Cal Newport: On Value and Digital Minimalism

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The Complexities of Simple

The core idea of digital minimalism is to be more intentional about technology in your life. Digital minimalists carefully curate these technologies to best support things they value.

The idea sounds simple when presented at the high-level, but in practice it dissolves into complexities. One such complexity, which I want to explore here, is the notion of “value.”

Revaluing Value

Measuring whether a given digital tool provides “value” to your life can be a fruitless exercise — the term is simply too vague, and applies to too many things, for it to support hard decisions about what can lay claim to your time and attention. (Everything you use probably offers you some value; why else would you use it?)

With this issue in mind, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to introduce more variation into what I mean by “value” when assessing tools. Consider, for example, the following three different types of benefits a digital technology can provide:

  • Core Value. A technology offers you core value if it significantly impacts a part of your life that you couldn’t do without — a strand of activity twined around your definition of a life well-lived. For example, a soldier deployed overseas using FaceTime to chat with her family is deriving core value from this tool.
  • Minor Value. A technology offers you minor value if it provides some moderate positive benefits in the moment. For example, browsing a comedian’s Twitter feed for a laugh, or playing a round of Candy Crush for the distraction.
  • Invented Value. A technology offers you invented value if it solves a problem that you didn’t know existed before the tool came along. A Snapchat user, for example, might note that it’s the most convenient app for keeping friends posted on what you’re up to throughout the day (it doesn’t even require typing!). But this same user, in an age before SnapChat, probably didn’t even know he wanted constant updates from his friends — the app created the behavior that it optimizes.

The rationale for injecting nuance into your definitions of value is that it allows you to inject nuance into your strategies for curating your digital life: you can treat tools differently depending on the value they provide.

Here, for example, is a sample curation strategy built around the above categories:

Actively seek out and enthusiastically embrace technologies that provide core value. Be selective about technologies that provide you minor value and place boundaries around how and when you use them. Avoid technologies that can only provide you invented value (your life is too important to be a gadget in some random start-up’s growth plan).

The above strategy is not definitive — it’s just an example. But it underscores the larger observation that figuring out which digital technologies brings value to your life is an effort aided by reflection on what exactly you mean by “value.”


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This week’s guest post was brought to you by productivity expert Cal Newport. Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to studying the theoretical foundations of our digital age, Newport also writes about the impact of these technologies on the world of work.

We recently sat down with Cal to ask him everything from career advice to his productivity routine. You can check out our interview with him here.

For more information on Cal, his books, or popular blog ‘Study Hacks,’ head over to his website CalNewport.com

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