Cal Newport & Religion, Solitude & Productivity

A person contemplatively standing next to a waterfall

I’m a big fan of Cal Newport. He’s a Georgetown computer science professor who blogs and writes books about technology, work, and minimalism. I haven’t seen him say much specifically about religion or the Jesuits, but I’ve been interested in what he would say, partially because I know he works at a Jesuit institution, and partially because his work has affected my own spiritual life.

So I was excited to see his recent blog post titled “Digital Minimalism and God (Or, is Social Media Undermining Religion?)” In the post, Newport remarks that he was surprised by how well received his new book Digital Minimalism has been within religious circles. He reflects on why that is, and his theory is that he has a lot to say about solitude and contemplation in his book, which are particularly important themes for religious people, who often value reflection and contemplative practices. He actually gives a passing reference to the Georgetown Jesuits and Ignatian spirituality. Newport argues that social media—specifically, the algorithmic attention economies behind the largest social media platforms—prevent us from having real experiences of solitude in our daily lives. Newport borrows Michael S. Irwin and Raymond Kethledge’s definition of solitude: “Solitude is freedom from inputs from other minds.” So being “alone” but on your phone? Probably not solitude. Given that our smartphones are almost always with us, this makes it more challenging than ever to live a truly contemplative life.

I agree with Newport’s insight here. I think solitude is important generally, important to religion specifically, and made scarce and imperiled by ubiquitous smartphones running addictive applications. But his defense of solitude is not the only way his work has affected my own spiritual life.

Newport writes a lot about productivity. He’s published three books on study skills for students. His book before Digital Minimalism was Deep Work, an argument for the importance of focusing without distraction on challenging tasks and a guidebook for how to do that. He’s also blogged extensively about GTD, time-blocking, and minimalism.

I would argue that Newport’s work on productivity and deep work has also impacted my spiritual life. That’s not to say my spirituality is concerned with productivity (it isn’t), but rather I am concerned with using my time meaningfully. And to me, a life well spent is a life spent being transformed by God and laboring for God’s will. Solitude is important for the former. Productivity and deep work are important to the latter. Minimalism is important to both.

Over the past half year, as I’ve worked to help found and contribute to The Ruined Report, I’ve been leaning on many of the productivity and deep work habits that Newport writes about. Specifically, I’ve become one of those people who wakes up at 5 a.m. to write for an hour before work. This is my daily time for deep work. Following Newport’s suggestions, I designate the time, eliminate distractions, and cultivate a few rituals to reinforce the practice. Couching it in spiritual terms, Newport’s writings on productivity and deep work have helped me to better labor for God’s will. (I’m a word-nerd and a religious person, so I often understand my writing as a spiritual practice.) In his work, Newport puts forth a vision of what a good life looks like: a focused life as a craftsperson spent largely in creation, in exercising and sharpening one’s skills. I guess that’s not an intrinsically spiritual vision, but it certainly easily adheres to a religious worldview. All you need to do is ask, “Why? What’s the purpose of this work?” The religious reply is simple enough: we work to glorify God and labor for God’s will. I’d argue that deep work helps me do just that.

Lastly, there’s more to digital minimalism than just solitude. In particular, I’d argue that minimalism and intentionality are intertwined. The modern minimalist movement is worthy of its own blog post, but here I’ll just say, Newport has done a great job articulating the core principles of this movement. Minimalism has challenged me to articulate what’s most important to me and to prioritize that, which is to say, minimalism has helped me be more intentional. Intentionality not only helps me to set aside more time for contemplation and prayer, but also to labor for God’s will more with clearer purpose and greater force.

Solitude is important to my spiritual life, but what I do and how I do it are also spiritual concerns for me, and Newport’s writings on deep work and minimalism have helped shape how I approach those questions.

(Georgetown Jesuits: smart move hiring this guy.)

Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels (Instagram: @ollivves, Website: https://ollivves.com/)

“Cal Newport & Religion, Solitude & Productivity” by Cameron N. Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About Cam N. Coulter

Cam N. Coulter thinks incessantly about speculative fiction, gender, and intentional communities. His poetry has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer and Eye to the Telescope. His academic nonfiction has appeared in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. He reviews short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty and also contributes to The Ruined Report. After his year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. He currently works with adults with developmental disabilities in the SF Bay Area. Cam can be found on his website or on Twitter @camncoulter.