• The New York Post columnist cited above, in other words, should look beyond the notification settings on his 112 apps and ask the more important question of why he uses so many apps in the first place. What he needs—what all of us who struggle with these issues need—is a philosophy of technology use, something that covers from the ground up which digital tools we allow into our life, for what reasons, and under what constraints. In the absence of this introspection, we’ll be left struggling in a whirlwind of addictive and appealing cyber-trinkets, vainly hoping that the right mix of ad hoc hacks will save us.

  • 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 first and longest chapter of Walden is titled “Economy.” It contains many of Thoreau’s signature poetic flourishes about nature and the human condition. It also, however, contains a surprising number of bland expense tables, recording costs down to a fraction of a cent. Thoreau’s purpose in these tables is to capture precisely (not poetically or philosophically) how much it cost to support his life at Walden Pond—a lifestyle that, as he argues at length in this first chapter, satisfies all the basic human needs: food, shelter, warmth, and so on. Thoreau then contrasts these costs with the hourly wages he could earn with his labor to arrive at the final value he cared most about: How much of his time must be sacrificed to support his minimalist lifestyle? After plugging in the numbers gathered during his experiment, he determined that hiring out his labor only one day per week would be sufficient. 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.” This new economics offers a radical rethinking of the consumerist culture that began to emerge in Thoreau’s time. Standard economic theory focuses on monetary outcomes. If working one acre of land as a farmer earns you $1 a year in profit, and working sixty acres earns you $60, then you should, if it’s at all possible, work the sixty acres—it produces strictly more money. Thoreau’s new economics considers such math woefully incomplete, as it leaves out the cost in life required to achieve that extra $59 in monetary profit. As he notes in Walden, working a large farm, as many of his Concord neighbors did, required large, stressful mortgages, the need to maintain numerous pieces of equipment, and endless, demanding labor. He describes these farmer neighbors as “crushed and smothered under [their] load” and famously lumps them into the “mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau then asks what benefits these worn-down farmers receive from the extra profit they eke out. As he proved in his Walden experiment, this extra work is not enabling the farmers to escape savage conditions: Thoreau was able to satisfy all of his basic needs quite comfortably with the equivalent of one day of work per week. What these farmers are actually gaining from all the life they sacrifice is slightly nicer stuff: venetian blinds, a better quality copper pot, perhaps a fancy wagon for traveling back and forth to town more efficiently. 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.”

  • When people consider specific tools or behaviors in their digital lives, they tend to focus only on the value each produces. Maintaining an active presence on Twitter, for example, might occasionally open up an interesting new connection or expose you to an idea you hadn’t heard before. Standard economic thinking says that such profits are good, and the more you receive the better. It therefore makes sense to clutter your digital life with as many of these small sources of value as you can find, much as it made sense for the Concord farmer to cultivate as many acres of land as he could afford to mortgage. Thoreau’s new economics, however, demands that you balance this profit against the costs measured in terms of “your life.” How much of your time and attention, he would ask, must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter? Assume, for example, that your Twitter habit effectively consumes ten hours per week. Thoreau would note that this cost is almost certainly way too high for the limited benefits it returns. If you value new connections and exposure to interesting ideas, he might argue, why not adopt a habit of attending an interesting talk or event every month, and forcing yourself to chat with at least three people while there? This would produce similar types of value but consume only a few hours of your life per month, leaving you with an extra thirty-seven hours to dedicate to other meaningful pursuits. These costs, of course, also tend to compound. When you combine an active Twitter presence with a dozen other attention-demanding online behaviors, the cost in life becomes extreme. Like Thoreau’s farmers, you end up “crushed and smothered” under the demands on your time and attention, and in the end, all you receive in return for sacrificing so much of your life is a few nicer trinkets—the digital equivalent of the farmer’s venetian blinds or fancier pot—many of which, as shown in the Twitter example above, could probably be approximated at a much lower cost, or eliminated without any major negative impact.

  • You will probably find the first week or two of your digital declutter to be difficult, and fight urges to check technologies you’re not allowed to check. These feelings, however, will pass, and this resulting sense of detox will prove useful when it comes time to make clear decisions at the end of the declutter. The goal of a digital declutter, however, is not simply to enjoy time away from intrusive technology. During this monthlong process, you must aggressively explore higher-quality activities to fill in the time left vacant by the optional technologies you’re avoiding. This period should be one of strenuous activity and experimentation. You want to arrive at the end of the declutter having rediscovered the type of activities that generate real satisfaction, enabling you to confidently craft a better life—one in which technology serves only a supporting role for more meaningful ends.  
  • With this in mind, 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. For example, when asking this first question, you might decide that browsing Twitter in search of distraction doesn’t support an important value. On the other hand, keeping up with your cousin’s baby photos on Instagram does seem to support the importance you place on family.  
  • Once a technology passes this first screening question, it must then face a more difficult standard: Is this technology the best way to support this value? We justify many of the technologies that tyrannize our time and attention with some tangential connection to something we care about. The minimalist, by contrast, measures the value of these connections and is unimpressed by all but the most robust. Consider our above example about following your cousin’s baby pictures on Instagram. We noted that this activity might be tentatively justified by the fact that you deeply value family. But the relevant follow-up question is whether browsing Instagram photos is the best way to support this value. On some reflection, the answer is probably no. Something as simple as actually calling this cousin once a month or so would probably prove significantly more effective in maintaining this bond.   
  • 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.

  • The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call—so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions. Anything textual or non-interactive—basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging—doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection. In this philosophy, connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter. If you subscribe to conversation-centric communication, you might still maintain some social media accounts for the purposes of logistical expediency, but gone will be the habit of regularly browsing these services throughout your day, sprinkling “likes” and short comments, or posting your own updates and desperately checking for the feedback they accrue. With this in mind, there would no longer be much purpose in keeping these apps on your phone, where they will mainly serve to undermine your attempts at richer interaction. They would instead more productively reside on your computer, where they’re occasionally put to specific use.   
  • It’s worth noting that refusing to use social media icons and comments to interact means that some people will inevitably fall out of your social orbit—in particular, those whose relationship with you exists only over social media. Here’s my tough love reassurance: let them go. The idea that it’s valuable to maintain vast numbers of weak-tie social connections is largely an invention of the past decade or so—the detritus of overexuberant network scientists spilling inappropriately into the social sphere. Humans have maintained rich and fulfilling social lives for our entire history without needing the ability to send a few bits of information each month to people we knew briefly during high school. Nothing about your life will notably diminish when you return to this steady state. As an academic who studies and teaches social media explained to me: “I don’t think we’re meant to keep in touch with so many people.”

  • Put aside set times on set days during which you’re always available for conversation. Depending on where you are during this period, these conversations might be exclusively on the phone or could also include in-person meetings. Once these office hours are set, promote them to the people you care about. When someone instigates a low-quality connection (say, a text message conversation or social media ping), suggest they call or meet you during your office hours sometime when it is convenient for them. Similarly, once office hours are in place, it’s easy to reach out proactively to people you care about and invite them to converse with you during these hours whenever they’re next available.  
  • “The best and most pleasant life is the life of the intellect.” He concludes, “This life will also be the happiest.” 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. Most pleasant life is the life of the intellect.” He concludes, “This life will also be the happiest.” 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.

  • If you begin decluttering the low-value digital distractions from your life before you’ve convincingly filled in the void they were helping you ignore, the experience will be unnecessarily unpleasant at best and a massive failure at worse. The most successful digital minimalists, therefore, tend to start their conversion by renovating what they do with their free time—cultivating high-quality leisure before culling the worst of their digital habits. In fact, many minimalists will describe a phenomenon in which digital habits that they previously felt to be essential to their daily schedule suddenly seemed frivolous once they became more intentional about what they did with their time. When the void is filled, you no longer need distractions to help you avoid it.  

  • Pete Adeney, Liz Thames, and Theodore Roosevelt all provide specific arguments for their embrace of strenuous leisure, but these arguments all build on the same general principle that the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested. We might tell ourselves there’s no greater reward after a hard day at the office than to have an evening entirely devoid of plans or commitments. But we then find ourselves, several hours of idle watching and screen tapping later, somehow more fatigued than when we began. As Bennett would tell you—and Pete, Liz, and Teddy would confirm—if you instead rouse the motivation to spend that same time actually doing something—even if it’s hard—you’ll likely end the night feeling better.

  • In 2017, Rogowski published a book titled Handmade, which is part craftsman memoir and part philosophical investigation of craft itself. What makes Handmade particularly relevant to our discussion is that Rogowski specifically investigates the value of craft in contrast to the lower-skilled digital behaviors that dominate so much of our time—a purpose revealed by his book’s subtitle: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction. Rogowski provides several arguments for the value of craft in a world increasingly mediated by screens, but I want to underscore one of these arguments in particular: “People have the need to put their hands on tools and to make things. We need this in order to feel whole.” As Rogowski explains: “Long ago we learned to think by using our hands, not the other way around.” As our species evolved, in other words, we did so as beings that experience and manipulate the world around us. We are orders of magnitude better at doing this than any other animal, and this is true due to complex structures that evolved in our brains to support this ability. Today, however, it’s easier than ever before to power down these circuits. “Many people experience the world largely through a screen now,” Rogowski writes. “We live in a world that is working to eliminate touch as one of our senses, to minimize the use of our hands to do things except poke at a screen.” The result is a mismatch between our equipment and our experience. When you use craft to leave the virtual world of the screen and instead begin to work in more complex ways with the physical world around you, you’re living truer to your primal potential. Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate in other (dare I say) less hands-on activities.

  • In a culture where screens replace craft, Crawford argues, people lose the outlet for self-worth established through unambiguous demonstrations of skill. One way to understand the exploding popularity of social media platforms in recent years is that they offer a substitute source of aggrandizement. In the absence of a well-built wood bench or applause at a musical performance to point toward, you can instead post a photo of your latest visit to a hip restaurant, hoping for likes, or desperately check for retweets of a clever quip. But as Crawford implies, these digital cries for attention are often a poor substitute for the recognition generated by handicraft, as they’re not backed by the hard-won skill required to tame the “infallible judgment” of physical reality, and come across instead as “the boasts of a boy.” Craft allows an escape from this shallowness and provides instead a deeper source of pride.

  • Another common property of high-quality leisure is its ability to support rich social interactions. Journalist David Sax witnessed the power of this property firsthand when an unusual café named Snakes & Lattes opened down the street from his Toronto apartment. This café didn’t serve alcohol and offered no Wi-Fi, the food was forgettable and the chairs uncomfortable, and it cost five dollars just to enter. But as Sax reports in his 2016 book, The Revenge of Analog, on weekends the café’s 120 seats would easily fill, with the line to enter spilling out onto the sidewalk. The wait for a table could be up to three hours. The secret to Snakes & Lattes’ success is that it’s a board game café: you enter with a group of friends, are assigned a table, and then can select any game you want to play from the café’s extensive library. If you need help, a game sommelier can make recommendations. The success of this café is somewhat puzzling, as analog games were supposed to disappear in a digital world. Why would you push plastic trinkets on a piece of cardboard when you could fight photorealistic ogres in a multiplayer video game like World of Warcraft? But they haven’t. People are more eager than ever before to play Scrabble with neighbors, or trash-talk co-workers over poker, or line up in the Toronto cold for a table at Snakes & Lattes. The classic games that were popular in the pre-digital 1980s—Monopoly, Scrabble—remain popular sellers today, while the internet is fueling innovations in new game design (one of the most popular categories on Kickstarter is board games), leading to a renaissance in smarter, European-style strategy games—a movement best exemplified by the megahit Settlers of Catan, which has sold more than 22 million copies worldwide since it was first published in Germany in the mid-1990s.

  • When first encountered, CrossFit’s popularity confused industry insiders who for years had focused relentlessly on price and services at their gyms. The typical CrossFit box is a somewhat grimy, largely empty warehouse. The fitness equipment—often pushed to the peripheries—would fit in well in a turn-of-the-century boxing gym: kettlebells, medicine balls, ropes, wooden boxes, pull-up bars, and metal squat racks. You won’t find treadmills, fancy cable machines, nice locker rooms, bright lights, or, God forbid, television screens. It’s also really expensive. The Planet Fitness near my house costs $10 a month—a price that includes free Wi-Fi. The CrossFit box near my house costs $210 a month, and if you ask them about Wi-Fi, they’ll chase you out the door with a kettlebell. The secret to CrossFit’s success is probably best captured by one of the most notable differences between a CrossFit box and a standard gym: no one is wearing earphones. The CrossFit fitness model is built around the workout of the day (or WOD)—which is typically a high-intensity combination of functional movement exercises that you try to execute as quickly as possible. You’re not allowed to do the WOD on your own. There are instead a small number of preselected times each day during which you can show up at your local box and execute the WOD along with a group of other members and a supervising trainer. The social aspect of the workout is crucial: you cheer on the group while they in turn cheer you on. This support helps push people past their natural limits, which is important; a core belief of CrossFit is that extreme intensity in a short period of time is superior to a large volume of exercise over a long period. The social aspect of the WOD also helps create a strong sense of community. Here’s how a former personal trainer turned CrossFit devotee describes the experience: “The camaraderie of other members cheering me on to finish strong as I fought for a few more reps during a WOD at [my CrossFit box] was an exhilarating feeling which I never have experienced at any other fitness facility.” Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s outspoken founder, captures the sense of rough-edged but intense camaraderie created by his fitness movement by famously describing CrossFit as a “religion run by a biker gang.”  
  • The local new-mom boot camp, F3, and CrossFit are successful for the same reason as the Snakes & Lattes board game café: they are leisure activities that enable the types of energized and complex sociality that are otherwise rare in normal life. Board games and social fitness are not the only leisure activities that can generate these social benefits. Other examples include recreational sports leagues, most volunteer activities, or working with a team on a group project, like fixing up an old boat or building a neighborhood skating rink.

  • The most successful social leisure activities share two traits. First, they require you to spend time with other people in person. As emphasized, there’s a sensory and social richness to real-world encounters that’s largely lost in virtual connections, so spending time with your World of Warcraft clan doesn’t qualify. The second trait is that the activity provides some sort of structure for the social interaction, including rules you have to follow, insider terminology or rituals, and often a shared goal. As argued, these constraints paradoxically enable more freedom of expression. Your CrossFit buddies will holler and whoop, and give you emphatic high fives and sweaty hugs with a joyous enthusiasm that would seem insane in most other contexts.  
  • The simplest way to become more handy is to learn a new skill, apply it to repair, learn, or build something, and then repeat. Start with easy projects in which you can follow step-by-step instructions more or less directly. Once comfortable, advance toward more-complicated endeavors that require you to fill in some blanks or adapt what’s suggested.

  • As Clark incredulously pointed out, no matter what immediate benefits these services might provide the users, the net impact on their productivity and life satisfaction must be profoundly negative if all these users do is engage the service. You can’t, in other words, build a billion-dollar empire like Facebook if you’re wasting hours every day using a service like Facebook. This tension between the benefits provided by the attention economy and this sector’s primary mission of devouring your time proves particularly problematic for our current goal of cultivating high-quality leisure. It’s too easy to be good intentioned about adding some quality activity into your evening, and then, several hours of rabbit hole clicking and binge-watching later, realize that the opportunity has once again dissipated.

  • I’ve noticed that once someone becomes more intentional about their leisure, they tend to find more of it in their life. The weekly planning ritual can lead you to begin fighting for more leisure opportunities. Seeing, for example, that Thursday is a light schedule, you might decide to end work at 3:30 that day to go on a hike before dinner. These types of invented opportunities are rarer when you’re not planning ahead. Becoming more systematic about your leisure, in other words, can significantly increase the relaxation you enjoy throughout your week. Finally, in justifying this planning approach, I want to underscore the foundational argument delivered throughout this chapter: doing nothing is overrated. In the middle of a busy workday, or after a particularly trying morning of childcare, it’s tempting to crave the release of having nothing to do—whole blocks of time with no schedule, no expectations, and no activity beyond whatever seems to catch your attention in the moment. These decompression sessions have their place, but their rewards are muted, as they tend to devolve toward low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and half-hearted binge-watching. For the many different reasons argued in the preceding pages, investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much richer rewards.

  • 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.

P.S You can follow me on Twitter and stay up to date with my latest posts/tweets here: @manas_saloi