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Live Your Best Life—On and Off Your Phone—in 2020

Years of mounting uneasiness around smartphones and the internet have established a new genre on the bookshelf: the technology self-help book. Last decade began with diagnoses of our troubled minds, in tomes like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, published in 2010. More recently, the genre has shifted toward solutions. A whole shelf’s worth of books dedicated to directly addressing this techno-discontentment came out in 2019, with titles like Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (by Nir Eyal), Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (by Cal Newport), and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (by Jenny Odell).

Undergirding this genre is an implicit dialectic: Technology has changed us, robbed us of something important, and we must get it back. It’s your devices versus your best life. Just in time for a new decade, though, several fresh books offer a more measured approach to living in the age of technology. These are not self-help books, or even books that confront our relationship with technology head-on. Instead, they examine the realities of a tech-saturated world and offer a few simple ideas for rewriting bad habits, reviewing the devices we actually need, and relearning how to listen amid all the noise.

Few people claim more authority on the topic of coexisting with tech than B. J. Fogg, whose new book, Tiny Habits, was published December 31. The founder of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab, Fogg has spent more than a decade studying the architecture of human behavior. He’s interested in the little nudges that change the way people make decisions, and his work has been used by the tech industry to develop habit-forming products. His first book, from 2003, focused on Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, and his classroom has educated the likes of Ed Baker, who would go on to lead growth at Facebook and Uber, and Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram.

In Tiny Habits, Fogg neatly translates a decade of research into a three-step program: Find a behavior you want to adopt (reading the newspaper rather than Twitter), tack it onto an existing routine (drinking a cup of coffee every morning) and then celebrate, liberally, every time it’s done (self-congratulation works). The last step is not to be skipped; celebration is to Foggianism as zen is to Buddhism. He suggests starting with microscopic behaviors (just read one headline in the newspaper every morning after you drink your cup of coffee) to encourage better adoption. A similar program works for undoing bad habits.

Fogg’s method is meant to work for any habit—not just escaping the Instagram scroll, but remembering to floss your teeth, developing an exercise routine, or practicing the guitar. That’s because all human behavior, according to Fogg, follows the same basic formula: We form a habit to do something when we are motivated, able, and are prompted to do so. (The design of apps like Instagram, a careful reader will note, also follow this basic formula.) The book begins with an overview of this basic idea (replete with graphics and charts) and then spends a chapter explaining each variable. Tiny Habits isn't about how technology itself has derailed our good choices, though it’s sprinkled liberally with complaints of bad tech hygiene: a student who scrolls through Facebook every morning rather than getting up to exercise, the husband who can’t put his phone down during dinner. But Fogg is far from a tech teetotaler. He also offers examples of how posting about new habits can hold people accountable, and how social technology can help people change their behaviors together, for good.

If Fogg’s approach to health tech habits is a matter of searching within, the writer Kyle Chayka suggests looking at the stuff around you. His forthcoming book, The Longing for Less (out January 21), chronicles the rise of minimalism. Chayka, who has written about the ways algorithms flatten our personal taste and the homogeneity of the Silicon Valley aesthetic, seems suspicious about whether technology’s influence has been mostly good or bad. His curiosity about minimalism, then, reads like a response to a time when everyone is bombarded with digital information, superfluous gadgets, and online advertising designed to compel instantaneous purchases.

Given all the digital detritus, it makes sense that some people are longing for some empty space. But this isn’t really a book about technology, and Chayka offers a more careful consideration of the movement’s origins. The Longing for Less tries to understand the current obsession with minimalism in all its complexity: the influence of Silicon Valley, yes, but also capitalism, the economy in the early 2000s, Stoic philosophy, Marie Kondo. Over four chapters—”Reduction,” “Emptiness,” “Silence,” and “Shadow”—Chayka takes the reader through history and around the world, giving equal consideration to minimalists like Steve Jobs (who lived in a giant house that remained entirely empty) as he does to Cicero.

It would be a mistake to take The Longing for Less as a work of pragmatic advice. It doesn't make a compelling argument either for or against minimalism in practice. As for technology, Chayka includes a few anecdotes about taming it in his own life: Throughout the book, he mentions experiences turning off his Wi-Fi, visiting a sensory-deprivation tank, and spending $700 on a retreat in rural Sweden where he is forced to surrender all devices for a week. By the end of the book, he doesn’t seem to find nirvana in all the silence—but he gives readers a few reasons to hold off on buying that new iPhone.

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What to do when you’ve broken your Twitter habit and stripped down your device arsenal? Practice paying attention. In You’re Not Listening (out January 7), journalist Kate Murphy describes inattentiveness as one of the worst offenses of a world filled with phones. “We pass around a phone to look at pictures instead of describing what we’ve seen or experienced,” Murphy writes. "Rather than finding shared humor in conversation, we show one another internet memes and YouTube videos. And if there is a difference of opinion, Google is the arbiter." After about 30 seconds of a boring story, we steal a glance at our text messages, sports scores, or what’s trending on Twitter.

Murphy’s book neatly categorizes the problems of this epidemic of inattention (loneliness, political upheaval, feeling misunderstood) and then weaves together neuroscience, psychology, and social research to describe how people can learn to listen better. Each chapter offers a lesson in listening from a different unlikely source: what we can learn from toddlers, from bartenders, from CIA agents, from priests. While Murphy is critical of technology, especially as a driver of poor listening habits, the book makes no prescriptions to abandon devices altogether. The problem isn’t Twitter per se; it’s logging in to Twitter to shout into the void rather than taking the time to consider, and reply to, someone’s shared thought.

None of these books suggest jettisoning our phones entirely. None of them even directly claim to improve our relationship with technology. That sets them apart from many of last year’s titles, which offered prescriptive advice on dodging distractions and regaining control. Odell’s How to Do Nothing, a delightful read on techno-escapism, included long meditations on sitting in a rose garden, screen-free. This year’s new books offer no such instructions. The overarching shift seems to be toward living peacefully with our technology rather than striving to avoid it.

Rehabilitating that relationship still requires some effort. For those with a 2020 resolution to live differently with personal technology—by mastering choice, consumption, or attention—these books can be a place to start. At the very least, reading them gives you an excuse to put down your phone for a minute.

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