Book Notes: “Digital Minimalism”

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
By Cal Newport
Portfolio/Penguin, 2019

When people ask me about resources to help them make better use of digital technologies while avoiding distractions, I refer them to Cal Newport’s work. His previous book, Deep Work, argues that social media has a negative impact on our ability to do meaningful work, and argues for leaving it outright.

His most recent book, Digital Minimalism, takes a more nuanced — and in my opinion, practical — approach, one rooted in a philosophy of use for digital technologies:

as is becoming increasingly clear to those who have attempted these types of minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape—the addictiveness of their design and the strength of the cultural pressures supporting them are too strong for an ad hoc approach to succeed. In my work on this topic, I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

Instead of doing without digital technologies altogether, Mr. Newport proposes that we embrace digital minimalism,

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

He compares the approach to how the Amish people embrace new technologies. Many people assume that the Amish are against all tech. That’s not the case. Instead, they have a very thoughtful approach to new technologies that considers their impact on the community as a whole.

This requires trading off conveniences, but these conveniences often come at the expense of healthy social relationships. Mr. Newport describes the relationship between offline and online interactions as zero-sum: digital communications hamper our ability to communicate with people in physical space. Clearly we want to optimize for the latter.

Rather than quitting cold turkey, Mr. Newport proposes what he dubs the Digital Declutter Process:

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

He also offers a useful heuristic for going off particular technologies and apps:

consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.

In all, this is a useful and practical book. It’s my new go-to recommendation for people looking to be more effective amidst digital distractions.

Buy it on Amazon.com

The Informed Life With Andrea Kates

Episode 4 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with innovation consultant, author, and speaker Andrea Kates. Andrea has worked with a broad range of large organizations around the world to help them discover new lines of business by seeing things differently:

I perceive anomalies. Whereas within the four walls of a company, they don’t see these different pieces of information as anomalies, they just listen to information and put it all into the same sets of categories. Whereas a lot of times it’s the outsider or the guide of a growth process… I see anomalies. And it allows them to have a fresh set of eyes, quite frankly, and move in new directions.

Andrea trained as a choreographer, and brings to her consulting practice a kinesthetic/visual approach to information management that breaks norms — to the benefit of her clients.

I had a blast talking with Andrea; I hope you enjoy our conversation too!

The Informed Life Episode 4: Andrea Kates

Buffers: A Key to Working at Your Most Effective

I’m on an ongoing quest to be more effective with my time. This means — among other things — doing more with less: finding ways of being more productive in less time.

One of the most important principles I’ve learned is that my cognitive abilities vary throughout the day: Some times my mind feels fast and sharp while at others it feels slow and dull. Effectiveness requires the ​presence of mind to recognize when I’m in one state versus the other. Trying to get things done when I’m feeling dazed will lead to either taking longer, being frustrated, producing poor wor​k or — more often — a combination of all of them.

Knowing I’m not always available to do my best work, I batch tasks to focus on the ones I’m ready to work on at any given time. This requires creating buffers: parts of my information ecosystem I’ve set aside for “parking” things I’m not ready to deal with yet. Some of my buffers include:

Once every week or two I’ll go through each of these and “process” it — go through items in the inbox and do something with them, one at a time.

For example, I use one of my DevonThink inboxes to keep links I may share in my newsletter. I capture these throughout the day; perhaps I’ve read something in my RSS reader or through Twitter that may be of interest to my subscribers. I send that link to DevonThink, where it will wait until I start building my next newsletter.

I edit the newsletter every other Saturday. I’ve blocked time to sit at my computer and review all of the stories I’ve collected over the past two weeks. I decide which will make it into the next newsletter, and create short summaries that give readers the gist of the story. I’ll also write short posts, often inspired by what I’ve learned from reviewing the things that are going into the newsletter.

The process of editing the newsletter takes anywhere between two and four hours every two weeks. I consider it an effective use of my time. But this only works because I have a buffer; it’d take much longer if I had to deal with the materials I’m sharing at the moment I’ve found them — often with varying degrees of cognitive ability. Saturday mornings are less hectic for me than at other times of the week. I’m also usually rested. This gives me the necessary cognitive bandwidth to deal with this task.

The old Delphic maxim to “know thyself” is even more relevant today when we have so many sources of distraction. Knowing when you perform your best — and setting up places to park work until you’re able to deal with it at your most productive — is essential if you want to maximize your effectiveness. Setting aside buffers is a key component in an information ecosystem that’s structured to let you do your best work.​​

Two Approaches to Structure

There are at least two approaches to structuring a digital information environment: top-down or bottom-up.

In the top-down approach, a designer (or more likely, a team of designers) researches the context they’re addressing, the content that will be part of the environment, and the people who will be accessing it. Once they understand the domain, they sketch out possible organization schemes, usually in the form of conceptual models. Eventually, this results in sets of categories — distinctions — that manifest in the environment’s global navigation elements.

Top-down is by far the most common approach to structuring information environments. The team “designs the navigation,” which they often express in artifacts such as wireframes and sitemaps. This approach has stood the test of time; it’s what most people think of when they think about information architecture. However, it’s not the only way to go about the challenge of structuring an information environment.

The other possibility is to design the structure from the bottom-up. In this approach, the team also conducts extensive research to understand the domain. However, the designers’ aim here is not to create global navigation elements. Instead, they’re looking to define the rules that will allow users of the environment to create relationships between elements on their own. This approach allows the place’s structures to emerge organically over time.

Consider Wikipedia. Much of the usefulness and power of that environment come from the fact that its users define the place. Articles and the links between them aren’t predefined beforehand; what is predefined are the rules that will allow people to define elements and connections between them. Who will have access to change things? What exactly can they change? How will the environment address rogue actors? Etc.

Bottom-up approaches are called for when dealing with environments that must grow and evolve organically, or when the domain isn’t fully known upfront. (Think Wikipedia.) Top-down approaches are called for when dealing with established fields, where both content and users’ expectations are thoroughly known. (Think your bank’s website.) Most bottom-up systems will also include some top-down structures in their midst. (Even Wikipedia has traditional navigation structures that were defined by its design team.)

So do you choose top-down or bottom-up? It depends on what problem you’re trying to solve. That said, I find bottom-up structures more interesting than top-down structures. For one thing, they accommodate change more elegantly — after all, they’re designed to change. This approach requires that the team think more carefully about governance issues upfront. Bottom-up structures are more challenging to design and implement. Designers need to take several leaps of faith. They and the organization they represent are ceding control over an essential part of the environment.

Most information environments today are designed to use top-down structures. Some have a mix of the two: predefined primary nav systems and secondary systems that are more bottom-up. (Think tagging schemes.) I expect more systems to employ more bottom-up approaches over time. Tapping the distributed knowledge of the users of a system is a powerful approach that can generate structures that better serve their evolving needs.

Environment-Centered Design

Dan Hill on the impact of technology on the urban experience:

the smartphone, as the most obvious manifestation of the broader tech sector, is shaping the way we live and interact with each other, and thus our cities and habitations. And it is becoming clear that this is not necessarily all good.

User-centered design is partly to blame:

Our design practice is not yet sufficiently advanced to handle what economists call the ‘externalities’ of tech (somewhat misleadingly, as if an iceberg’s tip is ‘external’ to the rest of the iceberg.) The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

So interaction design and service design produce insight and empathy for individual experiences, but produce little for collective impact or environmental empathy.

Mr. Hill argues that an effective approach to using technology effective in these domains requires looking beyond user-centered design towards an “equal and opposite” approach of environment-centered design:

The core ideas of strategic design – of integrative thinking and practice; of framing questions and challenges appropriately; of working at multiple scales, paces and vehicles; of taking on complexity and making it legible and malleable via synthesis; of addressing systemic change; of stewardship – means stretching design’s definition in this direction, perhaps just as design has stretched to drive tech forward.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the way we use technology at urban scale will effect profound transformations on the day-to-day lives of the majority of people in the planet. “Tech” won’t be something they’ll be able to opt out of; it’ll be the infrastructure of their lives. It’s imperative that designers start to think beyond the effects of technology on individual users.

The city is my homescreen

Stephen Wolfram’s Personal Information Ecosystem

Some people manage to get more done than the rest of us. These folks are constrained by the same 24-hour days you and I are, but use them more effectively. How do they do it? What can we learn from them so we, too, can be more productive? I’m always excited when a super-productive person gives us a glimpse into their methods. (So much so that I’ve started a podcast to elicit stories about people’s setups.)

Recently, Stephen Wolfram published a lengthy article that explains how he’s configured his personal information ecosystem to help him be more productive. Mr. Wolfram is a world-renowned computer scientist. He’s the creator of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language — among other things — and the author of A New Kind of Science. Besides being a rigorous scientist and scholar, he’s also a successful entrepreneur: his company, Wolfram Research, has been going strong for the past 31 years. He’s a textbook example of a super-productive person, and someone I’ve looked up to for a long time.

Mr. Wolfram’s blog post is a real treat. It covers everything from his software and hardware choices to the ways he’s configured his physical environments to help him get things done. As the CEO of a software company, some of Mr. Wolfram’s software choices are particular to his job (i.e., he uses his company’s software for much of his work.) However, there are also many insights in the post that apply to anyone who needs to work with computers. The core insight is simple:

At an intellectual level, the key to building this infrastructure is to structure, streamline and automate everything as much as possible—while recognizing both what’s realistic with current technology, and what fits with me personally.

I’m particularly impressed (though not surprised) by Mr. Wolfram’s long-term approach to information processing. Some aspects of his ecosystem (including his approach to file storage — both physical and digital) have evolved over three decades. He also mentions some intriguing products, including a pair of glasses that have helped him conquer motion sickness when working in the back of cars. (A problem I deal with more often than I’d like.)

This is a long read, but an inspiring one. Well worth your time.

Seeking the Productive Life: Some Details of My Personal Infrastructure

The iPad As a Travel Computer

Long flights are one of the few contexts where I’m disconnected from the internet for a long period. As a result, I’m often very productive in airplanes. Much of this work happens on my iPad Pro. The iPad is light and compact and has a long battery life. It’s a perfect computer for working on a seat tray. I’ve even grown to like typing on its keyboard cover. And once I’m done with work, the iPad also doubles as a great entertainment device. All things told it’s a great little travel computer.

However, there’s one caveat to working on the iPad while flying: Doing so requires more planning than doing so with a regular laptop. In particular, I must always remember to download the stuff I want to work on to the device before getting on the plane.

In some crucial ways, the iPad functions more like a phone than like a laptop. I have lots of files I can call up at any time on my laptop. If I’m working on a presentation and want to copy a slide from an older deck, I look for the document and open it. Not so on my iPad; older files are usually in one of the various cloud services (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, etc.) rather than on the device itself. This isn’t a problem on the ground; my iPad has a cell radio that keeps me connected to the internet everywhere. Except for airplanes, of course.

In this particular flight, I was planning to work on the slides for my WIAD Switzerland workshop. When I’d already boarded I thought to double-check that I had all the files I needed, and — sure enough — I was missing three of them. These are relatively large files, with lots of images. I started downloading them as the airplane was taxiing. The process became a race against time. I could see the download progress bars slowly nearing completion, download speeds varying as the airplane moved around. The files finished downloading a few minutes before we took off; I got everything I needed and was able to work on the slides during the flight. Still, it was stressful.

There are many advantages to being device-independent. It’s great to be able to work anywhere using any one of various computers, phones, tablets, etc. If any one of them dies or is stolen, it won’t take my work with it. Being device-independent also means being able to work from the device that’s best suited to current conditions. That said, being device-independent also means being network-dependent. It’s easy to become complacent about network access when we’re in our home region. That dependency can impair our effectiveness when we don’t have good connectivity, such as when we travel.

The Cognition Crisis

Adam Gazzaley, co-author of The Distracted Mind (which I cited in Living in Information), argues that we are facing a cognition crisis:

A cognition crisis is not defined by a lack of information, knowledge or skills. We have done a fine job in accumulating those and passing them along across millennia. Rather, this a crisis at the core of what makes us human: the dynamic interplay between our brain and our environment — the ever-present cycle between how we perceive our surroundings, integrate this information, and act upon it.

What’s causing this crisis?

While the sources fracturing our cognition are many, we are faced with the realization that our brains simply have not kept pace with the rapid changes in our environment — specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology.

A lucid explanation of the dynamic between cognition and technology, and how evolving conditions are making things more challenging for us.

The Cognition Crisis

An Architecture + Systems Thinking Reading List

A friend asked me for a syllabus on architecture and cybernetics. I don’t have a comprehensive syllabus on the subject, but I did send him a short list of readings that have informed my thinking about architecting from a systemic perspective. I thought you may get value from this list as well, so I’m sharing it here. The resources are in no particular order.

What major resources have I missed? Please let me know.