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Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

What is the single biggest factor shaping our lives today? Some suggest it’s our screens.

Although that is a simplistic answer, it is certainly true for many people. And this, obviously, is not good. First of all, we Christians should be most influenced by the gospel, not screens. Secondly, if we are controlled by screens, we are actually controlled by those who control what’s on our screens—and no one, thinking about it, would want to be controlled by the companies that make money from our use of apps and social media.

On the other hand, almost no one would advocate living without screens.

So what should we do, as society in general and as Christian homeschoolers in particular? First of all we need to recognize that

Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you.

In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport aims to show how this can be done.   He claims that it is not enough to just tweak a few settings or apps here and there; instead we need a full-fledged philosophy of technology use. Newport proposes 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.

In order to apply this, you need to determine what is the best way for technology to support your values and not allow it to diminish things that are important to you. In other words, digital minimalism means you should be in charge of your tech; it should not rule either your time or your attention.

To make this practical, Newport recommends a 30 day digital declutter in which you take a break from optional technology and use the time to explore and rediscover meaningful activities. He is convinced that, once you rediscover the joys of tech autonomy as opposed to tech addiction, this month of freedom will motivate you to reduce the power that tech companies have over you.

For it is undoubtedly true that tech companies, which are now some of the largest companies of all, need to capture our attention and time in order to make their money. The more ‘eyeball minutes’ they can get from us, the more ‘eyeball minutes’ they can sell to their advertisers and, from their point of view, that is the bottom line. Yes, they provide some useful services, but the vast majority of the time people spend on them does not involve these useful services. Rather, the time we spend is due to psychological manipulation cleverly designed to keep people’s attention. This is not a conspiracy theory; the tech companies admit it.

So, what does Newport recommend to replace tech time during the 30 day digital declutter? He mentions three general categories—solitude, meaningful relationships, and active leisure—discussing both research and practical implementation.

Solitude: For our personal well-being, including mental health, we need time alone with our thoughts, Newport says. This, of course, can lead to all sorts of objections from those who are not used to being with themselves and who are afraid of their own thoughts. It is noteworthy that the recent jump in youth mental illness parallels the advent of the smartphone; research suggests that this is no coincidence. What’s more, if we are never alone with our thoughts, we also have no time to reflect on our lives, to have meaningful relationships with others, or, I would add, to worship God.

Relationships: We seem to be geared for relationship, and the one-dimensional connection of social media is not adequate to meet this deep-seated need. Newport extols the values of conversation and suggests that online connection be limited to facilitating in person conversation, preferably face to face, but also by phone. Practically, he points out that telling friends and family when you are regularly available for phone calls increases the likelihood that they will feel free to call.

Leisure: A life that is only about solving problems, needs, and difficulties can lead to despair but wise use of leisure time can fill us with joy. Low value tech use has deprived us of satisfying leisure; conversely it is difficult to cut back on tech if there is nothing to fill the void. Newport discusses learning hands on skills, spending time with others, and thoughtfully filling time with activities that are valuable to you. He points out that demanding activities are, in the long run, more satisfying than passive consumption.

Finally, tech companies currently focus their research about attention-holding techniques on mobile devices. Thus a good first step to regaining control of your life is to use social media only on your computer where it will be less addictive.

As Newport points out, the goal of digital minimalism is to apply digital tools to yield big wins in your life instead of to waste time. Its goal is not to reject technology but to reject the usual way of interacting with it. Ultimately, we should use technology instead of being used by it.  This is, of course, similar to the Bible’s viewpoint that we may use anything with thankfulness but should not be enslaved by anything.  Thus Digital Minimalism is helpful for all, Christian or not, who wish to live according to their own values rather than according to tech company’s manipulations.

Throughout his book Newport quotes experts and books, leaving the reader with a list of fascinating resources to explore. He also, as is the fashion in many of these books, explains human psychology and relationships in terms of evolutionary psychology. While researchers in the relevant hard sciences continue to scramble to find scientific evidence for evolution (and to explain away the evidence against it), the softer sciences and evangelical atheists proclaim it as fact. It would be an intriguing exercise to reinterpret Newport’s explanations in terms of man’s function as a creature, now fallen, who was originally designed to be in relationship with God and others.

Fascinating and easy to read, Digital Minimalism would be helpful for anyone who is concerned about the power screens have over us and our children. It is both philosophical and practical.  A similar book, The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch (link to my review), shares many of the same conclusions, applying them to families from a Christian point of view, but it has a different philosophical approach. Because the battle for our attention is so lop-sided, with powerful companies wresting it from ordinary individuals, we really need to arm ourselves with as much information and continued encouragement as possible. Therefore I highly recommend both books to anyone who encounters screens.

Related articles and reviews I have written:

“Reflections on The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch”, a Christian discussion about how use technology wisely in our families.

Review of Captivated:  Finding Freedom in a Media-Captive Culture, a Christian documentary that addresses similar issues.

Glow Kids, Screens, and Education.”  It turns out that screens may cause more educational problems than we suspected.

“Screens and our Kids’ Mental Health, with Tips for Parents.”

Review of Glow Kids:  How Screen Addiction is Hijacking our Kids—and How to Break the Trance by Nicholas Kardaras.

Review of 52 Ways to Connect with your Smartphone Obsessed Kid by Jonathan McKee. Practical ways to connect or reconnect.

Review of Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane.  “Is it possible for children to learn about relationships and responsibilities when the vast majority of their time is spent absorbed in a screen?”

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read, or friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up. 

Disclosure:  I borrowed this book from the library and am not compensated for this review.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Christian Homemakers, Friendship Friday.

Extracurricular Homeschooling Tips from Three Moms

Smoking the bees.

Last week our youngest got her driver’s licence! We are all very excited.

Thinking about this enormous milestone in her life—and in ours—I realized that this is yet another example of vital non-academic learning. There are so many amazing opportunities in life and as homeschoolers we can really take advantage of them.

Recently Betsy, Tricia, and I discussed how we implement extracurricular homeschooling in our families. Each of us included an abundance of practical and inspiring links to our own blogs. It’s worth grabbing a cup of tea and taking a short professional development break to find encouragement and ideas for your homeschooling journey. Enjoy!

Betsy wrote about life-schooling, high school electives such as art, debate, and nature study, and her book Homeschooling High School with College in Mind.

Tricia and her family love drama, music, church ministry, entrepreneurism, and anything technical. Their extracurricular activities follow the philosophy of 10K to Talent: More Than Just a Hobby.

And here is what I wrote:

Here at The Curriculum Choice we usually talk about curriculum, but a huge part of homeschooling involves extracurricular activities. Of course it can be hard to distinguish between activities that are part of the curriculum and those that are not, so a homeschooler’s definition of ‘extracurricular’ may be somewhat nebulous. It can include sports, music, drama, art, nature, and clubs as well as co-ops, volunteer positions, part time jobs, student-directed, activities and more. But how can you make all this work?

When our children were little and each one had four full-time playmates, we did not participate in many formal activities, not even a co-op. Yet we found many ways to “Make the Extras Work in Your Homeschool”; even now, looking back, I am inspired just remembering.

As the children grew, they started volunteering; I just realized that Therapeutic Riding volunteering has been part of our family’s life for over a decade! Our teens developed their own intense interests (beekeeping, NaNoWriMo, Microsoft Answers Forum moderator, photography, horses, dairy cows, judo, cake decorating) and our little ones dabbled in one short project after another, like baking a lemon meringue pie.

If you have teens, it is important to keep track of their extracurricular learning and include it in their records. You can find tips and information in “Documenting Interest-Driven Learning as a High School Course” as well as in “Planning an Unusual High School Credit—A Horsey Example.” If you are having trouble determining grades for extracurricular learning, “High School Marks,” written years ago, may help. Alternatively, you may just wish to list such an activity as an extracurricular activity for the purpose of university admission, which can be very helpful.

Recently I was reminded that extracurricular activities can even take the place of all formal learning if necessary. When one of our teens needed to take a gap semester due to multiple concussions and chronic pain, someone on her medical team calmed my education worries by saying, “Surely, as a homeschooler you know that learning can happen in many ways!”   So, when your teen or child cannot focus, just deal with the issues at hand and let them have the gift of slow time as they heal. They will be able to explore the world in ways that book learning can never duplicate, and all the trouble could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

To be inspired by Betsy and Tricia’s experiences, click on over to the Curriculum Choice’s October feature, “The Extracurricular Homeschool.

I pray that this discussion will help you encourage your children to develop their non-academic talents.

Tomatoes, Cabbages, and More

cauliflower soup ingredients from the garden

Parsley, leaf celery, lovage, and overgrown cauliflower for the season’s last cauliflower soup. It was delicious.

We are in full harvest mode. There are some cucumbers on a table in the verandah, along with the last of the fennel. Because our dear dog, who is terminally ill, now lives in the verandah, we cannot lay out the harvest on floor trays there as we usually do. Thus our living room is literally awash in tomatoes, cabbages, and peppers, and we have a lot of work to do.

Tomorrow we are making sauerkraut. This afternoon, when I’ve rested a bit more, I hope to make some naturally pickled hot peppers, relish, and salsa.* And I’ll freeze a lot of peppers and ripe tomatoes as well. We also need to pick some more apples.

Later on we will deal with the root vegetables, parsley, leeks, and any raspberries and apples that survive tonight’s frost.

In the meantime, we are enjoying fall in the way only gardeners can, in a mad rush of outdoor and indoor activities with almost everything else put on hold. We are so grateful to God for the harvest and the strength to both pick and preserve it!

*Learning to make these sorts of foods has literally changed our lives. I have written about this in several blog posts about Traditional Cooking School.

Harvest and Homeschooling Thoughts

Once again we are blessed with an abundance from the garden—everything from broccoli, tomatoes, and cabbage to melons, raspberries, and pears. Earlier we ate lettuce and cherries. Soon we will start picking squashes, kale, and leeks.

summer salad greens

We are so grateful for all this organic food and also for the strength and ability to tend our garden. Although there seems to be less energy for the harvesting, we are doing our best. Or, to be fair, with the children all having part time jobs on top of everything else, it’s mostly me trying to do my best.

Working mostly on my own represents a new season of life for me. I’m learning what is and is not possible now and what will be realistic in the very near future when the kids all have full time commitments outside the home. I had never really thought about it, but the rapidly approaching end of homeschooling also signals the end of family gardening.

I had been considering buying a few tons of mushroom compost this fall since we have not had adequate compost of our own for a few years, but that would involve a commitment to this huge garden which, without the kids’ help, may not be possible to maintain. These are things to think about.

But, leaving that for another time, we are noticing that this is an unusual year. We have the best melon crop we’ve ever had, and the second best pear crop. But the pears seemed to be late, and the fall raspberries are a full month late. Perhaps lateness was due to the very wet spring and the dry summer? It has also been fairly cool this summer and we’ve rarely needed to use air conditioning—but melons, which did so well, are usually a warm-weather crop. On the other hand, we’ve never had such puny squash plants or such a tiny squash crop, and squashes and melons are in the same plant family. Gardening always involves mysteries, and these are puzzling indeed.

Looking back over a decade and a half of gardening with the children, I am grateful for the time we were able to work together. Each of the children has learned a lot and they have benefited in many ways, including financially, from that knowledge. One of them even had a gardening business one summer. Another one attributes her stamina during a Mediterranean archeological dig to the time spend digging in the dirt in our garden. And working with my children outside, participating with God in growing food, has given memories I will always treasure despite the occasional grumpiness and complaining.

We have grown a lot of food over the years but we have also harvested a lot more, and I am grateful.

May God bless all the planting and weeding and tending we do as homeschooling moms—and as gardeners—and may he give a good harvest.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,

and establish the work of our hands upon us;

yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90: 17)

For, as Psalm 127 points out, without God’s blessing all we do is useless.

 

Review: Whose Waves These Are by Amanda Dykes

For years Annie Bliss and her great uncle GrandBob had been sending each other messages via the boat section of the classifieds. But now something was wrong with GrandBob and Annie raced to Ansel-by-the-Sea. It had been twenty years since she spend that summer there, that hardest summer of her life, and GrandBob had taken her in. This time she needed to be there for him.

Now, as an adult, she was welcomed back into the community of GrandBob’s friends. True to her profession, she found stories of family history, love, tragedy, and hope.  She learned who GrandBob actually was and Whom he relied on. Together with the handsome but confusing postman Jeremy, Annie discovered that, years ago, GrandBob had been right—each wave did have a story and these stories were somehow related to the old boxes and boxes of rocks they discovered.

This is a heartwarming, poetic novel of two brothers, their families, and a devastating war. It is also an intentional reminder that the God who can keep the tides going ‘can walk us through this life. Did it at the Red Sea. Does it for us now. One step at a time.’ And Annie, who was comfortable with the idea of God being only a distant creator, watching from far, was unsettled by his closeness and power.

Amanda Dykes has woven together a complicated but seamless novel of an endearing young woman coming to terms with the past and discovering its impact on the present. I highly recommend it to everyone.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read, or friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up. 

Disclosure: This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. and is available at your favorite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

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