In terms of reading, this year is off to a great start. The first book I finished, Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, inspired me in new ways to approach this year with even more intention. His thought-provoking research and practical suggestions for curating a life of value was exactly what I needed at the beginning of a new year – and made me excited for all the possibilities in store.
Newport started with the background and premise for why one should choose digital minimalism, some of which I had heard before, especially after watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix last year. He describes the intentions of Big Tech companies and social media platforms, which of course are all about making money by sucking away your time. The alarm that I felt when watching Netflix’s documentary on this topic was reiterated in reading Newport’s book, and affirmed the importance of taking control over my digital time, rather than allowing it to control me.
He states, “This is why clutter is dangerous. It’s easy to be seduced by the small amounts of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resources we possess: the minutes of our life” (42).
I have seen this come true in my own life – where I think I’m not spending that much time on my phone or in front of screens but realizing later the hours that I wasted there. The times that I have fasted from social media have provided me with so many more minutes of opportunity to do other things.
Newport also warns that “Much in the same way that the ‘innovation’ of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools – a sort of social fast food – are proving to be similarly worrisome” (136).
He goes into more detail about what these side effects are in the book, but they add up to things that were never intended when these technological advances were first introduced. I see the effects firsthand in my classroom with a generation of students highly affected by anxiety, a lower attention span, and an obsession with low-quality trending apps, games, and platforms that add no value to their lives.
However, as Newport gets into what digital minimalism is, he is clear that he’s not advocating avoiding technology or even social media altogether. He acknowledges the good and convenience that can come from using them – as long as it’s being done in an intentional way. He says this about choosing this kind of lifestyle:
“By working backward from their deep values to their technology choices, digital minimalists transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived” (29).
“Put another way: minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good” (30).
“The sugar high of convenience is fleeting and the sting of missing out dulls rapidly, but the meaningful glow that comes from taking charge of what claims your time and attention is something that persists” (57).
He then goes on to detail how to become a digital minimalist. He describes how to do a digital declutter and evaluate the things that matter most in your life. Then he details how to carefully and intentionally introduce aspects of technology back into your life that will support the things that you value.
What I found to be especially fascinating were the “practices” that Newport introduced to take the place of all the time you previously spent online. He made it clear that we need to be prepared to have high-quality activities to do when we start the digital declutter or we won’t know what to do with ourselves.
He makes the case for the practice of solitude, taking long walks, keeping track of our thoughts through journals or letters to ourselves, reading, and investing in craft (more on that in a moment) – all of which I find to be valuable habits and which I want more of in my life anyway. He talks about how these are the things that give our life value and meaning, and thus we have to cut out anything that encroaches on those practices. As a Christian, I would also add to that the practices of studying the Bible, prayer, and Scripture memory – all of which are also easily overshadowed by our use of technology.
Newport states that the more you invest your time in these practices, the once-compulsive pull to social media and other technological distractions fades away. “In fact, many minimalists will describe a phenomenon in which digital habits that they previously felt to be essential to their daily schedule suddenly seemed frivolous once they became more intentional about what they did with their time. When the void is filled, you no longer need distractions to help you avoid it” (169).
The one activity I hadn’t given much thought to before intrigued me the most – that of “craft” – or as Newport defines it, “In this context, ‘craft’ describes any activity where you apply skill to create something valuable” (177). Why does he think craft is important to our lives?
“When you use craft to leave the virtual world of the screen and instead begin to work in more complex ways with the physical world around you, you’re living truer to your primal potential. Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate in other (dare I say) less hands-on activities” (179).
“In the absence of a well-built wood bench or applause at a musical performance to point toward, you can instead post a photo of your latest visit to a hip restaurant, hoping for likes, or desperately check for retweets of a clever quip […] Craft allows an escape from this shallowness and provides instead a deeper source of pride” (180).
This immediately made my mind start dancing with possibilities as I had already been leaning toward learning more “sustainable” ways of living. But as I read it, it prompted me to think of even further value – that of learning skills that saves you money, provides for needs, and promotes community.
I thought of friends and the college girls that I help serve at my church – and I thought, “What if we were to come together to learn some of these skills and practice them together? What if we learned things like knitting, crocheting, quilting, gardening, canning, jam-making, meal-prepping, or other crafting-like skills that have been seemingly lost in our twenty-first century digital age?”
Not only would this give us worthwhile pursuits to take the place of digital distractions, but it would be giving us a community to build as we worked together on projects that can seem overwhelming if done on your own. Additionally, we would have tangible things to serve our own and others’ needs – food that we’ve grown and canned ourselves, baby blankets and hats and scarves to give away as gifts, and so much more.
If you’re thinking I’m sounding like I want to return to the Amish obsessions of my childhood – you might not be too far off! Because while there are plenty of things about the Amish lifestyle and beliefs I wouldn’t want to embrace, I think they have this part right – building community, especially between older and younger generations, while meeting practical needs. And crafting things with their hands – which Newport points out is a source of satisfaction.
There is much still from the book that I am sifting through and processing before I take steps in my own life toward digital minimalism. One small step I took at the end of last year was cutting out streaming services, which affords me much more time to read again. But I look forward to sitting down and making a plan for my life that aligns with what I value and what I want to pursue, based on a lot of his recommendations.
In the end, he says this, “The more you experiment with the ideas and practices on the preceding pages, the more you’ll come to realize that digital minimalism is much more than a set of rules, it’s about cultivating a life worth living in our current age of alluring devices” (253).
That’s exactly the message that I needed to hear to start off this year, and I’m excited about all the higher quality activities to explore and curate in my life. May they all ultimately bring more glory and honor to the One who has given me this life to serve Him.