the right techniques to make sure this energy is not wasted to the friction of ineffective activity, this is the book for you.
On an unrelated note, my most recent New Yorker article was published earlier this week. It takes a look at the history of email and applies ideas from my academic field, the theory of distributed systems, to help explain what went wrong with this innovation. If you like this blog, you’ll like this article…
It’s hard to believe that it has already been six months since Digital Minimalism was released. (If you’re interested in browsing some of the interviews and press about the book, I’ve been doing my best to update my media page with some highlights.)
One of the nice things about having had some time pass since publication is that I’m starting to receive case studies from readers who have been experimenting with ideas from the book long enough to report results. I thought it might be useful to occasionally share some of these stories, especially for those who are still deciding whether or not to take the plunge with this philosophy.
I’ll start today with the saga of a reader I’ll call Jane…
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