Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

By Cal Newport

Portfolio Publishing, February 5, 2019; 304 pp.; hardcover, $15

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: Steve Jobs intended for cell phones to be an enhancement to our work, not an addictive device that dominates our attention span. “Digital Minimalism” describes how this happened and what we can do next.

Who’s it for? Anyone required to produce quality work.

Author quote: “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.”

Children born after 1995 have no knowledge of life before the digital revolution and the applications that keep us attached to our phones, computers, and devices. Cal Newport points out in his new book “Digital Minimalism” that when these fully digitally raised children reach high school, they collectively have unprecedented anxiety levels and spend little time alone compared to their predecessors.

Newport is both a writer and an assistant professor at Georgetown University. His earlier book, “Deep Work,” recommended tuning out interruptions to perform the work that is important and satisfying. By researching and writing “Digital Minimalism,” Newport continues his previous concept providing insight on detaching from the digital world with uninterrupted time and filling that time with more valuable leisure experiences.

He points out that smartphones, phone apps, computers, and social media dominate our lives in ways in which they were not originally intended. Once social media companies realized that they could best profit by monopolizing users’ attention and turning it into ad revenue, smart devices became the tether that diverts us. Algorithms such as instant messenger, email prompts, text responses, and likes on Facebook make it difficult to resist checking our accounts over and over. These diversions quickly deplete us of time and mental clarity.

Newport divides the book into two major parts. The first section explains how we arrived to a place where we are beholden to what Silicon Valley programmers seek: Users so strongly connected to the digital world that it dominates the way they live. Newport recommends cutting the digital cord for 30 days and seeing the difference it makes. There’s no halfway compromise with the 30-day fast, which can be problematic for some. After the 30-day break he recommends reintroducing technology only after determining the true value it serves in your life.

The book’s second section explores what to do with the surplus time that comes out of the 30-day fast. Spending time alone is emphasized. Newport calls this need “Isolation Deprivation” and suggests long walks and separating yourself from your phone while doing so. Instead of liking a friend’s post or retweeting a tweet on Twitter, it’s more powerful to meet a friend and have a meaningful conversation. Overall, he emphasizes regularly reflecting and examining long-term objectives or using leisure time in a more productive way. This can include fixing or building something, fitness, and group/volunteer activities.

Newport ends “Digital Minimalism” by providing a succinct set of guidelines for working and living. He emphasizes that “Digital Minimalism” is not just a series of efficiency hacks; he wants the book to serve as both a reset and permanent lifestyle change that emphasizes demanding activity over passive consumption.

All of this sounds a bit disingenuous when Newport mentions that he has never participated in major social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. He does note that many people have to work significantly with social media as part of their job responsibilities. Yet, there is an all or nothing component to “Digital Minimalism” that will leave many readers seeking their own middle ground. With this in mind, “Digital Minimalism” still contains a useful foundation to understand how to best stay on track.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution based (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at