Bestselling author Cal Newport is a technology expert who asks people to be wary of technology. In Newport’s provocative and important new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Busy World, he explains that “the key to living well in a high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology.” Newport, who earned a PhD from MIT and is also a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, is anything but a technophobe. Instead, his new book offers ways for business leaders to take control of technology, rather than have it control them.

The NCMM recently chatted with Newport about digital minimalism, and how it might apply to middle market leaders.

How does digital technology like social media exploit our psychological vulnerabilities to engage our attention and even drive addiction?
Newport: These social media platforms actually re-engineered the way they engage users after their Initial Public Offerings. They changed the experience from one where you could come onto the platform and check your feed whenever you wanted, to a far more addictive type of engagement based on a constant stream of social-approval stimuli, including “likes,” re-tweets, and total number of views for your posts. Now, alerts and other stimuli come at you constantly, pulling you and your attention back into these platforms. These re-engineered, post-IPO platforms exploit our deeply-human desire for social approval.

This re-engineering was and is very intentional, because our attention is what these social media companies and their business models depend upon to generate their revenue, which is in the billions of dollars. They have a fiduciary duty to increase value for their shareholders, which they don’t have towards their users. They take your attention and monetize it for themselves and shareholders

Why should middle market business leaders care about social media addiction and diminished attention spans?
Newport: For a few centuries, the main capital resource for companies has been industrial equipment, machinery, and raw materials. That isn’t the case any more: today, the main capital resource every middle market company has is likely its employees, so what’s happening inside their brains matters. These addictive social media platforms reduce the capacity of employees to generate value for the business.

That impact on employees happens in three ways. First, employees are more distracted by needing intermittent doses of social media, so their workflows can become fragmented and less productive. Second, social media addiction reduces the long-term ability of employees to focus, and this impact becomes chronic. Finally, the constant need for social media means employees and leaders have reduced time for reflection. Taking time to sit quietly and integrate information, making sense of it all, is disappearing and that’s problematic for businesses.

How can leaders and employees go about re-establishing control over their attention:
Newport: You need to start from a clean slate, in the same way you might de-clutter a closet. You have to remove everything from the closet first, and then select what to throw out and what to put back into the empty closet. My book asks you to perform a full, 30-day de-clutter. What digital minimalism means is focusing on the big things that add value to your life, and getting comfortable eliminating the rest. 

There are three principles of digital minimalism: (1) clutter is costly, it takes up mental energy just maintaining everything; (2) it’s important to optimize based on what you value. However cool or popular an app might be, if it doesn’t add value to an important element of your life, it should go; and (3) intentionality itself is important, because it reminds you that you’re the one in control, not some technology platform that’s intentionally trying to gain and monetize your attention.

How should we screen apps for potential "re-introduction?"
Newport: Pay attention to what apps you miss and don’t miss during your 30 day de-clutter period. In that 30 days, you may find you don’t really miss the app or find better ways of doing what the app did for you. So you might start keeping up your most important relationships through face-to-face meetings or other methods of communication. You always need to ask yourself, “does this app significantly benefit me in an area of my life that I value?” and “are there better alternatives available?”

Even if you decide to re-introduce an app after your de-clutter, be sure you’re using the app in ways that benefits you and what you value. Use plug-ins and other tools to disable some of the more addictive features the app uses to constantly demand your attention. If you value uninterrupted time with family, for example, maybe install the app on your desktop or laptop but not on your phone. Maybe put your phone away. Customize how you use apps and devices so you get the benefits and not the drawbacks.

Why is solitude so important for people, especially middle market business leaders?
Newport: I define solitude as time in which you’re free of inputs generated by other minds. It doesn’t need to be isolation. You can find solitude on a crowded bus, for example. Solitude is essential for business leaders because it actually re-charges our brains, allowing us to be more resilient. That’s especially important for middle market business leaders who manage the ups and downs of a business.

Solitude also helps leaders make sense of all the inputs they receive during the day. It allows them to see deeper connections and make better decisions. Finally, solitude is among the best ways to extract actionable insights from all the inputs you get during the day. In any business context, generating deep insights takes time and reflection, which solitude is all about.

What else would you like to say to middle market company leaders about "Digital Minimalism"?
Newport: I’ll simply re-emphasize what I said earlier. In the knowledge economy we work in today, “attention capital” is the main industrial resource. We can’t produce more time, but we can better focus our attention on what matters most. Inasmuch as social media fragments our attention, and gets in the way of reflection, it’s a problem. We need to set up our work and our lives in such a way that we protect our most valuable assets, time and attention. “Digital Minimalism” helps you do that.