Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addictions. The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.
The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that 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.
On one extreme, there are the Neo-Luddites, who advocate the abandonment of most new technologies. On another extreme, you have the Quantified Self enthusiasts, who carefully integrate digital devices into all aspects of their life with the goal of optimizing their existence. Of the different philosophies I studied, however, there was one in particular that stood out as a superior answer for those looking to thrive in our current moment of technological overload. I call it digital minimalism, and it applies the belief that less can be more to our relationship with digital tools.
A college senior who set up an account on thefacebook.com in 2004 to look up classmates probably didn’t predict that the average modern user would spend around two hours per day on social media and related messaging services, with close to half that time dedicated to Facebook’s products alone. Similarly, a first adopter who picked up an iPhone in 2007 for the music features would be less enthusiastic if told that within a decade he could expect to compulsively check the device eighty-five times a day—a “feature” we now know Steve Jobs never considered as he prepared his famous keynote.
“This thing is a slot machine,” Harris says early in the interview while holding up his smartphone. “How is that a slot machine?” Cooper asks. “Well, every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see ‘What did I get?’” Harris answers.
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.
How tech companies encourage behavioral addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
Scientists have known since Michael Zeiler’s famous pecking pigeon experiments from the 1970s that rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered with a known pattern. Something about unpredictability releases more dopamine—a key neurotransmitter for regulating our sense of craving. The original Zeiler experiment had pigeons pecking a button that unpredictably released a food pellet.
The power of this drive for social approval should not be underestimated. Leah Pearlman, who was a product manager on the team that developed the “Like” button for Facebook (she was the author of the blog post announcing the feature in 2009), has become so wary of the havoc it causes that now, as a small business owner, she hires a social media manager to handle her Facebook account so she can avoid exposure to the service’s manipulation of the human social drive.
We’ve been engaging in a lopsided arms race in which the technologies encroaching on our autonomy were preying with increasing precision on deep-seated vulnerabilities in our brains, while we still naively believed that we were just fiddling with fun gifts handed down from the nerd gods.
As Socrates explained to Phaedrus in Plato’s famous chariot metaphor, our soul can be understood as a chariot driver struggling to rein two horses, one representing our better nature and the other our baser impulses. When we increasingly cede autonomy to the digital, we energize the latter horse and make the chariot driver’s struggle to steer increasingly difficult—a diminishing of our soul’s authority.
If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it.
Notice, this minimalist philosophy contrasts starkly with the maximalist philosophy that most people deploy by default—a mind-set in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention. A maximalist is very uncomfortable with the idea that anyone might miss out on something that’s the least bit interesting or valuable.
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.
Thoreau establishes early in Walden: “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.”
When you combine an active Twitter presence with a dozen other attention-demanding online behaviors, the cost in life becomes extreme.
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 life. This is also what makes Thoreau’s new economics so relevant to our current moment.
More often than not, the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.
Gabriella adopted an optimization: she’s not allowed to watch Netflix alone. This restriction still allows her to enjoy the value Netflix offers, but to do so in a more controlled manner that limits its potential for abuse and strengthens something else she values: her social life. “Now [streaming shows is] a social activity instead of an isolating activity,”
Another optimization that was common among the digital minimalists I studied was to remove social media apps from their phones. Because they can still access these sites through their computer browsers, they don’t lose any of the high-value benefits that keep them signed up for these services. By removing the apps from their phones, however, they eliminated their ability to browse their accounts as a knee-jerk response to boredom.
As the author Max Brooks quipped in a 2017 TV appearance, “We need to reevaluate [our current relationship with] online information sort of the way we reevaluated free love in the 80s.”
The Amish, it turns out, 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.
At the core of the Amish philosophy regarding technology is the following trade-off: 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 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.
The digital declutter focuses primarily on new technologies, which describes apps, sites, and tools delivered through a computer or mobile phone screen. You should probably also include video games and streaming video in this category.
For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life. Reducing the easy distraction without also filling the void can make life unpleasantly stale—an outcome likely to undermine any transition to minimalism.
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.
We justify many of the technologies that tyrannize our time and attention with some tangential connection to something we care about. The minimalist, by contrast, measures the value of these connections and is unimpressed by all but the most robust.
Previous technologies that threatened solitude, from Thoreau’s telegraph to Storr’s car phone, introduced new ways to occasionally interrupt time alone with your thoughts, whereas the iPod provided for the first time the ability to be continuously distracted from your own mind.
A strong rock paper scissors player integrates a rich stream of information about their opponent’s body language and recent plays to help approximate their opponent’s mental state and therefore make an educated guess about the next play. These players will also use subtle movements and phrases to prime their opponent to think about a certain play.
Understanding rock paper scissors champions is important to our purposes because their strategies highlight a foundational endowment shared by every human being on earth: the ability to perform complicated social thinking.
Our brains adapted to automatically practice social thinking during any moments of cognitive downtime, and it’s this practice that helps us become really interested in our social world.
Something as simple as a casual conversation with a store clerk requires massive amounts of neuronal computational power to take in and process a high-bandwidth stream of clues about what’s going on in the clerk’s mind. Though this “mind reading” feels natural to us, it’s actually an amazingly complicated feat performed by networks honed over millions of years of evolution. It’s exactly these highly adapted systems that are leveraged by the rock paper scissor champions who opened this chapter.
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 key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable. As the negative studies imply, the more you use social media, the less time you tend to devote to offline interaction, and therefore the worse this value deficit becomes—leaving the heaviest social media users much more likely to be lonely and miserable. The small boosts you receive from posting on a friend’s wall or liking their latest Instagram photo can’t come close to compensating for the large loss experienced by no longer spending real-world time with that same friend.
Offline interactions are incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone. The low-bandwidth chatter supported by many digital communication tools might offer a simulacrum of this connection, but it leaves most of our high-performance social processing networks underused—reducing these tools’ ability to satisfy our intense sociality.
When you spend multiple hours a day compulsively clicking and swiping, there’s much less free time left for slower interactions. And because this compulsive use emits a patina of socialness, it can delude you into thinking that you’re already serving your relationships well, making further action unnecessary.
The “Like” feature evolved to become the foundation on which Facebook rebuilt itself from a fun amusement that people occasionally checked, to a digital slot machine that began to dominate its users’ time and attention. This button introduced a rich new stream of social approval indicators that arrive in an unpredictable fashion—creating an almost impossibly appealing impulse to keep checking your account. It also provided Facebook much more detailed information on your preferences, allowing their machine-learning algorithms to digest your humanity into statistical slivers that could then be mined to push you toward targeted ads and stickier content.
Don’t click “Like.” Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well.
The reason I’m suggesting such a hard stance against these seemingly innocuous interactions is that they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation. The motivating premise behind my conversation-centric communication philosophy is that once you accept this equality, despite your good intentions, the role of low-value interactions will inevitably expand until it begins to push out the high-value socializing that actually matters.
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 overexuberant network scientists spilling inappropriately into the social sphere. Humans have maintained rich and fulfilling social lives for our entire history without needing the ability to send a few bits of information each month to people we knew briefly during high school.
Once you no longer treat text interactions as an ongoing conversation that you must continually tend, it’s much easier to concentrate fully on the activity before you.
A life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.
If your life consists only of actions whose “worth depends on the existence of problems, difficulties, needs, which these activities aim to solve,” you’re vulnerable to the existential despair that blooms in response to the inevitable question, Is this all there is to life? One solution to this despair, he notes, is to follow Aristotle’s lead and embrace pursuits that provide you a “source of inward joy.”
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 worse.
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 worse. The most successful digital minimalists, therefore, 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.
Speaking to the Hamilton Club in Chicago in the spring of 1899, Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life.” Roosevelt practiced what he preached. As president, Roosevelt regularly boxed (until a hard blow detached his left retina), practiced jujitsu, skinny-dipped in the Potomac, and read at the rate of one book per day. He was not one to sit back and relax.
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 #1: Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.
Leisure Lesson #2: Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world.
Leisure Lesson #3: Seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions.
One way to understand the exploding popularity of social media platforms in recent years is that they offer a substitute source of aggrandizement. 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.
The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First, they require you to spend time with other people in person. As emphasized, there’s a sensory and social richness to real-world encounters that’s largely lost in virtual connections, so spending time with your World of Warcraft clan doesn’t qualify. The second trait 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.
Spending an hour browsing funny YouTube clips might sap your vitality, while—and I’m speaking from recent experience here—using YouTube to teach yourself how to replace a motor in a bathroom ventilation fan can provide the foundation for a satisfying afternoon of tinkering.
A foundational theme in digital minimalism is that new technology, when used with care and intention, creates a better life than either Luddism or mindless adoption.
Pete bought a grinder, a metal chop saw, a visor, heavy-duty gloves, and a 120-volt wire-feed flux core welder—which, as Pete explains, is by far the easiest welding device to learn. He then picked some simple projects, loaded up some YouTube videos, and got to work. Before long, Pete became a competent welder—not a master craftsman, but skilled enough to save himself tens of thousands of dollars in labor and parts. (As Pete explains it, he can’t craft a “curvaceous supercar,” but he could certainly weld up a “nice Mad-Max-style dune buggy.”)
The simplest way to become more handy is to learn a new skill, apply it to repair, learn, or build something, and then repeat. Start with easy projects in which you can follow step-by-step instructions more or less directly.
Schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming.
In 1727, Franklin created a social club called the Junto, which he describes as follows in his autobiography: I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.
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. As we have seen, when he couldn’t find such gatherings, he created them from scratch. This strategy worked.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a local sporting league, a committee at your temple, a local volunteer group, the PTA, a social fitness group, or a fantasy gamers club: 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.
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.
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. This practice, in other words, suggests that you remove all social media apps from your phone.
Frustrated by his inability to escape the attractions of the internet, Stutzman programmed his own tool to block the network connections on his computer for set amounts of time. He called it, appropriately enough, Freedom.
Freedom’s internal research reveals that its users gain, on average, 2.5 hours of productive time per day.
If you want to join the attention resistance, one of the most important things you can therefore do is follow Fred Stutzman’s lead and transform your devices—laptops, tablets, phones—into computers that are general purpose in the long run, but are effectively single purpose in any given moment. This practice suggests that you use tools like Freedom to aggressively control when you allow yourself access to any website or app supported by a company that profits from your attention. I’m not talking about occasionally blocking some sites when working on a particularly hard project. I want you instead to think about these services as being blocked by default, and made available to you on an intentional schedule.
Jennifer also uses Facebook significantly less than the average user by maintaining a simple rule regarding the service: it’s only for close friends and relatives, and for occasionally connecting with influencers. “In the early years, I used to accept friend requests from anyone,” they said. “But I don’t think we’re really supposed to be connected to so many people so frequently.” Jennifer now tries to keep friend engagement* below the Dunbar Number of 150—a theoretical limit for the number of people a human can successfully keep track of in their social circles.