Last year Cal Newport convinced 1,600 people to completely change their lives.
He asked them to take a 30-day break from the optional technologies in their lives. Unless not using it would get you fired, divorced, or cause the people you love to spontaneously burst into flame, it was out. Say goodbye to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for a month.
And anything not optional got rules: only checking email at designated hours and the screen time limits you might impose on your kids now got imposed on you. So what happened?
No, nobody had a seizure. And, yes, the initial transition was rough for many. But after that, in the vast majority of cases, it utterly changed people’s lives for the better.
They got happier. More productive. They spent more quality time with their kids. One father remarked how weird it was to be the only parent at the playground notlooking at his phone.
Research shows 70% of your happiness comes from relationships:
Contrary to the belief that happiness is hard to explain, or that it depends on having great wealth, researchers have identified the core factors in a happy life. The primary components are number of friends, closeness of friends, closeness of family, and relationships with co-workers and neighbors. Together these features explain about 70 percent of personal happiness. – Murray and Peacock 1996
And what’s the biggest controllable factor that’s taking quality time away from your relationships? Probably your phone. The internet. The pseudo-relationships you have on social media.
We’ve read a thousand tips and tricks for reducing our screen time but they’re like fad diets and are generally only effective until the next time you feel a buzzing in your pocket.
Technology’s not evil, but we need to find a balance. We need more than tips, we need a philosophy. A system. Dare I say, an ethos. And Cal has one for us: “Digital Minimalism.”
No, Cal’s not going to tell you to smash your phone. Quite the opposite: He’s a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, sporting a PhD from MIT. The Force is strong with this one. He’s the bestselling author of a whole bunch of books, including the amazing Deep Work.
His latest book is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
I gave Cal a call to find out how we can get the best of technology — so it doesn’t get the best of us. This isn’t another rant about the evils of screens. It’s a battle plan for building a better life.
Let’s get to it …
The true enemy is “reverse FOMO”
FOMO: fear of missing out. You’ve probably clicked an article about the subject because, hey, wouldn’t wanna miss out on the latest internet hysteria. But FOMO is a false god. It’s not the real problem.
The real problem is “reverse FOMO.” You’re not missing out on anything online. But by always being online you’re missing out on life. Here’s Cal:
We have this idea of FOMO, which is that if you’re not super-connected, there could be something you’re missing out on. But the reality is that the issue most people are having is that because they’re using technology more than they know is healthy, it’s crowding out all the things that we know deep down make a good life good. People are missing out on real-world conversation, which is just crucial for a satisfying life. Being with people in person, sacrificing time and effort to actually be with someone, to connect with them through the good, the bad, the boring, the interesting. We need that to survive.
The ability to lift your phone at any moment is slicing good hours into time confetti. It’s preventing us from accomplishing big things and focusing on the people we love. And at the same time it’s creating a salad bar of new problems like anxiety, FOMO and loneliness. Sorry, your brain needs more social connection than Facebook Likes can provide. Here’s Cal:
…we’re seeing this increasingly strong signal that more social media use means higher likelihood of loneliness. And one of the leading hypotheses is that social media displaces real-world interaction. If you’re on social media all the time, you feel like you’re very social, and therefore you don’t invest the effort required to do as much real-world interaction. Our brains evolved for millions of years with no like buttons or emojis. When you say, “Okay, I’m not going to give you any face to face interaction, but what I am going to give you is a little number that counts how many hearts someone clicks on a picture” — that’s not satisfying it. That’s why you can ironically end up more lonely when you spend more time on social media platforms. It’s something we should be much more afraid of than we are.
Too much phone time isn’t just distracting us from our relationships — research shows it’s making us worse at conducting them. Here’s Cal:
Sherry Turkle from MIT documents that conversation actually requires practice. There’s a dance involved in sitting across from someone and negotiating that interaction. And if you rob a lot of that from your life, you get bad at it. It not only makes you lonely, it not only brings out anxiety-related disorders, it makes you really bad at relating when you have to do it.
People will respond “But social media is good for X and Y. I do get value from it!” No doubt. But that logic is a trap. Plenty of things have some value — the question is what are you giving up in exchange for it?
You have 24 hours in a day. If you’re doing one thing, you’re not doing another. Is the value you get from epic hours online better than the value you’d get from the alternative? Better than quality time with friends? We need to be more conscious of the choices we’re making.
When a friend convinces you to download yet another app, they may say “you don’t know what you’re missing.” But when it comes to real life, we do know what we’re missing. And often it’s far more valuable than whatever another dinging notification brings.
(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So what do we do about it?
Forget lifehacks — Start with values
Tech’s not good. Tech’s not evil. Tech’s a tool. You can use it for good or for let’s-be-honest-checking-email-300-times-a-day-is-not-very-good.
You never sat down and decided that your default should be you’ll stare at your phone every time you have a free second. But somehow it became the rule anyway.
And that’s the problem. We didn’t make a decision. And that has led to epic amounts of asking, “Where the heck did all my time go?”
We don’t need a lifehack. We need to start with values to make sure that technology serves us instead of us serving it. A hammer is a tool. But you wouldn’t default to picking it up every time you had a free moment. That would be silly.
You’d grab it for a purpose that served your goals. But things get screwed up when you don’t know what your values and goals are. Here’s Cal:
What matters is your whole picture for your life. You’re trying to build a good life that focuses on the things that are important to you, and technology is only useful in so much as it helps support the things you really care about. What this means is that you’re going to be very intentional. “Here’s what I really value. I’m going to focus my energy on these things, and I’m going to ignore and miss out on everything else.” That intentionality itself can be way more satisfying and positive than the benefits you get from all of those minor conveniences and minor dollops of value. You’re figuring out what’s important to your life. For each of these things, you’re stepping back and saying, “What’s the best way to use technology, if at all, to support this value?” and then you ignore everything else.
If your career is everything to you and you’re in sales, hey, maybe you need to check email 300 times a day. No problem — that’s in service of your values. But that’s not the case for most of us.
You need to ask yourself what’s important to you. And then make a decision about how technology fits into your life to serve those goals. Be intentional abut setting rules that serve your purpose. Here’s Cal:
How many people just made a New Year’s resolution to look at their phone less? That doesn’t do it. How many people have read the same article again and again about turning off their notifications? That’s the equivalent of telling people, “Vegetables are good for you. Try to eat less and move more.” It’s not enough. People need a philosophy based on their values so we don’t have to think about it. Digital Minimalism is one such philosophy. It’s like the veganism or the paleo of the digital world.
“Paleo for your screen” has a nice ring to it. But that might be too extreme for most of us.
But you need to know your values and priorities. And then set rules that work for them. Because as we’ve all seen, if we don’t start with values tech time will fill every void by default and you’ll end up wondering where the hours went.
You may also end up wondering where you friends and family went too.
(To learn how to stop checking your phone, click here.)
I know what a lot of people are thinking: “Um, other than vague platitudes about putting those I love first, what are my values?” And that leads us to another problem with tech. To address this one, we actually need to start by getting away from people.
In fact, we need to get away from everything for a little while …
Try a long walk without a phone
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away people used to do this thing called “thinking.” They didn’t listen to anything, read anything, or talk to anyone for a little while. You can look this “thinking” thing up on Wikipedia and it probably has a picture of a horse and buggy next to it.
These days I think many of us are scared to death of being alone with our own minds. This wasn’t always the way. And it’s not good. Here’s Cal:
A smartphone made it possible for the first time in human history to eliminate all moments of solitude and deep thought from your day because it provides an endless stream of compelling stimuli. If you want to take in ideas and process them into something valuable, this requires a lot of thinking, and this thinking has to be done free from other stimuli. So if you want to take the great ideas from that new Eric Barker article and integrate them into your life into a way that’s really useful, you can’t just read the article. You also are going to have to spend some time thinking about what you read and place it within the structures that already exist in your life. You have to have time alone with your thoughts to extract anywhere near the full possible value from information.
We need to do less reacting and more reflecting. Back to Professor Cal:
Having insight about your values, your life, changes in your life, what you want to do, how you want to live, these key bits of self-reflection that help us grow as human beings absolutely depend on solitude. There has to be time where it’s you alone with your thoughts.
So go out and take a long walk, sans phone, and try this “thinking” thing. Reading and listening to good ideas is awesome — trust me, I’m a big fan. But we also need time alone to create good ideas.
We need to think about what is important to us. When we have the answer to that, many other decisions become much much easier.
(To learn the 4-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So you’re taking time to think. You know what’s important to you. But now you’re going to face the same problem the 1600 people in Cal’s experiment did:
“What the heck do I do with myself now that I’m not online all the time?”
“High-quality analog leisure”
Archaeologists have discovered that back in that Dark Ages when people did that “thinking” thing, they also engaged in these odd rituals called “hobbies.” These were projects where they gained skills and created things without incentives from an employer. How quaint. Here’s Cal, who explains things with 90% less snark:
Historically, especially in the 19th century or the 20th century, as people had more leisure time, the natural discomfort with boredom drove them to try to fill it with quality activities or community engagement, high-skilled hobbies, intellectual pursuits that are done for non-professional reasons, like poetry and novels and big idea thinking. And we were always driven towards this.
We all have activities we’re passionate about. Things we’d like to do that make us feel proud of ourselves. Things we’d like to be respected for. We look at people who teach themselves to play the guitar or learn another language and say, “Where do they find the time?”
But we all have the same 24 hours. Really. (It has to do with physics or something.) I laugh when I see articles on the net about, “How To Read More Books.” They get a lot of clicks. And people often ask me, “Eric, you read a lot. How can I read more?” But I won’t be posting on the subject anytime soon. Actually, I will.
Here you go: “The things that are not reading, do them less. The things that are reading, do them more. The End.”
We all have 24 hours. It’s about priorities. And many of us are making our phones and social media a big priority — whether we admit it to ourselves or not.
One of the most common things Cal heard from the 1600 was, “I forgot just how much I enjoyed doing X.” We should all do more X. And some Y. Forget Z, it sucks.
We blast our free hours into time confetti and then can’t conceive of how people take on big personal projects or learn new skills. What hobby might bring you more joy or pride?
Seriously, answer that question — because if you don’t know the answer, your efforts to curb your tech use will inevitably fail. You must have something to fill the void. And it has to excite you more than Instagram.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
So other than your new stamp-collecting hobby, what else do you need to do? Hint: it involves people…
Make awesome plans with friends
Social media is the empty calories of friend nutrition. Keep stuffing your face with digital Doritos and you won’t have time for a real meal.
Think the world will end if you don’t comment on your friend’s next Facebook selfie? It won’t if you go visit them in person. Here’s that Cal guy again:
Digital minimalists are way more invested in real-world conversation. Maybe they don’t comment on that baby picture, but they show up unsolicited with dinner so you don’t have to cook that night. They call you. And it’s a priority for them. “I want to talk to you. What’s going on? How’s X, Y, Z happening with your work?” And so their friendships end up becoming much stronger.
This is what he saw with the 1600. (I encourage you all to emulate them — and bring me dinner.)
Do your best not to socialize digitally anymore if you can help it. Don’t use texting to catch up — use it for logistics to arrange a get together. Prioritize quality over quantity. Less texting, more hugging. Hugs make you happy. Science says so. Mom says so. Scientific moms say so.
But the big thing we’re missing these days is activities. People used to do things. Yeah, coffee or a drink is nice, but we need events, celebrations and competitions. Poker nights, board games, pickup basketball. We need to be a part of something and have a medium in which to connect, cooperate and express ourselves. Here’s Señor Newport:
So this is one of the benefits you get from high-quality leisure activities that have a social component to them, such as playing a board game with a group of friends or Ultimate Frisbee with your team. Part of why these types of things seem to be really beneficial is that the structure of the activity allows you a lot more flexibility and enjoyment in your social interaction that you might have in a simple conversation.
Play Monopoly. Plan an outing. Go conquer a neighboring village.
(To learn how to have a long awesome life, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot about what we’ve been missing. Let’s round it all up and see just how essential being part of a real-life community is to every one of us …
This is the most powerful way to make your life fantastic:
- Reverse FOMO is the problem: You’re not missing anything online. But if you’re always online you’re missing a lot of what makes life great.
- You Don’t Need Lifehacks, You Need Values: If you don’t know what’s more important to you than spending time on Instagram, you will keep spending all your time on Instagram.
- Long Walks Without A Phone: Thinking. Give it a try. I promise you, it’s not something you want someone else to do for you.
- High Quality Analog Leisure: Make something, learn something, practice something. We all have 24 hours in a day. Someone else is not doing cooler things than you because they have “more time”. It’s because they have different priorities.
- Make Awesome Plans With Friends: Which village should we conquer first?
It’s about feeling good about yourself. Living a life in alignment with your deepest values. Accomplishing things you’re proud of. And, most of all, being engaged with a community of people who love and support you.
I like technology. So do you. Nobody’s saying we have to surrender our phones and smash our routers. The issue is, by not having rules around how much we use it, we’ve quietly sacrificed some things that are vital. We can’t let digital connection get in the way of real community. That’s what we should be afraid of missing out on. It’s more important than any buzzing in our pocket — and if we take the time to really think about what makes us truly happy, we’ll choose community over modern conveniences almost every time.
I’m not trying to be all sappy and poetic. We have evidence. By the end of the nineteenth century, cities in America were rapidly moving toward what would become the modern world. New technologies, more convenience — but less community.
However, among the Native American tribes, not much was changing. Largely egalitarian and ruled by consensus, they lived much the same as they had for thousands of years. Not much new technology, but no shortage of community.
Here’s what’s interesting: city-dwellers sometimes left to join the Native American tribes. But the reverse almost never occurred.
It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society.
Actually, it even gets more extreme than that.
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,” Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1753, “[yet] if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” On the other hand, Franklin continued, white captives who were liberated from the Indians were almost impossible to keep at home: “Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
Humans are a social species. We long to be part of a community, part of a tribe. Given the option, we’ll always choose it. The modern world isn’t giving us a lot of great choices. So we must create them for ourselves. And the first step toward that is making sure that technology serves our communal needs, rather than replacing them.
Seriously, how many of the best moments of your life happened in front of a screen?
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