Book review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

I’ve been a Cal Newport fan for longer than I knew – he came back on my radar in 2016 with his release of Deep Work, but I immediately recognized his name as the author of a book I read about student success back in high school. I wasn’t ready for his wisdom back then (I did terribly in school despite the book), but Deep Work was a work that had a great impact on me. When I heard that Cal was working on a new book about digital minimalism, I immediately preordered it. It’s almost exactly what I hoped it would be – Deep Work, but for your personal life.

In a similar but more explicit way to Deep Work, Digital Minimalism is a great blend of narrative, examples, and concrete advice. That last bit – concrete advice – is where this book really shines. Some of it seems obvious, like deleting social media on your phone, but it’s built on and elaborated on in a way that drives the point home. Repetition is something I’ve found valuable in my own retention efforts, and Cal is a master in writing in a way that really improves retention for me.

One of the common complaints about books like this is that they’re blog posts blown up to 250 pages, and therefore a waste of time. Although it’s never mentioned in the book, Digital Minimalism is a book that proves this point wrong. You could take all of the practices, all of the discussion, all of the heart out of this book and strip it down to a 10 minute blog read, but you’d lose so much. You’d get the same information, but not the same opportunity to digest it slowly, consider it, and hear the various angles and subtleties. This is a book best read on paper, in a nice chair, with a highlighter in your hand, a notebook by your side, and your phone in another room. That’s how you’re going to get the most out of it, and will be your first taste of how true Cal’s thesis is that screens are a constant distraction and there is value in getting information slowly and more thoughtfully.

Digital Minimalism came at an interesting time for me. I think part of what helped the book resonate so well was that I was already halfway down his path, and had spent a lot of time thinking about the themes in it. I had deleted most of my social media in December – aside from Twitter – and had already dabbled in ways to block my biggest time wasters, Hacker News and Reddit, out of my life. What it really did was provide a better thought out, more thorough framework to grow this practice.

Book review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time with a book called How to Be a High School Superstar by this dude, Cal Newport. The book was great – it inspired me, but that was just about it. I barely scraped my way in to college, and then dropped out of that a semester later.

Turns out, I just sucked at school because I hated it. I turned out okay, and ended up doing okay professionally. I heard rumblings of this book called Deep Work, and vaguely recognized the name of the author. I eventually connected the dots, and procrastinated reading the book for a couple of years.

I recently read it. It’s incredible.

I love Cal’s approach – he takes a sensible line. Not too prescriptive, he outlines a bunch of strategies to help knowledge workers get the most out of their time, without saying that any particular one is the be-all-end-all. Many books focus too much on the why and not enough on the how. Cal has managed to pull both sides off in an effective and balanced way with actionable steps and things to try. His different schedules of deep work offered particularly stand out. Another piece that jumps out is his bit about increasing memory through deck-of-cards memorization, which is something I’ll be trying out.

All-in-all, Deep Work was a great book of an almost exactly appropriate length. It’s well regarded, and for good reason. It’s only been out a couple of years, but I see it being increasingly relevant as time passes and deep work becomes harder to obtain.