Book Summary: Digital Minimalism


  • The primacy of anger and outrage online is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts.
  • [Tips and tricks alone won’t help…] I’ve become convinced that what you need is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

Part 1: Foundations

1. A Lopsided Arms Race

  • Smartphones have reshaped people’s experience of the world by providing an always-present connection to a humming matrix of chatter and distraction.
  • Increasingly, they dictate how we behave and how we feel, and somehow coerce us to use them more than we think is healthy, often at the expense of other activities we find more valuable.
  • People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.

Tobacco Farmers in T-Shirts

The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.

  • Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.
  • Intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval are two primary ways tech companies encourage behavioral addiction.


  • Rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern. Something about unpredictability releases more dopamine.
  • Social media users are like gamblers whenever they post. Will you get likes, or will it languish with no feedback? The former creates what one Facebook engineer calls “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure,” while the latter feels bad.
  • Many people have the experience of visiting a content website for a specific purpose only to find themselves thirty minutes later still mindlessly following trails of links, skipping from one headline to another. This behavior can also be sparked by unpredictable feedback: most articles end up duds, but occasionally you’ll land on one that creates a strong emotion, be it righteous anger or laughter.
  • Every appealing headline clicked or intriguing link tabbed is another metaphorical pull of the slot machine handle.

DRIVE FOR SOCIAL APPROVALWe’re social being who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us. – ADAM ALTER

  • A drive to regulate social approval helps explain Snapchat “streaks”. A long unbroken streak of daily communication is a satisfying confirmation that the relationship is strong.
  • This also explains the universal urge to immediately answer an incoming text, even in the most inappropriate or dangerous conditions (think: behind the wheel).
  • Many social media features are specifically designed, after massive R&D investments, to trigger addictive behavior. Compulsive use is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan.

2. Digital Minimalism

A Minimal Solution

  • It’s difficult to reform your digital life through tips and tricks alone. To reestablish control, we need to rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.

Digital MinimalismA philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

  • 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.

The Principles of Digital Minimalism

  • Cluttering your time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services is an overall negative cost.
  • Deciding a particular technology supports something that you value is only the first step.
  • To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.
  • There is satisfaction in being more intentional about how you engage with new technologies.

An Argument For Principle #1: Thoreau’s New Economics

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. – THOREAU

  • Things in life don’t just cost money, they also cost us our time.
  • Standard economic thinking says that profits are good, and the more you receive the better. It therefore makes sense to clutter your digital life with as many of these small sources of value as you can find, much as it made sense for the Concord farmer to cultivate as many acres of land as he could afford to mortgage.
  • Thoreau’s new economics demands that you balance profit against the costs measured in terms of “your life.” How much time and attention must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter?
  • 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 resource we possess: the minutes of our lives.
  • More often than not, the cumulative cost of the non-crucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, house, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. – THOREAU

An Argument For Principle #2: The Return Curve

  • View services as offering a collection of features that you can carefully put to use to serve specific values, then almost certainly you’ll spend much less time using them.

An Argument For Principle #3: The Lessons Of The Amish Hacker

Amish communities are not relics of a bygone era. Rather, they are demonstrations of a different form of modernity. – JOHN HOSTETLER

  • The Amish do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.
  • The reason most Amish are prohibited from owning cars, for example, but are allowed to drive in motor vehicles driven by other people, has to do with the impact of owning an automobile on the social fabric of the community.

When cars first appeared at the turn of the last century, the Amish noticed that drivers would leave the community to go picnicking or sightseeing in other towns, instead of visiting family or the sick on Sundays, or patronizing local shops on Saturday. – KEVIN KELLY

  • At the core of the Amish philosophy regarding technology is the following tradeoff: The Amish prioritize the benefits generated by acting intentionally about technology over the benefits lost from the technologies they decide not to use. Their gamble is that intention trumps convenience—and this is a bet that seems to be paying off.
  • The very act of being selective about your tools will bring you satisfaction, typically much more than what is lost from the tools you decide to avoid.
  • 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.

3. The Digital Declutter

On (Rapidly) Becoming Minimalist

  1. Put aside a 30-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  2. Explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  3. At the end of the 30-day break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life starting from a blank slate. For each technology introduced, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

Step #1. Define Your Technology Rules

  • Consider the technology “optional” unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.
  • Don’t confuse “convenient” with “critical”
  • Inconvenience might prove useful. E.g. losing lightweight contact with your international friends might help clarify which of these friendships were real in the first place, and strengthen your relationships with those who remain.
  • Use operating procedures when confronting a technology that’s largely optional, with the exception of a few critical use cases. These procedures specify exactly how and when you use a particular technology, allowing you to maintain some critical uses without having to default to unrestricted access.
  • Clarity in what you’re allowed and not allowed to do during the declutter will prove key to its success.

Step #2. Take A 30-Day Break

  • It’s likely that you’ll have to fight urges to check technologies that you’re not allowed to check.
  • The goal of a digital declutter, however, is not simply to enjoy time away from intrusive technology. During this monthlong process, you must aggressively explore higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you’re avoiding. This period should be one of strenuous activity and experimentation.

Step #3. Reintroduce Technology

  • The goal of this final step is to start from a blank slate and only let back into your life technology that passes your strict minimalist standards. It’s the care you take here that will determine whether this process sparks lasting change in your life.

To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must:

  1. Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
  2. Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace with something better).
  3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a SOP that specifies when and how you use it.

Part 2: Practices

4. Spend Time Alone

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. – BLAISE PASCAL

  • Follow President Lincoln’s example and give your brain the regular doses of quiet it requires to support a monumental life.
  • Solitude is a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.
  • Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.
  • Calmly experiencing separation builds your appreciation for interpersonal connections when they do occur.

Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius. – EDWARD GIBBON

Solitude Deprivation

  • A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
  • When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.
  • Severe anxiety has skyrocketed among young people, following the rise of smartphones and social media.
  • Persistent communication messes with our brain chemistry.
  • The defining trait of iGen is that they grew up with iPhones and social media, and don’t remember a time before constant access to the internet. They’re paying a price for this distinction with their mental health.
  • Humans are not wired to be constantly wired.

Practice: Leave Your Phone At Home

  • Life without a cell phone is occasionally annoying, but it’s much less debilitating than you might expect.
  • Try to spend some time away from your phone most days.
  • If you’re struggling at first, a useful compromise is to bring your phone where you’re going, but then leave it in your car’s glove compartment.

Practice: Take Long Walks

Only thoughts reached by walking have value…The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. – NIETZSCHE

  • Embrace walking as a high-quality source of solitude.
  • On a regular basis, go for long walks, preferably somewhere scenic. Take these walks alone, which means not just by yourself, but also, if possible, without your phone.
  • The hardest part of this habit is making the time. In my experience, you’ll probably have to invest effort to clear the necessary hours from your schedule—they’re unlikely to arise naturally.

Practice: Write Letters To Yourself

  • Dwight Eisenhower leveraged a “practice of thinking by writing” throughout his career to make sense of complicated decisions and tame intense emotions.
  • Write a letter to yourself when faced with demanding or uncertain circumstances.

5. Don’t Click “Like”

  • Our brains, in many ways, can be understood as sophisticated social computers. A natural conclusion of this reality is that we should treat with great care any new technology that threatens to disrupt the ways in which we connect and communicate with others.

The Social Animal

  • When given downtime, our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.
  • The loss of social connection turns out to trigger the same system as physical pain—explaining why the death of a family member, a breakup, or even just a social snub can cause such distress.
  • The human brain devotes significant resources to two different major networks that work together toward the goal of mentalizing: helping us understand other people’s minds, including how they are feeling and their intentions.
  • 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.

The Social Media Paradox

  • Depending on how social media is used, it is either making us lonely or bringing us joy.
  • The more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely.
  • The studies that found positive results focused on specific behaviors of social media users, while the studies that found negative results focused on overall use of the these services.
  • The problem, then, is not that using social media directly makes us unhappy. Indeed, as the positive studies cited above found, certain social media activities, when isolated in an experiment, modestly boost well-being. The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable.
  • Because our primal instinct to connect is so strong, it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend or bath time with a child—reducing the quality of the richer interaction right in front of us. Our analog brain cannot easily distinguish between the importance of the person in the room with us and the person who just sent us a new text.

Reclaiming Conversation

Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. – SHERRY TURKLE

  • Conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. It can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, video chat, or phone call, so long as tone of voice and/or facial expressions can be read.
  • Email, text and basically all forms of social media is not conversation, but connection. It serves the mere logistical role to help set up and arrange real conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information. It supports conversation, but doesn’t replace it.
  • You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia. Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.

Practice: Don’t Click “Like”

  • Don’t click “Like.” Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well. No “so cute!” or “so cool!” Remain silent. Interacting with “Likes” and comments on social media teaches your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation.
  • Refusing to use social media icons and comments to interact means that some people will inevitably fall out of your social orbit—in particular, those whose relationship with you exists only over social media. It’s okay. Let them go.
  • The idea that it’s valuable to maintain vast numbers of weak-tie social connections is largely an invention of the past decade or so—the detritus of over-exuberant network scientists spilling inappropriately into the social sphere.

Practice: Consolidate Texting

  • The more you text, the less necessary you’ll deem real conversation, and, perversely, when you do interact face-to-face, your compulsion to keep checking on other interactions on your phone will diminish the value you experience. We’re left, then, with a technology that’s required in your social life while simultaneously reducing the value you derive from it.
  • Keep your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default.
  • When you’re in this mode, text messages become like emails: if you want to see if anyone has sent you something, you must turn on your phone and open the app. You can now schedule specific times for texting—consolidating sessions in which you go through the backlog of texts.
  • This allows you to be more present when you’re not texting.
  • Being less available over text, in other words, has a way of paradoxically strengthening your relationships even while making you (slightly) less available to those you care about.
  • You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emojis can provide.
  • Text messaging is a wonderful innovation that makes many parts of life significantly more convenient. This technology only becomes a problem when you treat it as a reasonable alternative to real conversation.

Practice: Hold Conversation Office Hours

  • Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversation. Depending on where you are during this period, these conversations might be exclusively on the phone or could also include in-person meetings. Once these office hours are set, promote them to the people you care about.

6. Reclaim Leisure

  • A life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.
  • In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise.
  • If you begin decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life before you’ve convincingly filled in the void they were helping you ignore, the experience will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worst.
  • The most successful digital minimalists tend to start their conversion by renovating what they do with their free time—cultivating high-quality leisure before culling the worst of their digital habits.

The Bennett Principle

What? you say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change–not rest, except in sleep. – ARNOLD BENETT

  • Bennett Principle = Spending more energy in your leisure can leave you with more energy than before.
  • We might tell ourselves there’s no greater reward after a hard day at the office than to have an evening entirely devoid of plans or commitments. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began.

Leisure Lesson #1Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.

On Craft And Satisfaction

Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. – MATTHEW CRAWFORD

  • Craft describes any activity where you apply skill to create something valuable.
  • Craft is a good source of high-quality leisure.

Leisure Lesson #2Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.

Supercharged Sociality

  • The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First they require you to spend time with other people in person.
  • The second is that the activity provides some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal.

Leisure Lesson #3Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.

The Leisure Renaissance

  • The internet is fueling a leisure renaissance of sorts by providing the average person more leisure options than ever before in human history. It does so in two primary ways: by helping people find communities related to their interests and providing easy access to the sometimes obscure information needed to support specific quality pursuits.
  • Escape the situation where passive interaction with your screens is your primary leisure activity.
  • Instead of spending an hour browsing funny YouTube clips, use YouTube to teach yourself a new skill.

Practice: Fix or Build Something Every Week

  • The simplest way to become more handy is to learn a new skill, apply it to repair, learn, or build something, and then repeat.

Practice: Schedule Your Low-Quality Leisure

  • You can’t build a billion-dollar empire like Facebook if you’re wasting hour every day using a service like Facebook.
  • Schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure such as surfing the web, social media checking, and entertainment streaming.
  • By confining your use of attention-capturing services to well-defined periods, your remaining leisure time is left protected for more substantial activities. You also don’t have to completely abandon low-quality diversions.
  • Social media companies always focus the conversation on why you should use their service, never how you should use it, because their business model depends on your engaging their products for as many minutes as possible.

Practice: Join Something

  • Ben Franklin was relentlessly driven to be part of groups, associations, lodges, and volunteer companies—any organization that brought interesting people together for useful ends captured his attention as a worthwhile endeavor.
  • It’s easy to get caught up in the annoyances or difficulties inherent in any gathering of individuals, but it’s wise to join the group first, and work out the other issues later.
  • Few things can replicate the benefits of connecting with your fellow citizens, so get up, get out, and start reaping these benefits in your own community.

Practice: Follow Leisure Plans

  • Strategize your free time.
  • The seasonal leisure plan is something that you put together three times a year: at the beginning of the fall (early September), at the beginning of winter (January), and at the beginning of summer (early May).
  • A good seasonal plan contains two different types of items: objectives and habits that you intend to honor in the upcoming season.
  • The objectives describe specific goals you hope to accomplish, with accompanying strategies for how you will accomplish them.
  • The habits describe behavior rules you hope to stick with throughout the season.
  • At the beginning of each week, put aside time to review your current seasonal leisure plan. After processing this information, come up with a plan for how your leisure activities will fit into your schedule for the upcoming week.
  • For each of the objectives in the seasonal plan, figure out what actions you can do during the week to make progress on these objectives, and then schedule exactly when you’ll do these things.
  • The more you see these leisure plans as just part of your normal scheduling—and not some separate and potentially optional endeavor—the more likely you are to succeed in following them.
  • Doing nothing is overrated. These decompression sessions have their place, but their rewards are muted, as they tend to devolve toward low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and half-hearted binge-watching.

7. Join the Attention Resistance

  • It’s important to know that the “attention economy” describes the business sector that makes money gathering consumers’ attention and then repackaging and selling it to advertisers.
  • Extracting eye-ball minutes, the key resource for companies like Google and Facebook, has become significantly more lucrative than extracting oil.
  • The smartphone helped companies like Google and Facebook storm these remaining redoubts of unmolested focus and start ransacking—generating massive new fortunes in the process.
  • To sustain this type of compulsive use, however, you cannot have people thinking too critically about how they use their phone. With this in mind, Facebook has in recent years presented itself as a foundational technology, like electricity or mobile telephony—something that everyone should just use, as it would be weird if you didn’t. This status of cultural ubiquity is ideal for Facebook because it pressures people to remain users without having to sell them on concrete benefits.
  • Critical use is a critical problem for the digital attention economy.

Practice: Delete Social Media From Your Phone

  • Mobile has become the primary means of ad revenue for social media companies.
  • Smartphone versions of these services are much more adept at hijacking your attention than the versions accessed through a web browser on your laptop.
  • If you’re going to use social media, stay far away from the mobile versions of these services, as these pose a significantly bigger risk to your time and attention.

Practice: Turn Your Devices Into Single Purpose Computers

  • What makes general-purpose computing powerful is that you don’t need separate devices for separate uses, not that it allows you to do multiple things at the same time.
  • Focus on using one application for one specific purpose at a time. Block everything else.

Practice: Use Social Media Like A Professional

  • Do not look to social media for entertainment.
  • Connect only with close friends and relatives and the occasional influencer.
  • Avoid using social media for the news.
  • Use social media to your advantage. Don’t get trapped in the idea that you should endlessly scroll for entertainment.

Practice: Embrace Slow Media

  • The Slow Media Manifesto argues that in an age in which the digital attention economy is shoveling more and more clickbait toward us and fragmenting our focus into emotionally charged shards, the right response is to become more mindful in our media consumption.
  • To embrace news media from a mindset of slowness requires first and foremost that you focus only on the highest-quality sources.
  • Breaking news is almost always much lower quality than the reporting that’s possible once an event has occurred and journalists have had time to process it.
  • It’s usually counterproductive to expose yourself to the fire hose of incomplete, redundant, and often contradictory information that spews through the internet in response to noteworthy events.
  • Consider limiting your attention to the best of the best when it comes to selecting individual writers you follow.
  • Decide in advance how and when you will consume news.

Practice: Dumb Down Your Smartphone

  • Consider replacing your smartphone with a modern flip phone.


  • Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves.
  • They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins.
  • The key to sustained success with this philosophy is accepting that it’s not really about the technology, but is instead more about the quality of your life.
  • Digital minimalism definitely does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools.

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