[...] a major beneficiary of the reluctance to shut down features on your computer is the digital attention economy. When you allow yourself, at all points, access to all that your general-purpose computers can offer, this list will include apps and websites engineered to hijack your attention. 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.
[...] here’s a sample list of the types of straightforward projects I had in mind for someone new to using their hands for useful purposes. Every example below is something that either I or someone I know was able to learn and execute in a single weekend.
- Changing your own car oil
- Installing a new ceiling-mounted light fixture
- Learning the basics of a new technique on an instrument you already play (e.g., a guitar player learning Travis picking)
- Figuring out how to precisely calibrate the tone arm on your turntable
- Building a custom headboard from high-quality lumber
- Starting a garden plot
Pete is an example of someone who is handy, in the sense that he’s comfortable picking up a new physical skill when needed. There was a time in this country when most people were handy. If you lived in a rural area, for example, you had to be comfortable fixing and building things—there was no Amazon Prime to deliver a replacement or Yelp-approved contractor to stop by with his tools. Matthew Crawford points out that the Sears catalog used to include blown-up parts diagrams for all of their appliances and mechanical goods. “It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer,” he writes.
Handiness is rarer today for the simple reason that, for most people, it’s no longer essential for either their professional or home lives to function smoothly. This transition has pros and cons. The main pro, of course, is that it frees up massive numbers of hours to be put toward more productive use. There’s a thrill to fixing something that’s broken, but if you’re constantly fixing things, it can get old. Economists will also argue that specialization is more efficient. If you’re a lawyer, you’re better off, from a financial perspective, dedicating your time to becoming a better lawyer, and then trading some of the extra money you earn to people who specialize in fixing when something breaks.
But maximizing personal and financial efficiency isn’t the only relevant goal. As I argued earlier in this chapter, learning and applying new skills is an important source of high-quality leisure. If you can achieve some degree of handiness, therefore, you can more easily tap into this type of satisfying activity.
Let’s start this search for insight by interrogating the habits of the informal leader of the FI 2.0 movement: a former engineer named Pete Adeney, who became financially independent in his early thirties and now blogs about his life under the purposefully self-deprecating moniker Mr. Money Mustache. When Pete became financially independent, he didn’t fill his life with the types of passive leisure activities we often associate with young men relaxing—playing video games, watching sports, web surfing, long evenings at the bar—he instead leveraged his freedom to become even more active.
Pete doesn’t own a television and doesn’t subscribe to Netflix or Hulu. He occasionally rents a movie on Google Play, but for the most part, his family doesn’t use screens to provide entertainment. Where he does spend most of his time is working on projects. Preferably outside. Here’s how Pete explains his leisure philosophy on his blog:
I never understood the joy of watching other people play sports, can’t stand tourist attractions, don’t sit on the beach unless there’s a really big sand castle that needs to be made, [and I] don’t care about what the celebrities and politicians are doing. . . . Instead of all this, I seem to get satisfaction only from making stuff. Or maybe a better description would be solving problems and making improvements.
In recent years, Pete renovated his family’s home and then built a standalone outbuilding in their yard to serve as an office and music studio. These projects completed, and eager for more holes to dig and drywall to hang, he somewhat impulsively bought a run-down retail building on the main street of his hometown of Longmont, Colorado. He’s currently transforming it into what he calls Mr. Money Mustache World Headquarters. What, exactly, he plans to do with the space once finished isn’t yet quite clear—but the end goal isn’t really the point; he seems to have invested in this building in large part for the project. As Pete summarizes his leisure philosophy: “If you leave me alone for a day . . . I’ll have a joyful time rotating between carpentry, weight training, writing, playing around with instruments in the music studio, making lists and executing tasks from them.”
As Aristotle elaborates, a life filled with deep thinking is happy because contemplation is an “activity that is appreciated for its own sake . . . nothing is gained from it except the act of contemplation.” In this offhand claim, Aristotle is identifying, for perhaps the first time in the history of recorded philosophy, an idea that has persisted throughout the intervening millennia and continues to resonate with our understanding of human nature today: a life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.
Being less available over text, in other words, has a way of paradoxically strengthening your relationship even while making you (slightly) less available to those you care about. This point is crucial because many people fear that their relationships will suffer if they downgrade this form of lightweight connection. I want to reassure you that it will instead strengthen the relationships you care most about. You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emojis can provide.
There are two major motivations for this practice. The first is that it allows you to be more present when you’re not texting. 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. This will increase the value you get out of these real-world interactions. It might also provide some anxiety reduction, as our brains don’t react well to constant disruptive interaction (see the previous chapter on the importance of solitude).
The second motivation for this practice is that it can upgrade the nature of your relationships. When your friends and family are able to instigate meandering pseudo-conversations with you over text at any time, it’s easy for them to become complacent about your relationship. These interactions give the appearance of close connection (even though, in reality, they’re far from this standard), providing a disincentive to invest more time in more meaningful engagement.
On the other hand, if you only check your text messages occasionally, this dynamic changes. They’re still able to send you questions and get back a response in a reasonable amount of time, or send you a reminder and be sure that you’ll see it. But these more asynchronous and logistical interactions no longer give off the approximate luster of true conversation. The result is that both of you will be more motivated to fill this void with better interaction, as the relationship will seem strained in the absence of back-and-forth dialogue.
To click “Like,” within the precise definitions of information theory, is literally the least informative type of nontrivial communication, providing only a minimal one bit of information about the state of the sender (the person clicking the icon on a post) to the receiver (the person who published the post).
Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.
[...] conversation is the good stuff; it’s what we crave as humans and what provides us with the sense of community and belonging necessary to thrive. Connection, on the other hand, though appealing in the moment, provides very little of what we need.
In the early days of adopting a conversation-centric mind-set, you might miss the security blanket of what Stephen Colbert astutely labeled “little sips of online connection,” and the sudden loss of weak ties to the fringes of your social network might induce moments of loneliness. But as you trade more of this time for conversation, the richness of these analog interactions will far outweigh what you’re leaving behind.
During an appearance on The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert asked Turkle a “profound” question that gets at the core of her argument: “Don’t all these little tweets, these little sips of online connection, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?” Turkle was clear in her answer: No, they do not. As she expands: “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance.” On the other hand: “When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits.”
[...] many of these tools are engineered to hijack our social instincts to create an addictive allure. 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.
Because our primal instinct to connect is so strong, it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend or bath time with a child—reducing the quality of the richer interaction right in front of us. Our analog brain cannot easily distinguish between the importance of the person in the room with us and the person who just sent us a new text.
[...] certain social media activities, when isolated in an experiment, modestly boost well-being. The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable.
Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.
She told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change, she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students’ brain chemistry.
A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
You can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or, as President Lincoln discovered at his cottage, while sharing your lawn with two companies of Union soldiers, so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts. On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. 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.
Kethledge, it turned out, relies on long periods alone with his thoughts to write his famously sharp legal opinions, often working at a simple pine desk in a barely renovated barn with no internet connection. “I get an extra 20 IQ points from being in that office,” he explains. Erwin, for his part, used long runs alongside the cornfields of Michigan to work through the difficult emotions he faced on first returning from combat, joking that “running is cheaper than therapy.”
The Minimalist Technology Screen
To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must:
1. Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
2. Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better).
3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.
[...] for each optional technology that you’re considering reintroducing into your life, 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.
When analyzed through Thoreau’s new economics, this exchange can come across as ill conceived. Who could justify trading a lifetime of stress and backbreaking labor for better blinds? Is a nicer-looking window treatment really worth so much of your life? Similarly, why would you add hours of extra labor in the fields to obtain a wagon? It’s true that it takes more time to walk to town than to ride in a wagon, Thoreau notes, but these walks still likely require less time than the extra work hours needed to afford the wagon. It’s exactly these types of calculations that lead Thoreau to observe sardonically: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, house, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”
This magician’s trick of shifting the units of measure from money to time is the core novelty of what the philosopher Frédéric Gros calls Thoreau’s “new economics,” a theory that builds on the following axiom, which 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.”
Thoreau moved into the cabin where he then lived for the next two years. In the book Walden, he wrote about this experience, famously describing his motivation as follows: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
As Dave explained to me, his own father wrote him a handwritten note every week during his freshman year of college. Still touched by this gesture, Dave began a habit of drawing a new picture every night to place in his oldest daughter’s lunchbox. His two youngest children watched this ritual with interest. When they became old enough for lunchboxes, they were excited to start receiving their daily drawings as well. “Fast-forward a couple of years, and I’m spending a decent chunk of time every night doing three drawings!” Dave told me with obvious pride. “This wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t protect how I spend my time.”
[...] another good example of this philosophy leading to the rejection of a technology that we’ve been told is fundamental. Adam runs a small business, and the ability to remain connected to his employees is important for his livelihood. Recently, however, he became worried about the example he was setting for his nine- and thirteen-year-old kids. He could talk to them about the importance of experiencing life beyond a glowing screen, he realized, but the message wouldn’t stick until they saw him demonstrating this behavior in his own life. So he did something radical: he got rid of his smartphone and replaced it with a basic flip phone.
“I have never had a better teachable moment in my life,” he told me about his decision. “My kids know my business depends on a smart device and saw how much I used it, and here I was giving it up?! I was able to clearly explain why, and they got it!”
As Adam admits, the loss of his smartphone made certain things in his work life more annoying. In particular, he relies heavily on text messages to coordinate with his staff, and he soon relearned how hard it is to type on the little plastic buttons of an old-fashioned cell phone. But Adam is a digital minimalist, which means maximizing convenience is prioritized much lower than using technology to support his values.
[...] 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.
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. Indeed, when I first started writing publicly about the fact that I’ve never used Facebook, people in my professional circles were aghast for exactly this reason. “Why do I need to use Facebook?” I would ask. “I can’t tell you exactly,” they would respond, “but what if there’s something useful to you in there that you’re missing?”
After a mind-opening experience at Burning Man, Harris, in a move straight out of a Cameron Crowe screenplay, wrote a 144-slide manifesto titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.” Harris sent the manifesto to a small group of friends at Google. It soon spread to thousands in the company, including co-CEO Larry Page, who called Harris into a meeting to discuss the bold ideas. Page named Harris to the newly invented position of “product philosopher.”
But then: Nothing much changed. In a 2016 profile in the Atlantic, Harris blamed the lack of changes to the “inertia” of the organization and a lack of clarity about what he was advocating. The primary source of friction, of course, is almost certainly more simple: Minimizing distraction and respecting users’ attention would reduce revenue. Compulsive use sells, which Harris now acknowledges when he claims that the attention economy drives companies like Google into a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.”
[...] Jeffrey Wigand—the whistleblower who confirmed for the world what most already suspected: that the big tobacco companies engineered cigarettes to be more addictive.
“Philip Morris just wanted your lungs,” Maher concludes. “The App Store wants your soul.”
In Walden, Thoreau famously writes: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Less often quoted, however, is the optimistic rejoinder that follows in his next paragraph:
“They honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”
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.
This idea is not new. Long before Henry David Thoreau exclaimed “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” Marcus Aurelius asked: “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?” Digital minimalism simply adapts this classical insight to the role of technology in our modern lives.
[...] this irresistible attraction to screens is leading people to feel as though they’re ceding more and more of their autonomy when it comes to deciding how they direct their attention. No one, of course, signed up for this loss of control. They downloaded the apps and set up accounts for good reasons, only to discover, with grim irony, that these services were beginning to undermine the very values that made them appealing in the first place: they joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends across the country, and then ended up unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table.