010: On Digital Minimalism



Justin discusses Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism and how it impacts personal productivity.


Digital Minimalism
Deep Work
Justin’s OF Walkthrough


00:00 Hello and welcome to Process. My name is Justin DiRose, owner of the Productivity Guild, and today we’re talking about Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.

00:10 So we’re not really talking about Digital Minimalism super in depth today. I know there are other podcasts that are going to cover that. Instead, I wanted to do a brief summary of the book and hit on some of the main points that impacted me and how they relate to personal productivity. But before we do that, let’s do some quick hits. First up, this is episode 10 of Process. I know we’re just getting started on the journey here, but I want to thank everybody for listening in. And so today I wanted to offer you a free month trial of our Pro membership over at the Guild using a coupon code. So if you head on over to productivityguild.com/courses, you can use the code PROCESS19 to get a free month of the Productivity Guild Pro membership.

00:59 Additionally, in a few episodes, I’d love to do a listener Q and A. So if you have any questions that you’d like to ask me about anything related to productivity, my systems, this podcast, send an email over to hello@productivityguild.com with “Process Q&A” in the subject. I’m planning to do that in the next few episodes as we get a queue of questions built up. Lastly, something that we quietly launched over on the Productivity Guild Community is a Wiki. If you want to check that out, you can head over to community.effectiveremotework.com and click on the Wiki link at the very top of the topic list. Users of the Productivity Guild will be able to make edits and request new topics inside of the Wiki, so feel free to add your productivity resources and mindsets and tools that you use in the Wiki over there. The whole idea is to create a resource for people who come to the community to be able to find stuff that helps them get better in their productivity journey.

01:55 Now on to today’s topic, Digital Minimalism. So to be honest, I was a little bit skeptical of this book to start with. I had taken Cal Newport’s philosophy of technology and deep work to be very anti-technology. Frankly, that didn’t make sense to me because Cal Newport is a computer science professor, but anything’s possible these days. However, I decided to read the book anyway and what I found was actually a thought provoking, common sense set of ideas to apply toward the use of technology in my life. Here’s a few of the main points that stood out to me from the book.

02:31 On the topic of distraction, this has been a trumpet that Cal Newport has been blowing for quite a long time that distraction’s bad. This attention economy has been crafted by the Internet and social media is detrimental to us and then it actually keeps us from investing in what’s important to us by holding our attention to low value, low impact items, and he goes through a large number of things within the book discussing how this works and other people who’ve worked in in the social media space to say, Hey, yeah, we’re actually, you know, people in that space. We’re actually trying to manipulate your attention and they’re not actually out for your benefit. Things like that. It’s all kind of stuff that I had personally suspected for quite a long time and in fact he talks about doing a digital detox, which is, it’s the idea of taking any optional technologies, setting them to the side for 30 days, and then slowly reintroducing those things back into your life as you find value for them because Newports point is that technology came so fast and that we had no grid for how to process it, no value system to evaluate it by, that it was difficult to make an assessment for the role that it played in our lives.

03:44 On the digital detox aspect of that though, to be honest, I’ve been practicing something to that effect for the last six years. I haven’t had social media on my phone for about that length of time. Then just recently, I’ll get into this a little later in the episode, but just recently I started removing other things from my smartphone as well, but Newport’s point is that because of the rise of the smartphone and the iPhone, in essence, this technology got from our computer screens and our desktops to in our pockets and then and then things like Facebook were able to dominate the world before we were even able to determine if it was a good thing. Now though, we’ve had a few years with these technologies and we really have a lot better sense of the role that they play in our lives and so now we can make better assessments based upon our values on where these technologies fit.

04:35 All in all that’s the premise of this book. Take stock of your technology, find the valuable pieces of it, keep those and set everything else to the side. If you’ve read Deep Work by Cal Newport, you know that he focuses a lot in that on how we add value to others through our work. We need to spend more time focused on doing the tasks at hand so that we can add value to other people. Digital Minimalism, on the other hand, focuses on making sure technology adds value to each of us. Both are very important. With the pervasive nature of technology in our lives right now, we do have to be on guard with that a little bit because if we just start adopting all these new technologies, we can introduce a lot of dissatisfaction or distraction or even just lack of clarity into our lives because we have all these inputs coming at us that are really, we haven’t really evaluated what they’re for yet and so when we don’t do that, then it can cause us to feel overwhelmed or at least it causes me to feel overwhelmed when I have too many inputs that I’m not actually evaluating whether they belong there or not.

05:39 The rest of the book basically gives a whole set of strategies of how to handle digital minimalism, the things that you should be focusing on instead of focusing on these low value technologies. The rest of this episode here, I’m going to talk about some of my takeaways from this book that are largely centered around these values and these strategies that Newport outlines. So the first thing that really hit me about this book was the whole idea of leisure. And one of my takeaways from it was to scheduled daily leisure. So this is, this is stuff that I’m doing disconnected from the computer. These are things that recharge me, things that engage my brain and my body in different ways than my development work or my work for the Productivity Guild and I’m just being intentional with it. So some of the things that I’m doing are songwriting, spending more time outside, going for walks, exercising, learning more on my guitar, baking sourdough.

06:39 It’s these type of things that get me away from technology because my whole day is focused on it most days so that my brain can recharge and start to think about different things and tie different ideas together. And that’s where the next big takeaway that I had from Digital Minimalism comes in is to learn for myself to value a lack of input and value solitude. I picked up the mindset a few years ago that I needed to basically fill every single spare moment that I had with learning something so that I could advance myself and that’s not healthy. I honestly learned for me that that is not the best way to approach things because instead of enjoying the moment of going for a walk and hearing the birds and the trees and the wind and experiencing all of that, I would always have a podcast in my ears trying to give me some new information.

07:31 And on the StrengthsFinder, if you’re familiar with that assessment, my number one strength is input, which means I love to take in information and chew on it and share it with people. But when I get too much of it or I get too much low quality information, it just becomes a lot of noise and static and gets me stressed out. So what did I do? I completely removed podcasts from my phone. I also removed email, I removed Discourse. I removed any sort of browsing type inputs on my phone, including Safari actually. And that has actually allowed me to create more space for lack of input and more time to be by myself. So instead of going for a walk, listening to a podcast, I’m going for a walk with nothing. I’m not taking my phone. I’m not taking on my headphones, I’m not listening to music and what I’m doing is I’m just letting my brain process.

08:23 I’ve found that after about 20 minutes of walking, my brain actually really relaxes and starts to connect ideas together and then that’s been really helpful to be honest. So this time of being by myself and not having all this input is actually given me more scatter focus time, which is something that I’ve been trying to build in my life. I’ve mentioned this in episodes previously, but scatter focus comes from the book Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey. It’s basically the opposite of hyper-focusing. It is this place where you connect ideas and subconsciously where you’re doing something and your brain is just processing through stuff in the front of your mind basically and you’re, you’re doing that. While I have a tendency to just want to dive in and hyperfocus as much as I can, making sure that I have these spaces where I back up and I have a lack of input, I have time by myself to where my brain can scatter focus like that has actually been very regenerative for me. And so I plan to keep on doing this as long as I possibly can.

09:26 The next thing that I took away from Digital Minimalism is to make values assessments of technology prior to implementing it into my life. I mentioned this briefly, but prior I used to be the one who wants to jump on every new technology. If Apple released a brand new thing like the Apple Watch, I jumped right on it. But I, to be honest with you, I have ditched my Apple Watch. I ditched it about a year ago because it was distracting to me even turning off all the notifications on it except for text messages and phone calls, which means I’m basically only getting notifications when my wife gets a hold of me because I don’t get many texts or phone calls.

10:02 Otherwise, that’s still caused me a level of anxiety because there was this thing on my wrist that kept me connected. It was the mental process of having this thing there that could go off at any moment. And so I said just enough of that. And like I said, this was a year ago, but reading this book gave me the idea of, okay, like what technologies do I have in my life? What technologies are valuable? And now looking at new technologies, not necessarily like a new device so to say, but a new technology, something new, I need to make a little bit better of an assessment on how that plays into my life and into my workflow. We productivity enthusiasts often like to fiddle with our systems. So that can be things like, oh, should I add a new reference software to my life or should I add a new task manager and change that?

10:53 It’s really making that value assessment of do I need to change this right now? Is this actually going to add any more value than what I’m using right now to my life? Or am I just burning a bunch of resources because there’s something else going on in my life? And that actually leads into the next thing that I took away, which was to increase my conversation and limit passive connection. So what Newport talks about with conversation and connection is that connection in this digital age is things like clicking like on a post or firing off a quick comment to somebody. Whereas conversation is actually having an in depth conversation back and forth with a person. Frankly, I found this difficult. I work remotely. Most of my human interaction in a given day is with my family, my wife and my two kids. All my other daily touch points with people happen through digital means, which usually falls in this connection category.

11:50 It’s a little difficult too with the variable work scheduled that I have make sure that I have regular times to get together with people, but these conversations are highly important because it’s these types of relationships that I have found that prevent me from wanting to get into fiddling with stuff or trying new stuff all the time because we’re all, we’re wired for that. We’re wired for true conversation and connection with people and not this passive level of it that Facebook and Twitter and other social medias provide. Now, granted they do provide opportunities to open connectivity and conversation with other people, but that’s not where the conversation usually happens. It usually opens a door and you might start an iMessage thread with somebody and then you start having phone calls with them or you start getting together in person. So I think in a lot of regards, this lack of true connection, this lack of conversation probably roots a lot of, at least my issues with technology in the past.

12:48 So when I’m not actually conversing with people, I tend to want to hang around my technology because it’s in a way of filling this void for me. Like, Hey, I actually need people connection but I’m going to fill it with technology because it kinda makes me feel a little bit better. And so this is definitely a journey and this is something that we’re all like I’m finding, I almost have to fight against culture with that to try to have real authentic in person or over the phone type relationships to actually have conversation, real conversations with people. The last main takeaway that I have from this book is to focus more on the things that I want to build versus the things I need to replace. So these are things like instead of focusing on getting rid of Facebook and Twitter and email on my phone, focus on spending more time reading higher quality materials, spending more time thinking, using paper in my life more. And the point here is that what I’m building is far more valuable and of interest to me the low value stuff that I’m losing that provides some level of convenience.

13:50 To round this out, I wanted to share some practical steps that I’ve taken with my technology that have actually helped me focus and get a little bit better in handling the day to day in my life. It’s been a bit of a change, but to be honest with you, it was really only a shock of not having something available. It hasn’t ever been a problem. So let’s dive into this a little bit. The first thing I did is I removed everything but mission critical communication from my phone. This is text messages and phone calls. I have some applications on there like Omnifocus, Bear, and other productivity apps like that, but anything that kind of tails me off into something that can be checked, like an email inbox or whatever it is that’s not on my phone anymore.

14:30 I don’t have Slack on my phone. Don’t think I admit that I do have on my phone is Facebook Messenger, but there’s some specific reasons for that. Additionally, I’ve removed all browsing and reading from my phone. I don’t want to spend time reading on my device. I want to spend time reading a book and so I have taken it off my phone and that’s been beneficial for me. I mentioned previously that I want to use paper more so now I’m starting to work off paper a little bit more instead of digital tools when possible. If you had a chance to watch my OmniFocus video that I did for Francesco D’Alessio on the Keep Productive YouTube channel, I’ve scaled back my OmniFocus usage quite a bit and the reason being is that I don’t need to work out of it every single day. Instead, what I do is I use OmniFocus as my second brain and so in OmniFocus go all the things that I need to keep track of that I can’t necessarily keep track of in my head and then from there when I’m starting my day, I go into OmniFocus, choose the items that are pertinent for today and then work on them out of my notebook.

15:29 I’ll write them down and I’ll check them off in there. Then when I clear that list, then I can go into OmniFocus and clear other stuff as well. Lastly, in regards to social media, I mentioned already that I haven’t had social media on my phone for years and there’s really only one device that I can access it on right now: my Macbook Pro. I have a new Mac mini and I haven’t even logged into Facebook on it yet. In fact, one of my goals, which I don’t know if it’ll last, one of my goals with this is to never log into Facebook unless I absolutely have to on this device, like if I don’t have to, I’m not going to because it provides no value for me. I completely unfollowed all of my friends on Facebook. I’m still friends with them, but I just, I don’t need to see the news feed.

16:07 I don’t engage with it. I don’t find a lot of value out of it. Not that I don’t value my friends or anything like that, but I’d rather have those in person interactions with them, those real interactions. I get more value out of a five minute conversation with somebody that I run into on the street and then I do browsing through Facebook. When I boil it down, Digital Minimalism, I think is a key component to this whole new wave of productivity advice and ideas that are out there. It’s this place of recognizing that technology has value for our lives, but not all technology is valued the same. Therefore, not all technology can benefit our ability to do the things that we want to do or get the places that we want to go. This is going to be unique for each and every one of us because what works for me in this place, meaning kind of staying away from social media might not work for somebody else.

17:04 Somebody may need to stay a little bit more engaged with it because there’s something in particular with their job or their business’ audience that is really beneficial to them in those places. And so like I said, it’s not all going to apply at the same level in the same ways to every single person. However, the ability to disconnect from noise and have a more peaceful life because we’re not taking in all of this stuff around us. I mean social media has been proven to make people more depressed and so when we can disconnect from that and actually get a sense of us like ourselves and move forward in that place instead of in relation to everybody around us, cause then sometimes I think social media puts us on the reactive instead of the proactive and a proactive mindset is really what’s going to build you further in the direction that you want to go because you’re making choices for you about where you want to be in the future, not necessarily in response to what somebody else’s doing. You’re making choices for you. That all being said, I think Digital Minimalism is a great read. If you have a chance and you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend reading it. It rocked my world. It gave me a lot of different ideas of how to handle productivity and how to handle technology all together in my life and while there’s not necessarily any like productivity hacks or tips and tricks in there for how to handle your task manager, these ideas and these values that Newport presents are really the crux of what a person needs to be successful in a balanced way.

18:40 Well, that’s all for this time. If you want to join in on the discussion for this episode or if you want to connect with others who are in the process of becoming better on their productivity journey, head on over to the Productivity Guild at productivityguild.com. Or if you want to support this podcast and get access to video modules, productivity courses, and more, consider signing up for a Pro membership at the Productivity Guild for just $10 a month. You can use coupon code PROCESS19 at checkout to get a free month. Lastly, if you like this show, rate us on iTunes or recommend us on Overcast. My name is Justin DiRose and join me next time on Process.


I don’t know if I can go cold turkey on day one with digital minimalism. Half of my work is centered around my computer or my iPad. I can’t just close it out completely. But I can get intentional with the apps I’m in.

In my recent post, Stepping Away From My Task Manager, I’ve stopped living in my task manager and going to a BuJo.

I have been slowly deprecating things, If I really need Facebook, I can just use it in the Safari browser. I’ve reduced a lot of Instagram follows and Twitter follows to a small handful. I deleted my RSS reader and will consume the news mostly on my Mac.

The U.S. election happened in 2016 and my social media timelines were a mess. I wasn’t interested in all the election politics. Nowadays, I’m seeing a lot of Brexit news and I had to unfollow a lot of people and shove them into lists. If I truly ever wanted to catch up with someone, I can find them in my lists.

In reality, I haven’t talked to a lot of my friends on social media. Creating lists for different groups has been helpful. I have a high school group to catch up with my old classmates, a college group for that group of friends, a GTD group for people I follow in the productivity world, and so on.

It’s been a while since I’ve actually checked those lists but it’s nice to know that they’re tucked away from my main timeline.

I just downloaded the Digital Minimalism book and I’m looking forward to his strategies that Newport outlined in the second half.

I used to feel guilty about not doing work and being “productive.” Now I can actually spend time with my family or binge watch a few TV episodes instead of working at my desk. Recharging has been important. There are days when I just can’t get anything done. That’s when I know it’s time to break away.

Oh! This will have to be something that can be brought up one of these days! I know there are a few personality profile systems out there. Perhaps @justindirose or someone else here will drill into this topic in the future!

I’ve found that a lot of my ideas have come from doing mundane tasks. As moch as I hated mowing the lawn, this was a good time to disconnect for me. I’ve found many great ideas when I’m wielding my weed-whacker!

This is a hard one for me to assess. Right now, I’ve got the MacSparky Siri Shortcuts workflow sitting on my iPad. I know I want to get to it eventually. But so many other pressing matters (like filing my taxes for 2018) are pushing it aside. After going through the Siris Shortcut Field guide, I’m sure I’ll be able to extract a lot of value.

I’ve learned to keep my phone in my pocket instead of on the table. It’s too easy to pick it up when my phone buzzes on the table.

Thanks for a great episode!

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Newport never calls for completely abandoning things – he insists you leave the essential in (that would be your computer/iPad for work) and remove the non-essential things.

I’ll add this to the list. StrengthsFinder is interesting for sure!


The year that I dropped 95 pounds, I walked between five and 10 miles a day broken into one- or two-mile trips. That was great for my physical health, of course, but I was surprised by the effect it had on my mental health as well. Definitely a habit that I’m starting up again (it turns out the dad isn’t actually supposed to get fat during pregnancy; who knew?) and already noticing improvements on the days when I’m able to walk compared to those when I’m not. Glad you’ve found this too.

But I, to be honest with you, I have ditched my Apple Watch. I ditched it about a year ago because it was distracting to me even turning off all the notifications on it except for text messages and phone calls, which means I’m basically only getting notifications when my wife gets a hold of me because I don’t get many texts or phone calls.

I had the opposite experience. I’m on record on a previous employer’s podcast saying something along the lines of “Having a smartwatch that can pass all the notifications from my phone to my wrist sounds like a demented hellscape from which I could never escape.” Then I started wearing a Fitbit, and my wife got my the Apple Watch Series 2 for Christmas a few years back. I struggled with it at first, and I’m still making tweaks, but I’ve done a few things that actually make it beneficial to me:

  1. Disabled all notifications except phone calls, calendar events, and activity reminders. (Which I honestly use mostly to mark time passing–if anyone knows of a better way to get hourly chimes on the Apple Watch, I’d love to hear it.) Sometimes I’ve enabled more notifications for things I thought were important, but every time it turned out to be more of a distraction or annoyance than a benefit.

  2. Started using the Infograph watch face. There are three things I like to check on my phone almost constantly: the time, the date, and the weather. I also like to set timers–which the Apple Watch is particularly good for because I can feel the vibrations no matter what, meaning I don’t have to risk waking up my six-month-old by setting a timer on the microwave or one of my other devices. Having all of this information (plus the timers, activity rings, and AutoWake) on my wrist means I don’t pull out my phone. Not pulling out my phone means I’m less likely to start doing something else with it.

I also like the sleep tracking capabilities and AutoWake, less a few complaints about not being able to tell it to wake me up after I get a certain amount of sleep rather than at a specific time, but those are just added bonuses. Honestly, I’m hoping to buy a new Apple Watch later this year with cellular connectivity so I can leave my phone at home without having to worry about someone not being able to reach me in an emergency. I suspect that will make me even happier in the short- and long-term.

I don’t want to spend time reading on my device. I want to spend time reading a book and so I have taken it off my phone and that’s been beneficial for me. I mentioned previously that I want to use paper more so now I’m starting to work off paper a little bit more instead of digital tools when possible.

I’m always torn on this. Probably best for another topic–and after I’ve gone back to reading things on paper again–but I wanted to call it out because I’ve seen more and more people doing this.

That all being said, I think Digital Minimalism is a great read. If you have a chance and you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend reading it. It rocked my world. It gave me a lot of different ideas of how to handle productivity and how to handle technology all together in my life and while there’s not necessarily any like productivity hacks or tips and tricks in there for how to handle your task manager, these ideas and these values that Newport presents are really the crux of what a person needs to be successful in a balanced way.

Glad to hear it gets your recommendation. I just read Deep Work two weeks ago and loved it, so I’m keen to start on Newport’s other stuff when I finish a few other books, but I’ve been on the fence about Digital Minimalism. I already have extremely limited interactions with social networks, carefully manage the notifications I allow on my phone, and have taken steps to figure out my workflow in a way that makes sense for me. (As we discussed in another topic.) I fear it might be a case of Newport preaching to the choir, in a sense, but I’ve seen it recommended enough that I’ll give it a try.

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That’s fantastic. I’m still drawn to the concept of a smartwatch but I’m feeling so averse to it yet from my prior experiences. What you’ve outlaid here gives me a framework to look at if I consider to go down that road.

Me too. I love to have my stuff digitally, but I’ve personally been finding I’m reading more with a physical book around because there’s a cue in my environment – the book is there. Not to mention I’ve found that I haven’t been able to recall information as well from digital books as physical ones. It’s something to do with the fact that the information I consume is on an ever-changing screen vs. a physical piece of paper.

It’s still settling out in my life, but it’s a good read to start considering what’s important in your life. I may not stay on this bandwagon whole-hog, but it’s at least planted some ideas that can grow into what I need it to be.