Digital Minimalism (cultivating soul after the storm)

Our first winter living in the woods, the biggest February snowstorm in 118 years hit central Oregon. Our snow blower had no gas. The snow was up to my waist. We walked (if you could call it that), wearing waterproof leggings. Being forced to slow down, we observed things, such as small pockets of blue light in the snow from animal tracks and other indentations.


DigitalMinimalism“‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. 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.’ [Thoreau]

Our current relationship with the technologies of our hyper-connected world is unsustainable and is leading us closer to the quiet desperation that Thoreau observed so many years ago.”  Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

“Solitude deprivation: a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”


Just before our big snowstorm, I’d picked up a copy of Digital Minimalism on hold at the library. A few days before that, I’d finally found my way into an antique bookshop in town, where I bought a treasure I’ll share with you below. So I had plenty of reading handy once the snow began to fall and we hunkered down to stay warm. Given our circumstances, digital minimalism was an appropriate topic.

At the moment, I’m part-way through Cal Newport’s 30-day digital declutter. For me, this includes:

  • Staying off Facebook and Instagram; leaving no “likes,” or comments, nor looking for any
  • Scheduling internet time (not a lot) in advance, on my computer and not my smartphone
  • Deleting most smartphone apps
  • Writing first drafts – and some revisions – by hand, on paper. Writers are at a disadvantage, because they write with computers, gateways to distraction.

Ultimately, Digital Minimalism isn’t about deprivation, but about enrichment. Cal Newport offers a vision of how those of us who might be struggling with the digital world (count me in), especially social media, can rethink our relationship with the internet in a way that is both wise and empowering.

Newport is a young computer scientist and thought leader helping to usher in a more considered, evolved era of digital literacy. (I loved his book, Deep Work.) What he has to say largely supports Jaron Lanier, another thought leader who has called for a more humanitarian digital culture.

Digital minimalism is not a diet, a detox, or a digital sabbath in which you spend a set amount of time away from your smartphone and other digital devices, only to return to the status quo. Integral to Newport’s “digital decluttering” is adopting new, life-enhancing practices as you selectively cut back digital interactions.

This means cultivating a new skill, deepening a creative practice, or engaging in the pursuit of other personally meaningful goals. And maybe ditching your smartphone. (I had no idea, for example, that some young people are buying flip phones – the kind designed for elderly people, with large screens and keyboards!)

Cal suggests we “…prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption,” as “the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested…”

Here’s what you do after your 30-day declutter:

“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.”

Newport takes his inspiration from Thoreau and Aristotle:

“I call these activities high-quality leisure. The reason that I’m reminding you here of their importance to a well-crafted life – an idea that dates back over two thousand years – is that I’ve become convinced that to successfully tame the problems of our modern digital world, you must both understand and deploy the core insights of this ancient wisdom….

… low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise. It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping. Erecting barriers against the existential is not new….but the advanced technologies of the twenty-first century attention economy are particularly effective at this task.”


Flower Arrangement Art of Japan by Mary Cokely Wood is “meant to be just an introduction to the simplest rules of the line and design arrangement termed Japanese Floral Art as I was taught it in Japan in the late [18]90’s before westernization had touched it.”    Here are a couple of passages:  “…the use of any line in a Japanese floral composition is not a casual one. Though a floral composition has one main line, each line in a composition has a relationship to this main line and to every other line in the composition, whether it is a 1000-stem rice willow or one of the popular three-line arrangements.”  And this: “Nothing but practice, constant drill with actual stems, all kinds of stems, will give the necessary training and skill needed in Ikebena….there is no easy short cut to fine eye training in exactness….” Sounds like learning a hard thing and engaging in demanding activity, as Cal Newport suggests, doesn’t it?

“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.”


“…we cannot passively allow the wild tangle of tools, entertainments, and distractions provided by the internet age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel. We must instead take steps to extract the good from these technologies while sidestepping what’s bad. We require a philosophy that puts our aspirations and values once again in charge of our daily experience, all the while dethroning primal whims and the business models of Silicon Valley from their current dominance of this role.”


In Flower Arrangement Art of Japan, some of the illustrations, dated 1684, were compiled by a priest/floral artist with “the sole purpose of cultivating the Soul.” This, about Containers: “The flower master, living and working with flower arrangement year after year, had a finely developed consciousness of association and suggestiveness, the fitting arrangement for the time and the season. For instance, on a very hot day in summer when the sight and thought of a large expanse of water is cooling and refreshing, a traditional arrangement would be made of water plants, or those growing near the water, in as large a flower basin as possible; the water made part of the picture. In the winter, arrangements are made in erect containers in which the water is seen but is not played up as it is in the summer arrangements.”


I’m finding that digital minimalism is hard work in terms of thought, planning, and evaluation. I don’t miss social media, and I’m wondering if it will be worth bringing back into my life. I’ll let you know how this all turns out for me.

I think that our culture is ready for a digital reset, and I hope that someday digital literacy, in which we do the hard work of picking and choosing how we use the internet and our devices, becomes a basic part of school curricula. In the meantime, it is something beneficial we can do for ourselves.


“To the Japanese, inured to hardship, the sight of pines, twisted, distorted, dwarfed by the elements, clinging with all their might to the rocky face of a cliff, or standing on a windswept ridge silhouetted against the sky, fairly shouted, ‘Never mind the going, just keep on.’ Standing, thus, century after century, evergreens were associated with courage as well as long life. They lived on in spite of elemental rages. They did not merely decorate the landscape. The old floral masters, many of them in their early life had been soldiers, loved evergreens and used them in flower arrangements as well as in their gardens. Evergreens, especially pines, are the great background in Japan, of the scenery, the garden, and the floral art.”


“Digital minimalism definitely does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools…..I’m enthralled by the possibilities of our techno-future. But I’m also convinced that we cannot unlock this potential until we put in the extra effort required to take control of our own digital lives – to confidently decide for ourselves what tools we want to use, for what reasons, and under what conditions. This isn’t reactionary, it’s common sense.”

If you’d like to know more about the devastations of social media and digital overdrive, look online for Anderson Cooper’s interview with former Google product manager Tristan Harris on 60 Minutes.

Bill Maher’s “Social Media Is the New Nicotine” is hard-hitting, but his language (as usual) can be offensive.


At Hoodoo Ski Resort after the storm, with a glimpse of Three-Fingered Jack. A hoodoo is a column or pinnacle of weathered rock. Photo by J. Hallinan.


I’ll end with this by Joseph Campbell, which I found independently of Cal’s book:

“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody else owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something will eventually happen.”

Do you use social media? How do you feel about it? Do you feel the need to cut back on your digital distractions? If so, how is that going?

The book gods have been showering me with exceptional riches lately, and plenty of time to read as I adjust to our more rural life. Here’s what’s coming up on Books Can Save a Life:


Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love

Small Fry, by Lisa Brennan Jobs

All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn R. Saks

Megan Griswold’s The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies


A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

Our Most Troubling Madness: Case Studies in Schizophrenia Across Cultures, by T.M. Luhrmann (The research is fascinating; I gained brand new perspectives.)

What I’ve got on hold at the library:

Solitary, by Albert Woodfox (He’s one of the Angola 3, and his life has been a travesty of injustice. This memoir will be BIG.)

Feel Free, by Zadie Smith

Late Migrations, by Margaret Renkl

The Collected Schizophrenias, by Esm Weijun Wang

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells



9 thoughts on “Digital Minimalism (cultivating soul after the storm)”

  1. I enjoyed Deep Work, and I expect I would enjoy this too. I suspect many women will recognise the debilitating effect of being pulled in many directions; in some respects I wonder if Newport is simply expressing the fact of most women’s lives but with a focus on the bit that is now eating away at men’s (e.g. social media & technology). But perhaps that’s an over-simplification. I do think he has a good message, that we should think about the burgeoning technology and use it as a tool instead of being its tool, but somehow I can’t get away from the concept that this is an apt metaphor for most women’s lives, where energy is frittered away carrying the emotional load of everyone else’s lives, making things run smoothly but at great cost to the self.

    I definitely advocate giving up watching or reading the news which is increasingly reactive and hysterical, largely, I think, because it needs to be more extreme to attract attention and there’s a certain point when you have to start asking yourself what an organisation’s motivation in choosing to make ‘newsworthy’ a particular story. That being said, I enjoy Treehugger a great deal 🙂

    1. Yes, I think news is important, but maybe we don’t have to know quite so much or let ourselves become so partisan and opinionated it becomes counterproductive and divisive – social media has promoted this. I’m all for good, solid news coverage though as being a necessary part of our democracy and for freedom of the press and for being informed. Social media and the internet in general has in some respects undermined this. Interesting, the book says there are apps that will deliver good news sources across a range of perspectives, ranging from left to centrist to right so you get worthy reporting from all sides.

  2. I don’t watch TV, so don’t watch news, but I read headlines. I may read more, depending on the topic. What did you think of the critique of DM that I sent you?

    1. I liked that critique. I agree, he seems to have not taken women into account and seems to be trying to make amends. It doesn’t bother me quite as much as it would because I’m older and many of these issues are in the past for me. I don’t find it in my heart to be too critical of him, because I think he’s right about how bad social media is, and he’s concerned about generations who seem not able to concentrate for any length of time. I held back in the post a bit, but I think social media is hugely problematic, for so many reasons, -especially threatening democracy and depressing many vulnerable, especially young people. It would be good read female writers about this.

  3. I just finished a book called Hyperfocus that seems to say a lot of the same things about our digital life but in the context of productivity and creativity. I have since silenced all of my notifications on my phone except for phone calls and texts from a select few people. I schedule time to look at Facebook and other social media platforms, and I have stopped looking at Google news. I used it to constantly interrupt myself all day long. It’s been a week and I still know what is going on in the world. I feel calmer too. It is definitely a process though and I have not mastered it yet but I am much better at catching myself and getting back on track.

    1. Thanks for sharing this and for letting us know about Hyperfocus. You’re right, it is a process and I appreciate what you say about how you haven’t mastered it yet. I would like to keep FB and IG and to simply schedule them down to a few minutes a couple of times a week, and use them selectively for just a few functions, but I wonder if I can stick with that. I certainly for the most part do not enjoy FB. I’d be curious to hear how things go for you down the road. Maybe this will get easier if more people begin doing the same.

      1. FB is a really tough one because I use it to connect with local businesses–I found the CSA I just bought a share from through a local bakery’s announcement about them. And I also use it as a communication tool to coordinate bike workouts and rides with friends. But to always be checking for messages is ridiculous. So I only get to check during designated break time. Very hard not to cheat on that one but I am trying!

  4. Very interesting topic. The first thing I cut back on was news. I watch one 30 minute local news program in the morning and that is it. I can’t take any more. I’ve never been a daytime tv watcher so that’s not an issue, I limit my FB time to around 5-10 minutes a day and only because I manage a non profit page, but I do like Instagram because I learn something there from gardening folks and it’s not negative, and again I manage a non profit page there as well. If I wasn’t going to read other blogs, like or comment or look for those on my blog, I’d stop it all together and start a diary, but that’s just me. I haven’t hand written anything more than a card or a list since I learned to type in high school so there isn’t any chance of me going back to hand writing things. I applaud your efforts and you seem to be happy with the results so that is what is important. Turning back the tide of technology ‘today’ I think is about as possible as stopping the waves I’m watching lapping at the shore. Could it change down the road like everything else, yes, I think it could especially after all the young folks realize how much of life they’ve missed and give thought to how many selfies does one person need to take. 🙂 And, don’t forget to get gas for the snow blower in the winter. 🙂

    1. Judy, thanks for sharing how you are doing things. I know what you mean about the news. I’m still learning and feeling my way, just feel I need to make a change. I don’t think we’ll turn back the tide of tech, but that’s not what Cal is advocating. More dealing with it in an ethical and productive way, and stopping the bad stuff. I like IG too (most of it) and I love your photos. I find if I use IG judiciously it really inspires.

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