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On Value and Digital Minimalism

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.”

(Photo by Dirk Marwede)

38 thoughts on “On Value and Digital Minimalism”

  1. This is helpful. I’ve read your previous posts on this and have felt this little shiver of fear or resistance to the idea of digital minimalism. I love this, though. It makes sense and allows me to frame up something. Keep it coming.

  2. I’m not convinced that we should care whether a value is ‘invented’ or not, nor that it’s even a meaningful category of value. If someone comes to value something, how he came to that value doesn’t seem to matter, just that it’s important to him and that the value is stable enough that investment in activities in support of this value predict his fulfillment down the road.

    One could even argue that entities which serve to create values are providing a service to people by helping them endow their lives with meaning.

    But this is all basically moot, because _every_ value that’s not explicitly biological is an invented value. Did you value progress in distributed algorithm research before graduate school? If not, it’s an invented value. Did you value success in academia before you started schooling? If not, it’s an invented value. Did you value your relationship with your wife before you met her? I’m sorry to report that your affection for her was entirely fabricated and you should get back the things you truly value, like food and shelter.

    The fact is, we all have core values – health, security, social standing and relationships, novelty, entertainment etc. – and each of us cobbles together some set of behaviors in an attempt to take care of them all. It’s not that sending Snapchats doesn’t address core values – it’s a way of fostering closeness in relationships – but rather that it’s an inefficient way to address those core values and, worse, interferes with the behaviors (i.e. deep work) you are dedicated to believing are the best way to address a large portion of your core values.

    • I think Cal is providing a specifically *personal* tool for evaluating value, not a way to judge how *others* prioritize their values, since we don’t always know them and know what they need.

      But, yes: value is “invented” the further your focus strays from basic survival value. It all comes down to *what* you need to fully exist and continue existing (Maslow, again).

    • This is a good point and an issue worth discussion. What’s the line between latent value that you didn’t realize you missed, and “value” that’s all marketing hype and cultural pressure? The line is almost certainly murky…

  3. Nevertheless, some technologies that would seem to be invented value for some could be a core value to others. For example, Gary Vee and Snapchat. He makes money of off snapchat.

  4. Thanks Cal for this tool that makes it pretty easy to decide how to prioritize.

    I also like the idea that it can actually force us to examine our priorities and therefore reveal *what* we are currently craving for. The decision after such an evaluation might be to drop the activity altogether, do it only during downtime or even do *more* it.

    I was replying to BANH LI and realized how this fits Maslow hierarchy.

    So, I’d call Maslow to the rescue on this. Values and needs align pretty well. Therefore core values should be in the biological, or brain layers, order : value for survival (breath, eat, reproduce), emotional stability (connection, recognition) and then the rest : living the dream.

    We might have invented a lot a ways to quench our thirst of emotions, novelty and creativity but as long as we are on top, this is totally fine.

    This is the dream life.

  5. The difficulty in being intentional with technology, and I agree we should, is that the bulk of these technologies, or the platforms in which they exist, were intentionally designed to create drug-like states among its users. There is, perhaps, nothing that reminds me more of trying to kick my cigarette habit of old quite like Facebook. Reading essays by those who quit is akin to reading an essay by someone who kicked cigarettes or cocaine, but then re-lapses a few months later. With that said, I do appreciate you breaking down core, minor, and invented value.

  6. Everyone’s bio hacking in one way or another these days, at least those of us who think about our role and contributions for the greater good, and you give a practical guide on how to do that. I can’t tell you how many times I have suggested your Deep Work book to my friends who are distracted parents and burnt out coworkers; and we actively engage in “Focus” at homework time with our kids at home in the evenings. Good luck, and keep up the awesome work! – Rachana

  7. I appreciate this article. It highlights the importance of considering what kind of service is being rendered by digital products. Often users have not stepped back and asked the question: how exactly is this valuable to me?

    My own stance: even if there is real or core value from a digital product, there is usually a diminishing return of that value as use increases. I’m biased though since I work on projects that help people unplug from their screens (

  8. Start Decluttering stuff you own like apps on your smartphone, computer software, even game you played. its a good start.

    Give your smartphone purpose. think this way, your smartphone basicly a PHONE, the purpose basicly for calls & messages. just because your smartphone have the latest technology & fastest processor doesnt mean you must install huge game and tons of apps on it.

    install what you need, essential apps.

  9. I am a web developer and a tech blogger trying to establish a reader community online so digital minimalism isn’t easy or helpful for me. That’s why I have some questions about implementing some of the strategies I read about in Deep Work. Where can I ask them? Please make the “confirm you are not a spammer” box a bit more visible. I’m visually impaired and wondered why I couldn’t submit the comment.


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