Stoicism And Digital Minimalism: An Interview With Computer Scientist And Bestselling Author Cal Newport

The unassuming Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport has become one of this generation’s leading voices on how we can all work more wisely and more deeply. In his latest book Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In A Noisy World, which just released this week, the bestselling author of Deep Work introduces a philosophy for technology use that has already improved countless lives. With media consumption continuing to go way up (which, for most of us, means happiness and productivity continue to go way down) and the world becoming noisier every day, this book is an urgent call to action for anyone serious about being in command of their own life. The minimalism movement successfully led millions to opt out of the many possessions we’re told we’re supposed to crave and focus instead on the small number of things that bring the most meaning and value to our lives. The same ideology applies to our online lives. Digital clutter is stressful. We don’t need the constant connectivity, the pages and pages of apps, the incessant scrolling and clickingNew technologies can improve our lives if we know how to best leverage them. Cal’s 

Cal is also a fan of the Stoics. In our interview with Cal, he explains his interest and application of Stoicism, why the idea that less can be more has held up since ancient times, the importance of solitude and high-quality leisure, and so much more. Please enjoy our interview with Cal Newport! 

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You’ve written about Stoicism a few times, which makes sense for a college professor but is a bit unexpected for a computer science professor. Do you remember how you were first introduced to Stoicism? 

I’ve always read widely in both philosophy and religious history, so Stoicism has been on my radar for a while. I remember reading William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life, around the time it came out. I also remember Tim Ferriss, during this period, was talking a lot about Seneca.

Why do you think it resonated with you?

At a high-level, I’ve always liked the Ancient Greek model of philosophy as a blueprint for action. This is why in my books I’m always mixed practical advice with more complicated theories and big-picture ideas. When I first started working in this “smart self-help” mash-up style, there was resistance from the publishing world. Self-help books were supposed to be written conversationally and have little intellectual content, and idea books were supposed to be smart and critical and never sully themselves with actual suggestions. This division is artificial. The Greeks had it right: what’s the point of thinking hard about issues related to your life if it’s not going to directly help your life? This has been a big inspiration for my approach to books.

At the lower-level, Stoicism itself contains great psychological wisdom: reactive thoughts, more than any actual events, control our experience of our lives. Learning to find strength and joy in what you control over what you cannot sound simple, but is profound when put into action.

You have a great post about Seneca on the myth of “free” and how most people miss the hidden costs of social media. As someone who has decided—famously—to not have any social media accounts, what do you feel like you’ve gained by that? Or avoided paying? Tell us what it’s like over on the other side. 

From Seneca, through Thoreau, to Kondo, the idea that less can be more has persisted throughout the history of civilization. The core insight is that focusing your limited energy on the things you know for sure are very valuable will return greater overall value than trying to dissipate this energy over many lower-value things in the vain attempt to not miss out on random scraps of value.

I don’t use social media because in my life as a writer I want to focus my energy like a laser on the small number of things that I’ve already learned provide me a big return: reading smart things, writing essays on my blog to test ideas, and writing books.

I’m sure there are many little bits of value I might have extracted by engaging with a subset of my readers through Twitter, or managing a social media consultant who posts on my behalf to Facebook. But the energy invested in these pursuits is energy taken away from the core activities that I know move the needle in my writing career, meaning my net return would likely be lower.

To put it more concretely, if we consider the counterfactual in which I’m a heavy social media user,  I’d probably have a lot Twitter followers but would have also written less total books. I’ll take the books over retweets.

If you’ll indulge my ranting a little longer, I want to also note that social media has become particularly pernicious for people who are justing getting started out in a competitive creative field. It provides you an activity that can make you feel busy, and important, and like you’re crushing things left and right, without actually demanding that much that’s actually hard. But as far as the market is concerned, only the hard stuff matters!

In my experience, in almost every competitive field, the absolute key to both success and fulfillment is to follow Steve Martin’s famous advice to become so good they can’t ignore you (I wrote a book about this in 2012). Or as Jocko would put it: put down the damn phone and get after it!

Your new book Digital Minimalism is about reducing the time we spend online, focusing on a small number of activities that support things we deeply value. One of the things that Stoics talk about is needing to make time for philosophy—and how hard that is to do. Isn’t it crazy that people have been struggling with this stuff for so long? Have you found that digital minimalism is giving people more time to read and think and reflect on what really matters?

Last year, I led over 1,600 volunteers in an experiment where they stepped away from optional technologies in their digital lives to be reacquainted with what they really value.  One of the most common reports I heard from these volunteers was that they were both surprised and excited to rediscover how much they enjoyed the simple analog activities we used to take for granted, such as coming home from the library with a stack of random books or building something with their hands.

As you note, these issues are not new. Both Seneca and Aristotle wrote about the importance of high-quality leisure. Arnold Bennett wrote this great guide in the early 20th century titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, in which he argued that what you do with your free time is fundamental to the quality of your life. He argues that you should read and think about hard things instead of getting drunk and noodling around on the piano (the Victorian Age equivalent of surfing Twitter).

One of Seneca’s lines is thinking about what we’ve become “slaves” too—really questioning anything that we’re powerless to stop checking or doing or spending time on. Is the fact that social media and technology is just so hard to quit kind of proof that there is something manipulative and dangerous about it?

There seems to be two major reasons why we spend so more time than we know is healthy looking at screens.

The first is that some of these tools—especially the major social media platforms—have specifically engineered their user experiences to foster compulsive use. Facebook, for example, used to be a fairly static platform. You might log in a few times a week to see if any friends had changed their relationship status or posted pictures from a vacation. When they moved to mobile, however, Facebook reengineered the experience so that it would send a rich stream of social approval indicators at the users (likes, photo tags, comments), mixed in with algorithmically-optimized feed items meant to spark emotional charge. Now instead of checking a few times a week, you compulsively click that little “f” icon on your phone twenty times an hour. This was not accidental—it was the Facebook executives’ strategy for boosting user engagement metrics to where they needed to be for the IPO to succeed.

Put another way: the “like” button wasn’t introduced for your benefit, it was instead introduced for the benefits of the early Facebook investors who were getting antsy for their 100x return.

The other reason that seems to keep people glued to their screens is that it fills a void. Life is hard. This hardness is especially manifest during those periods of downtime when you’re alone with your thoughts. People avoid these confrontations through constant, low quality digital distraction much in the way that people of another era might have dealt with these difficulties with heavy drinking.

But this is just a bandaid over a deeper wound.

As the ancients taught us, the sustainable response is to instead dedicate your free time toward things that matter. Take on as much responsibility as you can bear, seek out quality for the sake of quality (as Aristotle recommends in The Ethics), serve your community, connect with real people in real life and sacrifice for them.

All of this can seem daunting as compared to clicking “watch next” on your Netflix stream, but once engaged in these deeper pursuits, it’s hard to go back to the shallow.

You also popularized this concept of “Deep Work”—the increasingly rare ability to concentrate without distraction on a demanding task. You say this is a skill that can be trained. What are your recommendations to people who want to improve their ability to do deep work?

Remove from your phone any app where someone makes money off your attention when you open it. These apps are to your cognitive abilities what junk food is to your athletic abilities.

Spend regular periods of time in a state of solitude, by which I mean “free from inputs from other minds”: no phone, no ear buds, no screen, no books—just you and your thoughts.  If you want to be good at thinking, by which I mean processing information and generating insights, you need to practice. (This definition of solitude comes from a great book called Lead Yourself First).

Do interval training: pick a hard problem; set a timer; think intensely about the problem with zero distractions (not even the smallest glance at a phone) until the timer goes off. Start with a small amount of time, and once you become comfortable with that duration of focus, increase the time by 10-15 minutes.

One of the things the Stoics talk about is detaching from results or outcomes (we control the input on a given project, for example, but not how critics or the market receive it). How do you think about that with something stressful and uncertain like a book launch?

One of my rules during book launches is that I put my effort into taking good swings, by which I mean writing the best article I can, or giving the best interview I’m capable of in the moment. But then once the swing is done, put your attention immediately on the next. I don’t, for example, read comments or look at social media reaction for the things I’m putting out there. Once it’s out of my hands I want to move on.

Any good book recommendations? Any favorite Stoic quotes you want to share?

A few books I love that your audience would probably like too, but might not have heard about:

Lincoln’s Virtues, by Henry Lee Miller (a virtuosic and exuberant look at the development of Lincoln’s moral life)

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (a more pragmatic Marshall McLuhan: dissects how media influences how we think)

Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White Jr. (classic work from history of technology that argues the horse stirrup caused feudalism; great example of both big think history and a reminder of the unintentional influences of tech on culture)

Cal’s new book Digital Minimalism is out now! Digital clutter is stressful. We don’t need the constant connectivity, the pages and pages of apps, the incessant scrolling and clicking.New technologies can improve our lives if we know how to best leverage them. Cal shows us how.

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