Here are my musings on how we can take back control of our attention and place it where we can flourish as humans. With extracts from ‘Digital Minimalism’.
“Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance.
This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy.” Cal Newport
YOUR ATTENTION IN A LOPSIDED ARMS RACE
“The fact that our humanity was routed by these tools over the past decade should come
as no surprise. As I just detailed, 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.
When Bill Maher joked that the App Store was coming for our souls, he was actually onto
something. 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.
When seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that this is a battle we must fight. But to do so,
we need a more serious strategy, something custom built to swat aside the forces manipulating
us toward behavioural addictions and that offers a concrete plan about how to put new
technologies to use for our best aspirations not against them. Digital minimalism is one such
strategy. It’s toward its details that we now turn our attention.”
Welcome to reflection point #1: A Lopsided Arms Race.
We’ll start with that Bill Maher joke that the App Store wants your soul. The longer version
of the joke includes him saying that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are like tobacco farmers in
t-shirts—only they don’t just want our lungs they want our souls.
Maher made that joke after watching this 60 Minutes segment on “Brain Hacking.” <- If
you haven’t watched that yet, please do yourself and your family a favour and watch it. It’s a
fantastic analysis of just how much tech companies prey on our brain’s
vulnerabilities to create addictive behaviours.
Having said that, we shouldn’t be looking to be anti-tech. We should be pro flourishing.
Which leads us to the central question of a new philosophy for technology use:
“How to put new technologies to use for our best aspirations not against them.”
Which brings us back to our souls.
Helping that chariot driver do his job well is, of course, the ultimate theme of all of our work
together. And we’ve GOTTA KNOW that we’re in a battle when it comes to our technology use.
And… We’ve gotta know that it’s “a lopsided arms race.”
For every screen you look at, there are a LOT of engineers thinking about how to get you to
spend more time looking at it. Which would be *awesome* if their primary interest was helping
you flourish and move towards your potential. But… It’s not—which is why we need to step back
from a mindless consumption of “useful” technology and reclaim our autonomy.
As we do so, we’d be wise to keep that image of our charioteer soul in mind. And know
that we’re in a battle featuring a “lopsided arms race.”
In Bored and Brilliant we quoted leading tech ethicist Tristan Harris (who is featured in that 60
Minutes episode). Here’s how he puts it “The most important thing to acknowledge is that it’s
an unfair fight. On one side is a human being who’s just trying to get on with her prefrontal
cortex, which is a million years old and in charge of regulating attention. That’s up against a
thousand engineers on the other side of the screen, whose daily job is to break that and keep
you scrolling on the infinite feed.”
Some ancient wisdom of Socrates dialogues that Plato captures in The Giorgas, he tells us: “I
desire only to know the truth and to live as well as I can… And, to the utmost of my power, I
exhort all other men to do the same… I exhort you also to take part in the great combat, which
is the combat of life, and greater than every other earthly conflict.”
The ultimate weapon for tech combat? Digital Minimalism.
A 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.
The so-called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit
cost-benefit analyses. If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial
convenience, the minimalist will ignore it. Even when a new technology promises to support
something the minimalist values, it must still pass a stricter test: is this the best way to use
technology to support this value? If the answer is no, the minimalist will set to work trying to
optimize the tech, or search out a better option.
By working backwards 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.
By doing so, they break the spell that has made so many people feel like they’re losing control to
After the sobering exploration on why we need a “philosophy of technology use,”
we can start to research just how to utilise a practical philosophy that will
guide our tech behaviours: Digital Minimalism.
First, the recap: “Digital Minimalism: A 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.”
Now, for the most obvious distinction, we need to make here.
By default, most people (are you one of them?) adopt a digital MAXIMALIST approach to their
tech use. The basic idea: If it’s available in the App Store and it does something useful and all the
cool kids are using it, then OF COURSE I’m going to use it. Who wouldn’t?
Well… A MINIMALIST wouldn’t follow that line of thinking (and behaving).
Instead, we step back, remember that it’s no measure of well-being to be well adjusted to a
profoundly sick society (thanks, Krishnamurti!) and decide that we’re not going to go nuts on all
the latest and greatest apps and gadgets.
We’re going to take a glance at our SOULS and ask him or her what THEY think about things.
We’re going to start with our VALUES and go from there.
What’s important to us? What do we want to achieve in life? (As in: What’s REALLY (!!!) soulachingly
important to us in this one precious life of ours?!)
THEN… We ask ourselves how to best use technology to achieve those goals.
For now, consider this
question: What would change in your life if you approached things with THAT orientation?
SPEND TIME ALONE
“Returning to our canary-in-the-coal-mine analogy, the plight of iGen provides a strong
warning about the danger of solitude deprivation. When an entire cohort unintentionally
eliminated time alone with their thoughts from their lives, their mental health suffered
dramatically. On reflection, this makes sense. These teenagers have lost the ability to process
and make sense of their emotions, or to reflect on who they are and what really matters, or to
build strong relationships, or even to just allow their brains time to power down their critical
social circuits, which are not meant to be used constantly, and to redirect that energy to other
important cognitive housekeeping tasks. We shouldn’t be surprised that these absences lead to
Most adults stop short of the constant connectivity practised by members of iGen, but if you
extrapolate these effects to the somewhat milder forms of solitude deprivation that have become
common among many different age groups, the results are still worrisome. As I’ve learned
by interacting with my readers, many have come to accept a background hum of low-grade
anxiety that permeates their daily lives. When looking for explanations, they might turn to the
latest crises—be it the recession of 2009 or the contentious election of 2016—or chalk it up to a
normal reaction to the stresses of adulthood. But once you begin studying the positive benefits
of spending time alone with your thoughts, and encounter the distressing effects that appear in
populations that eliminate this altogether, a simple explanation emerges: we need solitude to
thrive as human beings, and in recent years, without even realizing it, we’ve been systematically
reducing this crucial ingredient from our lives.
Simply put, humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”
That’s from a chapter called Spend Time Alone in which we learn about the pernicious effects
of NOT spending any time alone.
Want a SUPER-sobering glance at what happens when a whole generation is raised constantly
connected to their technology? Look at Gen Z. And look closely at their rates of depression and
anxiety (and suicide). (sigh)
Then look at what science says about the positive benefits of spending time alone. Then, perhaps,
look in the mirror and check in on whether YOU are experiencing a sort of “low-grade anxiety”
that you might be misattributing to things outside of your incessant tech use. Then, if you feel so
inspired, SPEND MORE TIME ALONE!!!
There is a lot of wisdom to be considered from Lead Yourself First by Raymond Kethledge
and Michael Erwin. Their definition of solitude is “a subjective state in which your
mind is free from input from other minds.”
Super simple. Super powerful. Super easy to take for granted.
Cal Newport has his own definition of “Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close
to zero time alone with your thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
Super simple. Super powerful. Super easy to take for granted.
Again, go and research Cal for more. For now, I HIGHLY encourage you to a) value the time
in which you have ZERO inputs from other minds + b) start reclaiming those pockets of solitude.
Here are a couple of my key practices: First, I NEVER have anything on when I’m driving.
It’s pure quiet. No news. No music. No inputs. Just me and my thoughts. And, I NEVER have
any inputs when I’m out walking in nature. No podcasts. No music. No inputs. Pure quiet. Just
me and my thoughts.
“The state I’m helping you escape is one in which passive interaction with your screens is your
primary leisure. I want you to replace this with a state where your leisure time is now filled
with better pursuits, many of which will exist primarily in the physical world. In this new state,
digital technology is still present but now subordinated to a support role: helping you to set up
or maintain your leisure activities, but not acting as the primary source of leisure themselves.
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.”
Reclaim Leisure. The third practice of Digital Minimalism. Ancient wisdom again from
Aristotle’s argument in his Ethics that “high-quality leisure is essential to a life well-lived.”
All that PASSIVE leisure? The endless social media and news surfing and TV show watching?
That’s not what we’re talking about here.
We want ACTIVE leisure. The kind that challenges you. And maybe even gets you up and out and
connected with other people and/or challenging activities that require your soul to be present.
We THINK that sitting back and doing nothing will make us happy. But, that’s just not quite how
it works. Csikszentmihalyi reflects on a similar theme in Flow. “Thus we have a paradoxical
situation: On the job, people feel skilful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong,
creative, and satisfied. In their free time, people feel that there is generally not much to do
and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and
dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in [passive!] leisure.”
In sum: The Digital Minimalist uses technology wisely to help us engage in more meaningful
forms of active leisure. While NOT squandering time with the passive stuff.
How can we incorporate a little more active leisure today?
JOIN THE ATTENTION RESISTANCE MOVEMENT
“The lopsidedness of this battle is a big part of the reason I never messed around with any of
these services in the first place. To repeat a line from the New Yorker writer George Packer,
‘[Twitter] scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could
handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my own son go hungry.’ If you must use these services,
however, and you hope to do so without ceding autonomy over your time and attention, it’s
crucial to understand that this is not a casual decision. You’re instead waging a David and
Goliath battle against institutions that are both impossibly rich and intent on using this wealth
to stop you from winning.
Put another way, to approach attention economy services with the intentionality proposed by
Ginsberg and Burke is not a commonsense adjustment to your digital habits, but is instead
better understood as a bold act of resistance. Fortunately, if you take this path, you’ll not be
alone. My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized
attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with
disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy
services—dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by
these companies can spring shut.”
The final and most compelling consideration: Join the Attention Resistance. Let’s step back for a
moment and talk about the attention economy. As I have highlighted a number of times, it’s huge.
We are up against a £5 trillion dollar attention machine.
Here’s what we need to know. When you’re using a site like Facebook (or Instagram or Twitter
or any other “free” service like that), you THINK that the product is the site or app you’re using.
But, news flash: YOU are the product. Those companies are using YOU (and, more specifically,
your attention) as a product they sell to their real customers—the advertisers who pay for a share
of your attention. Which is why it’s called the “attention economy.”
And THAT is why they’re spending so much money and energy trying to figure out how to
capture your attention. And that is why it’s such a lopsided arms race and why we need to be so
vigilant in deliberately choosing how we use all that technology.
Enter: The Attention Resistance. A movement of people (like us!) who are engaged in one of the
great (and most important!) battles of modern life—preserving our soul’s most valuable asset.
Ultimately: “the key to sustained success with digital minimalism is accepting that it’s not
really about technology, but is instead more about the quality of your life. 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 state of alluring devices.”
Feeling enlightened? Download my ebook for free, for a limited time only at: 80 Ways To Find Your Purpose