Study Hacks Blog

On Digital Minimalism and Pandemics

March 13th, 2020 · 36 comments

One of the more profound representations of the soul in the Western Canon is the Chariot Allegory from Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue:

“[T]he charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character.”

As elaborated by the character of Socrates in the dialogue, the charioteer represents our soul’s reasoned pursuit to cultivate a worthy life. This task requires the charioteer to allow the noble steed, representing our moral intuitions, to lead the way, while preventing its ignoble partner, representing our base instincts, from drawing the soul off course.

In Digital Minimalism, I use this allegory to help understand how to navigate both the promises and perils of modern technology. The minimalist, I argue, deploys technology in specific, intentional ways with the goal of empowering the noble steed. The maximalist, by contrast, deploys technology casually, allowing it to immeasurably boost the strength of the other horse.

I’m bringing this up now because it occurred to me that these ideas have probably never been more relevant than amidst the anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In this current situation, for most people, the constant monitoring of online news about the virus is providing pure fuel to the ignoble steed, dragging the allegorical chariot away from what’s good and awe-inspiring about life — even during turmoil — and toward bottom-less anxiety and pseudo-paralysis. The ignoble steed always craves more of this attention-catching information. What if something extra terrible just happened? What if I find a link that makes me feel better? But in this feverish pursuit, the charioteer loses control.

There is, I propose, a simple two-part solution to this state of affairs.

First, check one national and one local new source each morning. Then — and this is the important part — don’t check any other news for the rest of the day. Presumably, time sensitive updates that affect you directly will arrive by email, or phone, or text.

This will be really hard, especially given the way we’ve been trained by social media companies over the past decade to view our phone as a psychological pacifier.

Which brings me to the second part of the solution: distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.

This doesn’t mean abandon technology. This current moment reveals many ways to deploy tech to strategically boost the noble steed.  Our modern tools enable you to video conference more often with friends and family, or to dive into deep topics that have nothing to do with flu viruses, or to coordinate with your community and find out how you can be useful.

This, then, is what digital minimalism has to say about pandemics. You cannot take your technology lightly. You’re the charioteer facing two horses: it’s up to you which one you want to empower.

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To help practice what I preach, my plan is to post more often here in the near future, but on topics that have nothing to do with the coronavirus. With this in mind, if you have any questions you’ve always been meaning to ask me about any of the topics I write about — technology, productivity and the deep life — send them to author@calnewport.com, I’ll try to answer some of them in the days ahead.

36 thoughts on “On Digital Minimalism and Pandemics

  1. Andres says:

    This is awesome. Thanks, Cal.

  2. Yes, I’ve been doing exactly as you say, Cal, and this surprises me. I check one local and one national news soruce in the mornint, and leave the updates to email. I’m learning much from you and don’t even know it. I’ve been much more productive, with a clear head, since before I learned about you. Thank you Sir!!

  3. Anna says:

    Thank you, Cal. Just what I needed! Really appreciate.

  4. Ted Ferragut says:

    Super great advice. Particularly DO not check devices before bedtime. Formula for disaster

  5. Bogdan says:

    Great metaphor! Thanks, Cal, for your work.

  6. Brad says:

    Much needed advice! Harkens back to the practice of limited news consumption just in general.

  7. Barbara says:

    This is great advice. Will be super hard to do but so wise!

  8. As someone closely related to technology both in work and hobbies, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem of how society uses technology is not completely customer side. Of course, customers decide which services they want to support with both their time and money. But what happens when none of those services (I’m mainly referring to social media) are based on good values?

    Most of us are are literally forced by society to use at least some of these, but there is not a single option that enforces a healthy relationship with its users. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all provide a constant flow of information to catch their users and try to suck as much time as possible from them. They are engineered and designed to be as time consuming and engaging and possible.

    From a developer perspective, this is extremely hard to compete with. If you tried to create a social media based on good values, you’d have an extremely hard time catching users. Since your service wouldn’t be designed to do that, customers wouldn’t stick to it as they would to others, and it would rapidly fall behind and die.

  9. Kevin Lindsey says:

    Thank you very much for this rational approach to this crisis. Yes we need to be careful, but we don’t need to panic. Thanks for a very helpful article.

  10. Fr Richard says:

    Thank you! I haven’t watched much of the news lately and will continue not to; I am only on FB every so often, sometimes days apart and then only for a few moments……. Keep the faith, you’re right, there is more to our lives then what’s on the media circus.

  11. I watched the flurry of maniacal purchasing this morning during my weekly shopping. No milk and certainly no TP. Hundreds of more shoppers than normal on a Saturday morning before 9:00 am. I wish more of us would embrace your advice. We need more calm. Shutting down the noise of the digital world certainly helps. Thanks for the reminder and for revisiting the allegory from your book.

  12. Ava Hayslip says:

    These ideas have helped a lot. I have currently been sent home from college due to the virus, and I have been struggling greatly with sadness because all of the things that have been cancelled. Everything I was looking forward to was cancelled and I have been really struggling. These ideas have given me some ways to distract myself productively. Thank you.

  13. Mairi says:

    Yes superb suggestion indeed. Why feed the fear when we can attend to loving action for ourselves and others. X

  14. abhyudaya says:

    I wonder can checking one national news source and one local news source a day could be extended to politics?

  15. Debbi says:

    Thank you, Cal! 🙂 Great stuff.

  16. Alan says:

    Thanks Cal! Great post

  17. Dan says:

    Thanks for writing this, Cal. Social media has taken a number on my extended family and my wife during this whole ordeal and I’m livid and done with the technology now. Straight up inducing anxiety attacks to the people closest to me, and it would be an amazing thing to the world if we could get through to all of them.

  18. Rajitha says:

    Thanks Cal. Without you, I would not know how to navigate in this modern technology 🙂

  19. Josh says:

    It helps to gain perspective by reading what a professor of classics, C. S. Lewis, had to say in a similar time. Just replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus” and his words are strikingly fitting:

    In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

    In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

    This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

    — “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

    1. Samuel Linde says:

      Josh, thank you very much for sharing that. I’ve been thinking about how this is all new and novel to us, but people all through history has been through similar experiences of sudden upheaval and pending disasters with unknown outcomes. I’ve tried to also keep in mind the people who in our time live in areas that are often hit by natural disasters, be it hurricanes, monsoon or earthquakes. What are they doing? They’re being prepared, but they’re probably not constantly checking their newsfeeds.

      Thanks also to you, Cal, obviously. I needed that reminder today.

    2. Andres says:

      That’s great. Thanks for sharing, Josh.

  20. Leigh-Ann says:

    I know I needed to come here and see what you had to say about the coronavirus. Last week I completely devolved into my old ways, checking news constantly (I’m in Seattle) and even, I’m embarrassed to say, keeping Twitter consistently open in a browser tab. Of course, these are unique and unprecedented times for most of us alive today, but the amount of anxiety, stress, and overwhelm I felt while regressing into my old habits was unnecessary and completely avoidable. As of yesterday I started doing what you suggested (checking one national and one local news site), and then staying off the news and Twitter otherwise. My brain felt immediately better, and I was just as informed. Definitely a lesson for myself, and others.

  21. Dev says:

    This doesn’t deserve its own post, but maybe you could answer in a comment here what tools you currently use. I know you’re a loyal user of your MacBook Pro and Black ‘n’ Reds. Is the Kindle something you use only for eBooks? How about PDFs? Do you print as many of them as possible, or are you comfortable reading them on your computer?

  22. CGTII says:

    I think that the vast majority of media companies (and not just social media providers) have turned most of us into idiots. This conversion was predicted by Paddy Chayefsky over four decades ago in his movie “Network”. Like manufacturers of junk food who figure out that the way to make products sell is to load them with sugars and artificial flavorings, these media companies have decided that the only way to keep eyeballs glued to their feeds is to make their coverage of current events ever more lurid, sensational, provocative, outrageous, and alarmist. And one can see the effects wherever one goes. For instance, where I live, we had two weeks of snow and ice in 2008, and yet whenever I went to the grocery store near my house, people acted normally – there was no hoarding. Fast forward to the last six months, and at the very hint of snow I see people stripping the store shelves bare of Top Ramen and toilet paper! And yes, they are doing the same in response to the coronavirus – even to the point of buying up all the fresh vegetables in the store. How long do they think all those vegetables will keep?! And why are they doing this? Because of a screen with pixels on it!

  23. Euripides says:

    It had occurred to me that checking the news several times a day was reducing productivity and stressing me out a bit. I will now follow your advice.
    One rule we had adopted at the house is, no newscasts during meals when the children would be watching them too.
    Thanks, Cal!

  24. Alison says:

    In the US, we don’t have a consistent, clear message from the White House and feds about what is happening, what needs to be done, and how we should behave (related to the fact that we still don’t have a functioning, coordinated national task force composed of leading experts). This has resulted in additional anxiety, and more obsessive information-seeking than usual for just about everyone as we try to navigate an uncertain time and uncertain future. The advice about how to behave in order to slow the spread of the virus varies, and there are plenty of people who aren’t prepared for what is to come.

    We are reasonably scared, and as you say, we think the next article will help us quell those fears – it won’t! News sites are designed to keep us clicking, and we are more wont to click than ever, because we are starved of good information during a crisis. What behavioral strategies can we use to stop ourselves from that next click on low-yield content, while continuing to stay well-informed and make choices that will slow the spread of the virus?

    I would assume it comes back to goals and values, but I’m eager for other ideas. As a health policy researcher, I am too interested in understanding this deeply to check just one national article a day. I’ve created rules about the kinds of content I should consume related to COVID-19, and boundaries for when I may consume them, but they’re a bit complex. My new rules are as follows (note I don’t use social media):

    – No internet searches for “COVID-19” or similar
    – No clicking on any suggested articles, but can save for later
    – 1 daily WHO situation report review OR 1 daily check of JHU GIS map of global cases, deaths, recovered
    – 2 daily listens to podcast interviews with experts OR articles with expert analysis
    – Weekly review of various models for pandemic spread
    – Daily check on fed activity
    – 1x daily brief review of local NPR email w/ # local cases, deaths & applicable policy
    – Convos about it with spouse, who is a trader and provides economy updates

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