- Cal Newport
- My last highlight
- Number of highlights
you must first ask: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value?
For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.
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.
You want to arrive at the end of the declutter having rediscovered the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life—one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.
you must first ask: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? This is the only condition on which you should let one of these tools into your life. The fact that it offers some value is irrelevant—the digital minimalist deploys technology to serve the things they find most important in their life, and is happy missing out on everything else.
If a technology makes it through both of these screening questions, there’s one last question you must ask yourself before it’s allowed back into your life: How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?
To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must: Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough). Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better). Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.
Perhaps predictably, many of the participants in my mass declutter experiment ended up abandoning the social media services that used to take up so much of their time. These services have a way of entering your life through cultural pressure and vague value propositions, so they tend not to hold up well when subjected to the rigor of the screen described above. It was also common, however, for participants to reintroduce social media in a limited manner to serve specific purposes. In these cases, they were often quite rigorous in taming the services with strict operating procedures.
As Kethledge and Erwin explain, however, solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.
In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen. 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.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal famously wrote in the late seventeenth century. Half a century later, and an ocean away, Benjamin Franklin took up the subject in his journal: “I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude. . . . I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind.”*
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. The farmer in Thoreau’s time might leave the quiet fireside to walk to town and check the evening telegraph dispatches, fragmenting a moment of solitude, but there was no way that this technology could offer continuous distraction to this same farmer as he went about his day. The iPod was pushing us toward a newly alienated phase in our relationship with our own minds. This transformation started by the iPod, however, didn’t reach its full potential until the release of its successor, the iPhone, or, more generally, the spread of modern internet-connected smartphones in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Even though iPods became ubiquitous, there were still moments in which it was either too much trouble to slip in the earbuds (think: waiting to be called into a meeting), or it might be socially awkward to do so (think: sitting bored during a slow hymn at a church service). The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds.
In the decades since Walden’s release, however, critics have been busy attacking the mythology of Walden as an isolated outpost. Historian W. Barksdale Maynard, to cite one example among many, listed in a 2005 essay the many ways in which Thoreau was anything but isolated during his time at the pond. Thoreau’s cabin, it turns out, was not in the woods, but in a clearing near the woods that was in sight of a well-traveled public road. Thoreau was only a thirty-minute walk from his hometown of Concord, where he returned regularly for meals and social calls. Friends and family, for their part, visited him constantly at his cabin, and Walden Pond, far from an untrammeled oasis, was then, as it remains today, a popular destination for tourists seeking a nice walk or swim. But as Maynard explains, this complicated mixture of solitude and companionship is not a secret Thoreau was trying to hide. It was, in some sense, the whole point. “[Thoreau’s] intention was not to inhabit a wilderness,” he writes, “but to find wildness in a suburban setting.” We can substitute solitude for wildness in this sentence without changing its meaning. Thoreau had no interest in complete disconnection, as the intellectual milieu of mid-nineteenth-century Concord was surprisingly well developed and Thoreau didn’t want to completely disengage from this energy. What Thoreau sought in his experiment at Walden was the ability to move back and forth between a state of solitude and a state of connection. He valued time alone with his thoughts—staring at ice—but he also valued companionship and intellectual stimulation. He would have rejected a life of true hermit-style isolation with the same vigor with which he protested the thoughtless consumerism of the early industrial age.
The pianist Glenn Gould once proposed a mathematical formula for this cycle, telling a journalist: “I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents I don’t really know . . . but it’s a substantial ratio.”
The failed fight against cell phones in movie theaters is a specific consequence of a more general shift that’s occurred over the past decade: the transformation of the cell phone from an occasionally useful tool to something we can never be apart from.
Put another way, in 90 percent of your daily life, the presence of a cell phone either doesn’t matter or makes things only slightly more convenient. They’re useful, but it’s hyperbolic to believe its ubiquitous presence is vital.
I recommend that you try to spend some time away from your phone most days. This time could take many forms, from a quick morning errand to a full evening out, depending on your comfort level. Succeeding with this strategy requires that you abandon the belief that not having your phone is a crisis.
I’ve become convinced that what you need instead 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.
My final suggestion is to 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.
you’re more likely to succeed in reducing the role of digital tools in your life if you cultivate high-quality alternatives to the easy distraction they provide.
Once a technology passes this first screening question, it must then face a more difficult standard: Is this technology the best way to support this value?