Digital Minimalism

We are currently reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport in our Stoicism Winnipeg book club.  The subtitle is “Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World”.

I just finished the book last night, so I thought I’d take some time to write a brief summary of some of the big ideas I’m working with and their relationship to the practice of Stoic philosophy.

If you’re interested in discussing the ideas in this book, consider joining us for a live discussion on Sunday April 7 @ 6:30PM. Somewhat ironically we use WhatsApp to coordinate the details. If you’d like to join the group, please send me a message with your contact details and I’ll add you to the group!

Big Ideas:

  1. “They’re programming people.”
  2. Intentionality is satisfying.
  3. Reclaiming solitude.
  4. High quality leisure.
  5. “It’s not about technology….”

“They’re programming people”

The quote comes from an interview between Anderson Cooper and Tristan Harris. Harris is a former Google Engineer turned whistleblower. 

He cautions users of technology to be aware of the fact that there are teams of professionals programming the apps and devices you are using in such a way that you will use them as much as possible. “[Technology] is not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money”. 

The apps are programmed to make you crave another glance. To spend a few extra minutes interacting. To feel like you cannot be away from it. 

It’s an “attention-economy”. 

If you feel like a happy life depends on having your app-loaded phone within reach 24/7, you’re not alone, and it is no accident. It is a “feature” programmed into the software and sold to advertisers. 

Cal Newport probably comes across as less of a conspiracy-theorist than this short blog post will sound. He develops a strong case for being wary of how much you engage with these technologies.

The promise of Stoic philosophy is boiled down to satisfaction with what is within your own resources. Namely: your will, your thoughts, your judgments, your desires. Also, your attention. 

Epictetus: “Guard by every means that which is your own.” Don’t sell your attention cheaply. 

“When you relax your attention for a little while, do not imagine that whenever you choose you will recover it, but bear this in mind, that because of the error you made today, your condition must necessarily be worse as regards everything else. For, to begin with – and this is the worst of all – a habit of not paying attention is developed; and after that a habit of deferring attention; and always you grow accustomed to putting off, from one time to another, serene and appropriate living, the life in accord with nature, and persistence in that life.” Epictetus, Discourses, 4.12.

Intentionality is Satisfying

Along the same lines of being increasingly aware and “choosy” about where we place or give our attention is the advice to be intentional about how we use the technology.

As mentioned in big idea 1, the apps and devices are programmed to make you want to use the technology in ways that make the companies the most money. Everything from how you are notified, how easy it is to swipe perpetually for new content, how quickly you can become immersed in feeds, etc. is by-design. 

Newport is not anti-tech. He is not even anti-social media. However, he encourages users of social media to use it on their own terms. Define, with bright lines, why you are using the apps and how you are using them (when, in what situation, and for how long). 

Clearly defining your “rules of engagement” with the apps you use might be sufficient to make a significant change in your sense of agency with how you use them, but beware! Remember that the odds are stacked against you as they are leveraging your own flawed humanity against you: programming your responses with intermittent positive reinforcement and drive for social approval. 

Regardless, if you take no other moves, attempting to draw up your rules of engagement and then being evaluating well you are able to follow them can, in itself, bring increased awareness to how much of a problem the programming is for you. 

“To let one’s mind go lax is, in effect, to lose it” (Musonius Rufus, Sayings, 52).

Reclaiming Solitude

Solitude is defined in the book as “the subjective state in which your mind is free from other inputs”. 

Newport explains the gradual progression of a loss of solitude which became nearly complete with the introduction of social media notifications on the smart phone. 

“The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life.” (101)

Why does this matter to the Stoic? 

Newport writes: “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.” 

Stoics were strong proponents of being actively engaged with the human community. However, they did so from a position of being strongly rooted in their disciplines of desire and aversion.

The problem with perpetual distraction, from a Stoic standpoint, is losing touch with your own “divine nature”. How can you live according to nature if you are out of touch with it?

Newport outlines some simple strategies for reclaiming solitude in your life including:

  1. Time away from all inputs
  2. Taking long walks
  3. Writing yourself a letter

The third idea certainly has a lot of Stoic “history” behind it as one of our primary texts is Marcus Aurelius writing to himself, over and again, the core Stoic precepts which guided his life in his Meditations. 

“Retire into yourself as much as you can” (Seneca, Letters, VII)

High Quality Leisure

When the new iPhone feature, “ScreenTime”, landed on my phone, I was horrified to see that I was engaging with my phone for an average of 2 hours and 50 minutes per day, picking it up to glance or respond to its notifications an average of 92 times per day. 

I considered myself to be a light user. I did not have the FaceBook app. I used Instagram explicitly for watching gymnastic exercise routines. I checked Google News once or twice per day. And I was already horrible at text messaging. 

The reality was a shock to me. 

I’ve talked with many close friends about how they respond to the information, and many of them are equally horrified with their own usage statistics. One friend admitted she couldn’t bear to look at the numbers anymore. 

But, among my peers, I am the only one who has successfully drastically reduced my usage. A “quick glance” shows I’m at an average of 65 minutes per day (up 39% from last week… yikes!) with an average of 28 pick-ups. 

I rarely find my time on the phone to be enjoyable. So it was intuitive to me that if I could cut down on phone time, I could probably increase my time in activities that are, what Newport calls, “High Quality Leisure”. 

What has this yielded for me so far? 

  1. Playing board games (completely undistracted) with my children.
  2. Reading three times as many books.
  3. More moments of meditation throughout the day. 
  4. Never missing a day where I can strum my guitar for awhile. 
  5. Time to write this post!
  6. More actual conversations with family and friends (hmmm… I wonder if those FaceTime calls accounted for my 39% increase?)

What does this have to do with Stoicism?

Maybe, strictly speaking, a little less than the things above. Attention and intention are certainly core to the employment of virtue.

But, there is also wisdom in recognizing that we are human animals who need to live our lives in “waves”. We tend to thrive if we have “On” time and “Off” time. On the other hand, if we are always “On”, then we tend to burn-out. 

“The mind has to be given some time off,” says Seneca, “but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.” (Letters, XV)

“It’s not about technology…”

“In my experience, the key to sustained success with this philosophy is accepting that it’s not really about technology, but is instead more about the quality of your life…. [Digital] minimalism is much more than a set of rules, it’s about cultivating a life worth living in our current age of alluring devices.” (Newport, 253)

Newport’s on the same quest as the average Stoic:

To find the life worth living.

He might not be explicitly teaching Stoicism, but if Seneca or Epictetus were alive today, what would be their advice in regard to how to use and navigate this digital age?

Remember, they were not Cynics. The Cynics, no doubt, would eschew the device entirely. 

The Stoics would likely have found what they were best used for, and used them for those purposes only.

And that’s what the book is really about. 

The benefits?

  1. Increasing your connection with yourself and your values.
  2. Improving the quality of your friendships. 
  3. Improving the quality of your work. 
  4. Tranquility

Those are the types of benefits most of us seek when we pursue Stoicism.

I think this book makes a fine addition to the contemporary catalogue of good advice for living a Stoic life.

“The standard which I accept is this: one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable.” (Seneca, Letters, V).

This is my first attempt at creating real content for the Stoicism Winnipeg community. If you have any feedback I’d love to hear it! Feel free to comment below or contact me with your thoughts.

January Meet-Ups

The January 3rd evening meet-up will need to be cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.

However, please consider coming down on Sunday, January 6 @ 9:30AM. We will have a rather informal discussion/review of how practicing Stoicism went over the holidays. We will also discuss the plan for the “book club” theme to the meet-up.

Meet-up location is same place as usual: as close as possible to the Fools & Horses Coffee Bar at the Forks Market.

Hope to see you then!

New “Book Club”! Also, the Next Meet-up is Sunday, December 9

First, just a reminder to come check out the next Stoicism Winnipeg Meet-Up. If it’s your first time coming down I’d recommend you RSVP to increase your likelihood of finding us 🙂

Sunday, Dec 9, 9:30 AM
Topic: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Session 1
Host: Jesse
Location: A table as close to the Fools & Horses Coffee Bar as we can get
We will discuss some of the themes & lessons presented in the SMRT course to date. If you are not actively enrolled in the course, you are still welcome (and encouraged!) to attend and join the conversation!

Second, starting in February we will begin having discussions about books selected by members of the group. They won’t all be “Stoic” books. But, they will generally be from topics that are primarily of interest to Stoicism. Books on thought, morality and science.

The first pick is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

Per the Righteous Mind web site… “Buy the Book. It’s so totally worth it. Don’t you want to understand why people believe weird stuff and don’t respond to logic and push for misguided policies which will ruin the nation?”

Here is a link to the introductory chapter.

This should make for some interesting conversation! Pick up a copy of the book and come out to one or more of our February meet-ups (dates TBD) for discussion.

The Next Stoicism Winnipeg Meet-up is Tonight! (Dec 3)

Monday, Dec 3, 6:30 PM
Topic: Philosophy and the Holidays
Location: Somewhere in the central court of the Forks Market (fate permitting!)
Host: Brendan
We will discuss Stoic and Epicurean advice on how to navigate the holiday season philosophically.

Evenings at the Forks Market are busy (probably even more so during the holidays!). Please RSVP so we know how many seats to scramble for!

December / January Meet-ups

First, a reminder that we have one more meet-up this Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

First, a notice that our November 18 meet-up has been rescheduled to November 25 at 9:30AM. Find us at a booth or table near the Fools & Horses Coffee Bar at the Forks Market. 

Second, a notice that a wonderful course called Stoic Mindfulness & Resilience Training is currently accepting enrolment. The course is 28 days long and begins on November 25. You must enrol before the course starts if you would like to participate. Our December Sunday morning meet-ups will focus on materials being studied in this course. 

With all that being said, here is the December 2018 and January 2019 schedule of Meet-ups. All meet-ups are at a booth or table as close to the Fools & Horses Coffee Bar at the Forks Market as we can get! Since the crowds are so big at the evening meet-ups I will have a sheet of paper on the table with big letters “S.W.” (which might look like “M.S.” depending on which way you’re facing) to help those of you who have not yet met us to make it easier to find us.

Monday, Dec 3, 6:30 PM 
Topic: Philosophy and the Holidays
Host: Brendan
We will discuss Stoic and Epicurean advice on how to navigate the holiday season with integrity. 

Sunday, Dec 9, 9:30 AM
Topic: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Session 1
Host: Jesse
We will discuss some of the themes & lessons presented in the SMRT course to date. If you are not actively enrolled in the course, you are still welcome (and encouraged!) to attend and join the conversation!

Sunday, Dec 23, 9:30 AM
Topic: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Session 2
Host: Brendan
The course will have just wrapped up on Dec 22. We will discuss some of the key lessons from the course and opinions on how the course did, or did not, improve mindfulness and resilience.

Thursday, Jan 3, 6:30 PM
Topic: TBD
Host: Colette

Sunday, Jan 6, 9:30 AM
Topic: Informal
Host: Brendan

Sunday, Jan 20, 9:30 AM
Topic: Nelson Mandela
Host: Colette
What was the role of Stoicism in the life of Nelson Mandela?

October / November Meet-ups

A few changes this month:

  1. Because of a change in my work hours, Sunday morning meet-ups will now be moved ahead to 9:30 AM.
  2. Returning in November: evening meet-ups! Based on last week’s email feedback I will aim to host at least one evening meet-up per month. They will usually be on either the first Monday or Thursday of the month.

All meet-ups (mornings & evenings) will be hosted at the Forks Market at a table or booth as close to the Fools & Horses coffee bar as we can get.

If you are looking to come out for your very first meet-up, please contact me so I can tell you how to identify our group!

Here are the upcoming meet-ups for October & November.

Sunday, October 21, 2018 @ 9:30 AM
Topic: Cold baths, camp beds and dry bread. Voluntary hardship in the life of the Late Stoa.
Why did the Stoics practice adversity? Can any such practice really improve one’s quality of life? What did their adversaries, the Epicureans, have to say on the topic? We will look at a few examples of physical exercises the Stoics were known to practice and why they did so.

Thursday, November 1, 2018 @ 6:30 PM
Topic: Remember, it’s just a carcass. Stoic reflections on food. 
The way to a man’s heart is through his belly, they say. But, is it possible to make him a better person, too? What did Seneca, Marcus, Epictetus and Musonius have to say about food? What about their principal adversary Epicurus? His name is practically synonymous with gourmet delicacies and gluttony. Does he justly deserve this association? Can we make our life better by getting philosophical about food?

Sunday, November 4, 2018 @ 9:30 AM
Topic: Rituals that Make You Happy
Jesse will lead a discussion centered on this article from Daily Stoic. The discussion will evaluate how these rituals make people happy, if at all, and hopefully the group can come up with some of their own rituals that can be viewed through a stoic lens.

Sunday, November 18, 2018 @ 9:30 AM
Topic: Preparing for the moment.
Sometimes when adversity arrives at your doorstep the first few moments are the most critical. What tools do we have from the Stoics to program ourselves to be ready for right action? 

Monday, December 3, 2018 @ 6:30 PM
Topic: TBD

Next Meet-Up: July 29, 2018

Sorry for the late post!

The next meet-up is TOMORROW (Sunday, July 29) at 7AM at the Forks Market. We will sit at a table somewhere near the Fools and Horses coffee bar.

The planned readings are Enchiridion chapters 25 & 28.

Here is a list of upcoming meet-ups (please note a change in the schedule in August and September)

August 26, 7AM (moved from August 19)
Sept 9, 7AM (moved from Sep 2)
Sep 23, 7AM (new)

Next Meet-up: July 15, 2018

The next Stoicism Winnipeg Meet-up is scheduled for 7:00 AM at the Forks Market. We will try looking for a table near Fools & Horses.

The Market itself opens its doors at 7:00, but the food venues aren’t scheduled to open until 7:30. Our goal will be to follow an agenda something like this:

7:00 – 7:10, informal meeting/gathering
7:10 – 7:30ish, read the focused reading together as well as the prepared or selected commentary
7:30ish onward, discussion; those who would like food or beverage can obtain it at their leisure

For July 15, the theme will be “Stoicism and the Community”. The focused reading will be Enchiridion chapter 24.

If you are interested in attending, please RSVP. Also, please consider signing up for the mailing list to remain up to date with any potential changes to the schedule.

Upcoming Meet-ups:
Sunday, July 15 @ 7:00 AM – Forks Market
Sunday, July 29 @ 7:00 AM – Forks Market
Sunday, August 19 @ 7:00 AM – Forks Market
Sunday, September 2 @ 7:00 AM – Forks Market