'Digital Minimalism': How To Hang Up On Your Phone Addiction

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"Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World," by Cal Newport. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World," by Cal Newport. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

How many times a day do you check your smartphone?

For the average American, that number is 52.

According to Deloitte's Global Mobile Survey, 63 percent of respondents said they have tried to limit their smartphone usage, but only around half succeeded in cutting back.

Cal Newport, author of the new book "Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World" and an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, argues that phone use is getting in the way of too much of our lives. The main complaint he hears? People are losing their autonomy.

"This idea that they have to keep going to the phone, more than they think is useful, more than they think is healthy, to the exclusion of things they know are more important," Newport tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Newport explains that smartphone addiction is "what a psychologist would call a 'moderate behavioral addiction,' which means if you have it around, you're probably going to use it more than is healthy." He says that definition matches many people's current relationship with their phone: the feeling of needing to look at it or have it handy at all times.

So why should we cut back on time spent on our phones?

One reason, Newport says, is solitude: losing the time to reflect and be alone with your thoughts is "one of the biggest undetected consequences of what we've engineered in this digital age."

He says that when people struggle to step away from their screens, they are missing out on activities that are "crucial to a flourishing, functional human life" — like taking time to self-reflect, having a face-to-face conversation with someone or simply being bored.

"This might sound intolerable to the modern smartphone, sort of, infected individual, but it's absolutely crucial to reset in your mind, to [have] insights, to [have] successful self-reflection," Newport says.

To cut back on constant scrolling, Newport recommends starting from scratch.

"Clear it all out. Step away for 30 days," he says. "Get back in touch with what you really care about, what you want to spend your time on, and when you're done with the 30 days, rebuild that digital life from scratch — but do it this time with real intention."

If you can't commit to completely wiping out apps on your phone for a month, Newport suggests starting by deleting any app in which a company makes a profit every time you click on it. He says you don't have to cancel the service, but only use it when you're on a device other than a smartphone.

Another suggestion is to reintroduce leisure activities you used to do to before compulsively checking your devices — reading books, cooking, writing or visiting with friends.

Finally, Newport recommends evaluating how much time has been wasted skimming and tapping through your phone. Being a successful digital minimalist, he says, is weighing cost over benefit.

"What is the cost in terms of your life energy, your life force, [and] time you could be spending on something more important?" he says.

Interview Highlights

On whether smartphone use has gotten worse over the years

"It's definitely gotten worse. A big part of this is that the user experience of social media was re-engineered so that it would foster more compulsive use. So Facebook 10 years ago is an experience that's very different than Facebook today. Ten years ago, you were looking at your friends' profiles. Today, it's this unending stream of rich rewards, likes, @ tags and @ comments, that are coming at you all day long, that you have to keep compulsively checking."

On the costs and benefits of the digital minimalist lifestyle

"[Henry David] Thoreau was a great minimalist and he had this idea that, if you just look at the benefits, you become a maximalist. So you're always trying to maximize the number of these little benefits that you've accrued. But in doing that, you miss what are the costs, what you actually have to pay to get these benefits ... so the maximalists fake they're better off because they're hunting down all the small scraps of value. But what they're really missing out on is the great satisfaction that comes from taking that energy and consolidating ... the small number of things that you know, for sure, are really important to you."

"Facebook 10 years ago is an experience that's very different than Facebook today. Ten years ago, you were looking at your friends' profiles. Today, it's this unending stream of rich rewards."

Cal Newport

On giving up apps on your smartphone for 30 days

"It sounded hard to me, so when I put a call out to my readers to say, 'Hey, who wants to do this experiment?' I thought maybe 20 or 30 people would volunteer. Instead, 1,600 people signed up to spend the month of January 2018 without this technology. That's what told me, yeah it's hard, but the way that we're living now is even harder. People are hungry and ready for a change.

"What one woman told me that during the first week, she was so used to checking her phone for new information, that after she took all of the apps off for this declutter, she found herself compulsively checking the weather app. So who was the last thing that was left out there that you could click on and maybe get some new information. But after about 10 days, 14 days, that went away. And most people reported by the time they got to the 30 days, they had really lost their taste for having this low-quality, always-on digital stream being a part of their life."

On pivoting from a smartphone to a flip phone

"This has become more popular. It's interesting, I've been reporting on this some. This is now a trend. This notion that you have a simple flip phone. There are some new ones that they're building, which look really nice. You can text message on them, you can take phone calls and that's it. And people are reporting back to me that when you cut off that digital stream, that's constantly pulling at your attention, and you're just there in the world, it's like you're living a completely different lifestyle. So I'm not surprised that this trend is starting to spread again."

"Something's in the air. I think people are finally getting fed up with how much of their humanity they're losing to always staring at these screens."

Cal Newport

On where we'll be in two years with smartphone use

"Something I've noticed — and I've been writing and talking about this for years and years — is that there's something different in the air right now. I mean, people used to tell self-deprecating jokes about how much they used their phone, but they would meet me and find out I didn't use social media, they would think I'm weird. This has really changed. Something's in the air. I think people are finally getting fed up with how much of their humanity they're losing to always staring at these screens. And so my more optimistic prediction is that we have become so tired of how enslaved we've become, that we are going to revolt. And so if we came back two years from now, my hope is what we would be saying is, 'Can you believe that we ever used to live that way?' "

Jill Ryan produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: 'Digital Minimalism'

by Cal Newport

In September 2016, the influential blogger and commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote a 7,000‑word essay for New York magazine titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.” Its subtitle was alarming: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

The article was widely shared. I’ll admit, however, that when I first read it, I didn’t fully comprehend Sullivan’s warning. I’m one of the few members of my generation to never have a social media account, and tend not to spend much time web surfing. As a result, my phone plays a relatively minor role in my life—a fact that places me outside the mainstream experience this article addressed. In other words, I knew that the innovations of the internet age were playing an increasingly intrusive role in many people’s lives, but I didn’t have a visceral understanding of what this meant. That is, until everything changed.

Earlier in 2016, I published a book titled Deep Work. It was about the underappreciated value of intense focus and how the professional world’s emphasis on distracting communication tools was holding people back from producing their best work. As my book found an audience, I began to hear from more and more of my readers. Some sent me messages, while others cornered me after public appearances—but many of them asked the same question: What about their personal lives? They agreed with my arguments about office distractions, but as they then explained, they were arguably even more distressed by the way new technologies seemed to be draining meaning and satisfaction from their time spent outside of work. This caught my attention and tumbled me unexpectedly into a crash course on the promises and perils of modern digital life.

Almost everyone I spoke to believed in the power of the internet, and recognized that it can and should be a force that improves their lives. They didn’t necessarily want to give up Google Maps, or abandon Instagram, but they also felt as though their current relationship with technology was unsustainable—to the point that if something didn’t change soon, they’d break, too.

A common term I heard in these conversations about modern digital life was exhaustion. It’s not that any one app or web‑ site was particularly bad when considered in isolation. As many people clarified, the issue was the overall impact of having so many different shiny baubles pulling so insistently at their attention and manipulating their mood. Their problem with this frenzied activity is less about its details than the fact that it’s increasingly beyond their control. Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addictions. The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.

As I discovered in my subsequent research, and will argue in the next chapter, some of these addictive properties are accidental (few predicted the extent to which text messaging could command your attention), while many are quite purposeful (compulsive use is the foundation for many social media business plans). But whatever its source, 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.

I also learned about the negative impact of unrestricted online activity on psychological well‑being. Many people I spoke to underscored social media’s ability to manipulate their mood. The constant exposure to their friends’ carefully curated portrayals of their lives generates feelings of inadequacy— especially during periods when they’re already feeling low— and for teenagers, it provides a cruelly effective way to be publicly excluded.

In addition, as demonstrated during the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, online discussion seems to accelerate people’s shift toward emotionally charged and draining extremes. The techno‑philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage online is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eye‑ balls than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy inter‑ net users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity—a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.

Encountering this distressing collection of concerns—from the exhausting and addictive overuse of these tools, to their ability to reduce autonomy, decrease happiness, stoke darker instincts, and distract from more valuable activities—opened my eyes to the fraught relationship so many now maintain with the technologies that dominate our culture. It provided me, in other words, a much better understanding of what Andrew Sullivan meant when he lamented: “I used to be a human being.”

Excerpted from DIGITAL MINIMALISM: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport, now on sale from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group.

This segment aired on February 7, 2019.


Headshot of Jeremy Hobson

Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.


Headshot of Serena McMahon

Serena McMahon Digital Producer
Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



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